Short Story: Love or Not

Taryn was young, lean, and more or less healthy– if eternally under-the-weather looking.

Strawberry-blonde flax crept from her head. The strands formed great sheets of otherwise-silk whose ends were too frayed to allow proper naming. Her clothing was perpetually clearance-rack, tattered edges, and at least one-two sizes too big in one placed or the other. Nonetheless she was happy.

She loved life. She loved living.

And she loved the smell of opium. Mostly, its flowery hints blooming on her tongue between lung-smothering bellows of robust smoke. Real opium was hard to find nowadays. Even harder when the bi-annual shipments to pharma-corps vacuumed up the poppy harvests like whores on-the-clock. Everyone felt it those times; street dealers, their suppliers, their supplier’s suppliers. Everyone.

Even the large corps like Bonne Nuit and Neuro-Kinetics needing stuff for their own, meager manufacturing for inhouse aug-testers were left with only scraps. No help for the poor bastards with neural-shock from malfunctioning augs during those dry times either. They were as likely to off themselves then as the addicts drying out in gutters.

Users and abusers weren’t the only people hurting during those times of year.

Taryn personally recalled hearing the feelers from Megacorps like Cameron and Byrne for any and every hint of true Opium from the shadows. It was obvious in the rumors of double price for already-astronomical street values.

No user or abuser had that kind of cash. Corps wanted hard stuff. Real stuff. What Uncle Emile and his Bonne Nuit ilk cooked up in synth labs just wasn’t pure enough.

Taryn had taken one, deep whiff and agreed; Opium had started thousand year wars for a reason. Funny to think it could do it again if it tried.

She relaxed like some ancient rebel under dim light, to smoke it now. New. Sweet. Fresh. Sprinkled a gram of grass that those ancient rebels never could have dreamed would exist. She inhaled far deeper than few else could.

Dry times meant an end to the extremely sluggish downers that kept her mind limber. She was too high-strung, anxious otherwise. Always had been, really. To a point, sometimes, of unintentional self-harm.

Only past a certain age had she learned the usefulness of street drugs in treating that. Doctors all insisted her condition was normal adolescent angst.

Until a shadow-dweller took her to his street-doc.

Even as she kicked back in the dingy apartment, she remembered the visit. As if it’d just happened. Burning opium buried a damp mildew that clawed through the darkness. Its filth was held at bay by her leather clothing, but she barely recalled it later.

She was focused at her nostrils. That was how she remembered it. How she wanted to. That first hint of flowering sweetness.

Spot looked the typical shadow-type; half-balls, half-brains and utterly average save his personal history and grotesqueness. He’d gotten his nickname from a massive burn along one half his face. It left him eternally looking like he’d lost a fight to a waffle-iron. Nobody would have laughed about it. He was more a mental image of Harvey Dent than any actor could hope to achieve.

Ironically, that scar was earned as a result of someone else’s two-facedness.

Spot had been married once. Technically still was. He’d even been by a corp-suit. Not an exec, but high-up. He had all the nice things a suit had, too: big penthouse condo. Super-cars in the garage.Drivers and limos, and more money than even the catholic church managed at its height.

Anything he didn’t have, he had access to. Even Opium. Any time of year.

Then, one day, Spot arrived to find his best friend drilling his trophy wife on his kitchen table. The fight that ensued ended with the guy dead and Spot looking freshly-cooked. The guy stupid enough to be drilling the wife did so while she was cooking Spot’s dinner.

Consequently, Spot was stupid enough to lose the upper hand and have his face held to a burner.

Spot’s former-friend didn’t last long after that.

That was the end of it. The eventual repercussions, perfectly in-line with what one expected of corps, swept the murder under the rug and ostracized him from his former-world. Because of his ugliness, they disowned him socially.

He burned through what remained of his accounts and and took to the shadows. He’d been screwing the corps every chance he could get. And Taryn, too. Incidentally, he’d never said what happened to trophy-wife. Taryn didn’t much care anyhow, but knew not to ask.

All the same, Spot was good to her.

Since the day he’d taken her to his weird-ass street-doc, they’d been working together a while. They’d been screwing only a little less. It wasn’t love. Just sex. Neither really believed in love, anyhow.

But both believed in orgasms.

The one nice thing about their partnership, for lack of terminology, was the mutual benefits they afforded one another. Ones other people simply couldn’t provide. Sex wasn’t even one. Anything with genitals could fuck.

Sometimes, even without.

What was most important was their link, one they’d decided was the same between confidants, but stronger. She could look at him, ignore his scars, listen like a human being. No staring. No judgment. He could let his guard down.

And she, too.

Neither were squeamish. Utterly lacking any ability to be physically disgusted– for her, another effect of her conditions. Because of it, he enjoyed hints of normality.

She, on the other hand, enjoyed his presence. The Jaded, corp-life rebellion. The simple, delicious irony in his new roguishness. His gun-for-hire ways perfectly complimenting her invisible thief’s skills.

In a world full of boring, typically average people Spot had connections, stories, motive. He had plans. He was human. He knew big-time players too. From his status and previous employment. More than that he– and her through him– had full access to resources most only dreamed of.

They were a hell of a pair. Brought together by what they’d learned at the Street-doc: Taryn wouldn’t live as long a life. She had, at most, twenty years before her heart gave out.

For anyone under thirty, that seemed unfair.

How could it’ve been missed? How was the street-doc sure? It was, he said, a difficult disease to diagnose, both due to obscurity and being commonly mistaken for arrhythmia. He knew it though, had seen it.

The disease– whatever it was the Doc called it, had a long and irritatingly difficult-to-pronounce name. She never bothered trying to learn it. Spot might’ve known it, but like the trophy-wife thing, just never bothered bringing it up. It served as equally little purpose to either of them.

Taryn left, utterly overwhelmed. Unaffected by everything in life until then, she and Spot returned to the apartment only for the tables to turn completely.

Suddenly,Spot was listening, making her feel human. Then, something altogether new. It manifested something more until the pair found themselves drenched in tears, faces wet and choked for air like small, sobbing children. She, for her lost time; he, for fear of being without her.

Neither recalled much afterward, more an effect of the Opium they’d taken to. They still worked, kept themselves clear-headed thieving and gunning, but all bets were off after punching out.

Most time was spent working, fucking, and getting high. Or, when the Opium was light two or three weeks in purgatorial boredom before intervening normality where new memories were formed in various ways.

Problem was, of course, once the next phase of smoking came about they dissolved again.

Didn’t matter, Taryn felt; she lived for the moment, never guaranteed the next. Besides the drugs kept her from spazzing out more often than not.

She took another hit, heart skipping its arrhythmic beat as if reminding of her dwindling time. Life wasn’t shit, but it wasn’t roses. It was a flowery hint of something wafting on smoky, mildew-damp air; as fitting a metaphor as anything.

He submerged himself in smoke, carrying a brown-bag of groceries in from the door. Simple day-time stuff. Just bare essentials. Neither had a taste for much else.A strange normality from a dysfunctionally average life.

That strange semblance of normality culminated when she found her, upright, naked on the sofa. Her feet flat on the floor. His face pressed her groin; scarred and smooth sides brushed her inner-thighs in a similarly dysfunctional mirage of feeling and rightness.

It was the same sort of duality, she decided, that their lives were filled with. The slow death and fast life. Their coldness fostering peculiar warmth between. Their love that wasn’t love.

But because it was more, something stronger.

All of it was their lives. For good or ill. Through thick and thin. And she never wanted it to end, and thus knew it must. Eventually.

She locked her ankles behind his head. Folded scar-tissue pressed one thigh; warm stubble the other. She thrust against him. She decided then that twenty years or less; twenty years or more, and love or not, life was for living.

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