~ The Stranger and Ze ~
by B.M. Morgan
bmmorgan3000@hotmail.com


DISCLAIMERS:

VIOLENCE WARNING/DISCLAIMER: This story depicts scenes of violence, graphic violence and/or their aftermath. Readers who are disturbed by or sensitive to this type of depiction may wish to read something other than this story.

LOVE/SEX WARNING/DISCLAIMER: This story depicts a love/sexual relationship between two consenting adult women. If you are under 18 years of age or if this type of story is illegal in the state or country in which you live, please do not read it. If depictions of this nature disturb you, you may wish to read something other than this story.

COPYRIGHT: The characters and situations are my own.

BETA READERS: I would like to profusely thank my beta readers: McJohn, JLynn, Xenalicious, Alydar and Angelrad-not only for support of the grammatical and thematic variety, but for much needed emotional and spiritual as well. I am forever in your debt (make of that what you will ). Also, I would like to thank everyone at the Tavern Wall for helping me take a bunch of scraps of writing and turning it into this giant mess. Cheers!



The Stranger and Ze
By B.M. Morgan

Through the empty pane near the top of the wall I can see the last swatches of sunlight, hanging like cheap, faded decorations in the window of a long-derelict house. Hanging, so that special kind of sadness, that unconscious, sublime weariness takes hold of you. Hanging, so you can see that the cheap and poor and hopeless have been around forever and probably will be until the sun at some distant and future point swallows them all.

Crumpled on the cement like this, I can't see the city. The window is too high, but it could be right in front of my face and I'd probably have trouble at this point. What the fuck do I care? The city can stay hidden out there, aloof, for all I care.

It's cold now and it's getting dark. I roll on my side and wince with pain; my poor little ribs. My fingers shake through a crumpled pack of Camels, tearing the paper to get at the smokes. Both cigarettes are broken near the filter; I grab the first one that eases out-spoiled for choice as always.

The match creates a universe in the heavy darkness, the flame defining the edges of existence in the shape of tired cinderblock walls, illuminating anomalies of crumpled pop cans and porno mags from the last century, and the black hole at the center of it all, the well of gravity, the absence of light that spins the whole crazy fucking thing around me. I shake the match dead, the reality snuffing out with it, lingering as a reverse shadow on the back of the eyelids.

I run a hand through my hair. It's greasy in the front. Haven't washed in days. Not that kind of girl, I suppose. The back is sticky and matted now, that's different.

Ze Black, my mother's pet name for me, when I was very young. Things would be so much easier if you were born blonde, she would half-joke, smoking wistfully on the porch, tossing the butts into a green beer bottle. The family curse, she used to call our inky hair.

I remember playing Tomb Raider with my brother when we were kids and how he tried to cave in my head with a cheap brass bust of the pope because I tripped over the cord and unplugged the game. Later, when the nurse at the walk-in dabbed away the dried blood from my scalp, she had said how hard it was to find where I was cut. It all blended into one black mass. I imagine the back of my head looking that way right now.

I inhale. Smoke slips through the opening in the cigarette and wraps about my fingers like bandages, like funeral gauze. I can't stop my face from slouching painfully into something close to a grin. I am being prepared for burial.

The smoke accomplishes the impossible and fouls up my mouth even further. My insides dream bile onto my tongue; the taste makes me try and spit. My palate is dry, my lips cracked. I cough as I butt out the cigarette. Poor me? There must be something broken inside of all of this meat and skin. Ribs would be my first bet.

I really wish I could spit.

Out there, somewhere, they're coming for me. Stocky, unshaven, smelling of cheap cologne, stale cigarettes and cabbage, they'll arrive after having several vodkas and stone-faced lap dances at a nearby strip joint. Gustav's kill-boys. They'll park their car on the oil-soaked earth outside, calmly walk toward the old building humming one of those disposable Euro-dance numbers, kick in the back door and find me here, folded like a greasy rag on the floor.

I wish I could say that I would put up some kind of struggle, fight the good fight and all that. I'm not going to fool myself. It's never happened before and I don't expect it to now. It's not in the blood, I guess. Wish it were; sometimes when you make a fuss, they kill you quickly. With any luck it won't matter by then anyway.

She's out there too, somewhere. The Stranger, I mean. She's the one who got away. The one who left me in this mess, like she always did. My event horizon light on display, stopped dead in its tracks around me. I exist only because of my perceived effect upon her.

Now she's gone, and where does it leave me?

My cheek presses against the cold concrete floor. I don't remember lying down-or did I fall? The scene reminds me of one from this old heist movie my brother made me watch when I would rather have been hanging out behind the arcade huffing glue or something similarly distressing and hurtful to my mother. I kind of liked the movie, though I would never admit it at the time. There was an undercover cop, shot in the gut, bleeding on the floor of some warehouse somewhere and he had to reveal who he was to the crooks he had fallen in with. I used to laugh at how upside down and wrong it all seemed, how out of place he was.

I try not to despise the darkness and the cold; it is all I have been given, all I am left with the darkness, the cold and the memories approaching out of the muck of it all. I would have thought that, these being my final reflections, there would be some kind of reckoning or revelation, a moral to the story. I laugh at that. At the end, maybe all we get is the knowledge that you come into the world feeling small, cold and alone, and you leave it in exactly the same way. Nevertheless, I feel that I should run through it all, in some last desperate attempt to parcel it, to understand and to own it.

Not like I have anything better to do.

**********

People rarely plan on getting fucked. It just sort of happens, one way or another. You can spend a lot of time thinking how you want to get it on with someone, anyone, but it's not something you can count on. One second you are un-fucked, the next you are fucked. It all seems to make sense at the time, but it's really quite an astounding thing. Maybe that's why we're so obsessed and scared and enamored with the whole process.

The Stranger didn't have trouble with women; that was why she hated them so much. She didn't have trouble with much of anything in life, which was why she couldn't be bothered participating in any sort of meaningful way within it. She just did her best to approximate a mundane existence for everyone's benefit. The smiles, the frowns, the Sunday morning breakfasts were all phoned in. Like everyone, she wasn't as unique as she was led to believe. She did her best to pretend that she hadn't noticed, but she carried that nipple-shriveling frightened undertone to her stare.

I remember the first time I saw her. It's strange because I never think of it as the first time-it just never felt that way. There always seemed to be a shared history, common ground. You couldn't shake the annoying tingle in that spot behind the eyes that reached out searching for a counterpart, to claim its rush of endorphins, to confirm recognition.

I swore never to mention where she came from. Heroes are more attractive when they have a shady background-lovers too. I guess I'll keep the promise. At least one of us should.

Anyway, The Stranger, the charming cosmopolitan rogue she is, actually grew up and spent most of her formative years in one of those Midwest shit-holes that you always read about, the ones that popped out of tumbleweeds at the beginning of the last century and grew and grew, drunk with metal and concrete and fumes. It could be called a city by definition, but not when you thought of the essence of that which a city is. It was the sort of burg you used to hear that some Hollywood shithead had backstabbed and clawed their ass out of to "make it." Now it leaned sick against a dead river, rusted and cracked and full of tenuously-connected people as fractured and decaying as their surroundings. The Stranger was one of those people, stranded near the weathered edge of a clich that was old even before the 21st century.

That was back when I still had my ride. That's what my brother had called it: a "ride." It was his originally, an old BMW-something-or-other. The model wasn't something I gave a shit about. For me, it was a means to an end. I was planning on riding it into the ground and, in the interim, trekking around and seeing what I could. It wasn't like I could go home.

I rode into that place one stinky summer morning, splashing through the gasoline-infected puddles that gathered in the potholes on the freeway. The outskirts were a lot like the outskirts of anything in North America, grass and woodland declining in health until it is slowly paved and suburbed over. It all passes by, unassuming and silent against the wind.

Still a considerable way out of the city, I pulled into a DX for a fill up and a Baby Ruth. I guess I thought I was blowing into this place in a big-bad-drifter sort of way. I imagine I even swaggered when I came out of the convenience store, my chocolate bar, pack of Camels and an Orange Crush in my leather-gauntleted hands.

Pushing the bike to the edge of the property, I leaned against the dented guardrail and lit up a smoke. The chocolate was for later to kill the sewer mouth between stops. Cars occasionally whizzed by, but otherwise it was a peaceful way to burn one down.

Across the road, in the barren, formless field that led to an anorexic, toxic wood, people were stooped, picking up little bits of trash. Against the ailing dun and umber of the landscape, their orange jumpsuits drove home how absolutely preposterous an orange jumpsuit truly was. I could make out the black writing: DEPT. OF CORRECT., stenciled across their backs in an earnestly severe type.

Who picks up garbage anymore? Or litter, better yet? Whatever killed this place, it wasn't the Twinkie or Ramses wrappers, or the old shoe like all good poison, whatever did it went deep. I guess it made sense why they made these guys waste time picking it up, never getting anywhere.

Poor fucks?

That's when I saw her. The Stranger. She had broken off from the rest of them and was moving toward some trash closer to the road. I saw her in profile first, so the first thing I noticed was that blonde hair. It was short, bleached and spiky kind of like her, I guess.

The women working stole quick and hungry glances at her as she passed, or when she bent over to pick up shredded pop cans or the bleached remains of a magazine. Her head was high despite it, moving through them as if they belonged to her somehow. I couldn't help feeling that I was fast becoming her possession as well. She didn't appear to belong in this field of garbage, orange jump-suited or otherwise. She didn't have the walk and when she turned and finally faced me, I could see she didn't have the eyes for it, either.

Our eyes met somehow, across the road. I leaned against the bike and while it seemed nonchalant, imagine as if I had been shot in the chest and was slumping back. As she moved toward the road, toward me, we stared at each other. That's when that feeling of recognition came up but that was quickly taken over by other feelings. She felt it, too, she told me later, but I never knew whether to believe or not, she talked a lot of shit. I leaned back and lit up another Camel.

I watched her pick up trash for the next twenty-five minutes. Most of it was paper of some kind, although at one point she unearthed a chunk of rusted metal that was half-buried in the muck. She knew I was watching her the whole time, but it didn't seem to bother her. A lot of the time it didn't seem like she even noticed, which, although I would never admit it, pissed me off. Then, just as I would start to think about getting the fuck out of this place, she would lift her head from her work, or run her hand through her hair and flash her eyes at me. She never smiled or anything like that, it was always with the eyes from across the road.

The guards had the group of them walk across the highway to get something to smoke, or eat, or to piss or whatever. Some of the first, tough looking Bettys crossed the road, heading for the gas station. They gave me a hard once over and began making hissing sounds and flicking their tongues impressively.

I gave them the finger.

They laughed and kept walking. Another group crossed the road, this one with her as its lively center. I watched her when I could. As they passed within ten feet of me, The Stranger glanced at me, calmly mouthed the words: "Start the bike." Then she flashed her eyes at me, as if to drive the point home, and then joked with some of the other, older chicks as they made their way inside.

I had butterflies. It was insane. It was so wrong. All I had to do was keep the engine off and no one would be the wiser and no one would be in trouble.

I tossed my smoke onto the road, straddled the bike and started it up. The Stranger calmly jogged out of the store with a fifth of booze in her hand and a pack of Marlboros in her pocket. She gave my sides a little squeeze as she hopped on behind me.

"Get me the fuck outta this place," she said simply.

As we raced out of there, leaving the whistles, cheers and shouts of the others behind us in the late morning, I was already in love.

**********

The good news is it started gushing rain. The bad news is that it started gushing rain.

We were about ten minutes into this whole thing and about an hour and a half from the state line when it hit. The Stranger wasn't saying much, and I never did, so we just rode along. The sky kept filling up with inky clouds, resting heavily above the horizon.

At the speed I was pushing it, the engine roared steadily, shaking us with sound as much as with its own fevered action. When the thunder clapped overhead, I thought we blew a tire, or someone was shooting at us. The lightning struck almost at the same instant. The Stranger hadn't flinched.

We were right in the middle of it. The rain dropped in streaks and in huge, pounding drops. I couldn't see the road. She buried her head between my shoulder blades-in hindsight it was sweetly out of character for her.

We kept going, I'm not sure how. Everything became the jagged slant of light and consciousness that I assumed was the road. My will was devoted to keeping the bike on it. Sometimes she spoke; I could feel the vibration of her voice against me. I never did hear what she said.

By the time I realized that we had been doing this for two hours, the storm had strengthened and the tires would occasionally lose their grip. I slowed down and looked to the edge of the highway. Stretches of land, sparse, polluted forests, rusted power lines, I thought I saw a thin deer hiding beneath a tree, a tuft of white fur at its throat, but that didn't seem possible. An old dirt road made its way off the highway. On impulse alone, I took it. The rain just kept coming.

The road had good drainage, so mud wasn't a problem. I couldn't make out much, even going this slow, even this early in the afternoon. Just over a hill we came to large, abandoned barn. I gunned the bike right at it, and we slipped inside.

There were a lot of points where the rain wasn't coming in. There was some wood, but it was damp and wouldn't do for fire. She was shivering. We just stared at each other. My eyes would meet hers and then fall to her quivering bottom lip and back again. She just watched me, didn't say a thing.

Light slouched green and aloof, with an unrequited fondness for her pale hair, face. Her big eyes caught it and smoldered. The orange jumpsuit had become muted by the rain it absorbed and clung to her soft shape.

The storm churned above. It was hard to hear anything in the ruins of the barn. I was soaked. We both were. Cold, too; I could hear her shivering at the edges of the half-light. I needed to peel my leathers off. I smiled, indicating my clothes, my body.

"I'm just gonna?"

I walked to the old wooden wall, hung my jacket up on a rusty nail and started to unbutton my shirt. I felt her behind me. I turned.

Her ridiculous orange jumpsuit lay in a soaked heap on the floor behind her. I pulled her to me, her skin slick beneath my fingers. She tore at my clothes as I spun, and shoved her against the wall. Our tongues, our lips found each other in the mist, the afternoon's unnatural darkness. Against the wall, in the dirt on the floor, later in the rain. One word surfaced in my mind again and again: Finally.

The Stranger was spilled beneath me, my lips at her throat, when I passed inside of her. The noise she made had me look up to see if I'd hurt her. She just watched me. We watched each other, in the rain. Her pulse shifted within my grasp, my touch. When it was over, her eyes had stayed open, her lips parted in a contented sneer. She whispered something and I leaned in, not wanting to lose it in the storm.

"Finally," she said.

**********

After the rain, we headed east. We were going to New York, but ended up here. Doesn't matter where, really. It's just definitely not New York. When we got here, we thought we'd only be staying for a little while, until the money picked up. Supporting two of us had sucked my reserves pretty quickly. I somehow scored a job as a bouncer, The Stranger found work as a waitress, and we found a place to live.

We moved into one of those big concrete boxes that they rent you from out of an old factory. It was in a rotting, industrial section of the city, tons of garbage and metal and broken brick everywhere. Half the place we lived in was empty and we never saw our neighbors. I wasn't complaining.

It seemed that everything was just about fucking each other, the soft moments afterwards, and the moments in between, measured in increments of cigarettes. I think we were crazy then. Out of control, at the very least. I wanted to end everything around me, everything about me when I had her against my skin. We clutched at each other rabidly, bruising ourselves, numbing ourselves. I wanted to rub her across my gums, devour her. She had the same hungry look in her eyes.

On Sunday mornings we would lie on the floor, awake, unmoving. The world outside was silent, still as death. One day I heard the groan of a church bell. I could swear that it was nearby, although I couldn't remember seeing a church around here.

The jobs were shit, but we would meet before and after for dinners, for walks. Sometimes we looked for the church. She never believed me, or, at least, thought I was hearing things.

She had the same response when I had lifted my lips away from her one night and stared after something she had gasped in the charged darkness. Her eyes had rolled forward, veiling themselves once more.

"What?" she spat.

I shook my head. It didn't matter. It had happened before, and the words she had said then, as now, didn't matter.

I told her about my brother and my mom and who I thought my dad was. I talked about all my fucking 'uncles' and their various 'problems.' And about how my dick of a brother wiped himself out on that bike that was parked outside. She listened as well as anyone does.

To say I was happy would be nave. Who's happy anymore? I didn't need anything, would be a better way to put it. We had nothing but each other and that seemed to be enough.

The days or nights apart were hard. In the city, she was lost to me. I would scan out every blonde head I would see from across crowded platforms, cracked pavement, through the smudged pane of a restaurant window. It was never her.

Then home, the sweet reunions, rolling beneath her, her hungry mouth. Our whispers, our fights, lost in industrial darkness.

We needed to get out of there. Everything around us was toxic, deadly. Large pieces of plaster or iron crumbled from the ceiling. The faucets bled rust and other particulates. There were huge rats and other vermin wandering around. It was a mess, but every night those deep green eyes, that smooth skin, those pouty lips would take me far from there, would let me feel something different than helplessness.

Even though we tried a few more times, we never did find that church.

**********

This is the future.

You know the one-the one we've been waiting for since the last century, that big mass-produced, self-fulfilling prophecy, that perfect circle of consumption and black waste. That sublime, grey mass of concrete and muddy light that speaks Japanese and cries acid rain like they promised.

Here it is rusted and bleak like a phantom shopping cart laid low near the abandoned railroad tracks. Here it is broken and bleeding, gouting pollutants into a groaning, undead stream. Here it is and we can't concentrate, can't focus.

This is the white, sugary future with all of its soft places lit in pale halogen, sallow as a fish's belly. Where all of the animals are ghosts-vague memories, or grainy mpegs with simulated sound-bite, or faded cartoons and comic books.

This is the future, interconnected, synergized, where we pay and pay and pay. Where the trains all run on time into the stations with their peeling tiles and vid-ads and poster ads and trash. And we peek up, from our servings of coffee, from over our glossy magazines or cheap newsprint manga, passing glances, red-rimmed and accusatory. Black suits. Black ties. Plastic raincoats. Paid space. Mirrored glass with hint of fingerprint. The city scrolls by-chitinous and shimmering in its healthy sections, rusted, peeling in the ghettoes and shantytowns, the de-industrialized, abandoned quarters.

And we scan the news scrawls, as they whirl like a prayer wheel: apartment fires, gas attacks, famine, celebrity marriages, celebrity scandals, celebrity deaths, apartment fires. And the days and days and days pass like pages torn free of an old phone book lost in the wind, the rain.

By the glow of cheap tea lights we lie, like grubs sunk in rotting wood, lost in faded sheets. Sex is arbitrary, falling upon us as misfortune or a penny dropped from the observation deck of a skyscraper might. We use what we learn from various sources, right down to the long, slow drag of smoke from the cigarette afterward, right down to the frigid distance that follows fast.

Somewhere they fight a war and win a war. Still you can't walk in parts of the city, the police standing proudly behind their barricades. Try not to think about which side you are on.

Transit is circular, cyclical, you can't get out. Where would you go?

Escape is a constant companion but never a friend. Escape is in the real simulation of cheese draped across your cheeseburger. Escape is in the sentiment and syrup slopped out on that show that never ends. Escape is in the specters, white-toothed, bronze-skinned, we fall brutally in love with, all glossy and smelling of ink. I buy some clothes when I can, or a bottle of something, or a Mexican meal.

Even the subdivisions-that volt-humming, dissonant gossamer, stretching bleak between cities are myths, are legends now, remembered fondly with some sort of idyllic reverence.

Sleep is economic, dreamless at best-another venue where we lack control. I once dreamt that I was moving through a schoolyard, grey from an autumn morning, trees peeled clean. The school loomed pale, a monolith carved from dried flesh, its reflection dotting the twig-strewn puddles. Kids from class stood, dressed in white, unmoving. I ran through the school yard, footsteps swallowed by the digital burr of the surrounding houses; what was it I had lost? I stopped over a piece of blistered pavement and knelt. There twisted and wet upon the concrete lay a dead baby bird. The hatchling stretched bald and broken, mouth agape, with a bruise on its side the sad color of rotting fruit. No one had seen it. I looked up and found I was surrounded by my classmates. Their eyes were all whites and they vomited what looked like motor oil onto the pavement around me.

In the mornings when I wake she is warm, soft-lit by the yolky light dripping through the blinds. I spoon against her, falling into place, into the rhythm of her breathing, the grinding of her teeth. It is comforting, it is beautiful. It is not enough.

**********

The Stranger was a writer, poor soul. Well, she wanted to be. She didn't write much, but I guess it didn't matter-like with so many things, in the end, you just had to be good once. She said she didn't care if she was remembered. I guess I didn't believe her, but then again who reads anything anymore.

One time some asshole suit came up to us in a bar and tried to hit on me. Our attempts to derail the conversation failed miserably and he asked what a couple of 'sweets' like us did for a living.

"I'm a writer," she said.

"I'm sorry," he responded, quite pleased with himself.

Sometimes I would find scraps. They reminded me of the little notes that I passed to some girl named Becky or Tara that sat beside me in grade school. They would be scrawled in her heavy, urgent hand.

'From a window somewhere, anywhere, I watch darkness degraded, bent over. The imprisoned Night chained to the earth, the stars like scars and blood. There are tears, or rain that stain the buildings, washing the moonlight into the streets. The smell of the city follows fast a violin string tuned flat, plucked with light and glass.'

I thought it was beautiful, mostly because it confused me a little and I figured that was what good art did. She'd always throw a fit if I let her know I'd read her stuff. It wasn't ready, she'd say. She wasn't ready.

I found one that I really liked once, even here, now, I still remember it word for word.

'I like her voice singing in the shower, as much as I can, sitting at a table with a novocained heart, puffing a cigarette. Waiting for the blur between affect and affection, the sleight of mind -- and for her slick, pallid body to emerge tongue-burning from the dirty bathroom.'

I had read it about fifty times by the time she returned from a shift. I had told her that I loved it, and smiled at her.

"About anyone in particular?" I batted my eyelashes.

The Stranger grabbed the tiny scrap from my hand and tore it up, tossing the little bits at me.

"You wish," she said.

She stormed off, probably into the abandoned parts of the factory, where all the junk was. Later that day she had returned with a string of crappy old Christmas lights-they didn't even have colors to them. We strung them up in silence above our foam mat and plugged them in. They cast a warm glow through the room, and their twinkling made everything seem magical, unreal.

We lay sweating, looking up at the little flecks of light. The Stranger blew smoke up at them and passed me the joint. I smiled.

"Kinda nice, huh?"

She shrugged. "Yeah."

I inhaled the cheap, stale pot. Seeds snapped as the heater's glow stepped back into them. "Haven't seen them in a long time. Stars, I mean."

I passed her the joint. She nodded. "Yeah. Me neither."

I chuckled. "Sometimes...I don't know...I wonder if they're still up there, y'know?"

The Stranger laughed with a soft cruelty. "Fuckin' weirdo."

I sighed and got up on my elbows. I let my eyes travel along the golden curves of her tiny body, to the mystery of her face. Her eyes were still frenzied, alert, though her lids hung heavily. She seemed as frantic as the shadows pulsing in the twinkle of the lights. She smiled.

"Check this out." She reached into her crumpled pants nearby. I heard paper crinkling and thought maybe she was going to show me something she wrote. Instead, she produced a weathered, yet still glossy pamphlet. "I found this today." She grinned.

It was a brochure for one of those old tropical resorts that people used to go to, when anyone could. Even in its worn state, the pamphlet displayed colors that seemed possible only in videogames and movies. People were muscular and dark, with eyes as blue and carefree as the water they frolicked in. I think my mom had gone to someplace like this once. There may have been pictures. She fucked some guy who said he was a doctor or something, but he didn't stick around. Big surprise.

"Fucked up, huh?" The Stranger laughed. "Those were the days."

"Yeah." I smiled. "Write a book or something and maybe we can go..."

She slammed down onto her back, her eyes becoming jagged, her face darkening. "Why don't you get off your fat ass and do something and maybe we can."

She leaned back and was soon asleep. I raised myself up again and watched her for a bit. Dreams echoed uncomfortably upon her face. The crumpled pamphlet lay beyond the slope of her shoulder, just out of reach.

**********
There were countless holes and shattered windows throughout the building and there were probably hundreds of nests. Sometimes in the pale silence of morning, birds would enter the space. I imagined generations of them, lost among the ducts, the shattered concrete, fluttering into the lofts above the warehouse, a flash of white and then gone.

"They're fatter than we are. We should put out traps," she would say, laughing. "We could eat like kings."

I'd wake up, open my eyes and turn to see a couple of them bobbing about across the floor somewhere, red eyes staring vacantly, unblinking into the room. White, smudged with gray, inscribing the tiny staccato of their footsteps in grease and dust. She would toss cigarette butts or cans at them and they would take to the air, finding a way out.

"What would you do if you hit one?" I asked once.

"Boil it up. Make a soup or something." She smiled, that tooth peeking with wolfish glee through her lip.

You could hear them fighting or fucking, lost in the empty places like ghosts. There were parts of the building you had to watch out for, where the floor was slick in layers of their pasty shit, the smell hostile and impossible to avoid. Other animals tended to stay away from the building, but birds-pigeons-called it home for some reason.

Where the Stranger worked, they got holiday bonuses. I hadn't heard of anything like that since I was a kid. My mom used to get them from all the sucker-jobs she used to work. It was a big treat, something to look forward to, the little plum that was given to her once a fucking year to placate and distract and hook her in for another two or six or twelve months. She'd go out and blow it all within a couple of days. Things don't change much.

We hit the town, drinks at all the local haunts. Kisses stolen under smoky low-watt lighting, fingers in my coat copping a feel. Somehow she tasted like more than beer and cloves and lime, more than taste, if that makes sense.

Rain sprayed lightly, sticking like cobwebs to everything. We bought some K and a bag of 'derms, Mexican ones, the kind they steal from the black dental clinics and face shops that are as common as taco stands down there. I kicked my clothes off before our door was closed. She popped one and stuck another to my lower lip with a mischievous sneer. The K swelled in my chest, my skull, my eye sockets like a slow motion backdraft, hungry, violent, sick to get out, to devour.

We rolled around on the floor, by the bed, near the toilet, like we'd been reset to some default point in evolution. Eventually language returned, memory, lust. She pressed against me, riding me in and out of darkness, her mouth, tongue a slick line, an anchor from the fierce and unsteady tide of my beleaguered heart.

Eventually we got to the 'derms. Peeling the steri-seals off and sticking them on our arms, or hips, or for fun, just above the heart. After a while there was a little pile of the sticky plastic discards, and I thought about the mussels one of my 'uncles' used to eat. He'd suck at them loudly, placing the shell in his mouth, leering at my mother who would laugh her smoker's laugh, the cackle of a welfare mom who was getting some. The shells would pile up on a plate, black, broken. He would eat what seemed like enough for three people. Later, they would push me in front of the TV, ply me with some kind of candy and make me watch a videotape or something while they went off to the bedroom on the other side of the thin walls.

We kept nodding in and out. I opened my eyes and it was morning, just like that. The light spread like fog in the room, eventually finding its way into the corners, across the walls. There was a bird, pale, peering stupidly at me. Its little pink feet paced over the grit of the old concrete. Then movement beside me, violence, she whipped something, a sound like the clatter of metal and the sight of tin catching light, then the unmistakable beat of feathers crashing through air.

No exclamation of pain. The pigeon's wing was ruined. It flapped at a sickening and unnatural angle, and fast, a lot faster than it would have needed to lift the bird into the air. It flapped in an odd ellipse that curled along the floor, deviating, deteriorating, carrying the wounded bird towards the door. Feathers, down fell to the cement, whisper soft, whisper slow. Yet still it fluttered broken, wings coughing, beating without a shriek or a shudder. I could only blink at it as it shook out of the room, the sound of its frantic and fleeting mortality echoing briefly in the gape of the hall, then gone.

My eyes were burning and it was then I realized that I had been holding my breath the whole time. Behind me, she settled back into the sheets, sinking against the mat. I shut my eyes for a moment, hoping that all I would see was the back of my lids. The air in the room, outside in the hall, was still. I could feel myself descending into a nod, the morning weighing against me. The stutter of her sobs carried me like storms do sailors into the armistice of sleep.

**********

I was still working as a bouncer at some shithole called Dive. The job was oddly satisfying. I'm a huge pussy, but I can be pretty intimidating when necessary, and that's really nine-tenths of being a bouncer anyway. Most of the time things were cool. Other times, I had to stand up nice and tall and flash them 'the stare.'

One night there was this asshole who walked in with all of these chicks. A 'high-roller,' is what my brother would have called him. Some Triad- or Kombinat- connected jackoff who was under the impression that people were kissing his ass and flopping their face in his lap because they actually liked him. He had a weird skin condition that would have made some dermatologist's career if they had got a hold of him, and eyes that were leaky, and red, and drug-fucked.

He comes in with his little entourage or whatever and they fucking order champagne. I don't know where the hell he thinks he is, but our best champagne was ten digits and a calling card away from the best. So he starts throwing a hissy. He grabs the waitress, Thea, and starts yelling in her face. Me and Darl head over there. I get there first and he throws Thea right at me. I step back, catch her, put her aside and see what's going on.

Three of the fucker's bitches are on top of Darl hitting him, and I can't see the guy. I move forward and realize he's blindsided me and I turn, trying to dodge a swing. Something brushes across my neck and I fall back. My throat feels cold.

Gino and Phil arrive in slow motion and start to clean things up. Darl is in front of me with big round eyes saying something, but all I can hear is drums and bass all loud in my ears. I feel like I should keep my hand at my throat. Darl's yelling at someone and pointing. My head is light and I wonder if some fucker spiked my drink and I want to lie down.

I was surprised at how few stitches I needed. I got lucky: 'Zits' had had his fat finger over his little shiv, to conceal it, except that he had it too well concealed and his index had dulled the attack a bit. The doctor said it wouldn't scar. Still, a slash across the neck looks pretty disturbing, I guess. People on the bus all looked twice.

I got home well into the next morning. The Stranger wasn't around. She didn't have a shift, so I just figured she was pissed. I wasn't worried, my alibi was pretty apparent.

Falling onto the mat, I let sleep come for me. I just ended up lying there, not moving. Sometimes I wondered if between the painkillers, the antibiotics-altered skin and the slash, I looked dead. I fantasized that she would find me like that and think I was dead and maybe cry a little. I blamed the painkillers for this kind of thinking.

I heard her shuffle in and stop. I sat up. She inhaled, her eyes inflamed, then widened in shock and fear. I squinted at her. She just seemed to be getting more and more terrified, like something came loose from somewhere. Her hands were held out toward me and she approached slowly. Tears were in her eyes and she sobbed. Her fingers traced along the cut, the stitches, across the width of my throat. That was when I realized that I was crying, too, I wasn't sure why. She clutched me to her desperately.

I don't remember falling asleep. I don't remember if I dreamed. I just remember that she was still in my arms when I woke up, and that I couldn't recall a time when that had ever happened before.

**********

I didn't go into work for a couple of days. I figured I could take a little time off without the bar's owner, Max, giving me grief about it. There was still a big bottle of Demerol that needed finishing, even if it was easier with the two of us.

The Stranger cooked. I opened my eyes and found her kneeling over our hotplate, stirring a couple of packets of ancient Ramen noodles into a steaming army pot. I laughed, or tried to at least, Demerol parching my throat, chuckles crumbling from me. She turned and scowled, only half-angry.

"Fuck you."

Sometimes she would kick aside the clutter and junk and curse under her breath. In the evening she dabbed the disinfectant on my stitches. I watched her eyes as she worked.

"What's wrong?" I asked.

"Nothing."

"But?"

"Nothing." She looked away.

A storm blew up, rattling the windows and kicking dust into the air. We ate in silence. The rain hissed outside. The Stranger took my bowl and tossed the bottle of dems at me. I dry-swallowed a couple and put out some for her. She sat down, popped the pills and sank back on the foam. We just lay there for a bit with the rain chattering away.

She sighed. "I had a dog, when I was a kid, one of those little hairy ones." She lit a smoke and exhaled limply. "Yappy fucking thing."

I slowly turned onto my side, watching her talk as my body began to numb. She continued. "My sister loved it. She would sew it clothes and shit. It would sit between us when we watched TV and we'd feed it Doritos and other crap."

Her eyes were beginning to cloud over, the lids collapsing upon one another. She inhaled. "We took it for walks and fed it. It would run around when we'd play in the yard. You know how kids get-we were totally into that stupid little thing."

"So?" She blew a stream of smoke out of her nostrils. "One day it just ran out into the road and got flattened by a fucking tow truck."

I tried to widen my eyes. She shook her head. "Its head had split in two and was actually flat. Its whole body was flat, like on cartoons or something. My sister just kept screaming and I actually smacked the driver in the face when he tried to apologize." She turned to me. "He was one of those fat fucks. You know the kind."

The Stranger became engrossed with extinguishing her cigarette. Not satisfied with her initial attempts, she ground it flat in the old tuna tin we used for an ashtray. She finally leaned back and continued. "Anyway, the next day my dad shows up with a new dog, exactly the same. I think my sister thought he had resurrected the squashed one. She screamed and ran away when she found out it wasn't the real one. She was always fucking screaming," she chuckled. "I locked myself in the closet for most of the day. When I came out, there's my fucking sister playing with this thing, like nothing happened. Maybe I thought it was weird at first, I don't know."

"I guess I should have thanked my dad." She blinked up at the rusted pipes on the ceiling and lit another cigarette. "That was about the only thing he ever taught me." She exhaled boldly. "Don't get attached?"

I stretched, trying to let the chemical surge claim the rest of me. She traced a cracked fingernail in playful circles around my navel. "Doesn't mean I don't like to play, though." Her eyes were green mischief, lips poised above my skin. I tried to smile as I helped her shrug off my old pair of Adidas, letting the drugs and her hand slide cold on the small of my back lower me gently down onto the matt, into a detached bliss.

My dreams were restless at best. Running for my life, branches whipping my face. The sky was heavy with stars over my head, more than I had ever seen before, threatening to fall upon me, that kind of stuff. She was there, too. I was always losing her, one way or another.

Sounds outside the window woke me up, coming up from the street echoing as if off of warped tin. I just opened my eyes. She was cradling me in her lap, stroking my hair. Her hands trembled a little. The Stranger always seemed as though she was quietly shambling apart. You'd notice the slight shake of her thin fingers when she was smoking, or holding a fork.

Sometimes she bent forward, like she was sick, poisoned maybe. Her face was just above mine, but I don't think she knew I was awake. Ragged breath fell on my cheeks, filled my nostrils. I guess she just held me that way, until the meds washed me under again. When I woke up, she had gone to work and taken the rest of the Demerol with her.

*********

I walked into Dive a little early, to smooth things over with Max if they had to be. He was in his office, which was the back room that once served as the exclusive VIP section of the club when it was an actual hot-spot frequented by VIPs. The walls were covered with some old rock posters, and shitty Impressionist prints I guess were supposed to class up the place. He was clacking away on his keyboard and he didn't even look up. He was probably searching for some jailbait stretch in a Hawk-box, or something. His pasty complexion wasn't improved in the fishy glare of a cheap Chinese 10-inch monitor.

"Hello, Max."

He looked up and stared dumb-eyed. After a couple of seconds of us blinking at each other, he reached into his desk and threw me a wad of cash. About five G's, I guessed.

"You don't work here anymore," he said, and went back to typing. I nodded and walked out of the club onto the street, the five grand weighing my jacket down on one side.

I had figured that was the route Max would take. He didn't want the cops involved in that whole slashing thing that would be a fucking nightmare and would end up costing more in the end. He just assumed I would threaten to go to them, asking for some blackmail money, so he cut me off at the pass. Five thousand. Not bad for a couple of minutes work and a little bloodshed.

It was gray and pissy out, but I didn't mind so much. I liked the rain. It came down in greasy drops, shattering off the roofs of cars, seeping into the gutter. People passed with their heads down, or ran by with something held over their faces. Maybe there was a tox-warning that day.

I headed home, passing through the collision of day and night. The rain let up as the light died its understated little death somewhere over the river. Some streets were flooded, sewers clogged, useless. Clouded, stinking water poured into the broken streets. I had to go around, although some people carried on, submerged sometimes to their ankles.

I hopped on the train down to the river and narked out for a couple of stops. I woke up with the car halted in a tunnel somewhere under the city. People shuffled somewhat nervously, scattered on the seats behind me. My face was reflected in the smudged glass across from me. My eye sockets looking bored out, empty.

The train started up again, slowly at first, lurching over the tracks. I watched the black walls just beyond the glass. A worker's masked face flashed by and I jumped. After that, I couldn't go back to sleep.

It was misting a little when I hit the street again. I jogged past the old factories; the lights and windows punched out and sighing against the wind. The wad of cash bounced around in my jacket, a feeling I guess you could never get tired of. Even after the rain, there was still a charge to the air. There was that unspoken shift that dusk brought to the inner city-an ambiance of menace lying face down over everything.

When I got in, only the Christmas lights were on. I could hear her slow breathing coming from the mat. I removed the five G's as I kicked off my soggy boots and socks, my pants, shirt. My feet slapped damply as I walked to the bed.

The Stranger lay naked, asleep. Her lips pouted cherubically, her brow furrowed. I hopped on the bed and rained the bills down on her. Her eyes popped open and slowly appraised the situation. A slow, toothy grin spread across her face as her hands began to swim through the layers of 20s on the bed.

"Well, look at that," she whispered drowsily. "My hero."

I fell upon her, finding those lips, the salt of her collarbone, the uncertainty that was now an addiction. She pressed hard against me, her tongue swelling in my mouth, across my teeth. Money clung to us like the grit of rain. I peeled bills from the slouch of her hip, the skin bitter on my tongue as I slid over her, descending.

Afterwards she collapsed into the foam, her fingers going slack in my hair. She chuckled and I lifted my head from her thigh. The Stranger held two handfuls of the cash above her head, shaking them in victory. I watched her breasts heave invitingly, but tried to focus on her smile instead.

"Let's get the fuck outta this place!"

It was pretty quiet on the street when we headed out of there. A fire was going in an old paint factory nearby, lighting the night, giving it an antiquated feel, as though we ran through streets at a time before electric light. She was laughing and hollering up ahead, eventually kicking in a window and turning to me, her face a mask of obscene glee.

We left everything behind, even my bike. Everything except the clothes on our back and the wads of cash that we carried, split evenly between us.

**********

That was the beginning of our drug era. The beginning of the end, I guess.

We moved out of the old place, down to a slightly less shitty one near the wharfs. You could smell the river, backed up like an old toilet in the mornings. It came with a bed though, along with a couple of rooms, and a real kitchen. A real shower, too. I stayed under the hot water, glass doors steaming up, letting my skin turn bright and pink for hours at a time.

It's funny. There are things I remember so vividly the burnt body of a spoon balanced on the precipice of a toilet bowl; my cheek, raw on a cheap patch of wall-to-wall carpeting; The Stranger, unconscious in the arms of underage twins, pale as milk; my fist bleeding on the other side of a shattered window. And still, so much of that time is lost in the mists, faded, like snapshots, silent home movies of relatives I never knew, light with a fondness for one place, one time I remember things with that saccharine effect of a posed picture, colors bleached out, sentiment bleeding.

I liked to watch the beginning of night, as the sky shriveled, dissolving into red over the sepia piss of the river. We'd fall out from the armpits of particleboard arcades, or the backs of Korean variety stores along the quay. Pouring into the night, the smell of river humming in the ether of dusk. We used to hang out down at the old wharf, grabbing drinks at the Zephyr. We didn't have the clothes or the cash, but charm still goes a long way in this town.

Sometimes we'd toss butts or roaches into the sad river, watching for the faint blue flame that erupted upon the surface of the water. If you could make it spark or ignite into a more visible end of the spectrum, you won. I would watch her, poised on the rusted railing, hanging over the river, brown as tea. I would watch her flick her smoke with this archaic determination, rivalry, so Jurassic and out of place. She would cheer, bouncing on the railing when a jet of flame would leap from the river.

Still, we liked to party. The Stranger could get us in, anywhere. The Zeph, Pigeon, The Estragonian Embassy and Trevor Goodchild's. I was doing enough E and K and crank (so much crank), bags of park ranger grade animal tranquillizer to kill a fair-sized band roadie, or at least make Alistair Crowley talk funny.

So many lost nights in the back rooms of these places fumbling for drinks on sticky Italian marble, spread legs warm in between, shattered like a champagne flute under clumsy fingers in the black light. Fading in on the bus, morning imminent, smell of vomit histrionically haunting the air like a poltergeist drag queen, as I pull a cheap press-on nail out of the weave of my sweater, the thread of my fishnets. Waking up in the dull throb of cocaine mornings, three strange naked women pale and scattered on my bed like statues on the floor of some war-ravaged museum. To say I was lost would be nave and somewhat dramatic. I didn't know where I was, might be a better way to put it.

Five grand isn't much, I guess, but in the circles we were moving, you could stretch it out forever. The first thing we did was buy a huge score of cheap meth off of some punk-ass kid Darl hooked us up with. We cut it up and made three times what we bought it for out on the streets.

Our circle of friends instantly and exponentially increased. Easily done with a natural charmer like The Stranger around. She could drag anyone in with a few stories and a bat of those eyelashes. The free taste of crank helped. It was good for business. Not so good for us.

She used to smoke those clove cigarettes from New Zealand that made her nose dry and bloody, but always seemed to attract tail in one form or another. They'd come around sniffing and asking questions, the real communication being implied through an upturned lip, an encrimsoned cheek or a slight heaving of the breasts or crotch.

Maybe in some ways we were closer then than we had ever been. We threw ourselves out there, like trash, but always returned to each other's side, blown to each other on some sickly breeze, smiling conspiracies between us.

It was simple business, really: we always kept enough cash to reinvest in ourselves and keep the whole machine going. Sometimes we bought more, sometimes less, but the money was always coming in. It's not like we were kingpins or anything. We just threw great parties and people liked to take some home at the end of the night, or whenever it was they left. A couple of times we had to 'evict' some of the more colorful of our little circle who had decided they would move into our place and hadn't informed us of their decision. The Stranger would joke, "The only junkies that live here are us," as we threw some scag-head that we'd found on a nod in our bathroom out into the night.

Then there were the clubs. Sometimes I was really up for it, making grand entrances, wearing expensive clothes and make-up. Showing up at places like The Zephyr and Haus in costume, with props and an entourage sniffing behind me like minks. The Stranger bringing up the rear, puffing on her smokes and slapping waitresses on the ass. Most places liked having us around. We still didn't have the money or style to hang out there, but I think we had a flair for showmanship everyone could really appreciate. That, and their patrons needed to buy from someone, and we seemed the most savory of the unsavories.

I think we both found it hysterical that we had less free time now. There was always someone coming by, or somewhere we had to be, or parties, or binges, or whatever. We always tried to make dates with each other. "We so have to go on a date this week, darling," she would say to me as I passed her on the way to the washroom at the Estragonian Embassy her finger pointed, peeling off of a champagne flute in her hand. She'd be talking to some of our new 'friends,' and they would beam away at me, grinning knives and forks between them. We so did have to go on a date, but drugs don't wait and they definitely don't stop. And so it went.

Darling. It was something new she had picked up. I'm not sure it went with the greasy jeans, the tank top or the beat-up leather jacket, but she rode it as far as it would take her. She could definitely work a room, entering and exiting conversations with a battered grace that kept people at arm's length, but utterly entertained. In the end, she couldn't stop herself, it was her compulsion, I suppose. She couldn't stop.

Not like I could either. I was an inferno. A black star, sucking it all in, burning it down to ash. On a reckless wave, I'd spill into a room and they'd come for me. The drugs just seemed to seek me out and come running like hunted things, and I'd pull them to me, into me. I'd move through lounges, halls, the blood a roar in my ears, the faces passing by frozen, gaping like nightmare clowns come to life.

I guess when I fucked other people I never saw it as fooling around. I don't think she did either. Anyway, she got her share too. She liked them young and in bunches. In the morning they'd come loping out of the bedroom like a herd of upset gazelle and she would follow, the proud lioness. All I could think to do was smile.

She had walked in on me a few times, in bathrooms, alleys. I said I was sorry. She said it was okay, that it was nothing, darling. I didn't remember half of them, anyway, I told her once, out of spite. She said that she did, every last one.

**********

Every week, usually Mondays, we needed to pick up.

There would be a collection of cash accrued from the last week-ragged bills piling up on the cigarette scarred coffee table. The Stranger would count them, a smoke dangling out of her mouth, like some parody of a poker player.

Then we would decide on what we would buy and how much. It depended on mood and feeling, really, not so much on supply and demand. If we felt industrious, we might buy a bigger weight, or maybe something more exotic and harder to pedal, like an ounce of beans-that's old fashioned Ritalin, not the 'derms you can get anywhere these days. If we felt lazy, we'd go with an old standby like a half of coke or a whole of crank. Then all we'd have to do is hit the 'Zeph on a Thursday or the 'Embassy on a Friday, or invite the gang over for a get together and call it a day.

For most of the stuff, our go-to guy was Ty. He was a broker, strictly an in-betweener but could get his hands on almost anything. One of the street legends behind him was he had once put a count of authentic Owsley-the pharmaceutical equivalent of tracking down a Stradivarius-into the hands of some freak from up the river. We never needed him for anything that baroque, although he did try to turn us on to a terrarium full of those hallucinogenic toads from Australia. These had apparently been fucked about with by some college kid from New Jersey with too much fucking time on their hands and were supposedly up to three times as potent as your classic model. We passed on them (too much overhead,) although The Stranger plucked one from its overstuffed glass prison and licked it suggestively, then chased me around, her tongue rolling in and out of her mouth, trying to French. She said she didn't catch a buzz and it tasted salty.

We would buy our product and then a bit of choice for both of us. "Our piece of ass," was what the Stranger called it. I usually went with something mellow or suburban like an opiate or apo-valium, whereas The Stranger would buy more crank or coke. She once stayed awake for five days on a rather nasty meth binge, most of it spent perched up on the roof like a gargoyle staring down on the city, unblinking, angry and laughing in judgment at the people below.

Ty lived up in a renovated loft on the borderland between an industrial slum and the creep of arty gentrification that tends to chew up that sort of space and spit it out as trendy boutiques and cafes and dingy used CD stores. We'd walk up that way, taking our time, passing the human debris strewn along the slats of cracked sidewalk leading up to his door. The Stranger usually put the shoulder to several gang types along the way, exchanging quick unpleasantries. Someone inevitably groped me when we passed through crowds that formed at the rusted traffic lights, but most people just moved along when it was time, watching the ground, lost in their own heads.

The building had once been a cinema, then a clothes factory and now an artists' sanctuary. The lobby was decorated with some relics from the structure's past lives: a skeletal industrial sewing machine, a mask from some horror movie and a bunch of movie posters, mostly foreign and obscure. We'd buzz up to Ty and he'd yell something that was buried almost completely in static and the door would open with its stuttering clicks. Then it was up the greasy staircase, past the couples fucking or the couples fighting to the second floor. Ty would have himself leaned out in the hallway, the door supported by his back, one of his natty dreads spiraled around a finger and smiling. "Ladies," he would say by way of greeting, his left eye twitching and useless. We'd laugh and run in, or I'd carry the Stranger on my back-always a party, a production. I'm sure his neighbors didn't care.

Ty had fried one of his eyes with a hit of acid, according to legend. It bobbed around in its socket, dead, though shaking occasionally. You got used to it, after a while, but for the first little bit the Stranger and I would exchange uncomfortable glances when we thought he wasn't looking. Of course, you could never be sure.

A lot of people found Ty to be a necessary evil, and more than just in that drug dealer kind of way. One of his nicknames was 'Buzz,' short for 'Buzz Kill,' as he had a reputation for being way more serious than was necessary for some guy you bought trips off of. The main problem was something that both the Stranger and I actually got a kick out of: Ty fancied himself a bit of a Diviner, that is, a fortune teller. To a lot of folks, this was a major downer, after all, what junkie would ever want to have their future spelled out for them?

He read almost anything. Coins, tea leaves, phone numbers, tarot, whatever. You could hand him a box of crayons and he would have you picking three of them out to do a reading. The Stranger often became obsessed with Ty's abilities, asking him to do several readings, using several different tools and contrasting the results. She was rarely content with what he found.

"You will achieve wealth but never happiness," he said once, looking up from a reading of her smallish palms. "And you'll die unimaginably alone."

"Fuck a duck, Ty," she laughed caustically. "You don't sweeten it any, do you?"

His eye twitched sadly, the thrum of his baritone curling on the air. "That was sweetened."

They both broke into stoned giggles then cooked up some more rock, but I got the impression that Ty hadn't been lying. Watching the Stranger slumped and nodding across an old love seat, I wondered if maybe she had picked up on that too.

Earlier, I had caught him blinking sadly into my empty coffee mug-his one living eye drifting over the scattered grounds. He put it down with guilty speed when he caught me watching him. I never asked what it was he saw.

The last time we headed out to his place, the sun had actually been shining. Normally, it was just ambient light, but that day it streamed down in unforgiving bursts of white light. It slammed into buildings, parked cars, restaurant windows, reflecting in hard and angry torrents. It pushed shadows into the frail refuge of doorways, against the smeared alley walls, the depths beyond sewer grates.

The sun even seemed to push open the shutters of Ty's windows, streaking into the hallway through his unlocked, open door. It painted the room in angry Now, vivid white and dead black. It lit one side of his face, hues of grey for skin and purple for blood.

"Aw Christ?" was all the Stranger could say.

His throat had been slit-probably after his legs had been ruined-the blood gathering in a thick and lazy pool that now covered half the floor of the large room. My first thought was how disappointing it all was-how a person barely had enough in them to cover the floor, let alone fill a room.

"Do you?do you think he like, knew it was coming?" I asked seriously.

"Uhm?obviously not," she spat. "Fucking, Ty. Some fucking psychic, huh?"

I just blinked at the pusher's broken body.

It's a dirty business. Ty must have fucked somebody off-real bad, too. Russians, by the looks of it. The broken legs were a giveaway.

"Fuck," the Stranger yelled, angrily. I figured the crank we snorted just outside had kicked in on her and she was starting to trip. "Where the fuck are we going to pick up now? Like, today?"

I scratched my head and looked at Ty. Poor Ty, now both eyes stared dead into the room. "We should probably leave," I suggested. It sucked about Ty and all, but there was no point in us getting all wrapped up in this.

She looked at me, eyes almost spinning. "Do you think he has some shit lying around here?" She started throwing the couch pillows around. "C'mon, let's look."

"Let's fucking go," I yelled at her, grabbing her arm. She took a swing at me, but I managed to back off, out of the way. My foot slipped in something and I fell backwards, crashing to the floor. My breath blew out of me in a loud groan. My fingers, my forearms lay in something sticky. I shot to my feet, shaking Ty's blood off of me. The Stranger started laughing.

"You fucking bitch," I yelled. "You stupid fucking bitch-this isn't fucking funny, you know? They can trace this shit."

She kept laughing. I was covered in blood, sticky, dead man's blood. Shaking my head, I ran out of the place, down the stairs. Her laughter echoed in the building behind me as I stormed out into the sun bleached street.

**********

We hit the Zeph' that night. The Stranger hadn't found anything at Ty's and had to leave when the cops finally showed up. She sulked about it until I mentioned that we could try and hook something tonight at one of the clubs. Life (and drugs, as a consequence) goes on, after all.

I had taken a long shower, scrubbing much of my skin to raw redness. Even contemplated cutting my hair, at least where some of the blood had got into. I threw out my clothes, the thought of that stuff on it more than I could handle.

We were still on a business-only conversational tip, as far as I was concerned. The afternoon had been quite numbing and I wasn't in the mood to be doing human things again, not that soon. It was like that period of time divers spent in a decompression tank before they could enter regular air, otherwise, their veins would explode.

Mistress Kill Kill, some pasty, dirty bunch of kids from the north suburbs were playing when we got in. Guitars, drums, bass, formless anger, noise-all of it still worked somehow, could still be fresh and new. The music pulled at me and I danced for a bit. The Stranger was going to try and hook something up in the darker parts of the writhing club. Light and sound and musty smelling bodies in the colliding light-I found the beat and tried to lose myself in there. No such luck.

After a few songs, I was getting thirsty. I spotted an opening at the bar and moved in to order a beer.

As I leaned back against the bar, a big slab of a guy walked over, stinking of knock-off cologne. He smiled-silver tooth. "I'm sorry to be hearing about your friend," he said with a thick Russian accent.

Somehow, I played it cool. "Excuse me?"

"Your friend? Ty?" He asked. He took my silence as acknowledgement and continued. "He was good man. Always with the stories."

I took a sip of my beer. "Well, I'd like to sit around and reminisce and all, but?"

His hand wrapped easily around my wrist. "He made big mistake. He fucked with the Misha."

I blinked at him. "What?"

"He fucked with the Misha."

I nodded, still not knowing who or what the fuck 'the Misha' was. I noticed the Stranger was moving through the crowd toward me-I remembered the knife she always carried in her coat. "He did, huh?"

"Da," he said loud over the music, smiling. "You won't make this mistake, da?"

I sipped at the beer. "Uhm?" I started.

The Stranger showed up. "No?no we won't." She smiled. She ordered three Stolis and passed them out, giving me a wink. I sneered, taking the drink. Lifting her shot dramatically into the air she smiled. "To our new?distribution deal?" She grinned devilishly. "Oh?by the way?Nicky, this is Ze. Ze, Nicky?" She leaned in to me. "I sent him over to sweet talk ya."

"Thanks," I spat back.

I threw back the vodka, letting it evaporate clean from my tongue. The music churned through the room, blindly angry and loud as before.

Later, in bed, we lay naked, not speaking. Ships groaned on the river. I broke the silence between us. "Who the fuck is 'the Misha'?" I asked.

She laughed. "It's just, Misha. Some fucking borscht big name up in Little Nasty. He's gonna hook us up, now that Ty is gone."

I turned on my side. "These guys are the reason Ty is gone. What makes you think they won't do the same to us?"

"Relax, baby," she lit up a smoke, leaned back, exhaled. "I've got it all under control." There was that grin of hers.

"Nice." I lay on my back.

She sat up, aggressively. "We don't have a fucking choice." Sighing, she slumped her shoulders and tried a different tact. "If we run with these guys, we'll have enough to get out of this place within six months, babe?c'mon?" She scooped me up. "You know I'm looking out for us, right?"

It wasn't that it was bullshit. Maybe that was the problem. She really believed it and that scared me, because I didn't, no matter how much I wanted to.

I dreamed about my clothes, about cleaning them. No matter how much water and soap, no matter how clean they seemed, when I put them on, they made my skin red. I woke up with the sky still dark, rain falling outside over the river. I got out of bed and cut up the Russian crank into neat, dime-bag piles.

**********

One day we had nothing to do. For the first part of it, we sat around making sure that we didn't. It seemed strange considering we still had a huge bag of crank left. There it sat on the living room table, listening aloofly as we tried to figure out the mystery of our empty social/business schedule. Eventually we just resigned ourselves to the fact that we were free for the day.

"Let's go get some breakfast," I said.

The Stranger smiled and began to smooth out some lines on the powder-smudged hand mirror we had lying around. "Here we go," she chuckled. I shook my head, but grabbed a straw and snipped it in half, handing her one bit of it.

A couple of hours later we went for a walk down by the river. The sun had fought its way through the clouds and soot and fell to earth in tired rays. She would smile at me every once in a while. I think she was enjoying herself, even though the crank made her shakier than usual, even though it made her eyes dart out of control. She panted as we leaned over a railing to look at the water, her lips pulling back over her teeth. Her leg would tap away against the rusted metal bars until she would raise herself up with her arms, bouncing, boots scraping on concrete.

"Shit, I need a drink," she said.

There were the old interchangeable bars near the water, the patios with their dirty plastic tables, erupted cobblestones, and faded umbrellas. The names, hinting vaguely of fictional baseball heroes or gangsters from the nascent years of the 20th century: Mayday Mulligan's, Pistol Pete's, Doghouse Reilly's.

From there, the city seemed empty, silent, only the sound of the smoky wind blowing in from the western factories. We split a few more lines, hiding our noses like school kids under the table. I watched her knock back a couple of tequilas chased with lemon, wanting to catch her head, her hair pulled back, pressing my mouth to hers, the taste of citrus, of salt, the burn of agave against the powder-charred back of my throat.

She grinned and indicated to the stocky, bearded waiter named Kip or Skip or Stu or whatever the fuck his name was to get us another round. I grabbed the table, the crank spiraling me out. My eyes rolled and then I sat back, still gripping the cheap, cigarette mutilated plastic. I just stared up.

The sky looked so old, it made me laugh. Its bald spots, liver spots, drool-it was a fucking riot. Maybe I would run giggling as its bones fell into the streets one day. Maybe we all would. Maybe we'd hold hands.

Her face was above mine. Her eyes were impossibly green. "What's your fucking problem?" she asked tiredly.

The city was sprawled out before us as we headed home for another bump. We leaned against each other, stumbling every once in a while, but trying to keep it together as best as we could. The sky began to darken. It had been raining for a bit before we noticed, and by then it started to pour. She laughed and squealed in front of me, running and splashing toward cover. I just moved. I think I may have been smiling.

We dove into a covered doorway, the water splashing and chattering just out of reach. She pressed against me and chuckled, her breath puffing out in steamy clouds. I grabbed her ass and she nuzzled my neck, but soon we nodded out.

We couldn't have been down long because the rain was still coming when I popped an eye open. I had slid along the wall and my ass was on the concrete. The Stranger was folded on top of me, her mouth hanging open. I started to get up and she woke up. She stood and offered me her hand. I just looked at it, dumbly.

"C'mon, let's go home," she said.

I took it and we ran to the nearest main street and flagged down a cab.

The lock had been a bitch, but I finally got us inside. I started to strip off my gear and let it slap piece by piece onto the floor in a trail behind me that led to the bed, where I slammed myself down. She was puttering about in the other room. I called out for her.

"Just a sec," she yelled back.

I passed out for a second, and then smelled something warm and acidic on the air. Soon, The Stranger moved into the room, naked and silent as a ghost, prancing almost horrifically toward me with a filled syringe. I laughed.

"A little of Mama's home cookin', darling." She laughed and I stretched out my arm, licking my lips.

I felt her all over my skin and the hit all under it, licking like tongues of fire, of wind. Taking me. Nothing belonged to me anymore.

Her mouth pulled on me, dragged me like some soft and pink Charybdis, until I was spilled out of myself, my head empty and throbbing. A scream ran from me, lusty and lost, smashing into the walls, tripping in echoes.

I had to stand. Legs throbbing, I had to stand. I stumbled forward and there were voices, and there were smells in the room. I walked a bit, wanted to run. A pounding flared in my head, my neck. I was in the bathroom and then there was black. I woke up and it sounded like chimes and then a scream. The water, the shower was cold and I was shaking as it came down. She was rocking me. The water felt sticky, tasted funny. I wanted to open the door, but couldn't find it. She was yelling at me, she was covered in blood, but I couldn't move, couldn't help. I was always losing her, one way or another.

I just kept saying: "We need to get out of here. We need to get out of here."

She told me after that my lips had been blue, my skin white, the blood bright red. I laughed. I had stopped breathing for a while, she told me, so there was no way to hear me. I didn't make a sound.

Didn't need to go to the doctor, the glass hadn't cut me much. The bleeding had stopped and I wrapped myself in a sheet. She had yelled for a bit. I guess she was scared. Fed up. I sat in the corner, looking at the glass at the bottom of the shower. It was pink. I could hear her in the next room cooking up another shot, the taut squeak of surgical rubber and the extended sigh threading from her lungs as the needle found its mark.

**********

I hadn't left the apartment for about a week. I just stayed wrapped up in a sheet, slouched on the couch. The ashtray was full, overflowing, the yellow butts curling up like dead bugs on the table, the floor. Occasionally my cuts would itch, and I would pour the red disinfectant over them.

The Stranger went out a lot. I guess I realized how little we actually used the apartment. It was a good thing we hadn't moved somewhere more expensive. A couple of nights she didn't come home. That wasn't out of the ordinary, but I still worried a little.

She would show up in the morning tired, gray-faced and strung out, carrying a big cardboard cup of coffee from the rusty old diner down the street. With practiced nonchalance, she would swipe a cigarette from my pack and light it up. One day she pushed my legs off the couch and sat down. Exhaling loudly, she blinked tiredly at me.

"Maybe we should get a TV?"

Later, some party people showed up and I bolted for the bedroom. Their voices swelled against me, irritating my skin, even from behind a closed door. I had a private stash of skag that I kept hidden in an old sunglasses container in a box somewhere for just such an emergency.

After a semi-frantic search, I was able to track down the case and a set of relatively clean works. I boiled up the shot and filled the needle. I shot in between my toes because I liked feeling the hit travel up my body, swallowing me in a rush of starlight. It was good stuff and I nodded out blissfully against the dirty mattress.

I faded in to a gun in my face. At first, I thought it was a dream, so I didn't panic. I blinked hazily down the matte-finished barrel, over the slight, pale fingers, up the small, bare arms and over the shoulder to the face, her face-The Stranger. She grinned wildly, damp forelocks pasted to her forehead.

"Check this shit out!"

I heard the hammer click and ended up flinching long after I would have been dead, had the weapon been loaded. She found this hysterical and collapsed onto the bed beside me, pointing the gun up at the ceiling.

"Only fifty bucks. Came with a box of bullets."

She squinted along the sight, through the light fixture, maybe into the apartment above. I could hear her teeth grinding away in her head. Occasionally her lip would twitch to the side. I yawned and got up. I was parched.

The front room was pretty messed up, as I figured it would be. Crank binges usually left an apocalyptic aftermath, often with comparable casualty rates. The couch was turned the other way. A table was up-ended. Something that appeared to have once been a form of electronic device lay dissected in a corner.

I grabbed a glass that was relatively clean and put it under the tap. The water was tepid across my palate and fell with a splash into my belly. Sometimes I thought it tasted like stale chlorine, sometimes a tuna tin. I had another glass and headed for bed.

Then I got the bright idea of having a bump-up and taking a shower. I headed over to where we hid the crank. There was nothing there. I shrugged. Oh well. The Stranger had probably sold it and used it all during her little get-together and hadn't got around to replacing it yet. For the best, I thought. I turned out the light.

She was asleep with her clothes on, when I got back to the bedroom. Her teeth were still grinding away as if even in slumber she had to break herself down, wear herself away. I climbed into bed. She still held the empty pistol, cradled softly against her cheek.

**********

I suppose we seem pretty fucked up. It's not hard to paint that picture, given all that's happened, and where I am right now. I shouldn't be so unfair, I guess. Nobody is going to care about a couple of tweakers who come to a bad end unless you bitter-sweeten the deal, make it somewhat more tragic.

There were the better moments, ones that twist inside and scrape away. Ones that flare up and burn; that hurt so much they leave me numb and cross-eyed. The memories that pierce, leaving a resonance unseen, like blue light burning through a red rose.

The sound of her voice echoing in another room, slowly finding its way to me.

The pale topography, committed to memory, of her inner thigh, the sunken weep of her belly, the plateau of her sex.

Dinners shared silently in front of an opened window, musty-smelling rain coming down outside.

She had whispered once, breathless, voice swollen with lust:

Pin me like a butterfly
?

What was it?
We both wondered. What was it that we tried to shake and burn from us like a fever, or some alien germ? What was it that we couldn't bury under mountains of pills, powder, bodies? That we couldn't exorcise beneath open palms, fingers, lips, tongues? In doorways, in alleyways, abandoned tenements in rotting sections of town: falling upon us hungry and desperate.

Surely not Love. Not that pale revenant, that shuddering and fading wraith that haunts the world as echoes on yellowed and dog-eared pages, or between the med-drenched neurons of housewives and housekeepers everywhere. Who fucking Loves anything anymore? Love is all about some kind of permanence and eternity, and it's about time the human race got it through its head that nothing is permanent or eternal. Things fall apart, they break, crumble to ruins and so to dust. Entropy kills animal, vegetable, and mineral; lays waste to gods.

We did our best to ignore the question of how much time we had. No one has time. Time has you, but no one has time. Sometimes I would look up at the ceiling and try to maneuver her into saying or hinting how she felt about me, but I would lose control, let it get away from me and we would fight, stop talking, let seconds, minutes, hours spill through our stupid fingers. I guess I'm somewhat of an optimist, or at least not a total pessimist; I thought there would be other chances, opportunities to ask.

How could I think we were anything more than two bodies fooled into performing the same, tired biological dance that everything living dragged its ragged ass up on stage to do at one time or another? That this was more than rushes of chemicals, transfigured nomenclature, personified? How could I think that when I looked into those two smoky green shards, past the fear, the contempt, the blind lust how could I think there was something meant for me and me alone?

In the sallow and greasy light of our bedroom, what could I possibly say to her? Words are so useless and they don't make a sound. What could I say? That I craved her in the softest tissue; in the emptiest parts, hollow as wings; in the weakest recesses, the darkest depths of me? Could I sit there and whisper poetry, conch-like into the folds of her ear?

If I stop thinking, sometimes I feel the Earth spinning: that huge, insane blue ball spinning out of control out there in the pitch black. One day it's going to stop and by then we will have been nothing for so long that even the idea that we are forgotten memories will have faded into shadow. And that our yelling and our tears, our kisses and caresses and the dreams that rattle around uselessly in our heads are meaningless, and will be nothing too. I stay awake for hours, listening to her breathe, committing it to memory, documenting her existence for those moments-because God knows we have so few as it is.

All my life I have been lost, running away, my back turned on one place or another. I thought those lips could stop me, that voice, the heat between her legs. Maybe they did. Maybe that was the problem.

These are the better memories, bitter as poison across the lips, meaningless as heartbeats, as sunrises, as mountains. They flicker and fade, passing like the gray and toothless stars in the night.

**********

Another week had gone by. I hadn't eaten much. Hadn't even fixed much. The Stranger had been away for most of it; I assumed she was on a business run because, aside from my private emergency stash, there were no drugs in the house. There wasn't much cash either.

The mirror told an ugly tale. There were big black bags under my baby blues and my hair was twitching for a comb. I sighed, blowing smoke out my nostrils.

I needed to get out-into the air, filthy as it was. Into the night, unrelenting and cold. I threw a plastic raincoat over the old scrubs I was wearing and tore out of there. The streets were slick and greasy and smacked like lips under my boots.

On an empty stomach the city was all light, smeared across my face. Tracers and spots knotted like bony fingers reaching out from the bottom of some lonely river, somewhere; a lost child, sunk into the muck and jogging under the yellow moan of streetlights, traffic lights, signs for restaurants, clubs, sushi bars. My mouth was dry and I still wasn't sure where I was going, or even why I was.

People yelled, some tried to trip me or get in my way, but I just sidestepped or dodged and kept going. Occasionally I ran through a block that was misting and let the soft wisps of moisture cool my cheeks, my neck. My hair streaked and whipped behind me. I found that I missed my bike more than I had in months.

I was heading downtown to the center; that choking, gurgling flood of light and twisted steel. Bodies multiplied in the oily dark, pressed tighter together and I had to hit the openings with a precision that was maybe a little beyond me at the time. The streets were suffocated with cabs and bikes, but there was space enough for me to move, to cut through and I was able to stay in motion. I didn't know why, but that seemed to be the most important thing.

Then to the underground. Thundering down the piss-haunted stairs, into the stunted light and faded tile. The closed shops, the coughing neon of clubs, music, painted faces, reefer smell, falafel and MakiMan kiosks pushing steam up to the chipped concrete ceiling. I didn't stop.

And still they followed. When was it that I knew they were there? That there was more than one of them? That I should run and keep running through the rib cage of the city? I couldn't remember. It seemed like someone had always been after me. I kept running. The crowds would thicken under the major streets, so I pushed for them through the wandering human debris and the stuttering feedback in my head.

There was this part of me that was fuming. I wanted to turn around and pummel these fuckers, whoever they were. Probably a bad idea, but my blood was boiling.

Things started to jam up under M___ Street, and I had to push my way through a few people to make the turn. When I saw a huge crowd outside of Electrique, bunching things up, I knew I had to shove out of there and back onto the street.

There were three of them. Russians probably; no one from around here is that organized anymore. Two stocky, one tall, leather jackets and greasy hair, one had some kind of complex facial hair. They kept trying to get someone in front of me, but I knew the underground pretty well. Still, I had to get out into the open.

I took the stairs up to the street in threes and sprinted through traffic into some alleys. This was going to make it or break it, I figured. If I could put some distance on them, I might be able to lose them in the next crowd. My hip banged a dumpster and the pain poured down my leg. Rats and other vermin scrambled for new destinations about my feet. I hopped for a bit and turned a corner onto the bustle of V___.

The rush of bodies claimed me, absorbed me, and I spilled toward some clubs on the opposite side of the street. Hands grabbed my ass, my tits, but I didn't care; they were my saviors, heroes. It was the least I could do. I glanced around. No sign of the Vodkas. I pushed for one of the clubs and decided to hide out for a bit.

The place wasn't as full as I would have liked it to be, but there was a crowd near the front and another near the back, so I worked my way in. It was one of those after work hook-up spots for the wage-slaves. The kind of place where they could pound back a couple of beers or Cosmos, before they had some fashionably current cuisine from a little third-world backwater that they couldn't find on a map. Then it was off to the more hardcore clubs, where people like The Stranger and I would sell them flour-laced meth and coke and the party could begin in earnest.

Some kind of poseur-trendy-though-nevertheless-out-of-date beats spun in the subconscious of the room. I sipped warily at a beer and watched the door. This was new to me, this running scared shit. Maybe I should have been thankful that, up until now, I never had to deal with this sort of thing. I think at the time it just depressed me. It was like no matter what you did, nothing could help turning to shit.

I searched my pockets. There was nothing; the pockets weren't big enough to hold anything heavy or even remotely dangerous. An ashtray on the table was fashioned from flimsy aluminum and thus completely useless. I was left with my beer bottle and a chair; not much of a defense.

It was the one from the bar, Nicky, he entered the front of the club and I put my head down. He had probably spotted me almost right away judging by how fast he made it to the table. I was wondering where the other two were when it hit me that they had come in the back. They stepped in behind me. Nicky had a crooked smirk that made you think he liked injecting things with bleach as a hobby. He pulled up the chair and sat down in front of me. Over the shitty music I could hear that he didn't have an accent.

"You're a tough one to catch, da?"

I took a sip and smiled. He shook his head and lit a cigarette, the match glaring noisily off of his slick complexion.

"We only wanted to have a brief conversation." He exhaled sharply into the air.

The two behind my chair were suffocating me with their over-zealous application of exotic cologne that seemed to be the quietest, toughest member of their little mob. I smiled again and leaned in. So did he, following my lead.

"I'm all ears," I shouted into his ear.

Wincing only slightly, he smirked. "Your friend is to be spending time with us. Bring us money."

"What the fuck are you talking about?" I hadn't the slightest idea what he meant.

"You fucked with the Misha." He smirked. "I told you not to fuck with the Misha."

"Fuck off, ass clown. I still don't know what the fuck you're talking about," I said. Then it sunk in, and he knew it had, and he laughed a gap-toothed little laugh about it.

"Bring us our money." He got up and left. A small card lay on the table. I didn't even feel the other two leave and their miasma of perfume decided to stick around for a bit.

I finished my beer and another cigarette. What the fuck was she thinking?

The card lay at the end of the sticky table, face down. It seemed to ward off everyone, as even the wait staff kept their distance. My hand went to it, tension bleeding into the knuckles, the threads of tendons, as if I were about to receive a shock or touch a scorpion's tail.

The card was metal and it actually cut my finger when I clumsily lifted it from the table. I held it for a bit, unread. I held it until it warmed to the temperature of my skin. Against my breast I held it so that maybe, somehow, I could change what it said, or what it was all about with but a thought or a hope.

It was funny; I still didn't know what the fuck this was about, really. I turned over the card and read the address where I had to go. Some warehouse in a shit part of town, near where we used to live. What a shit place to have to do this, to have to find her. What a shit place to have to die in.

I left the club and hit the throb of the streets. Night lay twitching over the city, and there was a bruised section of sky where the moon fought to escape into view. Back into the crowds, the maniacs' flow of it all. I kept walking for hours. Just let them take me wherever. One by one the lights went out in the city, until maybe for one minute, everything was still.

**********

What is time, really?

Those erroneously hopeful seconds you count down on New Year's Eve? Those excruciating, sterile minutes in a sparsely furnished airport lounge before a connecting flight that will take you home for your mother's funeral? The days, the months, the years measured out, rationed like saucers of milk to hungry little kittens mewling on a doorstep?

A clock, no matter how exact, is unable to quantify Time. Try as it might, flapping away with its desperate little arms, those sands will slip through its fingers as they do with everybody. Time, as we'd like it to be, is a completely artificial and internal construct. We're fooling ourselves when we think it exists outside of us, that it is somehow constant, when nothing is. It's just one more way we try and relate to the universe and put ourselves at the center of it.

The true unit of measurement for Time is memory, for it is as malleable, unreliable and fleeting as Time itself. And in the end what are we really? Just a collection of memories. Of time.

Walking that night, I found the stupidest things would come to mind. Things I despised, or took completely for granted; the ways in which we spend the days; the frivolous and reckless expense of time, the invoice of a life-I hoarded them now, coveted them as treasures, holy relics.

Memories. They passed by and spit on me in large groups. They scalded and corroded like solvents, turning my clothes to rags, peeling skin from sinew. Sometimes I needed to put my shoulder to a wall to remain upright, moving. My palms scraped against the jagged concrete.

A Tuesday afternoon in spring, the rain falling in sheets over the river, the apartment empty. I pass through the kitchen, stale coffee smell mixed with dirty dishes, cigarettes. The front room is disheveled, magazines splayed like centerfold models across the couch. I follow the hint of cloves and smoke on the breeze. A window is open somewhere, there is the spirit of rain, of wind, they fill the room with invisible movement.

I walk through to the bedroom. Air is unchained here; it streams through in torrents, washing away papers, clothes, the bedspread. The space is recreated in abstract by this breathy apocalypse. There is a hint of the sky somewhere beyond these new ruins, through a hole in the ceiling at the top of the closet. I step over the soft, damp rubble, mist lighting upon my cheeks, neck, shoulders.

Above is day, gray and churning and terrible, a sliver of it, an aperture onto discord, hollow, boiling. And in the center of it I see her, puffing away on a cigarette, the rain having its way with her.

This is a doorway into my heart, I think.

She calls out to me and I head up through this secret passage. "I found this. Wild, huh?" Her grin, toothy, tomboy proud. I take her cigarette from her. "Hey," she says. I inhale and meet those green eyes: the boiling sea we've never seen, though our heart echoes its voice, the rhythm of its sorrow. I flick the smoke away. It flies into the air over the street, I wonder if raindrops snuff it before it reaches the ground. "Hey," she says again.

Then I am upon her, starving, empty. Rain fills in the spaces, the microscopic places between, sublimating, making us one thing. We claw away our clothes and slam to the coarse rooftop. In the darkness and cold, her tongue is hot as a star. I am an abyss, consuming, taking it all. It is a struggle not to bite through her neck, claw at her buttocks, bury myself between her tits. I yell, I say too much, I scream too much, it all comes out.

Everything.

It is done and I am crying. Then I laugh, because she won't notice the tears for the rain if I remain silent. I want to throw up all of my internal organs, I am so ashamed.

But she just holds me. Her hand strokes my hair. She whispers like the drizzle and I can feel how much smaller she is than me. I want her again, but she starts to talk.

"I never write anything about you," she says. Her breathing, the raindrop spatter are my universe. "Because I can't." She takes a drag, exhales. Her fingers play in the damp mess of my hair. "When I was a kid, I used to write these plays, these stories, with all these weird people in them. They'd have names like Screwdriver and Bucket and Toshiba, and I'd write about their adventures. But they never made any sense, when I thought about it. As characters, I mean. They just weren't real, y'know? I never knew anyone except my family, and not even them.

"I hit about fourteen and I just stopped writing about people. I just wrote poems about the city because that's all I really knew. Just me and the city."

She blinked up at the storm. "Then I met you. And I don't even know myself anymore."

I shiver. The rain falls. Her breathing starts to slow. I feel lips against my forehead.

"Fuck you..." she says.

A Tuesday afternoon in spring, the rain falling in sheets over the river?

I needed to fix. I ran again, towards the apartment. Dead on my feet, I nod out and spill across the sidewalk, scramble to my feet and run again. One leg has trouble, has pain but I get it to work and run.

The sunrise stumbled between the buildings, straining into the haze. I wanted to tell it I knew how it felt. Everyday, I knew how it felt.

What is time, really?

A Tuesday afternoon in spring, the rain falling in sheets over the river?

This morning, the sunrise stumbling through the buildings?

Now, my heart sitting black and lifeless in my chest like a bag of kittens at the bottom of a river?

The river, I could smell the river, almost home. There was the rest of my stash, under the floorboards, under her faded, ancient Clash t-shirt. There was a couple of cigarettes left in a pack under the musty-smelling bed. And there was the gun, curled like a stillbirth in its hard black case.

*********
Morning in the city; the rusty, rotting poultry smell, the creak of the tin can wind. I find my feet upon pavement again. There was the sound of wings against the morning air, evaporating into flight and white light. The rain is scenery or sideshow, depending on the atmospherics, or given day-at that point it was a cold presence pushing me forward. As I moved from place to place, moment to instant, there was only water passing through air. Each step an Odyssey, forgotten.

I was on the wrong side of town, scattered among the rubble, the fossils. I was passing through like an unpleasant memory. Walking over the cobbled concourse with nothing but smoke in my lungs and the angry clarity that puts one tattered shoe in front of another.

The gun was heavier than I had expected. It weighed down my pants as it pressed into my back. My skin did nothing to warm its surface, and the sensation of the cold metal put an extra uneasy edge on my already shaky trip.

A speedball is something only a junkie could create. It was beautiful in its own way, a yin and yang of toxins. The theory behind it, of course, was that opposites forced together create some kind of higher state, like a positive and negative canceling out to zero. But zero is not the same as 'nothing.' It is defined, therefore it is something, it exists, and has its influence. Like the fist of God around your tiny tic-tock heart, it will have its influence. That said, I felt better than I had in so long. I had everything I needed on or inside of me. It wasn't much, but they say you should live a simple life and I was starting to agree.

The Russians had wanted me there for this evening, but what the fuck was the difference, I couldn't make it out of this anyway you looked at it. I didn't want to make it out of this; positive and negative cancelled to zero.

It was nice seeing the old neighborhood again. The skag held back the coke's tendency for dysfunctional spirals into paralyzing self-loathing, with its steady, tortoise-like apathy. Still, the old haunts made me stop in my tracks for a bit. I let the rain drip into my eyes and mouth.

I came up on the place in mid-nod; an old warehouse in the midst of renovations. Not bad, really. There didn't seem to be much going on: one car, no activity. I shuffled in a junkie-haze around the back.

Seagulls fought for husks of rotting bread across the scarred cement. The ground, the buildings, fences were spattered with shreds of paper, bleached into incoherence. I shut my eyes as waves rushed over me. My feet stumbled over a can and it clanked me back into focus. I pushed on to the plain metal door, the oily window.

Instead of knocking, I decided to peek in first. I guess I wanted some idea how this was going to end, maybe see how I might make it interesting. It was hard to make out anything through the aged glass at first, but soon my eyes adjusted to the feeble light inside. I blinked, the rain irritating my eyes a bit.

The coke was catching up again, making my breathing thread. I sighed, to try and catch up. She was there, lying on the floor. She didn't look dead. There didn't seem to be anyone else in there. I looked around the back of the place. I ran my hand through my sopping hair. There was a table, a desk, a chair, some cabinets, a briefcase, her and no one else. My hand went to the gun, still cold under my waistband. I tried the door.

It was open. I had to swallow a laugh as I stepped into the room. Simple enough. It was one of those offices that you found in factories, the kind where you could easily punch holes in the walls. There was a door that was open beside the filing cabinets opposite the desk. It headed off into a blank and unknown hallway. She was there, lying on the floor, curled near a bag of golf clubs.

I could hear her breathe. I moved quickly to her side and brushed my hand over her forehead. Still warm. Her face was bruised, her lip split, throat purple. I wiped at the scald in my eyes. The briefcase was half open on the desk. The surface of the desk was littered with money, booze, pills, porn. Nothing but free cheese in a mouse trap, I thought. True, I was hours early, so maybe they fucked up, but there just had to be somebody around. But where?

I tried to rouse her awake. Her eyelids fluttered, still beautiful though swollen and violet like flower petals. I kissed them. Her pupils were inflamed, murky.

"Come on, baby. Let's go."

She pushed away violently and growled. I moved to her side again.

"It's okay now..."

She cursed and kicked at the air, at me. I grabbed her, pulled her close. Her hair smelled like cheap aftershave and old machine oil. I rocked on my heels with her in my arms. She drifted asleep again. I put her down, and moved to the desk. I filled the briefcase and stuffed a bunch of stacks into my pockets. Twenties and fifties all piled up and held together by little pink or brown rubber bands. There was no place left to stash bills, and there was still a lot of cash left behind. I figured I'd leave it.

My vision blurred from swift pain as I felt a heavy smash to the back of my head. The air fired from my lungs as I crashed to the ground. Another blow to my ribs prevented me from catching my breath. The gun became a variable, lost, unknown in the pain-shadowed room.

Some big Russian was standing over me, swearing. He picked me up and lifted me off the ground. I was impressed, in a dazed and broken-ribbed kind of way. The low table he threw me onto crumpled cheaply beneath my weight. Droplets of static trickled up and down my spine. I couldn't move. I thought he'd broken my back.

With a wheeze, I turned over onto my stomach. Slowly, I lifted myself onto my knees. There was the sickening thump of a golf club being brought down across my back. Tears were in my eyes and I crumpled again. At least my back wasn't broken.

Things blurred a little, probably the drugs, the throb in the back of my skull. I'm pretty sure he hit me again back there. I lost feeling in my legs for a bit, which was okay because I think he started to work on those too.

My heart was everything now. My eyes shook with its beat; my ears swelled with its voice. A loud boom and I thought that the speedball had caught up with me. After awhile I noticed a stillness in the room, then someone moving slowly around. It hurt every time I breathed.

Maybe I blacked out. I know I lay there feeling what nothing feels like, thinking that nothing was all I would be experiencing for a long time. It felt like I was moving, but I didn't think there was any way for me to make that happen myself. I was turned onto my back. She stared down at me, distressed at first, then happy when I grinned painfully up at her. There was a distracted air about her as her eyes darted about the room. She was holding the gun.

"I can't move," I said.

More frantic glances, she darted out of my vision. Her breathing got louder, ragged. It felt like I could move my fingers. She coughed out there somewhere. I heard two cold metal thuds from where she was.

"Can you hear me?" I asked.

Then she was there, at the corner of my vision, her lips pressed tightly together. I could make out the briefcase in her left hand, the gun in her right.

"I told you, I can't move?" I let my voice trail off as the blood left my face. I remember thinking: she can't but I've never had any doubt that she would. "No?" It sounded like I was gagging.

She looked away, her chin raised defiantly. I swallowed with difficulty, the taste of blood in the back of my throat now. I kept trying to move. It would still be a while before I could.

"Don't you?don't?"

"I?"

"God?" I choked on it. "No?"

She wiped her eyes, they passed quickly up my body never making it to my face. With a shudder, she stepped over me. My mind recorded each footstep, fading toward the door, crackling over dust and grit and concrete. Then the click, the twist and the mute whisper of a door opening, rain on pavement and the apocalypse of it all shutting behind her.

How long was it that I lay there? I tried to cry but it wasn't happening. It was more like choking. I almost drowned in my own blood, but I was able to shift enough to cough it up. Then I laughed. It was more like choking. Why did I bother? I kept trying to get up, to move. It started to work and eventually I got to my feet. I staggered toward the door, my kneecap was pretty messed up and I started to list to one side. Then the room spun and I went down.

When I woke, I was staring at a puddle of blood. I was lying in it, actually. It was a struggle to lift myself up, dizziness fighting me all the way. I retched a couple of times, blood and bile all I had in my stomach. I spit. I was cold. Eventually I spilled to my feet and limped to the door.

I don't remember much of walking, dizziness and pain claiming most of my consciousness. It wasn't like I had an idea of where I could go. Not far, I imagined. Every once in a while I would have to push it out of my head, away from me. I would have to lean over a garbage can or into the gutter and retch. It was so cold.

Then I was there, the end of the line. I laughed at how nicely it all fit together, at the full circle of it all. I stepped over the pile of cracked cement and rubble that led up to our old factory window, slipping inside without a sound.

**********

If nothing else, we are slaves to the universal. No better off than motes of dust, really. Maybe worse off because we can figure out just how powerless we really are in the grand scheme of things. The gamut of human behavior usually falls into the phylum of the universal. Just look at Betrayal.

Now there's a good one.

Human beings are in an almost perpetual state of betrayal. Why is it ever surprising?

Hormones whore us out to almost anyone with a pulse. Our technology fails; planes fall from the sky; computers lose all of our pointless but hard work; clocks stop; even wheels, the first invention, go flat or explode. The great minds, great ideas fall out of fashion, are disputed, and are proven wrong. Light fails, night dies, sex falls short of climax and in the end your heart will stop beating and the candle will snuff out. It's amazing we get as far as we do with all of this working against us.

Think about how many choices are influenced by the fallout of significant personal betrayals. You can chart their sway on the course of a human life, like the slouch of galaxies against black holes. I think of my mother and how she always chose whatever globule of human sewage was planting his dick in her over her own kids. How maybe if she hadn't, my brother might have thought of more constructive things to do than sell drugs to kids and ride motorbikes like an asshole. How maybe I might have done the same. How maybe I might not have handled my heart as though it were some kind of comet headed straight for the sun. How maybe I wouldn't be lying here on this floor with my head caved in and my ribs broken.

I am clean now, I am out of words, I am out of my mind and afraid, always afraid. I feel black in my lungs, etched like crayon scribbles in the pink there. My fingertips are dead as pebbles. The lights are going out one by one.

And what would I say to you, if anything at all? That I never revealed your secrets? Your name? That I kept the best parts, the real parts, the parts that I loved to myself?

That all I wanted for us was a place, really? Somewhere where it's okay to be a little damaged. Where we could laugh about it, even. Where you could write and I could help myself, we could help each other. Where the moon is high and so am I and your face is a shallow pool where I wet my lips.

What would I say? That after it all, looking back on everything, you really are the best thing in my life? The only thing? That even now my skin pounds for you, aches for you. That all my thoughts are now one giant lie that exonerates all you have done to me.

Through the window there is the luminous membrane draped over the city, and beyond, the inky marrow of night. Perched even higher I imagine stars, sunk like whispers in the darkness. All that time, over the eons, across civilizations, nothing changes on this ball of dust; two eyes peer out alone into emptiness with nothing as a comfort or an answer except the black silence and those tiny hieroglyphs of light.

Across the floor are the memories; scraps of paper, stray hair, the melted hotplate, a sock, the holiday pamphlet, et cetera. Pigeons poke about the debris, scavenging what they can, there isn't much. I'm shivering now. When I was a kid, my brother told me that when a body went into shock the mind would trick it into feeling some kind of comfort. A freezing explorer might feel warmth as they succumb to hypothermia; a drowning child is soothed by soft light in the leaf-choked darkness of the undertow. What the fuck did he know anyway? All I could think of was how tomorrow was Sunday. I waited for the cloud of morning light, and the creak of a church bell in the distance.


-June-October 2002.
-June-October 2003.



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