As a general rule Gus was not convinced of the trustworthiness of squirrels, but he did not consider Layla to be like any other squirrel he had ever met. Layla was his friend and confidante, the only other living being he could fully trust, besides the Queen, of course.
"Can you keep a secret?" he asked, as his furry friend ate sunflower seeds out of his hand. "Of course you can, sorry I asked."
Layla looked up at him and gave Gus a reassuring look, followed by a warm smile and a wink, then went back to work nibbling busily on the sunflower seeds.
"I think I might have cancer," Gus whispered. "In my butthole."
Now Gus was trembling. He had not yet confided his suspicion to anyone, and saying it out loud made it seem more real than it had before. It was not that he was afraid to die. When you live on the streets you come to understand that death is always potentially a heartbeat away, and you sort of give up fussing about it. But he had always imagined that it would happen quickly. Alcohol poisoning, overdose, murder, freeze-to-death-while-sleeping; these were all exits he was entirely prepared for. Dying from a diseased butthole sounded like it would be extremely uncomfortable and take awhile to do him in.
A tear streaked down his eye, at which time Layla crawled up his arm onto his shoulder and nuzzled his neck. Gus was almost immediately relieved and let out a little giggle.
"You're right, Layla." he responded to her affection, as the squirrel crawled back down onto the picnic table and nudged the bag of sunflower seeds Gus had brought to share with her. "No thanks, I'm not hungry. You have as much as you want."
Both Gus and Layla had come to find their friendship as perfectly normal, but to onlookers it seemed nothing less than amazing. From a nearby picnic table a young mother and her five year old daughter watched the two interact with total disbelief. The little girl begged her mother to go talk to the man and see if the squirrel would be willing to give her a hug, too. The mom's own curiosity led her to easily relent, and she searched her wallet for some cash she could give the man, so she didn't feel guilty about it later.
Layla was on the table chewing on seeds when the two approached, but when the girl let out a little shriek of excitement, she ran off and climbed into a nearby tree.
"Bye Layla!" Gus called out after her. "See you tomorrow."
"That was really amazing," the young mother spoke to him, as the disappointed girl sulked next to her. "Tell me, do you have that kind of rapport with other squirrels, or animals?"
"What is a rapport?" Gus asked sincerely, always curious to expand his vocabulary.
"It means that you are friendly and talk to each other, sort of, if that makes sense," the woman had not had to give a vocabulary lesson to anyone but her daughter in many years, and she had almost forgotten how to talk to other adults about such things.
"Ah, relación." Gus acknowledged, English not being his first language. "I don't usually trust squirrels, but Layla is different. There is a coyote out by the arroyo I sometimes share a beer with, but otherwise I stick to humans. Without paws and tails, preferably."
The young mother gave him a strange look after that last comment, but then worked up the courage to ask another question, "What were you two talking about just now?"
Gus stood up and leaned across the table towards the woman and her pouty daughter, "I was telling her that I think I might have cancer in my butthole, but she said it was probably just constipation."
Suddenly the woman became frantically concerned, and tossed the five dollar bill at him as she grabbed her daughters arm and dragged the girl away. She felt bad about just marching away like that, but it had become inappropriate. As a last ditch effort to make things rights she turned around shouted, "God bless!"
Poor thing, he thought. That crazy woman is going to traumatize that kid with her erratic behavior. Live and let live, he reckoned internally, as he packed up his seeds and prepared to go find the Queen. He had many new things to report to her, and needed her counsel on a number of issues. As he began to walk away from the park he could hear Layla chattering at him from up above.
"I love you, too," he responded, as if there were no doubt in his mind what the squirrel was trying to communicate to him.
It had not been difficult to find the Queen, who had set up her tarot table on the sidewalk next to the entrance of Sister Bar, where she could be found most weekend nights now that the shut down businesses no longer expected the police to keep the sidewalks clear of such activity. There were very few people wandering around to tempt with a tarot reading, but when Gus approached her, the Queen of Albuquerque was divining cosmic secrets for a used-to-be-man lady. The Queen had explained what it mean to be trans, and Gus accepted it, even if he didn't quite fully understand it. But so long as they didn't have any animal parts, he was pretty much okay with whatever people wanted to do or be. When she was done giving the trans woman with the beautiful rainbow-dyed, curly hair her reading, the Queen scurried to where Gus stood waiting patiently and gave him a big, warm embrace.
"God must be pleased with me to send his most beautiful angel for a visit," she said, as she squeezed him tightly and gave him a series of kisses on the cheek.
The Queen of Albuquerque loved all of her subjects, but there were a few she loved more than the others, and then there was Gus, whom she loved more than anyone she had ever loved. It was not romantic love. It was the kind of love you reserve for something so beautiful and delicate that every ounce of your soul cries out to feed it tenderness and protect it from the world. Gus was like a child, in his innocence and demeanor alike. Of course he was also profoundly mentally ill, but even at his most unsettled, there was a purity and virtuousness which was beautiful and sweet. There was something almost heroic in how essentially good he remained the face of the numerous traumas which the world had dealt to him.
On top of this he was actually beautiful. Even when he was filthy and scruffy, as he was now, there was a cherubic quality that made him incorruptibly attractive. His piercing hazel eyes contained all of the pain and joy in the world, simultaneously, and his smile could make you temporarily forget there was a whole universe outside of it.
"Can I have a private audience, your majesty?" Gus asked with a hint of desperation. "I have many personal matters to discuss, as well updates on the state of your kingdom. Your counsel would be much appreciated, mi'lady."
"Of course, my dear," she punctuated with one final kiss on his cheek. "Let me pack my things up and we will find a nice, quiet place where you can tell me everything that is on your mind."
Gus and the Queen walked to the Civic Plaza and found a place to sit and talk. He told her about the woman with the sexy tail and the condescending robot, and she listened with patience and a comforting expression of belief and concern. In return she gave him the usual speech about forgiveness and love. There was no good to be done from trying to dispel the delusions he suffered from. That would just make them fight back harder. Instead she gave him ways to make peace with the frightening figments of his imagination, which worked even better with Gus than any of her other subjects, owing to his innate gentleness.
Then he told her about the potential cancer in his butthole, and after asking him several questions, assured him it was almost certainly just a hemorrhoid, and told him how to treat it and promised to get him supplies in the next few days to do so.
There was another unusual aspect of the relationship between the two. The Queen of Albuquerque always had to be strong for the sake of her subjects. She could never show fear or weakness or uncertainty, but with Gus she was able to be vulnerable. Somehow it did not erode his confidence in her, but only made him trust her more.
"Can I tell you a secret?" she asked him, as the two sat huddling under a shared blanket to protect against the chill of night. He put his arm around her and pulled her close as his answer to her question. The Queen of Albuquerque feared that the pandemic had made the streets almost impossible to survive on, and that it was going to get a whole lot worse in a few months when winter began making its annual appearance. She did not believe there would be anything she would be able to do to help her people withstand the coming hardship.
"I'm scared," she confided.
Gus pulled her even closer and gripped her tightly, neither of them speaking, until he could feel the rhythm of their hearts and lungs working in unison. Nothing that could ever be said could possibly be as reassuring as that.
This is Part 3 of the Queen of Albuquerque series, to be continued as future prompts permit.
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I like the way you've personalized and humanized the homeless. It's too easy to ignore the fact the homeless person you just walked past is a human being, with dreams, desires, demons, and probably far more than their fair share of trauma. That realization is the start of compassion.
My brother was homeless for a decade, so that definitely put things in perspective. I have often lived on the fringes myself, so I know how thin the line between luck and the streets is.