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.

Short Story: Red 5, Standing By

Red Five, Standing By

Red 5 comics sat on the corner of Asimov Avenue and Lily Drive in the southern part of Bacatta’s “downtown” area that stretched more than five miles. Nestled beside “Oddities knick-knacks,” and the sprawl of the rest of downtown Bacatta, it was one the main attractions for the nerd and geek community. Its only, minor competition was that of Gamer’s Galaxy a block southeast. Luckily Red 5’s proprietor, Winifred “Red” Asner, had no real competition. G-G sold only the few, odd comics that would fit in the last half of a game-book shelf, hardly comparable to the plethora of colorful covers that spanned the walls, shelves, and egg-crate aisles of Red’s store.

Like the others on downtown’s south-side, Red 5’s size had been fixed when the city’s reconstruction was planned over a decade ago– long before its owner had ever laid down her wares. At times, between six and nine shops shared these city blocks, and only a fortunate few had procured the coveted corner spot. Red had been quick enough to snatch up corner store before someone else got it. Others were less-fortunate, buried in the center of roads so that even pedestrians paid them less attention. Knowing that, Red kept the shop as quaint, stocked, and inviting as was humanly possible.

Presently she stood before the register on the small counter at the shop’s rear, centered between the four aisles of tables with egg-crates mouth-up on them. Every comic book from the heroic Avengers to the cunning and mischievous Zorro was stocked and alphabetized through-out the crates, while thick, hard and soft-bound compendiums filled the right walls, separated by category and shelved in common book-cases.

The compendiums stretched all the way to the store’s back wall, where the most precious first and signed editions hung in a locked, glass display case behind the counter. Though a few sold, to Red, they were more show pieces than sale items, and their prices reflected that. Conversely, the left wall was covered by hanging racks in slotted peg-boards, “New Issues” emboldened above them in large, black letters. The melange of hues below was speckled neutral around the random of hot and cold colors.

The din of the after-school rush rose and fell as bodies weaved through the store, or thumbed the merchandise. Every few moments, the bell rang as someone came or went, more than a few without purchases. Those lined up to pay were greeted by Red’s bushy, curly, red-hair and thin-rimmed glasses. She wore the standard dress of a lifetime nerd; a screen-printed T-shirt with slacks and flats a decade out of style. She shifted back and forth rhythmically, conducted a symphony on the register with one hand, and bagged merchandise to keep time with the other.

The typically nerdy kids with bad skin, braces, or oily hair– or any combination therein– were interspersed with their more hygienic, elder counterparts in a line that made its way down the middle aisle. At its rear, a smug kid in a blazer stood beside his gum-popping brunette as she wore a perpetual disgust above her crossed arms. They couldn’t have been more than twenty-five, but the kid had “spoiled brat” etched permanently into his forehead, as though tattooed their at birth.

The line shuffled forward to Red’s left-handed symphony, and the punctual whole-rests after dings as the drawer slid open. A cascade of change clamored over the audible flit of bills counted out. Plastic rustled, gave way to light tamps on carpet that preceded yet chime of the door’s bell.

Even before the smug kid and his disgust compatriot made it to the register, Red smelled trouble. It clung to the air like B-O at a Comic-con, thickened the air she drew through her nose and mouth with a pungent putrescence. She’d been attuned to it for years, once its long time victim and its occasional visitor. Its attraction to her was more than part of the reason she’d continued to live alone at thirty, and otherwise interacted very little with the world outside work. While it was lonely, it was better than the humiliation and drama of being rejected past her twenties. She was single, plain-looking, and her bushy, auburn hair was mostly usually wild, unflattering.

In short, she wasn’t in the mood to be harassed, but the spoiled brat didn’t seem to notice nor care. He merely stepped to the front of the line, sans merchandise, and slapped a business card onto the counter. Red eyed it from afar. The minute text inclined something about investment banking with Bacatta First National bank. It was BS, and Red knew it– probably Daddy’s card he used to get what he wanted.

She furrowed her brow, “Can I help you?”

The brat glanced sideways through the place like he owned it, “Yeah, I’m with BFN. Noticed your contract’s up at the end’a the month, wanted to by the place out.”

She slid the card across the counter, looked past him to the next customer, “Sorry, not for sale.”

He filled her vision by leaning forward with two, greasy hands on the counter. His blue sports blazer hung open over his t-shirt and above his blue jeans with a wannabe-Hollywood style.

He leaned forward, whispered, “Look, we can talk civilly about this, or I can get my attorneys involved. Believe me when I say, you don’t want that.”

She lift the card with a finger nail, slipped it in between her fingers, and leaned forward to slip it into his front blazer pocket, “Not. For. Sale.”

He straightened with a twitch to the corners of his mouth and eye, puffed out his chest. He gave a hearty laugh, “What, you think these dweebs’ll keep you in business forever?” His projected speech drew the collective ire of the “dweebs” around the store. “Hell, I’m offerin’ you a good deal. I buy out your contract right now for my girl’s new pad, you get a little extra, and we don’t have to take this any further.”

Red grit her teeth, crossed her arms with a sneer. Her spine went rigid, “These dweebs are my customers and friends. You think you can just walk in here with your Daddy’s clout and harass me? I think the BPD’d have something to say about that.”

He snorted, glanced around at the oiled faces of the kids in the store. He threw out his arms to beckon a fight. A few of the adults shook their heads in disgrace.

“You think a guy like me’s gotta’ worry ’bout cops?”

A deep, heavy man’s voice intoned from the left, “No, but I think a guy like you’s about to get thrown out on your ass.”

Red’s face went blank, her jacked slacked slightly. The brat turned, readied a smug grin. It sank as his eyes met the hulking figure of Cameron Burr, owner of Gamer’s Galaxy, world-wide internet celebrity, and local brick-shithouse. He took two, wide steps toward the brat, dwarfed he and his girlfriend in width, and nearly a foot in height.

At one time, Cam had been a heavy-set guy with a failing business. Then, some of his friends got together to create an internet-video network– like a television station– that revolved around Gamer’s and their interests. One of the shows, called “Tank Training,” had been Cam’s attempt at a reality fitness show. Among other things, Cameron had lost the majority of his fat, compressed the rest into thick bulges of muscles. The show’s format then changed as he began training others, but it had left him looking like a pro-boxer with more confidence.

Red’s dull expression tracked him toward the brat, but it disintegrated as Cam met her eyes.

“This asshole botherin’ you, Winny?” He asked, with a nickname she hadn’t heard since Junior-High.

Red wet her dry mouth. To see Cam in her store was like a celebrity sighting and rival confrontation rolled into one. More than that though, he seemed more than ready to defend her, risk a possible fight. Even if he pummeled the dumb bastard into the ground– which he most certainly could– Daddy’s lawyers would have a field day. Then again, Cam had always been the gentle giant, and now had piles of money from his internet network to stand on. Perhaps there wasn’t as much risk as she thought.

She stammered a reply, “Cc-am? Y-yeah. Little brat just walked in here–”
“That’s slander,” the kid spat.

Cameron crossed his massive arms, “Why don’t you turn your little ass around, and get outta’ the store before this dweeb shows you the door.”
The kid glanced around with a smug sneer. The kids and adults alike had begun to whisper to one another. Clearly they knew something he didn’t. Even his “girl” seemed afraid.

She leaned into whisper with her high, valley-girl nasal-ness, “Mark, that’s Cam Burr, the guy from the web.”

A slow, terrified realization crept across his face as his confidence fell away and his chest deflated. A shit-eating grin spread across Cam’s mouth. His head titled with a lift of his brow as he spoke, “You recognize me now, don’t you?.”

Red saw her chance, took it. She flanked the bratty punk with a harsh tongue, “You think everyone in here’s just a loser ’cause they’re not rich pricks like you. Then you see someone you know isn’t, and you’re instantly terrified they’ll rat you out for the asshole you are. You’re pathetic kid. Now get the hell outta’ my store before I have Cam toss you through it.”

The kid’s mouth hung open like a stoned catfish. He met Cam’s eyes beneath brows that jumped with an eager smile. A voice sounded behind him, caused him to whip backward. One of the “dweebs” had shouted “Would you kindly fuck off!” Others began to spout curses and swears to decry the kid’s continued presence. He swiveled to see eyes and faces directed at him as a chant rose through the store. Up-thrust fists kept the beat.

“Prick. Go home. Prick. Go home. Prick. Go Home.”

The kid was thrown for a loop; a spoiled brat to put a moldy apple to shame. His “girl” began to drag him away as he rubbernecked his way out, completely dumbfounded. The terror in her face feared the of oily nerds getting too near, her humiliation tenfold the red on her cheeks.

Red called the door’s bell rang, “Let it hit your ass on the way out!”

Cam gave a roaring chuckle as the brat passed from the store. His dumb expression was still plastered over his punk-face when it disappeared around the left-corner windows. The people roared with a cheer that brought a timid smile to Red’s face. Cam braced a hand against the counter to lean as the crowd settled, returned to their former moseys.

“Thanks,” Red said through her shy smile.

Cam tossed a dismissive hand sideways, “Eh, fuck ‘im. No one messes with Winni Asner.”

She chuckled, “It’s Red now.”

Cam’s smile was charmed by hers, “I know, but you’ll always be Winni to me.”

Her face reddened slightly, “That’s fine.”

Cam caught it, his face glowed, “Don’t worry ’bout guys like that. Long as you pay your rent, you got nothin’ to worry ’bout. And if you ever need anything… you know… business-wise, don’t hesitate to stop by the shop.”

Red saw a curious gleam in his face, thrilled by the rush of adrenaline from the confrontation. “S-sure,” she stammered. “I… uh– I could use some, actually.”

Cam straightened with a wily eye, expertly contained a tickle of glee beneath his aloof exterior, “Why don’t you stop by the shop tonight then? Say… 8:15? Max and Riley’ll cuttin’ out ’bout then. And we can… you know, talk.”

Red’s cheeks and ears suddenly matched her hair, “Uh.. s-sure. Talk. About business.”

“Right,” Cam said with a single nod.

She half-laughed, half-inhaled a breath, “S-so I’ll s-see you then.”

He smiled, readied to turn away, “I’m lookin’ forward to it.”

Her heart jumped as he turned away with a smile, stepped outside to where he thought he was out of view, then thrust a fist in victory. She giggled with a exhilarated breath as the next customer took their place in front of the counter, ranted and raved about her expert dispatch of the brat. Through-out the next hour, each of the people in the store that had seen the confrontation gradually stepped up to say their piece or thank her. As the last of them trickled out, her day returned to normality.

Night gradually overtook the store outside as Red’s adrenaline waned, gave way to anxiety at the meeting ahead. What neither Red nor Cam could have anticipated was its eventual outcome. That cryptic “meeting” clearly became a date as she thought more on it.

Red’s anxiety peaked as she pushed open the door to Gamer’s Galaxy. Despite it being just around the corner from her shop, the place was mythical to her. Its hardwood floors, aisles of board games, and stocked walls of rule-books, card games, and video-games had been immortalized in countless internet vids. The terror of a celebrity meeting skyrocted as she met her other, fellow Bacatta alumni Riley and Max; two, beautiful, female lovers she’d known nearly as long as Cam. Like him, they were world-famous for their vids, doubly so even for their extreme popularity. Even so, they greeted her as old friends as they pointed her to the backroom and readied to leave.

Red’s notion of a date was asserted as she stepped into the small, back-room where the large, gaming table sat with its leaf in. Atop its deep, glossed mahogany finish were a pair of place settings and a handful of bags from Emma’s Diner next door. A plethora of scents wafted from them to fill the back-room with mouth watering

Cam stood up from the laptop on a card table in an alcove at the room’s left, “Winni! S-sorry, I was just finishing up some last-minute stuff.” He shut the laptop, stepped toward the table, “I know it’s not much, but Emma’s place is our mainstay. I-I wasn’t sure what you’d want, so I bought the place out. I-I figured we’d both be hungry after a full day of work.”

Red’s anxiety dissolved at Cam’s own, stammering terror. A wide smile crossed her face, plumped her cheeks.

What took place in that small stock-room, was the furthest Red had ever known from a business meeting. They drank, smoked, talked well into the night; until dawn drew their respective open-hours frightfully near. Even so, neither cared. They split for work only to return the next night, then again, and again before the dates blossomed into more.

Before either of them knew it, they were celebrating an anniversary, Red’s patronage nearly doubled from the consequences of that fateful day she’d slain the snot-nosed brat’s ego. The confrontation became a legendary tale that spread through the “dweebs” of Bacatta, tripled her earnings, and created a safe place for the nerds and geeks. They finally had a place of peace, where they didn’t have to fear those rich pricks she’d spoken of. As Red 5 continued to grow, it appeared more and more apparent that– for the dweebs at least– Red 5 would always be there to welcome them, shield them. Forever more, they knew, Red 5 was standing by.