Hard Lessons: Part 14

14.

Meanwhile

Angela stood beside her bed, the clock there synced to her HUD and both reading 12 AM. Unbeknownst to her, Crystal and Titus were currently stuffing gear into packs in a race against the clock. She, on the other hand, had all the time in the world.

Lucas had received his latest cocktail beside her on the couch, where she’d sat until after he’d fallen asleep. The reason was simple; if Angela had learned anything, it was that some things couldn’t happen alone. Once Lucas had fallen into his restless sleep, she’d left for some herself. His rehab schedule meant aligning to his use schedule; midnight and midday dosings with sleep somewhere between.

She centered herself at the bathroom mirror with her own, liberal doses of water, pot, and whiskey, then made for the kitchen. An undeniable, sibling responsibility had consumed her. While Lucas was hardly a child, even less likely to ask for help than a hit, her duty was tending to him rather than his ego.

She approached the island, spying a scratchy-note. Sudden fear erupted in her chest. The agony of every troubled-child’s environment reared. Her fear was confirmed in fewer words than felt fair:

I can’t do this, Angie. Thanks for trying.

I love you, sis.

The writing was shaky, done with obvious speed and jitters. He’d run. She panicked. Completely.

She spun in frantic circles, eyes trailing. Her head ached, mind racing unable to comprehend anything. Bilious stomach acid was already bubbling up. Her brain smeared the images her eyes clawed for purchase on. It found none, and nothing coherent otherwise.

All in hope, for some sign that he was there, had changed his mind. Panic had never so thoroughly seized her. She neared a faint amid dizziness that toppled her sideways. She had the vauge and distant notion of catching herself on the island, fighting to breathe.

In reality, she wailed, sobbing. The open-close of a door didn’t register. She was too consumed. She collapsed, caught by a vague but familiar form and weight. Arthur’s gravel-throat was rolling over her skin, vibrating her bones, but nothing was audible outside her the piercing ring of her own mind.

She was a sub on full-alert, reporting damage; a computer throwing errors before a crash. She needed a reset, and there was no avoiding it. Before she knew what had happened, she’d gotten it.

She emerged from her fugue state unaware any time had passed. It had, copiously. Only then could she comprehend the melange of terror, guilt, panic, and grief that had gripped her.

Her body tensed, released. Her muscles gave one last, minor tremor, and she breathed normally again.

Had he not worked for her so long, Arthur might have questioned her sanity. He’d been hired to run security by Julia, but also to keep an eye on Angela during her recovery. If it could have been called that. In truth, it wasn’t much more than the re-awakening any person experienced after surviving and leaving street-living.

In all those years, Angela had been tearful precisely twice. Once, when she returned with Julia’s dead body in her arms. Then, once after being tortured by the bastard that had killed her. Both circumstances were extenuating, obvious.

This wasn’t.

Yet Arthur knew its origins. He’d sensed them. As he sensed the breakdown that drew him to her. Apart from the obvious, there was the deeper, unspoken geyser of emotion now drained like her many tears. That geyser, formed over decades of emotional neglect, abuse, and manipulation was thought to have been forever been covered, quieted.

Instead, the pressure had built from deep quaking– her brother’s re-appearance. Consciously or not, she’d known that pressure would mount, release, destroy anything in its way. This time, she was lucky. It had only damaged what little emotional resistance remained around her childhood, and not the world around her.

Arthur cradled her in silence, dutifully sentinel. He knew little of the Dale home-life directly, but he’d gathered enough. Family of five– four for most of Angela and Lucas’ lives. Heavily sheltered. Criminally so. Forcibly intrusive. Obsessive. Repressive. The list went on.

The Dale parents were obsessed with keeping their children on certain, proscribed paths. As a result they’d wedged themselves into every aspect of their children’s lives for one purpose; control. Where that could not extend, they cajoled and intimidated, demanding constant reports of every moment of their absence.

What wasn’t mandated as part of their cult-like mentality, didn’t exist.

Except that it did. Angela had always known that. Lucas too. Because there was evidence of it everywhere you looked. No doubt, Alison knew it now too– Arthur hoped, for Angela’s sake.

Arthur could only liken the Dale parents to the blind-faithed, ignorant fools forcing friends and family into Jonestown before offering them Flavor-Aid. Certainly, by any metric the damage their children had suffered indicated their unfitness as human beings, let alone parents.

There was never a question to Angela’s emotional instability existing. Rather, it was if the miracle she’d managed was genuine; was her stability as real as it seemed? Lucas had the same inability to process emotion, but did his sister have no greater grace or resolve?

Arthur might’ve forgiven Lucas for everything else, but forcing that question erased any remaining sympathy he had. To be forced to compare someone like Angela to the less-than-dirt-beneath-a-shoe that was Lucas was too much.

He was putting his foot down, and beneath it was going to be Lucas’ gut. Angela had given him everything he wanted, and needed. If something weren’t done soon, she’d keep hurting herself for someone undeserving of even her consideration, let alone her blood.

Angela emerged from the ruptured-Earth her emotions left behind, almost entirely unaware of reality. The grip that had seized her was total, extending through every muscle and nerve in her in her body. There it had put her into lock-down, technically still living, but hard pressed to be called it.

She’d managed to wrest herself away from Arthur because her body’d relaxed naturally. Arthur coaxed her slowly back to speech, offering her anything she wanted. He sat beside her on the kitchen floor; old, bum leg stretched out alongside the island. The other propped him upright.

Angela stared, afflicted by waves of flickering thoughts. “I knew it would happen,” she croaked finally. She wet her throat, “I knew it would happen and I still let him get to me.” She cast a desperate look about, “Why’d I let him get to me?”

“Some people matter enough they’ll always get to us. Always. No matter how we fight, they win.”

She clenched her jaw, “I can’t allow this, Arthur. I can’t be weak like this. Lucas–“

“’Isn’t weakness to love, Angela,” he corrected firmly. “S’Our greatest strength. May be a weakness to fail to recognize love as strength, accept it as one, but that’s not loving that’s weakness. Some times, the hardest lessons are those that make us strongest.”

Her eye twitched, “And this one? What is it?”

“That no matter what, sometimes your love will wound you.” Arthur eyed her deeply, “You hurt because you love. You love because you hurt. You become stronger for it, every day. That makes you Human, not weak. That is strength.

“Sooner you learn to accept your nature, sooner you can use it to your advantage.”

Angela’s gaze held his a moment, searching for any trickery buried beneath his words. She found only conviction. She stared forward, wearing a soldier’s thousand-yard-stare. Arthur was right. More often than not, that was the case anyhow, why would this be any different?

More than that though, she felt his rightness.

Love let Lucas into her house, her car. Love, her ability to show and reciprocate it, let Crystal in; told the truth of Julia’s death. Love saved her, let her into Angela’s house. She’d never have bound to Julia were it not for love. Love, too, plunged her into Julia’s depths. Even the depraved street-living would never have come about if she weren’t so deeply loving.

Forever wounded by the lack of love her family offered, she sought it elsewhere. Eentually, she found her way toward it, if not to it.

To say childhood was at the root of many of her problems was like blaming a foundation for a swamp-house’s slant. It was short-sighted, didn’t fully explain how deep the problem went, and was far too simple for such complex a reality.

Yet Angela knew that love given freely to simply be reflected it back was necessary for a healthy life. Her parents didn’t, had answered only with distrust and suspicion, thus wounding the giver. As common with children, that giver was wounded deeply for life. So much, she’d spend most of her life since trying to compensate. To give. To love. Regardless of circumstance.

Crystal was a prime example: Similarly in need of love, her very entry into Angela’s home and life might have destroyed them. It hadn’t though, and only due to Crystal’s own actions. Actions Lucas was equally capable of but unwilling to perform.

From the moment he’d been allowed in, directly or not, he’d been doing damage. He knew that now, didn’t care. She pushed herself up from the floor and opened the drawer for her tablet. Why, exactly, left her mind as the drawer opened, empty of its contents.

New panic flooded her. “Shit. Shit.”

She jerked open the other kitchen drawers in a frenzy of swearing movement.

Arthur pushed himself up, “What–“

She circled amid the mayhem, completely aware of the irony. “Fucking thief.” Arthur moved to stop her. “The card. For Curie’s John. He took the tablet. Now he’s got the card.”

It took Arthur a moment to untangle the knot of confusion she’d tied, but he kept her grounded, “Stop now. Think. He can’t have gone far. He doesn’t have enough money to leave town and he’s half-way into detox. He’ll be trying to score, which means small buyers.”

She stammered slightly, trying to slow herself, “Right. Right…. Uh. Titus. Titus will know.”

“I’ll call.”

“No, I will. Better to be honest and take responsibility… right?”

Arthur gave a slight bow of his head, agreeing.

Hard Lessons: Part 12

12.

O Brother, Where Art Thou

Angela’s chest was freshly-damp from the bag of detox drugs.

She swung herself off her bike, pulling her helmet off as she made for the apartment. Lucas would be descending into the first stages of withdrawal. It was going to be a long, painful process. She found he and Arthur across from one another at the island. The former rippled with tremors.

The old man steeped a tea-bag in steaming water, silence pregnant with welcome intrusion.

Angela tossed the bag on the counter, unzipped her coat to cast it on a chair. The grease-slick of her brother’s face and body matched the pools around his collar and armpits, the lines across his paunchy torso. His hair stuck about at odd angles, torn at but too oiled to lay flat again.

She measured out doses. He tossed them back with the muscle memory of an addict. Just as well, only an addict could’ve stomached his cocktail. It might’ve killed a normal person just from sheer, drug-induced introspection. To say nothing of its own, inherent mortality rate– currently unknown, but likely only somewhat lower than the addiction’s itself.

There and then, Angela’s heart wrent in two.

She and Lucas had been tormented, scarred. So heinously, the only way to cover them was with worse, deeper ones. His trembling breaths broke only for the tea to rise. Hot or not, its influence spurred the cocktail through him with welcomed result.

All the same, withdrawal was worsening by the minute. Arthur took his leave, but Angela remained to watch Lucas’ detox take hold.

The silence became cooler, calmer.

The cock-tail was working expertly, but it couldn’t last. The crash would come, or the treatment would just be the new high. She’d figure it out later. What mattered now was keeping Lucas’ body from stressing itself past shut-down.

In other words, killing him.

Angela said nothing, but her mind raced. Addiction had never made sense to her. Not as it evidently did to most. Arguably, she’d had stints as one, but considered it more byproduct than feeding a monkey on her back.

The monkey’d never been the point. Rather, it was escaping the very real, shit-stained piss-reeking reality of life on the street.

Escapism was the goal in both cases, but their journey’s existed in mutually exclusive universes. Trying to kill herself with drink had never been about drinking; she’d have taken any, less-painful way out. Alcohol was cheap, abundant, easy to steal in lethal volume.

Her lack of addiction was further evidenced in her current ability to drink without turning into– well, Lucas.

She knew the real reason twelve-steppers and teetotalers alike shamed others, their lifestyle. They were ashamed they couldn’t control themselves, thus everyone must be incapable of controlling themselves.

The last, logical thing for an addict, it seemed to Angela, was relinquish what self-control remained another’s whims. Fuck that. Grab a hold and steer the bitch with all your might. Like a wild mare frenzied, or a Ferrari with no brakes at 200km/h.

Yet, any use more than once a week was “functioning.” Anyone with a joint or riding a high around the house was a drug abuser– abuser, as if their definition had any room for “use” outside the pharmaceutical industry.

What a joke, Angela felt. And most people like her, felt the same. If only for the simple reason0 they knew enough crooked doctors whom found scripts easy replacements for care. Hell, if it weren’t for those crooked M-Ds, Lucas wouldn’t be detoxing now.

Probably, anyway.

Angela breathed easier as Lucas did. Ultimatey the factual thing those twelve-steppers and teetotalers refused to admit or were ignorant of, was their place as part of the sixty percent addicted to something else. All it meant was the same thing any system’s rules meant; Follow. Eyes forward. No resistance.

The problem was, that ideology wasn’t built for people like Angela.

Simply, they hadn’t existed then because technology hadn’t. Whether through AA, her zealot parents, or the heat, the rules they were being told not to break could never apply to them in the first place. It was a catch-22. They were ghosts in the system. To it. They and it existed separately.

People like Angela, Crystal, even Lucas to a lesser extent, didn’t live outside the laws from any sense of rebellion, but because those laws and rules governed a world made for people unlike them. People whom walked in the day, whom knew nothing of shadows, schemes, or the misfortune that led to them.

They were the simple minority; no matter how many they seemed, they were always fewer. That was good though, it kept the game from tipping too far and the board upending entirely. Fact was, laws and rules were needed to keep masses in line. Not individuals or counter-groups.

Shadow was night to day in many ways.

Angela knew that, was grateful for it. As were all those like her. For good reason, too; they were the night to that day, but also could not exist without it. Their duality was like that espoused by Easterners as the Yin and Yang. Each was necessary because each was one-half of a whole.

Angela knew that. Crystal knew that. Titus knew it. On some level, every person whom lived, regardless of side, knew it. It wasn’t a matter of want nor need, it simply was; a reality best summarized as the positive-negative balance in the universe. In its way, its own law of Karma.

The truth, as evident as irrefutable, was visible in all of existence. From quantum physics to electricity, right on down to society. Every particle had an anti-particle. Every 1, a 0. Every integer an, equal negative.

Angela and those like her, Lucas included, were night to day, yang to yin, 1 to 0. It was just the way of things. Those “qualified” to help those like Lucas were fundamentally incapable of it. Not from malice, ill-intent, lack of experience or wanting. They were simply learned in a system outright engineered not to function for him.

In essence, it was a system for yin-minded. He was the inverse, the opposite; the yang. As a result, the systems in place to help him would always, immediately, encounter insurmountable resistance. Not from total ineffectiveness, but from flawed handling of their charges.

The system was formulated for matters of black and white, without room for shades of gray. Gray simply added too many variables into an equation meant to be simple, solvable for a majority of people. It was a yin-minded system, for yin-minded people, with only room for yin-like variables.

Angela watched her brother relax, the sweat of his face a lone, oily coat that glistened with the fluorescence overhead. She may not have understood addiction, but she understood the danger that ignorance posed.

All addicts like them, whom needed help and couldn’t get it, were simply pushed aside. The black and white mindset of the majority meant even seeking help was next to impossible for the yang-types– no matter the context.

Angela could think of no better example than her own kidnapping. As a thief, a dark-dweller, she’d run afoul of another dark-dweller whom kidnapped and tortured her. The mafioso in question could only be combated by further dark-dwellers.

Why? Simply, the responding system made no allowances for the reality of life as an opportunists with particular skills.

Angela was a thief. Once her only, truly marketable skill. Now, simply her most experienced. What choice did she have in her hour of need, but to rely on her friend and protege to come to her rescue?

For people like her, police didn’t exist– save as a thing to be utterly and entirely avoided. Shadows policed themselves. Forced to by virtue of their nature. All involved knew it, and knew why. Those not involved inadvertently tried altering the very fabric of the shadows’ nature, eventually writing off their misunderstanding as failure— hence Lucas’ inability to detox properly.

She wanted to be angry, but it was no one’s fault, really.

Nature was rife with paths of least resistance. Rarely was the effect positive. Especially in regards to the utterly complex required of psychic trauma.

Angela handled her own in her own way, for good or ill. Unfortunately, that hardly prepared her for dealing with another’s. Even Crystal knew only of how to deal with her own. Angela simply shared what little she felt relevant to the moment at-hand, and focused instead on doing the job.

She did her best to keep from making matters worse. Admittedly, she was a poor mentor in that way, especially given her tendency toward emotional repression. Especially when it came Lucas and her childhood.

She stayed beside him through-out the day, silent but tending to him when needed. Somewhere, hidden away, Arthur watched. He was silent on firm instruction to let her handle things, but prepared to step in whether she liked it or not. She figured as much.

Though he’d never tell her, he was proud of her handling of things. He refused to let his guard down, but also refused to scold Angela for trying, listening, success or failure. Lucas was, after all, her brother and she had a right to try to help him.

By sundown and Lucas’ second cocktail, he was ready to sleep. Utterly empty of food and energy despite her offers, he finally collapsed into sleep. She sat nearby until certain he was out, then rose to shower and collapse on her bed.

The sun sank behind the persistent layer of rain and gray, forcing the surveillance feeds’ contrast to change. Crystal’s eyes skirted newly-revealed crevices previously lost in rainy daylight and shadow.

Nothing unusual.

The drones had been battery-swapped when she’d taken over to let Titus sleep. Presently, she sat on-watch, skimming the feeds between bouts of boredom-tempering Aug-coding.

The sex had been spectacular, and sorely needed. She was still stretching periodically, just to ensure she hadn’t pulled anything. There was no way to know yet though. She was still too numb with pleasure. She’d stretched once before watch, was ready for another.

She started with her legs; a rigid thief was like a cat without feet.

She suspected Titus had found trouble keeping up. She didn’t blame him. He’d hardly been expecting it, was tired when they’d started. She felt likewise. Yet, she forced them onward for hours; their endurance was higher than she’d given either one credit for.

After all, how could it not be? Keeping with one so deprived and newly-energized as her would be no easy feat?

Teens met the energy levels, but they were chumps. Inexperienced. Sloppy. They were as lucky to get in as off. All that time burning energy, barely using any to get off, just as porn told them to. Nothing compared to the sex of two, experienced partners. Especially not one with a decade of pent-up fantasies from missed opportunities in youth.

That Titus kept pace was impressive enough, that the acts had the desired effect was doubly so.

It could only have happened if he were fully committed, either in body or mind. He seemed to have managed a fair bit of both.

Another car entered the feed, caught her eye as a black streak smearing the feeds.

She scrutinized the shape, letting it morph in her mind. It resolved into a Lincoln Continental, old style, well-maintained. Not a rare sight for this side of town, but not common. It was the same car she’d seen before; circling the block and unwittingly tracked by the various drones.

She woke Titus, prepped to move. Together, they watched, waited. The Continental circled a final time before coming to a stop outside the building they occupied, their target.

As if cued to, a man emerged. A drone’s feed immediately flashed an ID marker reading out Saito’s ID alongside informatics.

Titus fitted his belt with a small pouch and checked the slide of a small pistol, keying-off a quiet beeping on one of the laptops. He let his pistol’s slide chamber a round, flicked the safety, and started off.

Crystal tightened her laces; only moments now.

Short Story: His Comet

She leapt at him from behind as he strolled through the square, took him by surprise.

In retrospect, a bad idea when he hadn’t seen her in over a decade. Leaping randomly onto the back of one unaware should’ve advised her against doing so. But she’d never been the brightest bulb in the bunch, just a wild-card.

The wildest of wild-cards at that. A free-spirit, untamed to a fault, that ultimately forced them apart. Brought together again by Tianna’s frame, launched with the force of stupidity, they were quickly parted again– mostly, by Evan’s fall-down back-drop, executed on instinct (Not the calmest bull in the pasture was he.)

The next thing either knew was a giggling yelp; Evan’s sudden terror. It was her. He knew it like he knew his face in the mirror. Her voice, all its variants; coded into his brain as only someone who’d spent years putting it there, bakedin by every moment of mutually-burnt, midnight oil.

All that time together. Years. Years more since. Yet even now he rippled the same mix of emotion and memory. Evan’s mind and body flitted with images, feelings; love, pain, euphoria, joy, sorrow. He recalled every laugh. Every tear. Every shout and cry. Every kiss, touch; everything.

And all of it in a nano-second.

Whether she did too, he couldn’t say. He was certain she’d felt the back-drop. The giggling “oofs” slipping out said so.He scrambled up, staring down at the mass gasping pain and giggles. He thought to offer help as she clutched her stomach, remembered their sex being rougher.

So instead, he stared, bewildered. “Tia?”

She splayed her arms and legs out, breathing relief. In that instant, he took in time’s effects– or lack thereof. Only after he offered her a hand, and she sprang up more spryly than a teenager in heat, did he understand that little had changed.

Any hope that might’ve imparted was balanced to indifference by the drug use under her eyes.

Somehow, they only added to her appearance. The freedom of spirit, it seemed to Evan, balanced anything. Her vibrant mane and doughy, spring-bark eyes remained vital as ever, no matter what lined or hung beneath them.

“Surprised?” She snickered with a sarcastic-coyness.

His eyes narrowed habitually; time had done that. Made him shrewd. Uncompromising. Almost tyrannical in mind. Unlike her, he’d been forced to grow up, forced to become an adult, composed of self-control, occasional cynicism, and ever-waning time.

She needed none of those things. Spirit alone kept her malleable. She took things as they came, had no need to change. It was the mixed blessing of evolution. The simplest organisms survived, but at the cost of the complexity required by the more intelligent ones.

Part of that simplicity had attracted him, and vice-versa. Evan’s complexity was new, interesting. Something Tia had never known. The fact they’d lasted so long before was more a wonder of the couple’s own, lasting ignorance. Their eventual end and how it came was a matter Evan had often recalled. It was at the forefront in his mind now, though he doubted she’d recognize it.

Ultimately,someone like her was an unstoppable force. One of nature, spirit. She was a comet; bound to a solar gravity that kept her rarely insight, but always mesmerizing, awe-inspiring; beautiful.Even if she orbited for eons though, she would slowly erode; never not beautiful or full of wonder, but far from immortal and always ending.

Evan wasn’t so lucky. He was human. Like them, had his caveats, flaws.Their own end proved as much.

He’d spent months of trying to clean up, had long abandoned their lifestyle for forward momentum. Each day became a struggle to grip life despite vices, flaws, mistakes, hopes to change them for the better. Tiawasn’t changing though.

She didn’t want to. In a way, didn’t need to. Life was great for her, especially by her metrics.

To him, then, she was full of shit. He couldn’t have understood the division between humans and the forces of nature she was. Even if he recognized it then, there was no way to understand it yet. That required time, wisdom. Neither of which he’d had much of then.

It was only after coming home, finding her passed out, needled and powdered, that he left. He remembered double-checking her vitals for O-D, rolling her on her side, and grabbing what he needed quietly to live with. In the end, he left with a single pack.

She kept what she wanted, sold the rest for drug-money.

She hadn’t O-D’d, just nodded off. In fact, he wasn’t even angry when he arrived him. It was nothing abnormal for their life. It was the same life they’d lived for years. Still, his only lasting regret was that the spirit he so loved was its own worst enemy. That was not a failing of his own, he knew now.

Then, he’d simply left, confused and alone….

The memories rushed past; he saw no track-marks on her sleeveless arms, exhaled slight relief. She caught it, tried to eye him. He evaded, already checking his watch.

“Not surprised, Tee. Somehow. But what’re you doing here?”

She bounced on the balls of her feet, “Just hanging. You?”

“Lunch meeting.”

She snickered. “Big businessman now. Forgot.”

He didn’t bother asking; word got around. “Meeting an Agent. She wants me to write an autobiography.”

Tia rolled her eyes, pulled at his arm and linked it with hers. She marched them toward a near-edge of the Square. “Buy me a coffee.”

“Tee–”

“Can’t spare half-hour for an old girlfriend?” She joked, dragging him along.

He relented with a sigh, allowed her to lead him across a street and into a cafe. Minutes later they were out again, caffeinated drinks in-hand. Tia ambled, arm-linked, as her brow rose playfully. He knew her too well.

“So your agent–”

“Is just an agent.”

Her sarcastic defensiveness returned. “Just curious.”

He strained syllables, “Sure. And if I asked you?”

“I’d say I don’t care, so long as they’re fun– naked or not.”

“Typical.”

“When’d you get so stiff?” She asked with a harmless elbow.

He thought to snap, sighed instead. “Sorry. Caught me off guard, that’s all.”

“That bad huh?”

“Don’t even know.” He angled them toward an apartment building, unlocked it with a key, and led her to an elevator. “I’m not a self-writer, Tee. I’m not even sure I’m a writer.”

“Oh listen to you, Mr. Opportunity, angry at the knocking on his door.” He scowled. The elevator arrived. She led him in. “Which floor.”

“Seven.”

They rode up in silence; Tianna was in her own world. Evan replayed his conversation with Marlene: Autobiographies were the rage. Of course she wanted one. And of course from him. Never mind having nothing interesting to say about himself, he didn’t want to write one. Period.

Biographies, auto or not, were self-indulgent, over-long masturbation sessions about oneself or their heroes. Certainly, they had their place, but they were also a tacit admission that the subject had peaked.

That, in and of itself, would keep him away from one. The sooner you accepted you’d peaked– and stopped trying to achieveto do so– the sooner you started stagnating. Every creative knew stagnation was a creative’s death-sentence, their malignant cancer cells. The idea was to stave it off, in sessions, seasons, projects. Always. Indefinitely. Until you died trying to keep it up.

Not sitting and wallowing over what you’d already done.

Tia tore him away again, “Serious thoughts abound.”

He sighed and motioned her to the first apartment on the left. He led them into a modest, one-room apartment, furnished with warm woods and cheap furniture. The place was lived-in but clean; an effect of being too work-focused and economical to afford or gather much. The only thing resembling clutter outside his desk were a few food wrappers from lunch on the coffee-table.

She sat beside him on his cheap, creaking couch and finally began to discuss herself. Everything nondescript. Stories of “friends” laughing about “things,” or vents and rants about others. Nothing solid. Nothing of substance, but enough to pass the time and fill the air.

Tianna had always spoken of her life as if describing distant dreams. Ones experienced while in others. That, he felt, was Tia’s essence. Her life was a dream in a dream; Too real to be fully-illusory, too illusory to be fully-reality.

It was a manifestation of the pure wildness of her energy. There was no way to change or control it. You rode or dealt with it, that was it. Much like a tribal free from society’s laws, so too were they without its advances and progress.

Before either knew it, the sun had set taking the afternoon and turning it to evening. Tia had managedto creep over, rest her headhis shoulder. He allowed it, too enveloped in his own thoughts to feel anything beyond allowance, pressure. He let it continue after something in him began to resonate; something so deep only she could reach it.

Evan had loved her. Had spent years with her. He’d intended to spend more,but woke up one too-many timesin a pool of his own shame and grief. Even afterward, he hoped to find her beside him. She was his first and only love.

Then, his worst and deepest loss.

It was never leaving that hurt.Even now, he wouldn’t have hesitated. It was the needing something, deep down, from someone whom didn’t really need you. Something deep inside him needed her even now.Just as bad as the day he’d left, every day before that.

No matter the women before or since, none were her. None were a comet. His Comet; an indescribable, undeniable force of nature and spirit winging along solar tides.

He glanced down to find her fresh-bark eyes looking up. They came closer.

The night passed with few words, but unassailable, unbridled feeling. It was morning before her solar gravity released him and his senses returned.

He lay then in bed, half-awake. Clothing rustled nearby. She would be leaving this time. He felt it, asked anyway.

“You’re going?”

She smiled over a shoulder-blade of resplendent inks. “You think I’d ruin last night by staying?”

He winced, feeling pain cut deep as the love the night before. She slipped her shirt on, crawled up the bed, and kissed him deep. When she pulled away, their eyes met.

For an instant, the free-spirit faltered. It was as if, all along, she’d known his thoughts. Not just now, but always. Past and present, she known them as if her own. All of them.

“I have to.”

He suppressed grief, muttered, “You don’t.”

She rose, softening playfully, “I do, Evan.” Her facade returned, “Besides, you’ve gotta’ book to start. Put in a chapter about me.” She grabbed her things and smiled bitter-sweetly. “This was fun. Maybe we’ll do it again.”

She left without another word.He let her. It was easier. For both of them.

An hour later, still in the grieving throes of her departure, he sat to work. The text document stared, begging for words. Half an hour passed before he began with two words: My Comet.”

Short Story: Escape

Billy Hollis walked with a hunch, clearly up to something. He looked it, shouldering his way through the rain, trench-coat pulled tight in a style that, in the past, would’ve been enough to indicate suspicious circumstances. Nowadays, and largely due to Billy and his ilk, every rebellious youth sought to emulate the look. Few were willing to emulate the lifestyle further. Fewer still, as deeply as Billy was in.

He was an addict, he knew it. Addiction clawed at him daily. The hours he wasn’t trying to score, he was soaking in the score. The only way to ensure one got him through to the next was to sink as deep into it as he could go. There was no denying that. There wasn’t even a denial of the addiction itself. Contrary to popular belief, for some, admitting the problem was even less than a step. Billy had a problem. He admitted it. But he liked it.

Liked it so much in fact, he’d managed to fall into a rhythm of daily use. A usage society despised him for, but one he enjoyed so thoroughly he didn’t mind. Despite it, he managed to hold down a job four days a week.

And every second he could, he fled from stocking shelves to the bathroom stalls to use.

He had little else in the world, lived in share-housing with a few other addicts. Each was of his escapist persuasion. Each shared drugs in the unusual benevolence of addict-cohabitation.

The group of five or six– depending on the week, and the relapsing rhythm of one of the inhabitants– managed to scrape together just enough cash for rent, food, and drugs. There was never enough food, but the rent was always on time. Otherwise, there were fees and less money for escape.

Billy and his housemates awaited their supplies via dead-drops. It was the only way to buy in bulk these days, and they needed bulk.

Unfortunately, a major supplier had been shut down recently. The local addicts, and daresay junkies, were still scrambling to recover. It wasn’t going well.

In retrospect, that should’ve been Billy’s first sign of something wrong. It still was, technically, but he wasn’t thinking that way, too focused on procuring his next escape.

He slogged through the driving rain for the abandoned lot where he was to meet the dealer, unsure of what he was even escaping from anymore. All he knew was there was a means to do so, so he used it. Reality wasn’t great, but it wasn’t terrible; a couple guys he lived with tended to come down from their use like tweakers, becoming immaculate cleaning machines. As a result the share-house was always clean where most addicts’ places were dingy, abandoned sewage holes.

Billy’s past wasn’t too awful either. His parents had loved him. They’d even treated him better than most parents treated kids. He was an elder child, but had long abandoned the notion of being a role model. Two younger sisters meant always being at odds with them. Moreso, he was always being piled on for things “girls shouldn’t do.” Whatever the hell that meant.

No, some addicts could claim a poor home-life past or present as motivation to use, but not Billy. He wasn’t sure he had a reason to use outside enjoying it. He wasn’t sure, either, why he was planting each step into a driving, freezing rain. The rain had forgotten winter had turned to spring, its outer gray reflecting Billy’s inner gray with a haze of uncertainty.

Perhaps that was it, he thought, the gray. Perhaps using had something to do with the gray having blanketed the world. His mother had always said he had a sensitive soul– not the homosexual kind, he was quick to say, for fear of leading anyone on. Rather, the poetic kind.

If that was the case, it wasn’t a surprise someone like Billy turned to escapism. The world was a mess. Most people followed the same path. Especially nowadays, everyone had their thing. Billy’s just happened to be illegal. Why, he couldn’t say. He wasn’t hurting anyone. Maybe himself, but it was his life. He did his best to balance things; contributing as he could to society; never hurting anyone unless in self-defense– though thankfully, that had yet to come up.

Those were his rationalizations anyway. He wasn’t sure it was entirely healthy, but he wasn’t going to lie about his feelings. That could never help. His addiction made him feel good. In the end wasn’t happiness, feeling good, the important thing? Everyone was allowed their hobbies, why not have his be two things in one? Addiction and hobby? Seemed more efficient to him.

None of that changed the fact that spring had forgotten it was here. Or that winter had forgotten it had left. Or that the rain seemed to embody both. It especially didn’t change what the fates had already sown for Billy, for his housemates. It wouldn’t be long before they were all just more statistics, detoxing in rehab clinics, or hoping for just one more moment of indulgence.

The guy Billy was meeting seemed out of place, more sketchy and suspicious than most dealers. His head kept whipping from side-to-side, like one of those inflatable waving creatures at car-dealers. He was that, in a way, but shouldn’t have been. That was Billy’s second clue; the second he only recognized in retrospect.

The dealer, whose name was never mentioned, dropped a back-pack from his shoulder. In a swift, almost sleight of hand like exchange, he gave it to Billy whom slid a thick, manila envelope over. The dealer was gone in an instant, but just as well, Billy was too focused on checking the bag. The weight was right, the contents were right. Clean deal.

He made for home, the slums. Everywhere was a slum nowadays. Physically. Ethically. One or the other. The ones for addicts were the physical kind– though they weren’t as bad as the junkies’ into even harder stuff.

Billy was in the front door, greeted by the others as if toting dog-food home to starved hounds. With the utmost ceremony, he stepped over to the tattered couch and coffee table and upended the pack.

The cascade was like something from a dream: A galactic palette of superhero colors. Moorish grit. Soothing, Indie tones. Everything in-between and around.

The junkies dove, grasping, clutching, each for a hit. They’d get around to all of them eventually. Each would get their chance with each. The papers between might be a little more worn, but the effect would be the same. Everyone would get a first hit. Everyone would get a last hit. They’d all smell, sweet, taboo ink. Read the lines inked in black and gray. Feel the glossy pages.

Or so they thought.

Billy had his hand on something whose title he wasn’t sure of. The cover was an alarming red with a silhouette of detective noir. The door exploded in off its hinges. Life became a rush of images.

A rush that lasted months.

At light speed, he saw himself and his house-mates tackled by the ACTF– Anti-Comic Task Force. He saw his housemates shoved into the paddy wagon ahead of himself. He saw, felt, the booking, processing, delousing. He saw the public defender, their meeting, his arguing against charges on the grounds of “Graphic Novels, not Comics.” He saw himself pleading guilty for a reduced sentence. He saw he and his friends arrested, again, on television; watched the comics burned later that evening at the police department.

Sometime later, he stood before a judge, hearing the final charges of “Possession of Comic-Books, and Comic-Book Paraphernalia, Felony First class, partial time-served.” He heard the verdict of two-years probation, weekly room-checks, inpatient rehab. Detoxing had been done already, the court system slow as it was, but this formality was meant to help him straighten out his reasons for using.

Last of all, Billy saw himself standing before the judge, hearing the sentence over the nearby cries of his mother, her begging, pleading for him to “get clean.” Then, time resumed its natural pace. Days began to pass slowly, in utter boredom.

He entered his room at rehab, found the slightest protrusion of color from beneath his mattress.

He yanked at a corner of it, found that same, noir-like cover; where had it come from? When? How? He was ready to sprint to the nearest orderly, have it destroyed. He didn’t. Instead, he put himself in a corner, carefully opened the cover.

His eyes drooped. His brain lit. He smiled dully, stoned; whisked off on another escape.