The boy on the screen was pretty. Blond, with copper-lined blue eyes—cornflower, not steel—and pouty lips made shiny from gloss, he looked like a doll. Men would pay thousands to fuck him and even more to fuck him up. It wasn’t hard to see why Master was enamored.
Misha hated him. Misha hated everything the boy stood for on the other end of a computer screen, thousands of miles away. He probably lived in some nice suburb with a white picket fence, with parents who paid for braces without complaint, drove him to swim classes and sat down for family dinners consisting of more than just oatmeal and water.
Misha hated his amateur videos that taught boys how to apply makeup, his comparisons of drugstore makeup brands and his mock fashion shows as he strutted around in skirts and heels and lacy blouses.
If the boy weren’t so pretty, if his videos hadn’t gotten so popular, he could have stayed under the radar and Misha would still be Master’s favorite.
The best whore.
The most obedient.
The good boy.
Instead of sitting there, Master’s breath damp on the back of his neck while Misha crept his fingers over the keyboard to lure in his replacement. The pretty boy must get thousands of messages a day. Maybe Misha’s wouldn’t register, buried beneath the rest. Maybe he’d get it but not reply, and Misha would be safe.
Master’s attention, and his hands on Misha’s body, might terrify him, but not as much as the idea of losing it.
* * * *
Asher Downs rattled his bedroom doorknob for the third time, just in case it had somehow come unlocked. Then, and only then, with his heart pounding in his chest, did he drag out the old Nike shoebox from under his bed, the one that used to hold his soccer cleats. Now, it hid his makeup case.
It was plastic and cheap, much like the makeup inside, odds and ends he’d bought discounted at the drugstore on the corner with change he’d picked up from the sidewalk and pilfered from the ashtray in the Buick, one lonely quarter at a time.
With reverence, he carried the case over to his desk-turned-vanity. The mirror was a cheap thing, bought on sale because it was cracked, the glass spiderwebbed from the top of the frame down one side. When his parents were home, he kept it tucked in the back of the closet, under a ratty baseball jersey he’d outgrown as a preteen.
His phone was already secured in his makeshift tripod—leaning against a book, the bottom half-inch tucked behind a two-pound dumbbell so it wouldn’t slide forward. As soon as he laid out his makeup, he could start the video.
His lipstick was barely a nub of pink in the cracked tube, his eyeshadow more dust than pigment. Even his foundation wasn’t quite right—a bit too dry and a little too light for his sun-kissed, boy-next-door skin, tanned from playing football each summer with the church youth group.
These broken beauties were his prized possessions, worth more to him than the collectible baseball cards in their little plastic sleeves on his bookshelf or the signed poster of Kobe that his dad had been so excited to hang up when Asher had started high school.
Before Asher had gotten caught kissing the captain of the basketball team under the bleachers.
Before the mandatory after-school meetings with Pastor Luke twice a week to ‘examine his soul’.
Now, his little brother Ryder wasn’t even allowed in the same room with him, his dad could barely look at him without scowling and his mother locked the cabinet doors in the bathroom as if she needed to hide her feminine products from his perverted eyes. She should have locked her makeup away instead, back when he’d been a boy and had first discovered the magic it held.
The way a bit of shadow could make his eyes piercing, soften his jaw or sharpen his cheekbones… How a little color could make him look happy, even when inside he felt like dying.
He’d come a long way since the first time he’d decided to film himself doing this, a silent protest against his parents that he’d devised under the influence of Dad’s bitter liquor, pilfered from the expensive stash he kept on top of the fridge. He hadn’t expected the video to go viral.
Now, he filmed sober, but nerves still birthed butterflies in his stomach. The fear of getting caught, which had him rattling his doorknob again, mingled with the excitement of watching his view counter tick steadily upward. He had almost a hundred thousand subscribers now, enough to put a little money into the secret bank account he’d opened as soon as he’d turned eighteen.
He could use it for better makeup or a ring light, but he was saving it to escape, maybe move out West, somewhere he wouldn’t have to hide anymore. He’d dipped into it once already for a better laptop after his old one had crapped out. He was going to need to upgrade his phone soon, too—an expense he couldn’t avoid but was delaying as long as he was able. His subscribers were already starting to comment on the graininess of the videos, and those wouldn’t take long to become complaints.
Mom promised he could stay with them until he graduated, but that was it, leaving him with just over a month to get a plan in place. College was out of the question. Unlike his younger brother Ryder, he wasn’t a computer genius who already had a dozen scholarships to choose from, and unlike they would for Ryder, Mom and Dad would never cover his expenses.
If he wanted out, he was going to have to do it on his own, a thought that finally motivated him to draw in a breath, plaster on a smile and push the red circle to start filming.
“Everything sucks and we’re all dying, but I’m going to look pretty doing it. Who’s ready to play with the pretty paint and give themselves a plus ten to their charisma check?” Asher jumped in with his quirky and somewhat nerdy greeting, smothering his real-world concerns beneath the joy that he got from doing makeup.
It wouldn’t last long—only until the video ended—but for now, for these handful of minutes, he was going to enjoy it.
* * * *
Asher closed the live stream with his highest view count to date, and even when the camera stopped rolling, the little red number on his notification tab kept growing. He itched to tap it, to start scrolling through the comments and likes and shares. Knowing many of them would be haters—homophobic assholes who couldn’t live-and-let-live—didn’t stop the curiosity.
He couldn’t yet, though—not like this. While his parents, who were off at their Bible study at Mrs. Worther’s house, should be gone until evening, he couldn’t risk it. If Mom got one of her migraines, if Dad got into another argument with Mel Geist or if Karen forgot the cookies again, they could be home early, and he would be fucked.
He wiped his face half-raw with the cheap makeup remover wipes, until it was greasy and red but makeup free, before he risked, even in an empty house, crossing their hallway to the bathroom so he could wash it.
The house was still empty when he was finished, but he locked his bedroom door again, anyway. It was against the house rules, but he’d rather get grounded for that than the alternative. He dropped back into his chair and opened his laptop, pulling up the desktop version of his channel. Finally, he opened his notifications.
Half of them he could delete immediately. The slurs and insults, the propositions and dick picks, the crazy right-winged conservatives with their MAGA hats and conspiracy theories. He wasn’t into politics to begin with, but if he were, he didn’t think some guy from a reality show should be able to nuke anything that didn’t come out of a microwave.
After his routine cleaning, he was still left with dozens of messages to sort through. It was probably his favorite part of making content, if he were honest with himself—even when the message was more of a critique on his blending technique, like this one. Maybe he’d take the advice @gayboy93$ gave him and try it out in a later video, just to see. If it worked, he’d learned something, and if it didn’t, he’d get a good laugh.
Just as he was about to log off, his computer pinged again.
@BoyInADress13 sent you a message.
Curious, Asher clicked the box.
@BoyInADress13: I know u probably get a bunch of messages, but I wanted to tell you that your videos literally saved my life.
Asher flushed at the thought that his videos would mean that much to anyone, especially a stranger. He clicked on the username to visit the user’s profile, but it was pretty bare. All it said was that he was nineteen, and he was from Texas. The thumbnail image by the username was just a pair of shiny pink lips, clearly male but otherwise unidentifiable.
He went back to his messages, hovering his fingers over the keyboard for a long moment before he finally replied.
@ThemBoyFemBoy: I don’t know what to say to that, except I’m glad they helped. R u okay?
@BoyInADress13: no but your videos help, so thank u. I wish I was as brave as u
@ThemBoyFemBoy: Not brave. Just dumb and drunk and got lucky. My parents don’t know I’m doing this.
Asher knew he shouldn’t admit that, knew that talking to strangers on the Internet was dumb. Every single ‘stranger danger’ lecture talked about it, about how the person on the other end of the computer screen was never a teenage girl but some old, creepy pervert trying to lure someone into his trap, but it wasn’t like Asher was going to tell him where he lived or anything.
@BoyInADress13: Still brave. My dad would kill me. He says it’s wrong. But I just want to be pretty.
Asher was going to reply, but before he could, another message pinged through.
@BoyInADress13: Sorry, TMI. U probably have better things to do than listen to me. Sorry… I’ll go now.
@ThemBoyFemBoy: no, ur fine! I like talking to u. It’s nice to talk to someone who gets it. My parents will be home soon, but we can talk until then, K?
@ThemBoyFemBoy: Yeah. what’s ur name?
They kept chatting about everything and nothing. Somehow, they went from discussing makeup to Asher trying to explain the new MMORPG video game he’d started playing a few weeks before—an open-world fantasy game called EverQuiet that he was becoming obsessed with. They even made plans to play together after school the next day, if Devon could convince his dad to buy it for him.
He said he thought his dad would go for it, since video games were things teenage boys were supposed to be obsessed with. Devon said they’d probably be ecstatic that he was taking an interest in it in the first place.
Asher hoped he was right. Playing online was fun, but it was better when there was someone to play with. Besides, if Devon’s dad did get it for him, they could talk on the headset and he’d know for sure that the other guy wasn’t a creepy pervert.
The front door slammed, and Asher jumped, glancing at the clock in surprise. He felt like he’d only been talking to Devon for a few minutes, but it was already almost nine at night. He hastily typed out a goodnight to his new friend and shut off his laptop, unlocking his door only seconds before his dad stomped up the stairs.
He flung himself on the mattress with his chemistry book just in time for the door to swing open. Dad loomed in the open space, a dark silhouette backlit by the hall lights.
“It’s almost bedtime. Shouldn’t you be getting ready?” Dad barked, his arms crossed.
Heart thumping at the close call, Asher waved his chemistry book in excuse as he answered. “I have a test tomorrow and lost track of time, I guess. How was Bible study?”
Dad harrumphed. “That idiot Mel wouldn’t know how to interpret a verse if the Lord himself stood in front of him with a dictionary. Poor man.”
“It’s a good thing you and Mom are there to guide him, then.” Asher tried to sound earnest instead of sarcastic, and he must have succeeded because Dad just nodded, thumping his fist lightly on the doorframe.
“That’s true. Well, get to bed, son.” He left, and Asher tried not to flinch. Dad rarely called him ‘son’ anymore. Rarely called him anything, to be honest. It was like, in moments like these, he could forget for a minute that Asher was a sinner. Tomorrow he would be back to ignoring him, unable to look Asher in the eye.
Asher tossed his chemistry book toward his backpack then rolled out of bed to shut his door again and flip off the light. He stripped down to his briefs and crawled under his comforter. It was only spring in Delaware, still chilly out, but Mom already had the air cranked up high enough to freeze his balls off. He used to argue that her hot flashes shouldn’t leave him with frostbite, and she used to laugh. Since getting outed, though, he didn’t dare.
Instead, he curled into a ball under the thick comforter and closed his eyes, his thoughts drifting back to his conversation with Devon.