Today I am so pleased to welcome J.A. Rock to Joyfully Jay. J.A. has come to share an exclusive excerpt from her latest release, The Grand Ballast. She has also brought along a great giveaway. Please join me in giving J.A. a big welcome!
Hi! I’m J.A. Rock, and I’m so excited to be on tour this week promoting my new release, THE GRAND BALLAST, a gay speculative novel about a future where the population is so bored with everything from emotions, to technology, to art, that few people create things or fall in love anymore. The only works of “art” that have relevance are the X-shows—live pornographic performances that often incorporate creative violence. Bode, the main character, is a dancer who still believes in love and falls for the brilliant but highly unstable Kilroy Ballast. Kilroy, in turn, manipulates Bode into joining his famously brutal circus-themed X-show, the Grand Ballast.
In the excerpt I’m sharing today, Bode has been with the circus for several years, kept under Kilroy’s control with the aid of a drug called the Haze. Bode and Kilroy attend a performance of a rival show where certain performers are routinely killed in front of the audience at the end of each show. In this scene, Bode finds himself captivated by one of the doomed performers.
The Hydra Arena wasn’t nearly as impressive as Bode had expected. It looked like a leaning, dripping cake—uneven concrete tiers and paint that had dribbled down the walls in ribbons. At the entrance was an archway, glittering turquoise with gold letters: WELCOME TO THE HYDRA ARENA.
The stands were nearly full, though the show didn’t start for half an hour. Bode estimated the place seated around five thousand. He gazed around the arena and noticed little things—a popcorn box flattened and grayed with shoe grime, a soda vendor with flies pestering his mess of dreadlocks. He got a knowing stare from an old woman with a pierced lip and cheeks draped like stage curtains. She blew a small bubble with her gum.
The pool was aboveground, circular, maybe thirty feet in diameter. Its sides were glass, and the gold muntins between the panes looked like the tension casings on a drum. Spectators in the first few rows could watch the show through the glass, and everyone else got an aerial view of the action. Four massive video screens offered alternate vantages.
Once again, the Haze was failing to make the world blur, and once again he wasn’t sure if that was good or bad. He kept surfacing from what should have been an unbroken dream, gasping in confusion, seeking a shore that seemed just out of reach.
I want to see. I want to know.
He and Kilroy had box seats five rows up, so they could see the top of the pool, but they could also watch through the glass if they chose. Kilroy had dressed Bode in a suit. Literally dressed him, positioning him like a doll as he’d put on his socks, buttoned his shirt, tied his tie. Bode had endured the humiliation quietly, pretending his mind was adrift.
Kilroy had his program open and was leafing through it. Bode glanced at the list of acts and was drawn to the finale title: THE BOY OF THE WATER IN HIS LAST ACT ON EARTH.
“Emily McCullough.” Kilroy pointed to the name of the Hydra Arena’s director. “I knew her, once upon a time. I didn’t realize we’d made similar career choices.”
Many people recognized Kilroy and came to shake his hand. Just as many recognized Bode. Bode shook hands numbly, signed autographs, and posed for pictures until the show began.
The opening act was a synchronized swimming number. It featured two men and two women. The girls’ bodies had been painted red and the boys’ bodies blue, and when they linked in the center of the pool to form a rotating pinwheel, the wheel turned purple, and plumes of paint streamed from the performers’ skin, inking the turquoise water. It was quite impressive, though Bode’s thoughts kept drifting. A dark bird streaked across the gray sky. He heard laughter in the row above him.
“Really, there is nothing inspired about the sex,” Kilroy remarked as they watched the two pairs fuck in unison. “If it weren’t taking place in the water, it would be nothing unusual at all.”
The other spectators seemed bored too—fanning themselves with programs and chatting through the performance.
The second act was a fairy tale in which a villager set out with a net to catch a mermaid. The young woman playing the mermaid wore a tail that had such detailed scale work and moved so realistically Bode wondered how it could be a costume. But once again, the sex was dull. Bode ended up looking away for most of it.
An unpleasant third act featured water boxing, and the crowd paid more attention to this one. Two young men punched each other until blood streamed from their lips and noses into the water, where each drop broke apart and spread slowly. Bode curled his lip, dread warping itself into anger as cartilage smashed and men grunted and blood whorled around them. The water was up to their chests, and they couldn’t dart forward or back. Sprays burst upward with each arm movement.
Bode watched the close up shots on the video screen. One of the men staggered back with a splash as the other punched him in the ear. The puncher had a tattoo on his cheek of a wolf dragging its trap-caught hind leg. Bode tensed. Don’t hit him. Stop hitting him, you fucker.
“Bode, sit back, and don’t snarl.” Kilroy nudged him.
Bode turned toward Kilroy, still snarling. I hate you. You fucker, I hate you. Faced the action again.
The first man dragged the second to the edge of the pool, to the ladder. Pushed him up so that his upper body was out of the water, hanging over the edge, then stood on the ladder and fucked him. It’s nothing. It looks like nothing. It’s boring, and whatever people think they’re hungry for is not what they really want. They’re lonely, and they’re afraid of what this would look like done with love, and so they watch it done in the water instead.
His stomach got tighter as more blood stained the water.
Is this what I look like? When they fuck me? When he hits me?
Does it look like nothing?
Moments later, mercifully, the Haze came to the rescue. Parked itself like a chariot of cloud in front of Bode, and he climbed into the softness. He watched the end of the boxing match without feeling much of anything, and then zoned out through the next few acts.
Eventually, he was aware of the announcer’s voice: “Here it is! The moment we’ve all been waiting forrrr…”
Bode curled his hands into fists.
“The Boooyyyy of the Water! In his Last…Act…on…Earth!”
He picked through the crowd’s murmur and clung to the interesting bits of conversation.
“—to kill him,” someone behind them murmured.
“I’ve never seen anyone die before.”
“—found my husband—”
“Are we no better than the Romans?”
“Ah.” Kilroy leaned forward. “Maybe now things will get interesting.”
Bode sat straighter.
Onto the white diving platform walked the Boy of the Water. He was magnificent—tall and broad shouldered, with a defined waist and narrow hips. His skin was darker than Bode’s, and his hair had been bleached almost white and had a green tint to it, like a patina on copper. His hair looked strange and delicate in contrast with his dark eyes and bold, solid features. He had pieces of fishing line strung through his earlobes, and at the end of each was a small hook and a speared fish, still alive and flopping. Seaweed was strewn over the Boy’s body, and an orange starfish clung to the side of his head. He was barnacled in oddities. A gold cuff wrapped around one ankle, a huge eyehook protruding from it.
He stood with his hands clasped behind his back, facing forward but seeming to see nothing. Bode slowly realized that some of the marks on his body weren’t paint or seaweed, but thick, ropy scars, places where the flesh looked like it had been raked.
The Boy of the Water wasn’t a boy. He was a man, and Bode wondered how he could stand there so serenely, waiting for death. Even at his most miserable, even in the months after Driscoll, Bode hadn’t been able to bring himself to die.
One video screen showed the Boy as he stood on the platform. Another showed the bottom of the pool. A rusted iron ring stuck out from the pool’s floor, a thick black chain coiled around the ring like a serpent. Bode watched the fish in the Boy’s ears die, their tails brushing the Boy’s shoulders as the breeze moved them.
Another man stepped onto the platform. He wore a blue cloak with white and silver streaks in it. Bode figured he was supposed to look like water, but he only looked silly. The man walked up behind the Boy of the Water. The announcer said something Bode didn’t catch. The man held a black whip with a thick braided handle and a snakelike lash, and he gestured at the water with it. The Boy stepped forward.
Bode glanced at Kilroy but couldn’t read anything in his expression.
The Boy hooked his toes over the edge of platform. He looked down into the pool then stepped back slightly. The man with the whip walked closer, a trace of surprise and anger in his expression that made Bode wonder whether this part wasn’t in the script. He cracked the whip, and the Boy arched his back and dove into the water. He surfaced a moment later, and as the waves rolled away, the Boy was left with his arms spread along the surface, his legs moving gracefully below, keeping him afloat.
The man dove in too and circled the Boy. Bode alternated watching the screen and watching the action below him. The man was a strong swimmer. His cloak came off and floated toward the edge of the pool. The man swam closer to the Boy and began to unwind seaweed from around the Boy’s waist, until the boy’s groin was exposed. His cock hung limp, surrounded by dark hair. The man stopped swimming and treaded in front of the Boy.
The sun burst out from behind the clouds, making the water sparkle, webbing the bottom of the pool in white and gold. The man began to suck the Boy’s cock, teasing him to hardness. A clock on the video screen showed that the man had been underwater for nearly two minutes. The Boy’s hair was plastered to his head, his eyes closed, his lips parted. He treaded only slightly faster as the man worked.
The man surfaced to grab a breath. The crowd applauded. The man dove under again. Sucked the Boy until the Boy’s neck muscles strained and he slapped the water with one hand. Bode couldn’t stop watching his face. He was so beautiful, so calm and strong. Bode wanted to be the one sucking his cock. Wanted to suck someone quiet and beautiful, someone who wouldn’t make the act about pain or humiliation.
It occurred to Bode in a flash of grief and fear that this was the Boy’s last act on earth. That he was going to die, and all Bode could do was wait to see when and how.
Suddenly the man dove deeper—down, down, his arms extended in front of him. He seized the chain at the bottom of the pool. Struggled to unwind it, to haul it up. Several times, Bode thought the man would lose the battle and be pulled to the bottom again, caught in that web of white-gold light. But the man swam up to where the Boy’s legs kicked gently back and forth. He grabbed the Boy’s ankle and yanked him under the water. Bode saw the Boy snatch one final breath before his head disappeared.
Bode watched the screen now. The man held the chain in one hand and the Boy’s ankle in the other, hooked the chain to the steel loop on the Boy’s ankle cuff. A jet of bubbles went up from the man’s nose, temporarily obscuring the action. The Boy remained calm and still as the weight of the chain pulled him down. He seemed frozen, his bleached hair drifting around his head, his fingers splayed. The man shot toward the surface to take another breath, then dove back down and went to work on the Boy’s cock, bubbles still streaming from his nose.
Bode watched, transfixed. The crowd had gone quiet, and it was eerie to look around and see tiers and tiers of silent spectators. Bode shifted forward in his seat. Tried to make his voice work. The screen showed a close up of the man’s face pressed to the Boy’s groin. The Boy started to move. Slowly at first, twisting slowly, gracefully. Bode watched his face on the screen, wishing he could feel that peace, that stillness. He felt himself slipping deeper into the Haze.
There we go.
No. No. He had to stay focused. It was death he was looking at—not peace.
The Boy’s eyes flew open suddenly. Terror in them. Bubbles flew up, obscuring his face. He began to thrash.
“No.” Bode got the word out finally. He grabbed Kilroy’s sleeve. “No. They can’t—we have to stop it.”
Kilroy waved at him in irritation. “Hush. Pay attention.”
Bode’s voice rose in panic. “Kilroy, please. Make them stop.”
Kilroy whirled toward him. “Shut up,” he growled. Then he paused. Tilted his head as he studied Bode. Bode turned away, shaking, unable to watch the screen or look at Kilroy.
“He doesn’t want to die,” Bode mumbled. “He doesn’t want to; he’s—”
“Bode, that’s enough. Take a breath and enjoy this.”
Bode sat trembling until he couldn’t anymore. He lunged out of his seat and raced down the aisle steps. He saw the man in the water surface for another breath. Saw, on the screen, the Boy of the Water stop moving.
Bode reached the pool and began climbing the ladder. People shouted at him. Security guards were running toward the pool. A buzz spread through the crowd. He reached the top and leaped into the water, then swam down toward the bottom.
In a future where live sex shows abound to keep a jaded population entertained, dancer Bode Martin falls for the brilliant and unstable Kilroy Ballast, who molds Bode into the star attraction of his erotic circus, the Grand Ballast. Drugged beyond any real feeling, Bode trades freedom and his once considerable pride for an illusion of tenderness—until he inadvertently rescues a young man from a rival show, and together they flee to an eccentric town in the west where love still means something.
Valen’s not an easy man to know, and Bode shed his romantic notions under Kilroy’s brutal employ. Yet their growing bond becomes a strange and dangerous salvation as they attempt to overthrow the shadows of their pasts and wade together through a world of regret, uncertainty, beauty, and terror.
But Kilroy won’t let Bode go so easily. Long ago, Bode was responsible for the loss of something Kilroy held dear, and he still owes Kilroy a debt. As the three men battle toward a tangled destiny, Bode must decide if his love for Valen is worth fighting for—or if he was and always will be a pawn in the story Kilroy Ballast will never stop telling.
WARNING: Contains violence and noncon. Not a genre romance.
J.A. Rock is the author of queer romance and suspense novels, including BY HIS RULES, TAKE THE LONG WAY HOME, and, with Lisa Henry, THE GOOD BOY and WHEN ALL THE WORLD SLEEPS. She holds an MFA in creative writing from the University of Alabama and a BA in theater from Case Western Reserve University. J.A. also writes queer fiction and essays under the name Jill Smith. Raised in Ohio and West Virginia, she now lives in Chicago with her dog, Professor Anne Studebaker.
In the spirit of THE GRAND BALLAST’S nontraditional-romanceness, I’m giving away an e-copy of any of my backlist titles that exist in that sort of Is-this-a-romance-novel? gray area. Choose from TAKE THE LONG WAY HOME, THE SILVERS, and ANOTHER MAN’S TREASURE (co-written with Lisa Henry). More information about each title is available at http://www.jarockauthor.com/books.html. Thanks so much for being part of the tour!
Leave a comment below to enter. The contest will end on Thursday, July 2nd at 11:59 pm EST.
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