A Wedding. A Celebration. An album of both.

An album of celebration for the love found by my dear friends Katlego and Musa. All pictures captured on my Canon 1200D.

Click here for my video explaining our story (and subscribe to my YouTube channel)

Note: this is a brief series of some of my favourite shots, mostly unedited. If you feature in one and want to save it to share online, feel free to do so. But, please, use the hashtag #OracleJag if sharing on Instagram and giving me credit. Thank you and enjoy! 

 

 

 

Some stuff to read while you’re here:

Polysemous, a short story series

Cranes in the Sky – a short story 

Adele – Hello (Based on a Song)

Anniversaries in Colour

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Midnight Sky

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Floating. That’s what I was doing. For a long time, it was so comfortable. My arms and legs hung limply in a black nothingness and I fell all around it, going nowhere smoothly. Without thinking it, a sense of complacency had come over me for the longest time. I was so comfortable in it that I did not even think to question why it was happening. Time? It felt as though I had been there forever. It felt as though I had only just arrived. It was a familiar stranger. It was like sitting down at a café and having the most welcoming conversation with someone whose name you did not know. It was foreign, but it felt like home. The café would start to shake, and you would reach out to the stranger for help as the ground beneath you began to tremble. The stranger would not reach back. He was a stranger and had no reason to help you or care about you. Suddenly, you’re alone in that café. Suddenly, you’re alone in a world that’s falling apart.

That is how I grew conscious of my seemingly-endless fall. That is the moment I found myself experiencing a sense of waking up. It was no longer a sensation of comfortable floating. Suddenly, I cared.

And that is the fault of the tangible world. That is the fault of everything that we are taught and everything which we know. We’re taught that there’s something to hold on to. We’re told that there’s a ground to fall down on. Ultimately, we’re taught the rule of familiar resolution.

As I fell, I realised this. I thought of this. It could have been thousands of years of falling. It could have been seconds of floating. None of that mattered, because both still led to my moment of consciousness.

I could ask a question. I could fulfil the narrative. I could do what questions could not do where I was. What is the point of an answer if there is no observable reaction? I could not react. There was no further knowledge.

I was trying to shift a narrative that I had no power over. You’re so used to this. You’re so used to how it goes. It’s pages upon pages of a complete

Midnight Drive

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Broken down. That’s what I was. It had to be near midnight. I was alone and confused. I did not know enough about cars to know what was wrong. My car was old and it had many problems but it had never completely shut down on me before. In that moment, I did not feel like calling it my own. I found myself caring little for what I owned. I found myself caring little for anything but the growing cold. I could see my own breath as I sighed into the unfamiliar sky. The moon was full and shone a near-hopeful blue over everything that I could see. I could see, but I could not see enough. Looking through my own car’s windshield, I could almost see my own body burning through the wreck. Alone, in the middle of nowhere, I could picture an appropriate death. The picture was there, but I could not grasp it.

Four cars had passed me on that lonely State highway. I could not remember where I was going. I could barely remember what happened before I found myself staring stupidly at my smoking engine. I had not bothered to stop the cars which had come before. I chose to finally bother.

Cars have character. None of that character is intrinsic to them. At least, it never truly was. That character is built by the humans who are used to advertise those cars. We build a persona around them until that persona sticks and it becomes what we believe the car to be. So, when I stuck my thumb out and asked for help, I thought I knew who would be choosing to stop for me.

The Ford Mustang made itself recognisable because of its iconic lights. I knew what I expected. I knew what the driver should have affirmed. As it slowed to a halt in front of me, I thought that I would be bending to look upon an unknown but familiar face. I was wrong. As her window wound down, I leaned in to set my eyes upon a face no car had ever marketed. At least, it was half of that face because she looked straight ahead and paid me no mind. I rested my hand on the door and expected a word. Nothing.

So, I initiated, “Can I climb in?”

She nodded.

There had been days where I would have never imagined abandoning that old piece of shit. It had gotten me so far. Through pain and strife, it had been my vehicle to opportunity. But opportunity was not the flavour of the night. I wanted nothing. And leaving it there was a step closer to less. Getting into that stranger’s car was a step further from more.

It could have been minutes. It could have been hours. That is the effect that mountain passes on an unfamiliar road will have on you. I had no idea. And I had no reason to care. I had only been caring about one thing the whole time. She had asked me nothing. We had pulled away from my car as if it had been a long-abandoned wreck and she had had no reason to inquire about it. Her lack of care almost made me feel concern for the thing which I had so easily left behind. I studied her like I had studied nothing before. She was pale. Extremely pale. So pale, in fact, that I almost could have sworn that her skin was white. Her hair was black. It was black in the way that spaces devoid of colour are black. Against the night-time silhouette, I could barely see it, save for its smooth waving in the wind. Her window was wound down yet she looked straight ahead without a single flicker in her eyes. Her eyeshadow was darker than a moonless sky. Her lips were a sunken black that was barely visible over how thin they were. They were pursed, not with attitude, but with the lack thereof. Through her ice-blue eyes, I could tell that she had a calm in her like no calm I had ever seen before.

To be frank, curiosity was not something that I had felt in a long time. Curiosity required an interest. An interest required a care. I had no cares left. No cares for the world which I knew. Her presence was unlike any world I could imagine knowing. I wanted to know more. I needed to.

“Why?” I asked. A question of desperation, more than anything else.

“Why what?” she responded. I could swear that I had imagined it. Hearing her speak was not what I was prepared for. Her voice was calm and sure of itself. Surer than I had ever been in my entire existence. She spoke without looking at me. I had been transfixed the whole time.

“Why did you stop to pick me up?”

“You were asking for help. Is that not what your hand signal meant?”

“Yes,” I swallowed. Nervous. I did not know why. “That is what it meant. But you haven’t said a word to me this whole time.”

“Well,” she breathed. Confident, still. “Did you need a lift or did you need a conversation?”

“A lift,” I answered, “but you haven’t asked where I’m going.”

“Do you know where you’re going?” she asked.

I paused. She had asked me something that I had not asked myself. “No, I don’t.”

“Why would that question have mattered, then?” she almost smiled.

I had no answer. There was no answer.

“Fine. But why help me to begin with?”

“Have I helped you?”

“What do you mean?” I asked, more interested in hearing more of her silvery voice than anything else.

“Have I helped you? Is your problem resolved?”

In order to answer her question, I had to understand it. I did not. Resolution had to come from finally receiving something that I wanted. I did not know what I wanted.

“I don’t want anything. I want nothing. But that’s something I can’t have. I can’t ask for that which does not exist.” Did I make any sense? Did that matter to her?

“You’re in the right place, then,” she whispered.

“Where? Where am I? Who are you and where are we going?”

“Did you not just say that you want nothing? Why do those questions matter? What will those answers give you in a world of meaninglessness?”

I paused. I looked at the road ahead. It barely passed for a road. There was nothing. It was not taking me away from anything. It most certainly was not taking me closer to something. I existed in a moment where things were defined by their purpose. I found myself in a moment where nothing was defined.

“Can I touch you?”

The corner of her mouth curved up. “That’s the most interesting question you’ve asked all night.”

“Well, can I?”

“It depends.”

“On what?” I asked, growing impatient. For the first time in however long my life had been, I wondered what the hell impatience meant in a world where I was headed towards nothing.

“It depends on whether or not you’re prepared to know the answer.”

“The answer to what?”

“Everything.”

It was one word. That was all. I had never placed more weight on one word in my life. I had never felt more offered to me by a singular response. The ball was in my court, and it was my decision to play it.

“How does this end?”

“I don’t know,” she said. Almost sad in her tone. Almost. “You’re the one who has to be prepared for that.”

“Me? Why?” I would have searched her eyes. But her eyes were dead on the road. Not once had they looked at me.

“You’re among the living. The living care. The living have a choice. This is your moment to choose.”

Her hand rested atop the armrest. It was a perfect hand. Her nails were trimmed and free of paint, as if she cared but did not. It looked cold and free of care. Only one of those mattered to me. I reached over. Before touching her, I looked up at her one more time. She turned to look at me for the first time. Her eyes glowed, like I always believed the heavens would. In that moment, I forgot that the road had bends in it. I forgot that there were other cars on the road. I forgot that she was the only person who needed to be conscious of that. I just wanted to look into her eyes. I just wanted to touch her hand. As my fingers rested atop hers, the screeching turned to silence. The screams turned to whispers. The wreckage grew into flowers. I knew what had come before, and I knew the nothingness which awaited me. I had chosen it. I had embraced it. I would never invest pointlessly in hope again, because her touch was the cold certainty that life had never given me.

I gripped hard.

I let go.

I was free.

Cranes in the Sky

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The song: Solange – Cranes in the Sky

The lyrics: Cranes in the Sky lyrics

There was absolutely no sound in the room. I woke up to the kind of quiet that felt almost dream-like. For a second, I let myself lie in it and imagined that I was floating, alone, in some faraway universe. But the more I sunk into that silence, the more I became aware of the fault in it. Breathing. I could hear the soft in-out flowing of air from the man lying next to me. I didn’t want to open my eyes, but I had to. I had no idea who he would be and, when I turned to see a face I did not know, I sighed with relief. That would make him easier to forget.

I dragged myself to the edge of the bed and set my feet down on the warm floor. The floor was literally warm and bright, buttered to be so by the yellow morning sun falling on top of it. My legs were stiff and sore, throbbing with the aftermath of all the dancing which had occurred the night before. I remembered lifting my drinks up in the air. And, even if I didn’t, the heavy pounding in my head would have served as a reminder of just how much I drank.

My hair, thick and knotted with the sweat of the night before, brushed over my shoulders as I stretched my neck. It was purple, with hints of a baby blue hue. I had hoped that the vibrancy of it would reflect into my own life. I hoped wrong. A month in, and a series of vacuous compliments later, the new hair had only served as a maintenance burden.

On the floor lay another burden; my dress. It was beautiful. It shimmered in silver silk on the white hotel bedroom tiling. Just a few hours earlier, it had massaged my body and wrapped it like a flawless Roman sculpture. In it, I could only be seen as a perfect porcelain princess, without a crack in my soul. Under it, I was the crumbling of mother Gaia under forces more unknown. On the floor, it lay abandoned as if it had not run my credit card bill deeper than I could dig out.

I yawned. Lazily, I yawned. I was tired. Just like every day that had come before it and like every day that I could see coming. I had tried everything, and it had all led to the same feeling of exhaustion. I read, and I got tired. I wrote, and I got tired. I worked, and I got tired. I slept, and I got tired. My life was a dizzying array of circles which all left me in the same darkness. I shut my eyes and frowned hard to fight the thought. My nails dug into the mattress like that of a desperate soldier holding on to dear life. Except that I was no soldier. I was the furthest thing from anyone who knew how to fight.

I was just a young woman, sitting on the edge of a king-sized bed which served no queen. I opened my eyes to look straight ahead at the Sunday morning which rose before me. I walked towards the tall glass wall of the twenty-fourth floor that I was on. The inviting warmth of the sun met my face and caressed it ever so gently for the longest minute. But, the longer I stared out at what should have been a beautiful view, the more I felt confronted by myself. I saw life in a landscape.

I saw cranes in the sky. Like metal clouds, they hung between the buildings all around mine and refused to be whisked away. A view. A potential for beauty. Marred. Every instance of possible goodness in my life was reflected in this presence of a thorn. Except for one difference. These literal cranes before me would facilitate growth – a good thing – and then disappear. Only the beauty would remain. But what about me? What would become of the cranes in my life? And what would they leave behind?

Further away from the breathing of my anonymous distraction, I closed my eyes again. I did not see the cranes. I tried to forget them. I tried to drift in the silence. I tried to drift away. The only thing warmer than the sun against my skin was the slow rolling of my quiet tears.

“So, Ange,” he called out, his raspy voice breaking through my imaginary veil.

With a sniff, I wiped my cheeks dry. I turned to face him. I wore the same smile that he must have seen the night before. A perfect porcelain princess.

 

 

A new series is coming soon. It has nothing to do with songs. Watch this space.

Tony the Tiger

The song: Manchester Orchestra – Tony the Tiger

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And you slept the entire drive home.

It was you, my sister, and I. I didn’t think that you would actually do it. As I held your hand and felt your gentle breath against my shoulder, I wondered how I could do it. I wondered how I could sit there and bear the decision you had made. As much as we had spoken about it, I had never been granted any power to decide. You knew what had to be done and you told me that it would be done.

I remember a time when I was alone. I was lost in a world of darkness and cold. So, I set a fire. A flare. On an island in the city, you saw me. You saw me, and I allowed myself to waste all of my light and warmth on you. When I planted the seed, I knew that it would be over soon. I always imagined that you would be hard to remember. And I was right all the way up to the moment where a very different seed was planted.

As I held your hand and felt your calm warmth against my shoulder, I wondered how you could do it. I wondered how you could rest your head on my body and sleep so peacefully. As much as you had struggled to find peace for days, I had never imagined that you could find peace in that moment. Was it exhaustion that allowed you to escape? Was it desperation that helped you leave me more alone than before I had met you?

I remember a time when we were ecstatic. I was in a world built anew. Your touch was the signal of pure excitement. Against all of the realistic odds, we crashed into each other and disregarded the pain. In the deep of summer, we exploded within each other on an abandoned bridge. I saw the chaos of the water beneath us, fresh from the fallen rains. And I considered the aged wood which stood as our only support. A sign. I should have cautioned myself. You should have cautioned us.

As I held your hand and felt your eyelashes brush against my shoulder, I wondered how we could do it. I wondered how you could stare at the desire in our souls, tell me that it’s destructive, and still sink yourself right into me. I wondered how you could tell me there was no hope, and still take even more hope away from me. As that cold steel bled its way into you and you clenched your teeth, I tried to imagine what you thought would be left. Of you. Of me. Of us. The only thing we ever could have made, we killed.

I didn’t think that you’d actually do it.

And I know that you think you know, but you probably don’t know. How I felt is a numbness that allowed me to hold your body despite everything in me screaming for me to push you away. I felt the dark and the cold return. Only worse. So, I closed my eyes. And we slept the entire drive home.

 

A new series is coming soon. It has nothing to do with songs. Watch this space.

NWA – Fuck Tha Police (Based on a Song)

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The song: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9jOqOlETcRU

The lyrics: http://genius.com/Nwa-fuck-tha-police-lyrics

“That is some funny shit, man,” Maurice laughed. He had spent over an hour browsing his Vine feed and giggling as softly as he could. He admired the ability that the creators had in telling a concise story in just a matter of seconds. He longed to have one of his own creations see the love of a million loops but he had seen no such luck. He had made numerous attempts to emulate some of his favourite content creators but he always felt that something was missing. Before the thought could ruin his browsing experience, a call interrupted him.

“Hey, Andre,” he answered.

“Wassup, bitch. I’ma be there in five minutes, so yo’ black ass better be ready to go.”

“Yeah, shit, I’m ready,” Maurice lied. He dropped the call and jumped off his bed, heading straight for his closet.

He swung the doors open and looked at his clothes as if he had many options. He already knew what he would be wearing that evening. He pulled an assortment of items out of his closet and then stood in front of his mirror. He was feeling good about the adventure that he had planned with Andre. He slipped into a pair of grey sweatpants and complemented their droop with an oversized T-shirt. For warmth, he chose to go with a pale-grey hooded jacket with a massive Lakers logo on the back. It was his brother’s, and he had promised to give it back months ago. He wanted to wear it one more time for one more video. He sat back onto his bed to put his shoes on. They were a pair of Jordans in fire truck red. A black trim traced along the bottom of the shoes to meet at the soles. They were so clean and well taken care of that nobody had realised that they were knockoffs. He played around with the idea of a beanie, but decided to rather leave his growing locks visible. He had worn a similar combination of clothes so many times that it had essentially become a uniform. It was the uniform of his neighbourhood and many others, so he felt safe and comfortable in it. A familiar car horn sounded from outside his window and prompted him to grab his things and get going.

Andre was parked in the driveway in his cousin’s 1967 Chevrolet Impala. The paint was an ugly sky-blue that was rusting off the edges to reveal an even uglier grey tint underneath it. The car was in a bad state, having had more owners than it had had decades on the road. Andre was permitted to drive it on the weekends as long as he remained within the city limits. The restriction seemed caring in spirit, but it was only made to prevent a ridiculous towing bill in anticipation of the car’s next inevitable breakdown. Andre had his arm hanging casually out of the car’s window, half a joint resting between his thumb and forefinger.

“Come on, nigga, get in the damn car,” he urged. Andre was a plump and pimpled mass of urgency and excitement. He had spent some time shaking off his old ‘Big Andre’ title through infrequent running and threats of physical harm to those who still dared to use it. He had attained a small level of success, but his large frame was more persistent. His hair was braided tightly against his round head, with the ends of it hanging just past his shoulders. It was hardly visible between the folds of his favourite blue Dodgers baseball jacket. His skin was light and contrasted Maurice’s deeper complexion. The contrasts continued in how much louder and unreserved he was, always choosing fight over flight whenever his mouth got him into trouble. To most, their friendship made very little sense, as their personalities were not complementary at all. To them, however, the dynamic worked perfectly. Andre needed an impressionable younger kid to believe all of his bullshit stories, and Maurice was bored enough to listen to anything as long as he got to leave the house.

“I told you not to light up before you pick me up, man,” Maurice moaned as he buckled his seat belt.

“Shit, nigga, the engine’s still cold and you’re already bucklin’ up for safety?” he taunted. “You know we can barely do sixty in this shitty Chevy.”

“You ask me this every time, Andre,” Maurice sighed.

“Yeah, because I’m tryin’ cure your anxiety, little bitch,” he responded, backing out of the driveway. The sun was setting. It painted a pale yellow over their faces and cast soft shadows behind them. In the near distance, everything was showered in the deep red that trailed all along the horizon as the sun dipped below. The mountains all round were blackened and undefined. They layered the landscape like the bottom frame of a very dull painting with only heaven above. The heavens themselves were a consistently darkening gradient that obscured into uncertainty. All of this reflected in Maurice’s eyes, but he could not see it.

“Have you had a good day?” he spoke, ignoring Andre’s comment.

“Man, it was all good until I was drivin’ over here and these bitch cops were starin’ my ass down for nothin’,” he spat.

“What happened?”

“Man, you know how it is. A young nigga got it bad ‘cause I’m brown and not the other colour. They’re all punk motherfuckers hidin’ behind a badge and a gun.”

“You say that like you could do anything against them.”

“I can stop ‘em beatin’ on my ass and throwin’ me in jail,” Andre argued, flipping the butt of his joint onto the sidewalk.

“No, you can’t. They have the authority –”

“To kill a minority?” he interrupted. “I’m sure I heard that in a song somewhere. You seen all these videos lately? Cops fuckin’ niggas up like it’s a huntin’ trip in these streets. And, actually, the niggas on the street is a majority. The day we stand up, it’s gonna be a bloodbath of cops dyin’ in LA.”

“Except that won’t happen.”

“Why the fuck not?” he barked.

“Because, it just won’t. How many times has it happened and how much has changed? This shit goes viral and then people just forget until the next time. One day you’re all about ‘black lives matter’ and the next you’re all about a fresh pair of tits. We’ve got a consistent problem with an inconsistent mindset.”

Andre burst out laughing and continued to do so as he turned to look at Maurice. “You fuckin’ serious, nigga?”

“What?” Maurice frowned, confused.

“You the little nigga runnin’ round all obsessed with the Internet and going viral or some shit. Now you goin’ complain about how that shit works? The fuck kind of world you wanna live in? You can’t have both.”

“What the hell was in that joint? Since when are you so woke?”

“Since I fucked your mom,” Andre sniggered. “You could say she woke my dick.”

“That’s a classy response,” Maurice grimaced, punching Andre’s arm.

“Calm down, lil’ nigga. By the way, your prop’s on the back seat.”

Maurice swung his head back and saw the handgun on the torn leather seat. He reached for it and felt its cold weight as he brought it close to his face for further inspection. “Damn, is this real?”

“Realest thing to an actual Beretta 92, yeah.”

“A what?”

“A popular gun, damn,” Andre shook his head. “That’s why I’m a gangsta and you’re not.”

“Well, if it looks this real up close, it’s going to look even more real in the video,” he said, waving the prop to get a feel of it.

“Nigga, you advertisin’? Put that shit down before some other bitch cop ruins my day.”

Maurice shoved the gun into his jacket pocket like a child almost caught being naughty. He could already see his bright idea playing out in his head. This would be the one. This would be the video to do it. The only thing brighter was the distracting blue and red flashing behind them.

“Fucking really?” Andre frowned into his rear-view mirror. “He askin’ me to pull over. For what? Tell me, for what?”

Andre complied and pulled over to the side. They were in a quiet neighbourhood with streets so bare it may as well have been midnight. Theirs was the only other vehicle sharing the road with the police officers behind them. One officer stepped out of the vehicle and walked over to the driver’s side of Andre’s car. He was a heavy-set man who looked as though time had taken its toll on his health. His face was hard and impatient as he leaned into the vehicle to take a look at the boys. He rested his elbow on the door as Andre leaned back.

“Good evening, officer,” Andre spoke. “Anything the matter?”

“I didn’t think anything was,” his voice gravelled, “but I’m smelling something that’s got me changing my mind.”

“W-what do you mean, sir?” Andre croaked.

“What’s your name, boy?”

“I’m Dre, and this over here is Ice,” Andre stared.

“Are you fucking kidding me?” the police officer frowned, stepping back from the door. “Get out so I can conduct a search.”

“Seriously? You’re gonna search a brother? For what?” Andre grew bratty in his tone.

“I am not your brother, boy. Exit the vehicle, now.” The police officer rested his thumb and forefinger over his holstered pistol.

“Do you think every damn nigga is selling narcotics? Do you think your boy is on the streets dealin’ dope right now?”

“Andre!” Maurice pleaded. “Shut the hell up before you get us in trouble.”

“Alright,” the police officer grimaced, pulling his weapon out and pointing it at Andre. “Step out of the vehicle with your hands behind your head.”

“Everything alright, Cooper?” asked the second police officer, opening his door.

“I’ve got it under control, Johns,” he replied.

Andre pushed the door open with his knee, carefully stepping out with his hands held high and visible. “So that’s it, huh? Black police showing out for the white cop?”

“Are you begging to get arrested? Because you’re making this really easy for me.”

“The fuck did I do, man? What did I do? What are you gonna read me my rights for? Man, fuck this shit.”

The police officer pushed Andre against the hood of the car and proceeded to cuff him. “Alright, smartass, I’m taking your black ass to jail. This is the problem with you niggas with attitude.”

“For what? Tell me. For what?” Andre foamed at the mouth.

“I’ll find something in this dirty piece-of-shit car. I bet I will.”

Maurice sat, frozen, mortified, as he witnessed the scene before him.

“Yeah?” Andre bit. “Go ahead and search, ya pig. Fuck you. Fuck the poli–”

Andre’s head slammed hard against the hood of the car before he could finish his insult. Blood spewed from his nostrils, running into his mouth. “Maurith,” he gargled, “wun! Get outta here!”

The police officer shot a look straight at Maurice, his eyes wild, and said, “Don’t even think about it, boy.”

In his rear-view mirror, Maurice could see the other police officer exiting his vehicle. His mind raced for a second that felt like a lifetime. He was stuck between two uncomfortable options. And then he wasn’t. In a second that passed much quicker, he had opened the door and was headed straight for the fence right ahead of him.

“Hey!” the other police officer shouted. “Get back here!”

In a neighbourhood quiet enough to hear the sound of sweat falling on grass, nothing was louder than the beating of Maurice’s heart. He ran and jumped. And ran and jumped. Fences set as hurdles in a guilt-ridden Olympic marathon. The thumping of his heart made it impossible for him to hear the officer behind him. With a desperate look, he discovered no one to be in pursuit of him. Chest heaving, he found his way onto a street and bent over to rest his hands on his knees. Cold, frightened air exploded from his mouth. Even with his eyes closed, he felt the flashing lights as they screeched around the corner. He turned to his left to run. This time, however, it was only a hopeless sprint as he had run himself to an unfamiliar dead end. He shoved his hands into his jacket pocket. He felt the prop. He froze. The police vehicle skidded to a halt. Suddenly, Maurice could hear everything. Every nervous step that the police officer took resounded like bombs dropping ever closer. There was a click that signalled the unannounced readiness of the police officer’s weapon.

“Ya got nowhere to run, kid,” the officer breathed. “Ya shouldn’t hav’ run. Now ya’v committed a crime. Turn around and put ya hands in the air.”

Maurice turned slowly, his hands unwillingly glued to the fake weapon in his pocket.

“I said hands in the air!” the police officer ordered.

Two floors above the ground, a mortified onlooker observed the scene below. With a hesitant hand, he reached for his phone. He clicked record.

“I… I can’t, officer,” Maurice shivered, his voice failing with each word.

“Don’t make me repeat myself. Hands in the –” the officer paused and squinted. “The fuck are ya holding? Ya armed?”

“No, God! Please,” Maurice panicked, pulling his hands out. “It’s only a –”

In the officer’s response, Maurice did not get to finish his sentence. Maurice did not get to absolve himself.

There was a click. There was a bang.

There was a teenager who would be in another viral video.

He would never know it.

******

My ‘Based on a Song’ series is a series of short stories inspired by the lyrics of a song. This is the third one. Click here to read the one based on Hozier’s Take Me to Church.

Hozier – Take Me to Church (Based on a Song)

Hozier

 

The song: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PVjiKRfKpPI

The lyrics: http://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/hozier/takemetochurch.html

Based on a Song #2

I did not know his name at first. I always saw him from a distance. I remember when I first took note of him. My church family was at a funeral. Some old priest had kicked it and we were all forced to go. There was a whole lot of talking that I cared very little for because it meant nothing much to me. I had done a good job of avoiding these gatherings outside of church, but Father’s law was Father’s law. It was almost as if Father could tell whenever I was distracted, because he nudged me on the elbow to make sure I was listening. I frowned, looking away from him. I never let him see me in a moment of defiance.

“He was a great man, through whom you touched all of us,” the bishop spoke.

In the corner of my eye, I caught the boy’s giggle. I saw his mother pinch his hand, but the boy seemed hardly fazed. His blushing cheeks wore dimples that cut sharp lines along his spreading smile. It seemed laughing at the childish spotting of innuendo was more compelling than his mother’s disapproval. I could never imagine being so bold about something so trivial in Father’s presence. I needed to know who he was. Father would never let us overstay our welcome, so we left as soon as the last word was spoken. I would have to wait.

I knew the wait would not be too long. As I sang the given hymns on the following Sunday, I felt a half-half split of my emotions at church. Every Sunday was getting more bleak because I hated every minute inside of those walls. But every Sunday was also bringing me closer and closer to speaking to that beautiful boy. I was being commanded to listen to the heavens as they spoke. But, if the heavens ever did speak, he would surely be the last true mouthpiece. For the first time in forever, I felt an excitement growing inside of me. I was experiencing an awakening that I had no idea was possible. Once again, Father noticed and nudged me.

“Our church would never allow this,” the voice spoke. I was too short to see. I was too young to care. “I have said it before and I will say it again. They were born sick, but they will be healed through prayer. Through God, it is possible to cleanse the soul of these unnatural urges. Man is for woman, and woman is for man. There is no alternative.”

The part of me that had always been filled with fear wanted to believe his words. My guarded upbringing meant that the word of the Church and Father always held a place of truth and authority in my teachings. I had never come to question this. I had never needed to question it until the day I first saw that boy and he made me feel exactly what the church was teaching against. For the longest time, I was worried that I was not normal when I observed the other kids and saw them grow into what the church had considered acceptable. I had always found myself feeling nothing for anyone around me. Father always sent me to play with Katie, but Katie did not excite me. That boy, however, was an entirely different story.

As we walked out of the church, I felt a weight lift off of my shoulders. I hoped to my core that Father would announce that he had work on the farm. Work on the farm meant that Father would have to let me walk home alone. That space allowed me up to five hours to be myself. That day, I wanted that space to allow me five hours to find and explore my true self.

“Jesse,” Father spoke. “You’re gonna have to walk again today. I want you to go straight home, alright? Straight home, please.”

“Yes, Father,” I nodded. “Straight home, as always,” I lied.

He smiled and nodded, planting a gentle kiss on my forehead before turning away. I watched him say goodbye to his fellow churchgoers and then climb into his old green utility vehicle to make his way to the farm. I watched and waved until he was out of view. Immediately, I turned to search the crowd for the boy. I had to see him. I hoped he would be alone or have somewhere to walk to. My latter hope was confirmed as I spotted him, walking far ahead, towards the apple road.

I hurried after him, not allowing a second of hesitation to hold me back. The apple road was so-called because it was lined with hundreds of apple trees that split a path all the way down to the lake. The boy seemed to be on a solo mission in that direction, and I was on a solo mission after him. The compulsion of my actions was almost as exciting as the prospect of what it would be like to finally talk to him. He knew that I was following close behind him. He did not seem bothered at all. He settled down under the shade of a massive oak tree. I took slower, more careful steps towards him.

“Come sit with me,” he offered. His voice was calm and inviting. It was light, like snowflakes landing delicately on my ears. And just like those snowflakes, it was unlike anything I had ever heard before. It drew me in, peaking my curiosity. I sat down next to him. I was close – less than a foot away from him. I looked out, towards the lake, my nervousness taking hold of me.

“I wonder,” he started, “I wonder if I even need to ask why you’re here. It’s weird, isn’t it? How you just know? We could walk through a crowd of a thousand people. We could be drowning in all of their noise. We could be shrouded in their darkness. We could be silenced by all of their hate. It doesn’t matter. Despite all of that, we would still find each other. There would be a calm and a silence and a ray of light. Your heart would hear mine, and mine would hear yours. Through our commonality, we would be drawn to each other.”

“How?” I whispered. “How are you so sure and so comfortable in this?”

“Why shouldn’t I be?”

“Because… Because we were born sick. You heard them say it.”

He turned to look at me. The right side of his mouth curved into a knowing smile. His green eyes were like sharp blades of fresh grass, cutting into mine, and cutting through the facade that I did not know I held. In his presence, no, in his gaze, I felt naked and exposed. In that nude vulnerability, I felt freedom call my name. For the first time ever, I felt the beauty of nature tug at my core. My soul, unclothed and unhinged, brought me the purest sense of belonging that I had ever felt. Alone, with him, I felt a brush of the only heaven I ever desired to know.

“I was born sick,” he breathed, his warm breath washing over my quivering lips. “But I love it.”

He knew his true self. His deep state of acceptance had allowed him to be free. In our closeness, my shackles shook in protest. All of my demons pressed down on my shoulders and weighed down on my heart. I wanted to be cleansed. The warmth of his lips near mine was commanding me to be well. So be it, my body spoke. So be it, my soul echoed.

We shared my life’s first kiss. It was the first kiss that I had ever desired, and it pulsed through me like the only kiss I would ever ask for. His peach lips graced mine like the rays of the morning sun. The tiny hairs of his manly stubble tickled my still-smooth chin. I felt myself smile against the playful innocence of our unforgivable sin. I felt most right in the moment where I became guilty of what I had been taught was most wrong. In one breath, I was a sinner, bare and in full confession. In one breath, I was a believer, liberated and in complete truth.

“Jesse,” he said, having pulled away for a moment. I lingered, my eyes closed, and listened to his voice. “Come to my house tonight.”

“I… I can’t,” I stuttered. “Father would never let me leave.”

“Come on,” he urged, resting his hand against my cheek. “Just tell him that you’re going to woo a girl or whatever sounds like what straight guys like to do. The thought will make him happier than what everybody else probably suspects.”

In an instant, the warmth of his palm was gone and I was back home. I stood outside Father’s bedroom door. My hands were sweating and my shirt felt too tight around the collar. I had practiced my words a thousand times, yet I was still forgetting them. Lying to Father was not something that I was used to doing. I never wanted to betray his trust. But I wanted Andrew by my side and this request had demanded a sacrifice. I could hear doubt in Father’s voice as he listened to my teenage fabrications. Regardless, he allowed me to go. As I ran down the old dirt road connecting our houses, my body felt like an engine that was being fuelled by the burning anticipation in my chest. I did not want to waste a single second of my time out.

Andrew was waiting on the porch. His smile was as inviting as the open front door. It squeaked shut behind us as we made our way to his bedroom. Everything about his house was old and colourless – everything except his room. It felt like walking from an old-timey movie straight into a flush of rainbows and flavour. I was seeing the kind of world that I could exist in if I could just be brave enough. Andrew was brave enough. Andrew could guide me to the light that my life needed.

“It always bugged me,” he said, “that I had to wait to die, in order to feel most alive. All of these years of being told that death could be deathless. What if I want to be alive right now?”

His words were like the deepest revelation of all that I had felt was out of place in my life. As he spoke, he unbuttoned his shirt. With each loosening button, my hunger grew. I had been starved all along and what I saw before me looked tasty. I took a step towards him and rested my shaking hands against his chest. I was in my own world as my hands traced the muscular build of his stomach and sides. I wanted to worship him for the offering that he had granted me. I wrapped my arms around him as he pulled me in, his lips pressed warm against my forehead. I looked up into his eyes and saw the shine of an eternal night sky. A second later, I saw a frown build between his eyebrows and noticed a reflection of what seemed like flashlights.

“Jesse, get under my bed. Now.” It was an order, and I took it.

I heard the shuffling of feet outside the house. More flashlights ran along the walls and pointed their beams straight at Andrew. “Come out here, you queer. You wouldn’t want us to come in there and hurt your whole family. You knew this was coming after the last warning.”

I panicked as Andrew opened the window and jumped outside. I was crippled by my feeling of helplessness. Unable to speak through my cowardice, I crawled to the window frame and stole a look outside. Andrew was in the middle of a circle of about nine locals. Most of them were older. All of them were angry. They brandished various sports bats and brass knuckles. All of their flashlights were focused on him. The tallest of them seemed to speak for the group.

“This life you’ve chosen is filth,” he grunted. “It’s sick and you must be punished for it.”

“By you?” Andrew protested. “Are you without sin, Jack?”

“Nothing I do is nearly as bad as your bent ways, Drew.”

“Wow,” Andrew stayed, looking Jack right in the eyes. “That’s a fine-looking high horse. Got any more in the stable?”

“I’ve got this for you,” Jack gritted, landing the first punch against Andrew’s face. Andrew fell back, his hands clutching his cheek. And that’s when the rest of the group joined in, throwing insults in with every hit.

There were no masters or kings when that ritual began. It was just a group of young men fuelled by hatred and disgust, employing the only form of cleansing that they knew. In the madness and soil of that sad, earthly scene, I witnessed love dwarfed by fear and a lack of understanding. I was suddenly pulled back down to the real world. His punishment, as warned, had come long before his death.

Andrew did not scream. He barely grunted against all of the pain. They left him in a bloody and bruised mess. His family heard none of it. As soon as they were gone, I rushed over to him. At a loss for what to do, I knelt down and held his head in my arms, comforting him as he coughed up blood.

“I’m so sorry,” I cried. “I’m so sorry that you had to suffer for how wrong we are.”

“Don’t be,” he whispered through busted lips. Again, he rested his hand against my cheek. “There is no sweeter innocence than our gentle sin.”

 

******

My ‘Based on a Song’ series is a series of short stories inspired by the lyrics of a song. This is the second one. Click here to read the one based on Adele’s Hello.

Adele – Hello (Based on a Song)

Adele

Based on a Song #1

The song: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YQHsXMglC9A

The lyrics: http://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/adele/hello.html

The anticipation and enthusiasm never die. I could tell you things about how I’ve learnt and I’ve grown, but that would be a lie. I still stare at the phone and wait. It’s funny, because I don’t need to stare. I don’t need to look, at all. It’s a phone, and I’ll know when it rings. It’s never on silent. Yet, still, I stare and I wait. I wait for a phone call that will never come, even though I believe that it might. I hope that it will.

It’s kind of ironic, because that is one of the things that annoyed her most. Looking back, I never would have imagined that this is the thing about her that I would remember so vividly. You know, when someone does or says something, and you think that it’s so unimportant. I always shrugged her off when she pointed out that it was an unnecessary habit.

“Why do you do that?” she would ask. Her voice was raised with curious concern. It was soft, but confident. When she spoke, I listened, even though she demanded much more than that. She always looked me right in the eyes when she asked, as if all of my prior responses had been a lie, and she was searching for the final truth.

“I just don’t want to miss the call, babe,” I would say. I gave the exact same answer every single time. There was never any kind of variation.

“Your phone is in your hand, and it’s on ‘loud’. You’re not going to miss anything. Besides, the university will email you once they’ve accepted your application.” She was so sure in everything that she said. In fact, I can’t remember ever hearing her say anything with doubt in her tone. In a different world with different rules, she would probably be some kind of authority figure. But there, in that small town where nothing ever happened, she was just my girlfriend and a waitress at a coffee shop.

“I just like being ready, that’s all. It’s not a big deal, it’s not like I’m missing anything,” I said, stealing another look at the tiny screen. Nothing.

“You could have missed me walking past if we weren’t already dating,” she smiled, planting a soft-lipped kiss on my forehead. It was warm and comforting, and it should have made me feel at ease. It should have.

I think of that, and it always makes me think of when we met. It’s such a simple story, really, but she’ll never know how right she was about what I could have missed. I never told her because I did not like admitting that I was wrong.

I was sitting at the bus station. I never would have gone there so early, but the heavy rainfall had forced my hand. The station’s shelter kept me dry, but it did not keep me warm. I kept staring at my phone, unlocking and locking it, wondering why my mother had not called to say that she would not be picking me up. She always warned me if I needed to take the bus. My persistent checking had drained my phone, and I stared at the screen as it went green and then faded to black. Annoyed, I clenched my fists and tucked them under my arms, subtly protecting myself against the chilly breeze. I rested my head against the metal railing, having no real idea when the next bus would come. It was still a while before the end of the workday, so the stop felt abandoned and remote. It was for that reason that I was forced to notice when a girl ran in to take cover from the worsening rains.

She wore a thick, green raincoat and brown boots. She was dressed warmly and her brown hair still swayed in the wind, not too wet to be held down. As I looked at her, I was confused about how she had known to dress that way. I had checked my weather app a million times and it had said nothing about rain. I shook my head and looked back down before she looked in my direction. I was a second too late.

“You look a little cold,” she huffed, a little out of breath from her brisk run. “Weather caught you off guard?”

“Yeah, I guess so,” I sighed, still looking away. I reached for my phone again, only to remember that it had died. I sighed again.

“Are you feeling a little off?” she asked, not at all bothered by my lack of interest.

“No,” I answered. “Just… my phone died.”

“Oh yeah?” she laughed. “Mine too.”

“Okay.”

“You know, it’s gonna be almost half an hour until the next bus,” she pressed on, sitting down next to me on the cold bench. “We may as well chat.”

“About what?” I asked, looking up for the first time. I saw her face, and I gave myself a moment to take it in. It was very rounded, with the most delicate edges that I had ever laid eyes on. It fell under the command of her friendly smile, a smile that was shaped by a plump pair of lips that glimmered under a smooth pink gloss. A petite nose hovered above them, its bridge rising and spreading to direct me to her eyes. They were a dark hazel, like fallen autumn leaves on a rainy day – except filled with the glow of life. Her eyelashes stood out like the rays of a sun and complemented her curved, expressive eyebrows. Her skin was smooth and flawless, and looked as if it could taste like the chocolate that it seemed to be made of. I found myself paying attention before I could stop myself.

“Anything, really,” she breathed, waving a hand through her shoulder-length hair. “You could tell me who you are, or you could just tell me about your favourite band or movie.”

It was that simple, really. She demanded it, and I gave in, only so I could be taken away by her voice. I could not tell you exactly what we spoke about, but I also did not care much for it. I really just wanted to look at her and sit there, hoping that the bus would be delayed. When the time came, I took her number the old-fashioned way and felt an unusual enthusiasm take hold of me. Her stop came before mine, and she waved me off with a sincere and hopeful smile.

What followed was a year of seamless bliss. We were young and free, taking advantage of our lack of responsibility so that we could enjoy ourselves. We experienced a myriad of firsts together, some being much more significant than others. I was beginning to learn about a side of me that I was never sure existed. I was finding myself talking more and caring more about something outside of myself, and I felt home in the warmth of her accepting arms. I felt changed and matured. I felt growth. And all of this became so very clear to me when I experienced our coming to an end.

“Yeah, it’s pretty awesome here,” I said to her. She had called me to check in on how my first semester on campus was going. “That first test was pretty horrible, but it’s a growing pain. It’s a different standard.”

It had been six minutes into the phone call, and I had droned on since the minute that I picked up. My new adult life was exciting and colourful and involved, but hers had remained largely the same. She was still back home, in that small town. We had chosen to commit to each other despite the reality of how difficult it would be. She called me every day, and I always answered. I always spoke.

“Babe,” she said, interrupting my explanation.

“Yeah?” I responded, matching her change in tone.

“You didn’t ask about my job application,” she reminded me.

“Job application?” I slipped, not intending for her to know.

“Yeah, I applied for a job at,” she paused, sighing. “This is it. This is the problem. I call you to talk every day, but you only ever talk about yourself. You barely know me anymore. It’s always just about you. I’m sorry I didn’t go to some fancy big city, but I’m trying my best here. You’re only hours away, but it’s starting to feel like we’re a million miles apart.”

“Babe, I’m sorry. I was just so caught up in the test and then the game and…” And that is exactly what I did. Right after she had voiced her concerns, I confirmed them by spending so much time justifying myself that I did not give her a chance to respond. It was like a dark rabbit hole, and I had sent myself spinning deeper into the abyss. Before I knew it, I was only speaking to myself, sitting in the corner of my dorm room in a pit of the loudest silence I had heard in years.

In the forward-moving irony of my decisions, I reached out to my roommate and we took to drinking. It was a common solution for common problems, and mine was considered quite common. The flow of hard liquor down my relentlessly-dry throat made the club scene bearable. As I got showered in a rainbow of strobe lights and smoke and bumped shoulders, I found my foggy self dancing dangerously close to one of the female patrons of the club. She wore a black crop top which emphasised her seductive hip movements against the contrast of her pale skin. Her hair was loose and flowed along with the expression of her waving arms and coordinated swaying of the head. Her skin glistened with beads of sweat in the crowd’s concentrated heat. She was shining and inviting, and I fell into her like a well-placed honey trap.

We were in the back seat of her car, and I felt a comforting revival in how easily our encounter was playing out. She was direct and assertive and this allowed me to pull back without losing out. In the parking lot’s lack of lighting, she began to strip us off, not giving me any chance to hesitate with the distraction of her tongue in my mouth. It was that same tongue that would cause a piercing desperation in mine as my phone started to ring in my pocket. I reached for it, searching with my eyes closed.

“Oh my god, babe –” was as far as I got before the phone was snatched out of my hand by my anonymous companion.

“It’s a little rude to call someone this late,” she bit confidently. “Especially when that someone is about to get laid. You can wait.”

In my head, I was screaming. In my head, I was flipping a million tables and clawing my eyes out. I was in the most personal hell that I had ever known. But, in real life, I stared in disbelief. I was so abruptly pulled out of my guilty heaven that I could not direct my mouth to utter any meaningful phrase. In my shattered reality, I looked at her as she looked back triumphantly, turning my phone off and throwing it over to the front seat. Stunned, I lay back motionless as she continued, going about my unresponsive face unperturbed by my corpse-like approach.

That’s the thing about feeling something so intense for the very first time; you never forget it. It’s a unique elation. It’s an exceptional disaster. I remember sitting in my room, on the floor. It could have been a day, or a week, or a month, or the rest of my life. Whatever it was, I know that I sat there and experienced a small eternity as my phone rang over a hundred times. I could not answer it. I could not face the guilt and the reality of what she had found out in the worst of ways. I looked away from it, and I prayed for the calls to stop. And then they did.

I had become a series of switches. I was being triggered into a different self at every turn. I was transitioning through shades of myself that I did not know existed. When I finally looked at my phone, there was a text from her promising me that that had been her last attempt at calling me. I had broken a promise, so I hoped that she would break hers. However, I did not take to mind just how resilient she was in comparison to me as I tried to call her back. For days on end, all that I heard was the dial tone. I must have called a thousand times before her lined went completely dead. I wanted to tell her that I was sorry for breaking her heart. I wanted to tell her anything that would allow me to hear her voice again. Nothing.

I could tell you things about how I’ve healed through time, but that would be a lie. I haven’t done much of that, but I’ve done a lot of staring at my phone. Every time it rings, I jump at it, hoping that it’ll be her. It never is. I know it never will be, but I hope, regardless. The anticipation and enthusiasm never die. Despite everything I know, the anticipation and enthusiasm never die.

My phone’s ringing again. It’s a number that I don’t have. Could it be?

I answer, “Hello?”

******

My new ‘Based on a Song’ series is a series of short stories inspired by the lyrics of a song. This is the first of them. If you’d like to read more, try this complete series Polysemous Part 1 of 10: Winter’s Gift.

Roses and Thorns Part 6 of 6: Blooming

rose-blooming

Read Part 5 here to refresh

BEFORE

 

The bags were filled to the brim. Lizzy watched as her father threw the luggage backs onto the back seat and slammed the door. She was sitting on the front porch, hugging herself against the cold. He was rushing back and forth, in and out of the house, constantly moving. She had grown tired of following him with her eyes, so she had just resorted to staring into the distance through her foggy vision. Her mother was running back and forth, in and out, chasing after him and begging him.

“What the damn hell am I supposed to do about Elizabeth?” she screamed. “What the damn hell am I supposed to do about our child?”

“Figure it out,” he grumbled, pushing past her and getting more of his things. Their house was small, but his anger had made it impossible for him to employ a more efficient method of packing and leaving.

“That’s my damn car! I paid for it with my damn money!”

“It’s signed in my name. It’s mine.” His responses were cold and sharp.

“You’ve lost your damn mind, Joe! You’ve lost your damn mind if you think you can just leave us like this.”

He stopped and looked her dead in the eyes. “You lost your damn fucking mind when you tried to get a restraining order against me. How the fuck is that not asking me to get the hell out of your lives?”

“Don’t swear like that in front of my girl! I gave you a choice. It was for our own safety. And you refused it!”

“I’m starting to think that you deserved every damn bruise and broken bone I fucking gave you, you little bitch.”

“Do you not understand how patient I’ve been with you all this time, Joe? Do you not see how bad I’m damaged? Do you not see how bad I’m hurt? I didn’t ask for any of this. We didn’t ask for any of this.”

This was only one of a thousand fights that they had had before. And as the numbers accumulated, so did the strain that her body was taking from all of the fists and furniture. She had threatened him with a restraining order as an ultimatum, hoping that the risk of removal would deter him. It had only made things worse. “You don’t understand how bad this is going to be for Elizabeth.”

“She’s only twelve. She doesn’t understand a thing.” He threw his responses around with his pacing about.

“I’m fifteen!” Lizzy shouted.

Joe recoiled and held her curly fluff of her tightly in his fist. “You shut your little fucking mouth.”

“Don’t touch her!” her mother jumped, pulling his hand away. He had never physically harmed Lizzy, but he grew closer to it every time they argued.

“She’s my daughter. I’ll do whatever the fuck I want,” he spat, shoving her back.

“Fuck off,” she grimaced. “Get away from her and get out of our lives. She’s not your daughter. She never was.”

“What the fuck are you saying, Donna?”

“She’s not your child. She’s not your daughter. She’s mine.”

“Who’s her fucking father?” His fists were clenched tightly.

“Not you. Such a beautiful thing could never come from a monster like you. Leave us to live our lives.” She motioned for Lizzy to come closer. All the while, Lizzy had grown even more silent, struggling to process everything that she was witnessing.

“Do you want to fucking die, bitch?” he threatened, grabbing her top at the collar.

“No,” she answered, unperturbed. “I just thought that you deserved to know the truth before I finalised this restraining order and watched you leave.”

“You’re fucking playing me,” he pointed a calloused finger at her face. “You’re fucking playing me. You think this will make me stay?”

“I don’t want you to stay anymore, Joe. You’re damn poison and I’m sick of you. I don’t need your damn anything.”

“You’re losing the house, you have no job, and you’re sick as hell. What exactly do you think you’re going to do without me?”

“I’ll find a way, Joe. I’ve suffered enough at your hands. I don’t give a damn anymore.”

“Donna, I’m gonna ask you one more time. Whose child is this?”

“You don’t deserve to know, Joe. Just leave us be.”

“Donna, I swear to god, if Eliza isn’t mine, I’ll kill you.” He tightened his grip and the fabric started to tear.

“Leave me and my daughter, Joe,” she grimaced.

He grabbed Lizzy at the shoulder and pushed her away, causing her to fall down the small steps. Joe was a behemoth of a man, towering three heads over Donna. He was bear-like in that he was muscular, but also fatty. He had a lot of strength in his grip, and caused a lot of damage whenever he went on a tirade. This occasion was no exception. He landed two flat hands on either shoulder, sending her flying into the front door. He proceeded to pummel her face with heavy fists, harder than he had ever hit her before. When she cowered, he aimed for her shoulders and stomach, throwing everything at her fragile body. Lizzy made a futile attempt at aiding her mother, only to be slapped back. She fell against the wooden rocking chair so hard that it broke, causing her to scream out in anguish. Joe stopped to look at her, moving away from Donna.

“Do you see what you’ve made me do, Donna? Is this what you want me to become? I’m done with this shit.”

He gathered the remainder of his things and drove off, leaving them as they were on the porch. In the small cloud of dust that fell, Donna pulled herself towards her crying daughter. The backrest of the chair had splintered into Lizzy’s back, marking her body with a splattering of blood and wood. She was in a lot of pain, and it was only going to get worse.

 

*

 

Lizzy stood at her mother’s bedside and held her weak hand in hers. Her mother wheezed as she attempted to stifle a painful cough in her daughter’s presence. They had been living at Lizzy’s grandmother’s house for half a year since Joe left. It was far from ideal, as the house was more than crowded, but her mother knew that there would be nowhere else to leave her daughter to live on. Donna’s time had run out, and no one could afford the medication that would at least make the remaining hours hurt less.

“I know it hurts, Ma,” Lizzy whispered. “You don’t have to hide it from me.”

“I know you know, darling. I just… I just don’t want my pain to hurt you anymore than it has already.” Donna’s face was near-skeletal, and Lizzy could see the exact shape of her cheek bones and eye sockets. Seeing her mother so truly weak and defeated was a sight that tore through her core.

“It’s not your fault.”

“It may not be, I know. But I still have a responsibility towards you, and now I’m failing it. It was always supposed to be me and you, all the way, remember? You were my little wonder girl, and I swore I would do anything for you. I feel like I’m leaving you all alone, now, and breaking all of my promises.”

“You’re not leaving me alone, Ma, I have Grandma and all –”

“And if any of them were to turn against you? I won’t be here to protect you from a world of people you can’t trust. I won’t be here to guide you and shield you from anything you’ll still face. I’m sending you out into the world long before you’re ready to face it. That thought hurts me more than anything I could imagine.”

“You know what this reminds me of, Ma?”

“What does this remind you of?”

“Remember when I was eight, and I tripped into a pile of nails?” Donna nodded in confirmation. “I still remember what you tried to teach me that day. I didn’t get it then, and I’m still only learning to understand it now, but I see. I had cuts all over my legs, and I was covered in blood. I was crying because it hurt so much. I couldn’t even touch my legs because I was so scared. When you cleaned the blood up and started putting bandages on me, I told you that it was the worst pain ever. I said it felt like I was dying, and that it was worse than when I lost some of my teeth. I don’t know if you thought I was really listening, but you started saying things that I was never going to understand as a kid. You explained to me that pain changes as you grow up and start to understand things differently. You said to me that I could lose my whole arm but still feel fine as long as I was fine in the heart. You said that no pain could compare to the pain that I could feel on the inside. You said that the words and actions of others could hurt so much more. Somehow, a punch could never hurt as much as evil intentions. To me, you were just rambling on and on about complete nonsense. I even started screaming at you and saying that you were just lying to try to make me feel better. I told you that it wasn’t working, and that nothing could hurt more than my legs. I wasn’t really listening to you, and you weren’t really listening to me. I don’t know, I’m just thinking of that now. And how I see that you were right, but so was I. You’re in absolutely physical agony right now, and it’s enough to kill you. And seeing you like this is enough to kill me, on the inside. Neither is worse than the other.”

“A part of me hates that you remember that. I was very angry and hurt by your father that day. I had no one to talk to about it, so I just rambled on to you. I think that I was trying to make you aware of the world that you’d be growing up into. I’m just not sure I took the best approach to it. Regardless, there was truth to those words. I am powerless against your pain, and you’re powerless against mine.”

Donna coughed again, causing her frail frame to stiffen in protest. Her grip on Lizzy’s hand grew weaker. She allowed her eyes to fall shut as her breathing slowed. “I should have spent more time teaching you that the world is extremely selfish, and that you always have to put yourself first, because no one else will. Faith in people can be a very dangerous and regrettable thing. I’ve had more than my fair share of regretting the trust I invested in people.”

“But, Ma, you always said you put me before anything else.”

“And I meant that, because you were mine and mine alone. I chose to make you the most important thing to me, and I will never regret that.”

“It’s funny, I thought I didn’t understand the world when I was eight, but I still feel the same now that I’m older. I don’t understand why this is happening to us.”

Donna sighed softly, but did not respond.

“Ma,” Lizzy continued, “the only thing you never said that day is something that I ended up thinking about. I need you to tell me this now. My legs healed and I felt fine. I could have just as easily forgotten about it. And you told me that I would heal very quickly because I was a strong girl. But you never told me how healing on the inside works. If bandages and ointments can take care of the pain on my body, what takes care of the pain on the inside? How will I heal from this? You never told me this and I need to know, because I’ve been learning a lot about the pain, but not about what comes after that.”

She stared at her mother and waited for her response. After a few seconds, she squeezed her mother’s hand and repeated the question. “I need to know how to deal with this. If you don’t teach me, who will? Ma?”

She held a finger below her mother’s nose and felt how thin her breathing had become. “Ma, I need to know,” she sniffed. She pulled her mother’s hand close to her face and gave it a soft kiss. A splattering of tears dropped onto it as she failed to hold them back. “I don’t know how else I’m going to learn.”

 

*

 

Lizzy was dressed in the only black clothing she had as she stood over the cheap coffin that her mother was contained in. She had never been to a funeral before, and she had never imagined that her first would also be her most important. She stood closest to the coffin, and stood alone. The pastor had already said his words, and those who had come to show face had also paid their respects. Her father’s was the only face that was nowhere to be seen, and she quickly reserved herself to not searching for it. She traced her fingers along the edge of the coffin before it began its descent below ground. She took a step back and watched silently as her only definition of family got buried under fresh earth.

“I’m scared about not knowing the answer,” she whispered to herself. Her skin was dry and cold as the winter breeze washed over it. She closed her eyes and imagined what her mother would do if it were anybody else in that coffin. She squeezed her eyelids tightly and attempted to get lost in the thought. She felt a warm hand rest over her shoulder. It was warm against the weather, and it was comforting against the pain. It was familiar against the feeling of abandonment, and it was safe against the slow creeping of the dark. At least, it would have been all of these things, if it were truly there. Instead, she felt the hard tug of a restless grandmother pulling her back into the real world.

“It’s done now,” she declared. “We’re going home.”

Lizzy’s supposed uncle drove her home. The car ride was steeped in a piercing silence, despite the small station wagon being overloaded with family members who did not seem all too bothered about what they had just witnessed. Lizzy’s life thus far had been a cacophony of screaming and broken dishes, but she had always held on to the comfort of a loving mother’s arms to hide behind. This time around, however, she had fallen into the quietest world that she had ever known. The fear that came with this clean silence was enough to cripple her and drown her in the reality of having no one left to run to. It was crazy to imagine, but she could almost give anything to return the chaotic danger that she used to live in, if only it meant a sincere feeling of safety and love. She understood the trade and was willing to make it.

The world around her blurred together into an unfamiliar brown filth. Before she knew it, the swimming cesspit had landed her back at her new home and she was walking up the short stairs to the front door.

“You,” her grandmother pointed, “stay on the porch. We gonna talk.”

“Now? I’m really hungry,” Lizzy protested.

“Sit your ass down,” her grandmother insisted, pushing Lizzy down at the shoulders and forcing her to sit.

“Okay, jeez, what?” Lizzy grumbled.

Her grandmother responded with a swift and burning slap to the cheek. “You will not talk to your elder like that ever again, girl, you hear me?”

Lizzy was absolutely stunned and barely managed a nod as she held on to her stinging cheek.

“You gonna have to get a job. You come into my house and live with my children, you’re not gonna be no burden to me. You gonna have to pull your own weight in here. I don’t care that you twelve or whatever you are. Everybody here does their bit, and you old enough to do yours. If you don’t bring in the cash, you’ll eat nothing but trash. Is that clear?”

Lizzy nodded again.

“I didn’t get that.”

“Yes, ma’am?” Lizzy tried again.

“That’s better. Your mama was a good girl, and she worked hard. I expect nothing different from you, or else you out of here and I don’t care where you go. The biggest rule in this house is respect, and you will always show respect towards me, girl. Is that clear?”

“Yes, ma’am,” she answered meekly.

“You gonna start looking for a job tomorrow morning, bright and early. Be efficient, there’s a lot of competition out there. However,” she said, pulling Lizzy’s face up at the cheek, her long nails digging into Lizzy’s skin, “remember that this is a house of God. If you bring home any of that filthy money from pimps or clubs, you out of here. Understand?”

“Yes, ma’am, I understand,” she replied, pulling her face out of the clawed grip.

“Good, good. Your last free dinner will be ready in an hour. Your mother will be missed dearly. However, maybe she shouldn’t have done such a good job of keeping quiet. Your scumbag daddy could have been stopped before he did this to her. Trying to play hard will get you killed, girl, remember that. Don’t play hard in this house.”

With that final word, she stood up straight and walked past Lizzy, into the house. The house was one in a series of connected apartments. They all looked exactly the same, and comprised of two floors with four bedrooms. It was a narrow, San Francisco-style establishment, meant for small families who had just moved to the city. For Lizzy, it was a new hell, clad in off-brown bricks and a peeling white paint. It smelt of old wood and dust. It housed a lively crowd of ten, although lively did not automatically translate into joyful and content. Lizzy had been taken from one house of arguments straight into another. The only consolation was her lack of personal involvement, which made it easier to ignore the noise. They were all also without much physical confrontation, which brought a flickering comfort in Lizzy’s eye. Six of the inhabitants were youths, the youngest being ten, and the oldest being eighteen. Four of them were boys, and two were girls. With the addition of Lizzy, the abundance of raging hormones and mood swings was more than apparent. The girls and boys took two of the rooms separately, with bunk beds to hold them at night. The house was cold, and Lizzy could feel a cool breeze lick her face every night. It made the hairs on her skin stand erect, as if she could run away from it without becoming fully consumed by it. She would shiver wildly and almost shed a tear, but she always backed out as soon as she felt the warm liquid build up over her eyes. She convinced herself that her mother had made it through so much worse, so she could as well.

“You look like you’re in deep thought,” said a deep and familiar voice. Lizzy looked up to see her father standing at the foot of the steps. “I heard some of what that crazy old bag said.”

Lizzy looked away and shrugged. She wrapped her arms around herself and held on tightly. She hoped that she could wish him away, but she knew that she could not. For the first time in her life, she could not shout for help.

“That’s a lot less attitude than what I’m used to,” he continued, unfazed. “You know, that crazy lady has no right to hit you like that. You don’t have to stand for it.”

“Really?” Lizzy stood up, feeling a furnace of anger building up inside of her. “Really? You’re going to stand there and tell me who has a right to hit who? When that’s all I ever saw you do?”

“Listen, I loved your mother very much –”

“No! You don’t get to say that. You don’t get to come here and tell me that when you just missed her funeral!”

“I was there, Elizabeth,” he spoke softly, and she looked up at the sound of him saying her name. It was not a sound she was very familiar with. “I was there, standing in the trees like a coward. I didn’t want to be seen by anyone there. I’ve been a coward so many times in my life, but that was the last time. The guilt I feel is just way too much for –”

“So, what, I’m just supposed to accept this as genuine remorse and suddenly hug you like the dad I always wanted you to be?” she napped.

“Elizabeth, I can never take back anything that I did. I can never take back what I did to your mother, and what I did to you. But you’re still so young, and you can take hold of your life right now. Don’t make the mistakes that I made.”

“I don’t understand what you’re trying to say, Joseph,” she frowned.

“I’m saying leave this house and that old rag behind. Come live with me and give me a second chance.” As he said this, he extended his hand and held it out towards her.

Lizzy recoiled. “Are you freaking crazy? After everything I’ve seen you do? Have you seriously lost your mind?”

“Elizabeth, please. Give me a chance to be father I never was.”

“What makes you think you deserve a second chance?”

“I’m dying.”

Lizzy looked him straight in the eyes and then proceeded to punch him in the stomach. She gave him several weak blows before collapsing to her knees and allowing her tears to take hold. “You can’t pull this on me right now. Not today, Joseph.”

“Elizabeth, what’s happening to me, is what happened to your mother. I caused it, and I begged her to never tell you. I blamed her for it, but it was me who brought it upon her. I… I can’t explain how everything between us worked. I’m just asking you for a chance to make your old man happy before he sees his last day.”

“You want me to give you a chance to be happy before you die? Where were you when my mother needed that chance? Where were you when I stood by her side, all on my own, as she died right in front of me? Why wasn’t she given a second chance?”

“Elizabeth, I understand that you have every reason to be angry –”

“Then,” she cut him off, “you should also understand that I have every reason to not forgive you.” She stood up and began to walk away, into the house.

“I hope you understand that I’ll never forgive myself. And if I never see you again, just promise me this: you’ll never let anyone take advantage of you, and you’ll never be a coward like me. Do better than I did. Don’t be selfish, but take care of yourself.”

Lizzy looked back over her shoulder as she gripped the door handle. “I’m not taking life lessons from the worst man I’ve ever known.”

She shut the door behind her and stood against it, letting her head fall back as she slid to the floor. She sighed deeply.

 

*

 

Faced with the choice between the devil you know and the devil you don’t, Lizzy had picked the latter and was struggling with the consequences of her decision. Three weeks had gone by without her managing to find anywhere to work. The disappointment in her grandmother’s eyes was sharper than the pain in her stomach, just as her grandmother’s words were thinner than the rations of food that Lizzy was eating. For a few days, she tested her grandmother’s seriousness, and quickly came to learn just how serious she was. She had gone two full days without food before her grandmother gave her another chance. She had begun to lose faith in finding anything that would aid her in avoiding her grandmother’s iron fist.

It was a Saturday night, and Lizzy was deep into her mother’s makeup kit – one of the very few things left for Lizzy to own. She sat in front of the full-body mirror and got to work on her face, doing everything that she had watched her mother do. She placed her eyeliner carefully, tracing the shape of her eyelids and added a delicate wing. She made her eyelashes pop with a generous brushing of mascara and complemented the dark look with a glittering purple eyeshadow. She glittered her cheeks up with a blush to each side and painted her lips a striking red. She let her curly locks of brown hair flourish over her head, forming a dark halo around her small face. Her makeup had successfully aged her about two years. It was not ideal, but it was close enough to what she wanted. She was fully prepared to break the house rules, but she paid no mind to possibly breaking legal rules along the way.

It had been four hours since the sun set, and the house was as quiet as ever. Her small pink crop top was old and tight, but it served its purpose. It was too cold for a mini skirt by anyone’s standards, but she had one and cared more about her end goal. Her mother’s heels were too big for her feet, so she settled for a pair of black sneakers and stockings. This meant settling for being a little shorter than she had hoped, but necessary sacrifices had to be made. She had always been a little taller than the girls her age, and would play into that fact as she stepped out into the night.

As she stood over the window, she looked back at Janet and Tracy in their beds. They always went to bed early, and they always slept so deeply. She wondered where growing up in that house would lead them, which reminded her of why she had to spend the night out. She stepped onto the ledge outside her window and trailed it until she reached the drainage pipe at the edge of the wall. She dripped it tightly and proceeded to loosen her grip and slide down slowly. Once she was at a safe enough distance, she let go and landed gracefully on the cold ground below her. She paused for a second and considered cursing her grandmother for not allowing any of them to have keys, but she realised how in-character that was for the crazy and possessive witch that her grandmother had shown herself to be.

She sighed against the chilly breeze and watched her breath materialise before her. The streets around her neighbourhood were very quiet. She barely heard the hooting of cars, or the barking of dogs. Most of whatever noise she would hear was generated by the voices of the people around her. The silence comforted her as she walked towards the industrial area. Of course, she could have just as easily worried about what could happen to her in any of the quiet corners of the town, but recklessness was an element of her excitement.

In her fruitless days of searching for a job, Lizzy had kept an ear to the ground about the kind of things that only happened in the night and in the shadows. She quickly came to hear of a stripper ring that was run in the industrial area of her neighbourhood. She had discovered that it almost worked like a free-entry competition. Any willing participant could perform in front of a group of strangers and their response would grant her the chance to work in a real club. Of course, Lizzy was way too young to ever make it as far as a club, but she wanted to try her luck for the money. She had heard that, even for a losing contestant, the men watching would still throw cash that she would be able to keep.

She could hear the music and cheering as she approached the cluster of industrial buildings and winding roads. The stripper games took place behind the blue distillery, so she shot a path straight to it. She approached the crowd carefully, staying in the shadows, and observing the show. She saw a long, maroon pole that seemed to extend upwards and disappear into the night sky. Gripping it tightly was a woman in purple underwear, spinning around it and gyrating her body to the thumping music provided by large speakers in the boot of a car. The crowd cheered mildly, as her movements were very sluggish and she had very little creativity or rhythm. Regardless, a select few still enjoyed her performance and offered their money and applause. She responded as though she was feeding off of the lack of enjoyment and cut her performance short with a middle finger. The pole was well-lit, allowing Lizzy a good look at the performer’s face before she walked down from the metal podium. She was an older woman with messy teeth and unhealthily-skinny cheeks, highlighted by her terrible makeup and large, hooped earrings. Her failure gave Lizzy more confidence.

A man in a thick winter jacket stepped up immediately after the disappointed contestant left the makeshift stage. He had multiple golden chains hanging around his neck, and wore a pair of jeans that were easily two sizes too big for him. His hair was braided tightly, and his ears pierced to make room for the silver studs that sat snugly in his lobes. He rapped along to the last few lines of the song that was still playing – to much excitement from the crowd – before signalling for the music to stop. He then spoke into a wireless microphone, his voice also coming from the boot of a car.

“Alright, alright, she tried her best, give it up for Juicy,” he signalled, waving his hand to half-hearted cheering from the crowd. “You know we got good nights and not so good nights. Our closing show is always hot, though, ‘cause you know we got Tatyana tonight.” The men in the crowd whistled and howled enthusiastically at the reminder. “Now, before we close this thing up, are there any more newbies who would like to shake it for Daddy Mic and his boys?”

Daddy Mic was so-called because he had attempted to take on the nickname ‘Daddy Cool’ for years and failed. He was persisted, but his friends had refused to let it catch on. He was, however, always the speaker at any even organised by his friends, and his real name was Michael. It eventually followed that he met his friends halfway and adopted the ‘Daddy Mic’ name in reference to his hosting talents and shortening of his name. Everybody else quickly learnt to refer to him as that and that only.

Lizzy mustered up the confidence and pushed through the crowd. Her heart felt as though multiple explosions were going off inside her chest. She felt a burning heat building up as she got closer to the raised platform. Her mouth was suddenly sandpaper-dry, and she could not tell if it was because she was nervous or excited or truly terrified. The cold breeze bit at her shoulders as she lifted her arms up in order to get Daddy Mic’s attention. She waved wildly against the taller adults who stood before her. Daddy Mic spotted her and hushed the crowd.

“Hey there, girl, come up,” he said, offering his hand to help her over the big step. “Are you up for a little dance following Juicy? You’re gonna have to be something special to get this crowd pumpin’ again.”

“That’s exactly what I’m here to do, Daddy Mic,” she offered in her most enthusiastic voice.

Daddy Mic recoiled a little in response to her voice. “Hey, girl, how old are you? We’re not getting in trouble with the cops again, am I right?” He turned to the crowd with that last part, prompting immediate howls of laughter in reference to a prior raid.

“I just turned eighteen, so I came here to celebrate my birthday,” she lied, twisting her right foot inwards and biting the tip of her right thumb in a tease. The crowd cheered.

“Ya hear that everybody? We’ve got fresh meat in the house!” Daddy Mic was feeding off of the enthusiasm of the crowd as they relished the thought of a potentially good performance. He turned to Lizzy and continued, “You know the rules, right? You got one song to make it or break it. Whatever’s thrown onto the stage is yours to keep. If you get the most votes, we’ll consider taking you on as a regular. And, believe me, there’s some good cash in that. Am I right, fellas?”

The men got even more rowdy and whistled in anticipation. Daddy Mic hushed them one last time. “Alright, girl, what’s your name so that these dogs have something to scream?”

“My name is Hayley,” she lied again, to oblivious cheers.

“Hayley, babe,” Daddy Mic spoke as he walked off of the stage, “the pole is all yours. Show ‘em somethin’ good.”

A set of hard lights were trained onto the pole from an overlooking beam, making her perfectly well-lit against the night sky above her. The car DJ pressed play and a thumping beat started to build over the crowd. It was a slow, sensual RnB track that was recognised by everyone in the audience. Lizzy gripped the pole loosely with her right hand and began to walk around it slowly, allowing her legs to linger and pull into a highly defined curve. She brought her left hand onto the pole and pushed her butt out, slowly dropping it to the floor while doing and impressively smooth split. The sea of onlookers went crazy as she proceeded to seamlessly pull herself back up in the exact way that she went down. She was gaining their confidence and she could feel herself falling into a performance trance, but a disturbance was also growing in the crowd.

“What the fuck do you think you’re doing?” a familiar voice was screaming over and over, with growing intensity. At first, she ignored it and went about her dance, but a violent grab to the ankle forced her to turn and look into the wild eyes of her father. He was foaming at the mouth and fighting for his shoulders to be freed from the crowd. “What the fuck are you doing here, Elizabeth?”

Lizzy froze, not knowing what to do. Her father got pulled off of her by a bouncer who was so muscular that his veins looked like the roots of an old tree. Joseph’s small, diseased frame was laughable in the hands of the bouncer. He continued to wriggle his body and attempt to fight his way out, but the bouncer simply squeezed his shoulders until he was forced to settle down. Daddy Mic ran up to the stage and cut the music.

“Whoa, fellas, what’s happening here?”

“This is my daughter, Elizabeth,” he spat, “she’s only fourteen. She shouldn’t be here, you damn perverts!”

“Whoa,” Daddy Mic turned, “do you know this man, Hayley?”

“Yes, I do,” she answered confidently. “But he’s not my father. He’s a creep who’s followed me before and tried to touch me. I think he likes them when they look young.”

“What the fuck is wrong with you?” he screamed, his eyes almost popping out of their sockets. “These people are going to fuck you up!”

“Brother,” Daddy Mic warned, “you’ll be the only one getting fucked up if you carry on speaking to this young woman like that.”

“If someone doesn’t fuck him up for me,” she suggested, “he’s going to carry on thinking that he can mess with underage girls.”

“Just what the fuck do you think you’re doing? You little bitch!”

“I’m doing exactly what you said I should do; I’m taking care of myself. I’m not being the coward that you’re used to stepping on. I’m doing better, and this is where I start.”

“I gonna fucking kill –” his deranged threats were cut off by a swift punch to the mouth which cause a couple of his teeth to fall out.

The crowd was booing Joseph and throwing hits in wherever they could as his weak body was being dragged out.

“Are you alright, girl?” Daddy Mic asked quietly, away from the microphone.

“I will be,” she sighed. “As long as he’s away, I will be. And as long as I stay here, where I feel safe.”

“Don’t you worry about his ass. No one will mess with you while we’re around.”

Lizzy was betting on that being true.

 

******

 

NOW

 

The bags were filled to the brim. Carly strained against the weight of bags packed with more money than she ever imagined she would see, and definitely way more money than she ever dreamed she would own. One of the bags was bouncing against the bullet scrape in her leg, but she bit against the pain and did not let it show. They were the last two bags that had to be taken to the car, and then they could be on their way. Lizzy, despite all that she had been through, had done an efficient job of lugging the money bags into her car. They had taken a reasonable amount, and then a little extra, which brought them to six heavy bags of cash. It had been a silent agreement that each would take three bags.

“That’s it,” Carly panted. “That’s the last bag.”

“Yeah,” Lizzy breathed.

“Okay, let’s get out of here before we get in any more trouble,” Carly suggested, buckling herself in and waiting for Lizzy to start the car.

“Barry’s calling the cops, right?” she responded, bringing the engine to life.

“Yep, that’s what he said. He’s just going to dispose of the phone after an anonymous tip to the cops.”

“And what happens to him?”

“What do you mean?” Carly turned to look at Lizzy.

“When will you see him again?”

“I don’t know. It could be tomorrow, or it could be never again. That’s how Barry works. He was there when I needed him most, and that’s what counts.”

“Do you think you’re done needing him now?”

Carly sighed. “I can’t possibly know that. I’ve already needed him twice and I’m not even eighteen yet. I don’t know.”

“Okay.”

“Why are you asking me these questions?” she frowned.

“I’m just curious.”

“Really? Because your tone and mood are worrying me.”

“Forget it.”

Carly shuffled in her seat and stared at Lizzy’s face. “Listen,” she spoke in a calm and reassuring tone, “I know that was messed up, back there. I know it was scary, and we both could have died. I also know that a lot of this – well, all of this – is my fault. But we were both so badass back there and all of tonight, for that matter. It’s all over now. We got away with it, and I think that deserves a smile, at the very least.”

“Did you just tell me to fucking smile?” Lizzy snapped, putting her foot down harder and sending the car into a speedy jolt.

“Whoa,” Carly jumped back, “what’s going on?”

“Do you seriously think I need to hear uplifting shit from you right now?”

“Lizzy, I don’t understand.”

“Of course you don’t understand, you’re just a kid,” she said, flying down a series of city blocks. It felt like it had only been instant, but they were already on the less extravagant side of Lutherton, whooshing past a splattering of parks and residential areas.

“I’m just a kid, yeah, but I can tell you that if you don’t slow down, we’ll get pulled over by the cops. And then everything we’ve done will be lost.”

“Your money is safe, quit worrying about it,” she bit back, keeping her eyes straight ahead and barely acknowledging Carly.

“Okay, what the fuck is going on, Lizzy?”

“Nothing’s going on, Carly,” she replied, suddenly breathing calm into her tone. “We’re here.”

“Here?” Carly raised an eyebrow. She turned to look outside and saw the sign. It was comprised of a series of thick, backlit letters labelling the stop as ‘Lutherton Terminal’. “What is this, a train station?”

“Grab a bag,” Lizzy ordered, stepping out of the car. She picked two bags out and waited for Carly to get one more.

“What are we doing? Are we going to ditch the car for a train?”

“It’s a bus terminal, Carly,” she clarified.

“Why are we leaving the car for a bus?”

I’m not.” Lizzy’s emphasis on the singular was subtle, but clear.

Carly dropped the bag she was carrying. “What?”

“Pick that bag up,” Lizzy requested, impatient.

“What do you mean ‘you’re not’?”

“We don’t need to have this conversation.”

“Lizzy,” she choked, her eyes welling up with tears, “you’re scaring me.”

“Seriously?” she dropped the two bags. “You’ve spent the night killing one guy, trying to run from the cops, fighting a pedo, stealing shitloads of money, and almost killing another guy. And only now you’re scared?”

“Why did you bring me to a bus station?”

“Because we’re splitting up, Carly. Obviously.”

“Why? Why the fuck?” she asked, her voice desperate and breathy.

“What else did you expect? I helped you, and you helped me. Our work together is done. We both got what we wanted.”

Carly’s eyes were wide and searched Lizzy’s face, hoping it would show some sign that she did not mean the words that she was speaking. She found no such evidence.

“Don’t make this any harder than it needs to be,” Lizzy frowned. Her face was hard and unwavering.

“What do you expect me to do? You’re going to send a teenage girl out into the world, alone, with bags of money? Are you actually sentencing me to death? I won’t survive the rest of the night if you are serious about dropping me like this. I’ll be fucked.”

“How else did you see this ending? Are we supposed to drive into the sunset together? And go where?”

“I don’t fucking know! We were supposed to work it out together. You have nothing to stay for here, and neither do I. We’re both in need of a fresh start.”

The bus terminal was completely empty. There was absolutely no other sound except the sound of their voices going back and forth. The station itself was a massive, towering construction with three levels. Lizzy and Carly stood on the ground floor, facing the main entrance, which comprised of large glass panels signalling the station entrance. The building’s theme was a clean and welcoming white, sporting friendly murals here and there. The child-like murals depicted various types of families on journeys around the world. They all looked so happy and excited to be together, sharing adventures and memories. There were at least two people in each depiction, sometimes being a couple, other times being what could be friends or siblings. In many of them, there was a loving embrace, or quaint little hearts strewn over their heads. In the eyes of Lutherton Terminal, boarding a bus had nothing to do with separation or loss. In the eyes of Lutherton Terminal, they provided a service that kept people together, and kept them happy. The way Lutherton Terminal portrayed things, its clients maintained their closeness even when going far away from home. Lutherton Terminal existed in a world where nothing negative could be implied by a bus ticket. The Lutherton Terminal business model existed in the very same world where its art existed. Carly, however, had to deal with the pain of the real world. She was no piece of corporate graffiti. She was no party to a pairing of hugs and love. Her bus ticket would always signify the same abandonment that she had always known it to. In her head, Carly was screaming obscenities at the Lutherton Terminal marketing scheme.

“Your fresh start begins somewhere far from this city,” Lizzy explained. “The furthest that these busses go is Union City. I suggest that you go there, and then figure out the rest on your own.”

“Fuck you, Lizzy. Fuck you,” she grimaced, tugging at Lizzy’s elbows. “Fuck you, and fuck your money. I don’t need it, and I don’t need you.”

Lizzy shrugged her off. “That’s the kind of attitude that’ll get you hurt. I helped you get a second chance. You have enough money to go find it.”

“You’re so full of shit, Lizzy. You try so much to act like you don’t care. If you didn’t give a shit, you wouldn’t have done anything good for me tonight. You saved my life more times than I can remember in the past few hours. You even risk your life to try save mine. Why would you do that if you’re going to throw me back into the same shit that you found me in?”

“Do you think I’m some kind of saint? Do you think I was sent from above to save you? I found a lost little girl who needed a little help, but I had no idea what I was getting myself into. You got us into all kinds of a mess, and I’m not even sure it’s all over. Tonight has been a nightmare, and you don’t seem to see that. I’m not whatever you want to imagine me to be. Right now, we’re just a pair of criminals. Nothing more, nothing less.”

Carly was on her knees, resting the weight of her beaten and bruised body. True rest seemed impossible. “You know what I just realised? This whole time, I’ve told you all kinds of stuff about me. But you, you’ve barely told me anything about yourself. It’s like we’ve put trust in each other without even knowing each other. I don’t know who you are. But, I think that’s because I feel it. I feel your loneliness. Not once did you worry about anyone else tonight. It was always about you and me. And that’s because there is no one else for you to worry about, is there? You’re just as alone as I am, but you’re way too scared to admit it. You’re basically as orphaned as I am, and it’s like you want to hold on to that forever.”

“I’m not fucking orphaned!” Lizzy exploded. “I knew my mother. My mother was a beautiful, strong, and loving woman. She taught me how to be a strong person, even at the worst of times. She was always strong. That’s what kept her together. She never faltered, even when she needed to.”

“Was? And your father?”

“Fuck him, and fuck your little interview. I’m done.”

“No,” Carly disagreed. “You’re not done; you’re lost. Just like me, life has given you some shit and you think that means you have to rough it alone. But that only makes it even harder, believe me.”

Lizzy threw her arms up in disbelief. “What are you, a damn life coach now? I spent my teen years getting all kinds of conflicting advice from the people around me. I never learnt what I was supposed to do, and I’m definitely not going to learn it from you. You don’t know how hard shit gets. You’re just a runaway.”

“I’m a runaway who’s managed to survive two years mostly alone.”

“Does that earn you a medal? I’ve been surviving alone for years. For years, I’ve gotten by on shitty club jobs and hiding behind bouncers and getting fucked over by managers. You don’t learn to abandon trust just so you can find it in some random teenager.”

Carly stood up and attempted eye contact with Lizzy. “Look me in the eyes and tell me that you still see me as some random teenager. After everything that has happened, tell me, honestly.”

Lizzy avoided eye contact and walked back towards her car. “Don’t let your bags of cash be seen when you’re buying a ticket. It might attract some unnecessary attention.”

“Lizzy, please,” Carly croaked, her soft face flooding with tears as she began to weep like a child. “Please, I’m scared. I don’t know what to do. I’m scared.”

Carly’s words were drowned out by the sound of Lizzy’s engine as she sped off, disappearing behind the first available turnoff. She collapsed onto her bags of money and gave in to the tears, crying out to no one as her exhaustion started to sink her body down. She suddenly felt too drained to cry and needed somewhere to curl up. She pulled herself up and attempted to move the bags into the waiting area. However, she was not strong enough to carry all three, so she dragged two of them laboriously whilst the third hung over her shoulders. The small distance that she had to cover felt like a marathon, but she managed it before dropping onto the bags once again. Her head swung back as she drifted off into a sleep, resting on the most expensive and uncomfortable pillow that she had ever slept on.

 

*

 

She was jolted awake by the light vibration of the phone in her pocket. She tried to ignore it, but it buzzed a second time. She pulled herself up and took it out to check it. It was a low battery notification and she only had five percent of it left. It was almost two in the morning.

“Fuck,” she whispered to herself. She ran her fingers through her hair and thought about how pointless a phone would be to her in any case. She had never needed to own one, and the only one she had was nearly dead. She opened the Internet browser and it automatically loaded a Google search page. Without thinking, she typed the word ‘Lutherton’ and clicked the search button. The results ranged from quick facts about the city, to main attractions, to a map, to the night life. She clicked on the map and tried to find her location. As she zoomed in, she spotted the Octagon, marked as a point of interest. On the opposite side of the road, she noticed a row of three bars that were also marked as points of interest. A desperate thought sparked in her head as she clicked the first bar and read its details, which included a contact number. She pressed the call button and put the phone to her ear. It rang for a minute before getting picked up.

“Hello?” said the voice on the other side, with a cough.

“Hi, is this the Point of Pint bar?” she asked meekly.

“Yeah, it is,” the man answered, “what’s up?”

“Do you maybe have a Riley who works there?”

“A what?” he coughed again.

“A girl, named Riley. Is anyone there named Riley?”

“Nope, sorry. Never heard of her.”

He ended the call before she could say anything else. She gritted her teeth and stood up, pacing back and forth as she dialled the second bar on the street.

“Hey, Breaker’s Bar here,” answered a lively, feminine voice. “How may I help you?”

“Hey, yeah, does a Riley work there?”

“A Riley? A girl?”

“Yes,” Carly huffed.

The woman paused as if she was in thought. “Nah, dude, we have a Rey, but not a Riley. What’s up?”

Carly ended the call without saying anything. The phone vibrated again, this time being on two percent. She dialled the third bar.

“Hello,” came the lazy answer from the other side.

“Hi, this is the Red Shaker, right?” she spoke, almost mincing her words in the rush.

“Yeah, it is. What do you need?”

“Does a Riley work there?”

“What?”

She repeated herself slowly and clearly. “Do you have a girl named Riley working there?”

“Oh, oh, yeah, I think so,” he replied, sounding unsure.

“Can you please get her on the phone for me? Please, it’s urgent.”

“Um, I can try. Who’s calling?”

“Carly. Tell her it’s Carly.”

The man on the other side seemed to put the phone down on a table and move away. After a second, there was a flush of noise and music from outside the office, and then it went silent again. Carly paced even more aggressively as she waited, twisting her hair in her fingers. She heard the door open again with another burst of sounds and ruffling of the phone on the other side.

“Hello, Kylie?” Riley asked, clearing her throat.

“No, Riley, it’s me, it’s Carly. I need to –” she got cut off by the buzz of another vibration. She looked at the phone and watched as the screen blacked out.

“Fuck!” she screamed. She screamed it over and over as she kicked the bags of money. She collapsed to the floor and punched them weakly before lying down on them once again. She stayed in that position and stared out into nothing, left to her thoughts as she traipsed over the idea of sleep for hours.

Sleep did not come again and, with the sunrise, she moved her bags over to a bench and waited for the terminal to become operational again. In all of her hours of thinking, she had resorted herself to the idea of solitude. She considered the need to keep moving, and also thought about how easily she would be able to do that. It would not be easy with three bags that were too heavy for her to carry, and she thought of how they could make her easy to target. So she picked the lightest bag and stuffed it into a trash bin. She hoped that some inquisitive bum would find it as his luckiest day ever, but she cared very little for it.

She bought two seats on a bus to Union City so that she could sit with her bags. She was nervous that her choice would be questioned, but it seemed that the bus would not be very occupied. As she waited in the short queue to get on, she saw her face in the reflective side of the bus. She had bags under her drained eyes. They were green in the reflection, surrounded by a pale-red reminder of the tears that she had shed. Her hair was mottled in places and hung haphazardly over her pale face. She looked a mess and should have brought concern, but people kept to themselves. They behaved in the very same way that she had known people around her to behave. She was a mere shadow in their midst, and she would stay that way.

The bus shook to life at exactly nine o’clock, and began its journey five minutes later. Carly had her face resting against the window and watched as they started to move away from the city. She held herself tightly and tried to invite sleep back in. The trip was set to be at least six hours, and she wanted a little rest before having to deal with life again. Despite living a whole lifetime of events in one night, her life had shown little change. She found herself back on the road again, headed to a place she had never been to before, with no plan, whatsoever. She squeezed her eyes shut and droned off to the soft jazz soundtrack that was drifting from the speakers.

She was jolted awake by the rumbling of the bus halting to a stop and hooting aggressively. There were a number of raised heads in the seats before her, trying to see what was going on. She lifted herself up to look for a second, but then she realised that she really did not care, so she sat back as she was before. She heard the smooth hiss of the passenger door opening, followed by the sharp cut of a heel climbing on, at the annoyed protest of the bus driver.

“I don’t know who you’re looking for, lady,” the bus driver huffed.

Carly heard the determined steps come closer and closer, ignoring the complaints of the other passengers. Carly kept her eyes closed and her head pressed against the window. The sound of clicking heels stopped.

“Carly,” the voice spoke. A familiar voice that she could have sworn she had known for years, even though it had been less than a day. “Carly, look at me.”

Carly kept her eyes shut and shook her head. She felt a lump rising in her throat as she forced her tears back. She was doing a lousy job of it as she felt them fill her eyes from within and warm her cheeks. She frowned against her weakness and breathed slowly.

“Carly, it’s me,” the voice said, resting a hand on her shoulder.

“I know it’s you,” Carly responded, opening her reddened eyes to look. She shrugged the hand off of her shoulder. “I know it’s you, Lizzy. Did you forget something? What more do you have to say?”

“Yes, actually, I did forget something, and I do have more to say,” Lizzy confessed, sitting down next to Carly. “I forgot to learn. I forgot to learn and grow over all of these years. I forgot to let myself find my own way to heal. Throughout all of my years of anger, I can’t possibly know how many people I’ve shut off. I can’t possibly know how many great people I’ve missed out on. I’ve been a super-efficient shell, but a shell, nonetheless. And, like it or not, you scared me last night. Your honesty in my moment of stupidity is the exact act of humanity that I have not allowed myself to have. I saw myself mirrored in you for that brief moment, and I would have let me walk away without even a word of how I truly felt. I don’t want to be that person anymore, Carly. I don’t know if this is how I heal, or if this is just a minor step in the right direction. But I do know that this is the right thing, and I’ve never felt more regret over walking away from a person in my life. It’s crazy, because you’re just a kid and I barely know you, but, in just a matter of hours, you’ve shown me more bravery and heart than I have seen in forever. And it comes with brains, too. I don’t want to go on for too long, but I need you to understand this: I know you can imagine why I wanted to leave last night, but that’s a part of ourselves that we both need to be able to let go of now. I am so eternally sorry for the way I made you feel last night, and I never wish to do that again. I don’t want to go into this world alone again. I don’t want to search for trust anew, and I don’t want you to do the same, either. I need to know that you understand and forgive me, Carly.”

There was a fearful hesitation in Carly’s eyes as she searched for the sincerity in Lizzy’s. It did not require much looking, because she saw Lizzy’s eyes water in the most frightfully honest way right before her. Lizzy opened her arms up in peaceful invitation and Carly jumped at the offer, squeezing her arms around her as tightly as she possibly could. She could feel Lizzy’s nails digging into her back in the most nurturing embrace she had ever felt in her life. For Lizzy, it was like an awakening and a reminder of the parts of her that she had lost.

“This is sweet an all,” an old woman a seat ahead chimed in, “but some of us have places to be, lady. Get off the bus or stay on until it stops again.”

Carly laughed and sniffed as she got up and grabbed her bags. The two whispered insincere apologies to the passengers as they made their way off the bus and back out Lizzy’s car. The bus left a massive cloud of dust as it pulled off in hopes of making up for lost time. As Lizzy threw the bag onto the backseat, she frowned and then looked at Carly.

“Wait, two bags?”

“Yeah,” Carly sighed. “I had to ditch one at the station because I just couldn’t carry all three. Should we go back for it?”

“No,” Lizzy shook her head, “we have way more than we need. It’s not worth the trouble. You’ve probably made some bum really happy.”

“It wouldn’t be the first time,” she laughed. “So, where to?”

“I don’t know,” Lizzy said, squinting against the sunlight. “Anywhere that takes us away from Lutherton, I guess?”

“That sounds all good to me.”

Before they could get into the car, a police vehicle that had been approaching in the distance reached them and stopped ahead of Lizzy’s car. It did not have its siren or lights on, and had a solitary policeman in the driver’s seat. Carly looked at Lizzy with panicked eyes, wild in remembrance of the previous night’s events. Lizzy swallowed and remained calm as the police officer stepped out of his vehicle and approached the car.

“Ah, Lizzy,” the officer spoke, “I can’t say I’m surprised.”

“Edward,” Lizzy smiled weakly, “it’s been a while. How have you been?”

“I’ve been just fine. Tell me,” he said, looking over at Carly through his thick eyebrows, “does your little friend here know that it’s not a good idea to leave the jurisdictional area of a pending criminal investigation? Or did you two forget that there’s been a death in Lutherton?”

“We… we weren’t leaving,” Lizzy hesitated, her heart racing as the lump in her throat grew.

“Is that right?” he smirked. “If I’m correct, this road leads out of Lutherton, and you’re facing the direction that leads out of town.”

“Ed, get to the point.”

He walked over to the side of the car where Carly stood and then looked over at Lizzy. His eyes were a deep brown and were encircled in wrinkles that had appeared too soon on his unnaturally-tanned skin. He rested his hands on the roof of the car and addressed them both.

“We had some pathologists and whatnot look at Glen Stein’s greedy old corpse and figure out exactly what happened. We made some breakthroughs during this, but I was surprised that you two were nowhere to be found when it came time to contact you.” At this point, Carly had a steady stream of tears falling silently down her face. “The first thing we noticed is that he had a good amount of this young lady’s skin under his nails. I mean, we could have cloned a whole new brat out of that stuff, if we wanted to. Of course, our main priority was the murder investigation on our hands. So, a kind Dr Martin finally informed us that the old bag Stein had a heart condition that was worsening over the years. His heart was slowly giving up on him under all of that filth, or whatever. Anyway, it fought its last fight last night, and lost. The knife did not inflict a fatal wound, although it could have contributed to the shock that sent him into a bit of a deadly panic.”

“So, what are you saying, exactly?” Lizzy asked.

“I’m saying that the sick bastard died of natural causes, Lizzy. The most we could get on your little friend here is an aggravated assault charge against a dead man who maybe possibly tried to rape her. Quite frankly, I don’t think anyone liked Glen Stein enough to bother pursuing that one.”

“Oh my god!” Lizzy exploded. “And you couldn’t open with that? You’re such a dick sometimes, Edward, really.”

Edward made his way back to an annoyed Lizzy and brushed her cheek with the back of his hand. “I just love how you look when you’re flustered, honey. And you should thank me for finding you and letting you know so your hearts can be at peace. And also maybe thank me for not asking you about anything else you may have been involved in last night.”

He breathed in deeply and smiled before turning back to go to his car. He opened the door and waved. “I hope this is not the last I’ll be seeing of your sweet ass, Lizzy. You’re definitely one of the greats.” And with that, he stepped into his car and did an unnecessarily loud U-turn in the direction of Lutherton.

Carly ran over to Lizzy and screamed. They both held each other’s hands and giggled as Carly brushed her tears off on her shoulders.

“I’m not a murderer,” Carly laughed. “I’m not a fucking murderer, Lizzy. Oh my god.”

“No, you’re not,” Lizzy confirmed. “We’re finally free, honey. We can actually say now that we have our lives ahead of us.”

“Promise me one thing, though,” Carly asked.

“Anything in the world,” Lizzy smiled.

“First town we get to, we’re stopping to shop for clothes because I’m manky as fuck in these.”

Lizzy laughed. “Sure thing. I know a thing or two about dressing girls up. Hop in, it’s gonna be a long drive.”

“I’m ready,” Carly confirmed, and it was one of the most sincere things that she had ever said.

 

The End.

My Based on a Song series has begun, check it out here: Adele – Hello (Based on a Song)

Roses and Thorns Part 5 of 6: Weathering

Shattered Rose

 

BEFORE

 

From outside, the house looked so peaceful. The Blake family was away for the week, and Barry had seen this as his chance. A sneak job like this always guaranteed that he would have food and a place to stay for at least a month, but he never found it exciting. The tedium of breaking in, stealing the most precious finds, and leaving without a trace had quickly grown old on him. There was no fight, and there was no fear. Barry never wanted his night life to end up feeling like a day job. He hated day jobs, and he had never managed to hold one down for longer than two weeks at a time. He had accepted his life of delinquency from a very young age.

Barry was never the bully. He was also never the victim. He had learned to fight through years of trial and error. His younger years at the Lower Ridge Boys School had led to him learning about the harsh realities of life sooner than any boy would be expected to. The faculty at his school cared very little for the daily health of the boys in attendance. This meant that any fight that broke out would be handled by the boys themselves. The drawing of blood and the dashing of cowardly feet were often the only deciding factors. There was no true serving of justice; the stronger fist and the faster kick upheld the law. The boys had developed their own little set of rules for the settlement of disputes. The fights were always public, with an audience of at least thirty boys. The outcome of the fight would often determine the boys’ earning or losing of respect from their schoolmates. The winner was almost always more prone to welcome a future fight. He was always much less likely to find a willing opponent. Barry desired much more than a fight.

The arranged fights took place almost exclusively on the hockey fields. Hockey Field C was the best spot, as it was most out of the teachers’ way and attracted the least amount of unwanted attention. This particular field was called the ‘Red Court’ and was presided over by the ‘Red Judge’. The Red Judge was so called because he wore a red scarf around his neck to represent the amount of blood that he must have spilt to earn his position. It was an honour enjoyed by one of the senior boys who had asserted his dominance over all of the others. As corrupted as any system ever becomes, it soon became evident that the successor was agreed upon instead of being decided upon by combat. In Barry’s years at the school, he had never seen a Red Judge fight, despite having seen five Red Judge changeovers. Barry wanted the title of Red Judge. He did not care for how long it would last, even if the scarf would only warm his neck for one day and one fight. He knew that he would have to openly challenge Jay, the holder of the scarf. In Barry’s eyes, rules had to be honoured. In Barry’s eyes, a fight always trumped an agreement.

Barry had been in more fights than he could remember. The only two fights that he would never forget were the two fights that he had lost. They had been his first at the school, and they had filled him with a burning desire for vengeance. However, his revenge fights had left him feeling unfulfilled. His bloodied knuckles left him craving something more rewarding than the establishment of his place amongst the general crowd. He wanted to be bigger, and he wanted to be better. Despite having gotten his position through the employment of politics, Jay was still a beast to behold. He was a head taller than Barry, standing on the toned legs of a football player. He had dark skin that barely showed his handful of scars. His curly hair was cut short, with patterns trimmed into the sides. This would normally not be allowed, but the captains of the sports teams often got away with so much more than the usual crowd could. He was not nearly as buff as the last few Red Judges had been – his body being built mostly for speed – but he was still considerably bigger than Barry. He had a very hard and serious face, even though he joked much more than the previous judges had when there were fights.

The fights were rarely too personal. Barry respected Jay greatly, and would continue to do so even after the fight. Having no girls to fight about meant that most of the fights were petty squabbles or displays of dominance. Barry wanted to enjoy dominance at the confident age of fifteen. The youngest Red Judge ever was sixteen when he earned his scarf. That judge, however, was also built like a fridge on steroids and had the temper of a mad dog. All of his challengers had failed miserably. He eventually lost his title in the most respectable way; by graduating from the school.

Barry was ready to make a name for himself amongst the boys. A fight between two boys had just ended when Barry decided to speak up. The fight had settled a matter deciding which of the two boys would have to take the earlier of two physical training classes on a Monday. The scrawny boy with the glasses never truly stood a chance against his physically superior albeit ironically lazy opponent.

“I want to challenge you for the scarf,” Barry spoke, making sure not to allow his voice to break. All the boys went silent.

“Are you joking, dude?” Jay frowned, not moving from his high-chair.

“No, I’m not. I want to challenge you for the position of Red Judge.”

“There hasn’t been a direct challenge in years.”

“Yeah, it’s time for that to change. I challenge you. I want to do it the old-fashioned way.”

“Are you even old enough to fight, bucko? You look twelve. You’ve got arms like a starving baby.”

“If you don’t accept the challenge, you forfeit your position,” Barry continued, unfazed.

The Red Court had rules. In the midst of all the apparent disruption of peace, an agreed-upon constitution existed amongst the boys. Most of the rules were related to the dos and don’ts of the court fights. The number one rule was the ‘no ball hits or dick strikes’ rule. Aiming for an opponent’s delicates was considered weak and cowardly. The second rule was that no permanent injuries would be inflicted during a fight. This rule was followed by the banning of weapons. Their pubescent bodies were the only weapons allowed. Most fights ended with the drawing of first blood, although the more hardcore boys would go until exhaustion decided the winner. There was no knocking out of teeth, and no poking of the eyes. The Red Judge could stop a fight or intervene whenever he so pleased, even though he rarely did because it would spoil the entertainment. The only rule that Barry cared for, however, was that the Red Judge had to honour every challenge.

“Fine,” Jay stood up, removing his school blazer. “I was not planning on attending a funeral today, but you asked for it.”

Barry removed his school jersey and shoes, as only bare feet were allowed. He was nervous, and he was scared, but that realisation excited him. Most of the time, he wanted to fight for the pure sake of punching his frustrations out. And other times, he wanted to fight for the brief reward of playground glory. He had made an attempt to do research on his opponent’s fighting style and abilities, but there was very little to find. He had never seen Jay fight because of the way he acquired his position. He was less prepared than he would have liked to be. All that he really knew about Jay was that Jay was very fast and sharp with his punches. Barry doubted this because of the weight difference between the two of them.

“I hope everyone heard that,” Jay announced to the crowd of boys, “this is an official challenge to the Red Judge. If this challenger, Barry, wins, then he will immediately become the new Red Judge. If he loses, I retain my title and he goes home with his tail between his legs. The ordinary fighting rules apply –”

“No,” Barry interrupted. “I want the hard rules.” The boys gasped.

“Are you being for real?” Jay laughed.

“Yes.”

“And you know how the hard rules work?”

“Yes, I do. No complaints. I’m requesting them, and I agree to the terms that come with them.”

The hard rules were a variation of the normal fighting rules between the boys. They were only asked for very rarely, and often only by the Red Judges. The hard rules meant that anything goes, bar for weapons and crotch shots. This meant that some visible damage could be caused, but the sufferer waived the option of ever telling anyone or making an attempt to report the opponent. The fights alone required bravery, but the hard rules required a true heart of iron. Barry had a hardened heart.

“Fine. Hard rules. Come at me.” Jay clenched his fists and planted his legs on the hard ground.

Barry felt his heart kicking into gear. Every beat punched from within his chest like a drum leading him to war. He wanted it to be war, and he wanted to be on the right side of victory. He edged towards jay with hard fists, calculating his first strike and aiming to earn an early advantage. With a quick breath, he launched a right hook at Jay’s neck, aiming for his Adam’s apple. Jay deflected the punch with his left arm and elbowed Barry between the shoulder blades. Jay moved so quickly that Barry was already falling to the ground before he realised what had happened. He pushed himself up and decided to aim a kick at Jay’s ribs. Jay bent his body in the direction of the kick and absorbed the impact, holding on to Barry’s leg by pinning it down with his right arm. He then proceeded to hammer punches into Barry’s knee, almost bending it in before throwing Barry to the ground. Barry bit down and fought the pain. He could feel the alarms going off in his back and his leg, but he ignored them. The damage to his knee meant that he became slower. It was as if Jay could finish him off quickly, but he wanted to drag it out to entertain the silenced boys.

Barry limped towards Jay and showed little fear or desperation on his face. He could almost feel that Jay could see through his facade. He shot his right fist at Jay’s neck – which Jay caught – and followed it up with an immediate left fist. Jay caught that one as well, and had Barry by the fists. He pulled Barry towards him and smiled before crashing his head into Barry’s nose. He repeated the devastating act two more times, each collision drawing more blood than the previous one. Barry was already losing consciousness when Jay let go of him and threw him backwards with a hard punch to his core. The punch sent Barry rolling backwards and into a bloody cocoon. He was down, and he was not getting up.

“You can take a beating, Barry, I’ll give you that. But you don’t know your opponent at all. You’re too slow, and you rush to the good parts. You don’t savour the fight. You don’t have fun with it. It seems as though you want to come in, cause damage, and then get out. I know this because I am observant, and it is my duty to know about how everyone here fights. I don’t wear this scarf for no reason, buddy. Going in this unprepared will leave you in a lot of pain if you don’t change it. I’m only telling you this because you seem like the type who wants to fight for the sake of fighting. And I’m also telling you this so that this becomes the third fight that you never forget.”

With that final word of surprising intel, Jay walked picked his blazer up and walked away. Rat, one of Barry’s friends, ran towards Barry to tend to him and help him get off the court.

As Barry looked at the Blake house, he scratched the tip of his nose, remembering the third fight that he could never let go of. That fight was etched into his brain and he remembered it more vividly than the countless break-ins and other petty crimes that he had committed since. His memory of it reminded him of why he felt unfulfilled by the jobs that he had been running recently: none of them were memorable because none of them taught him anything new. Granted, that fight had left him broken for a very long time, but it had inevitably served as a life lesson that he cherished. As he lifted the small hook that connected the gate to the wooden fencing, he thought about Jay’s words. He had done his research on the Blakes, and knew everything about the very low security of the house. All of that was good and well, except that there was no chance that the Blakes would be putting up a fight of any sort. It would be like stealing candy from a sleeping baby.

He disabled the security alarm using a signal disruptor which he had bought from a pair of smugglers. He forced a gloved hand through the glass panelling on the front door and clicked the lock off from the inside. The door swung open and the house became a free mall for him to pick out anything that his thieving heart desired. He always headed for the bedrooms first, because that was always where the size of the loot made it more valuable. Any house with a jewellery box of some kind was always a good find. The Blake house was small, having only one floor and three bedrooms. Two of the rooms belonged to the children, and that made them very low on the priority list. Barry took quiet steps in the direction of the main bedroom, finding the door bare and inviting. He started searching every drawer and wardrobe for any case or compartment that might hold what he wanted. In his opening and closing of everything, he knocked a bottle of perfume over, which shattered loudly on the tiled floor. He froze only for a second to listen, but remembered that there was no one around to hear him.

He continued to work his way through clothes and documents and cheap adornments without finding anything of real value. The smell of the perfume was strong and distracting. It was so distracting, in fact, that he missed the light steps which entered the room and only noticed them as a baseball bat came down on his face. The hits did not stop until he was on the floor, covering his face with his hands. The person brandishing the baseball bat was not very strong, but had a good enough idea of where to hit. Barry was not going to get out of it by cowering away, so he concentrated on the frequency of the swings and then threw a hand out, grabbing the bat as it swung again. He wrestled it out of his attacker’s hands and swung back, hitting what felt like bone. His attacker screamed and fell back. The scream was feminine. It was feminine and very young.

“Okay, okay, stop,” she pleaded, holding a hand out towards him.

“Who the hell are you? None of the Blakes are here.” He searched the walls for the bedroom light and found it next to the door. The flush of the fluorescent glow was blinding at first.

“I’m not a Blake. No one was supposed to be here. Who are you?”

“I’m… I’m just a guy who’s passing through,” he answered, not trusting her with any truths. The girl looked very young. She had dark hair and a pale, lightly-freckled face. Her hair was down, and she stared back at him through her barely-visible green eyes. They were a pale green, lightened by the tears which had welled up in her eyes.

“You’re not passing through. You’re a thief. You were looking for things to steal.” She found her way onto her legs, gripping her left elbow with her right hand. Barry must have hit her there.

“Oh yeah? And why are you in here, then?”

“I… I’m actually passing through. I’m not taking any of their stuff.”

“Wait,” he said, moving closer towards her. “The whites of your eyes are so red. Were you sleeping? Are you squatting here?”

“That’s none of your business,” she blinked, turning away from him and fixing her hair.

“You look twelve, why are you squatting here?”

“I’m fucking fifteen, actually,” she hissed. “You don’t get to question my intentions when you’re just as guilty. So what if I needed a place to stay? You’re breaking and entering with the intention to steal. You’re worse.”

“Wow,” he laughed. “You’re the worst for actually trying to name my crime. Why don’t you have a home?”

“Why the fuck would I tell you?”

“Well, because Mommy and Daddy will be searching for their little runaway. And an anonymous tip would be your worst enemy right now.”

She breathed. “Good luck with that, thief boy. There’s no Mommy and Daddy looking for this little runaway.”

“What, did you murder them before deserting your house?”

“No, you morbid asshole. Leave it alone.” She crossed her arms and turned to look out the window.

“Wait, are you a foster kid or something? How long have you been on the run?”

“I’m not… I’m not on the run. I’ve been free for three months.”

It was only then that Barry noticed just how skinny and underfed the girl looked. Her body seemed weak and deprived under her pyjama shorts and plaid shirt. “You don’t look like you’re doing too well.”

“I’m doing just fine, thank you,” she turned to him, lips pursed. “I was just fine until you broke into my house.”

Barry laughed. “The Blake family lives here. And, last I checked, they didn’t have a super-skinny girl watching the house. You’re a squatter.”

“Do you expect a freaking cookie for being the world’s most researched burglar or something?”

“Would you like a how-to guide on getting by without getting caught by other criminals? Because that’s actually sadder than getting caught by the cops.”

She had her eyes trained on him and did not move for a few seconds. “Could you actually do that?”

Barry laughed. “You look like you need the help.”

She frowned. “Why would you help me? Is this just some trick to get me to suck your dick?”

“Holy shit,” he recoiled, “you’re like, twelve. I would never do something like that to you. I’m a criminal, yeah, but not that kind. Relax.”

“I said I’m fifteen already!” she screamed.

“Shall our first lesson be about meditation and keeping calm, then?” he asked sarcastically.

“Let’s get out of this house first. There’s nothing worthwhile to steal.” She squeezed her elbow as she walked towards the door. It was surely bruised.

“Do you have a name?” Barry asked.

“What’s yours?”

“I’m Barry. Nice to meet you. And, uh, sorry about the arm.”

“I’m Carly. It’s okay. I would have hurt you a lot more.”

Barry laughed as he followed her out of the house.

 

*

 

Carly was just hours shy of her sixteenth birthday as she sat on the balcony overlooking the quiet streets below. She was on the fifth floor of a low-income apartment block on the uglier side of Redford. Redford was only three hours away from the house that Carly had always called home, but she felt as though she was worlds away from that aging memory. She looked at the patchy asphalt below and wished that there was a little more traffic to drown her thoughts out. With all of that silence, she could only imagine allowing herself to fall to the hard ground below. She could imagine the wind washing over her face, and the brief moment of tranquillity before her head hit the street and splattered into a thousand bloody pieces. There was a light breeze blowing, and it called her name. She closed her eyes and breathed it in, and tried to use it to calm herself down. It felt as though she was begging her personal Satan to help her find the good in the darkness.

“You know I hate it when you do that,” she heard Barry’s voice. She opened her eyes and saw him walking over to her, with a cup of coffee in each hand.

“Do what?” she asked unnecessarily.

“Sit on that thin metal, holding on to nothing. Especially when you’re in one of your moods. I can’t trust what you’ll do.” He handed her a cup and sunk his body into his massive green bean bag.

“I’ll trust you a little more if you’re willing to trust me a little more,” she offered, taking a small sip of her coffee.

“I’ve been a stellar host to you for weeks now, haven’t I? We’re at a trust buffet at this point.”

“When midnight comes,” she started, “it’ll be my first birthday outside of the orphanage in eight years. I had eight miserable birthdays there. And now that I’ve found freedom, I’m not sure I’m any better off. I’m more lonely than I’ve ever been and I feel more caged than I’ve ever felt. How is that possible? I got so sick of that old house and that fucking Riley bitch. But, somehow, I feel like being there right now and arguing with her would make me happier than being here and feeling so lost. What am I doing, really? What do I think I’ll become, being a runaway with no hope? I was enough of a castaway at the orphanage, but then I went and cast myself away even more. I,” her eyes welled up and she turned to look away.

“Why did you run away? Who’s Riley? How did you end up here?” Barry had learnt very little about his guest’s past in the weeks that she had spent living with him. Most days, he felt that he knew nothing at all.

She took another sip and sighed. “I ran away because I wanted to find the one thing that the orphanage was supposed to give me, but failed to: a sense of belonging. The Tomlin House just never felt like home to me. I must admit guilt because I could have tried harder with the other kids, but they were all so clique-y. Riley was the über bitch of them all. She had an overpowering personality, and she towered over me in a way that made me super defenceless. I felt that there was nothing I could do to bring her down. And, with her hanging over my head the way that she did, there was no way I was going to make good friends with everybody else. At least, that was until this cute boy moved in. He was older, and we got along really well, but things turned to shit so quickly. I thought he was really into me, but he was apparently just that nice to everyone. I thought I was in love with him, but he was actually just fucking that hot slut, Rai. God, I don’t even have a good reason to hate her; I was really just super jealous of her.

“I don’t think anyone at the house will ever figure out what happened. See, from their perspective, I was just a lonely girl who got heartbroken and ran away. They’d be right on both counts, but they couldn’t tell you why. I was lonely, and my heart was broken, but not because of being an orphan, and not because of that stupid prettyboy. I was lonely because I was thrust into a world with so many people, and I had failed to make a meaningful connection with any of them. I was heartbroken because my heart had been breaking for years as I figured out how sad I was becoming. I latched onto anything that I thought could make me happy, but it always failed. So I found myself sitting on the porch one night, after a really long and really fucked up day at the orphanage. I had never felt that alone before. I was crying, and no one had come out to comfort me. Stupid shit had happened with that stupid boy, and Riley just gave me the final push with her bitch words. I was alone, and I was crying. No one was there. I looked up at the barely-visible stars and wondered what the fuck I was still sticking around for. I always waited for that comfort to be handed to me, but I never truly tried to find it myself. The house was already a lost cause, but the rest of the world wasn’t. In that moment, I felt as though I would rather die than spend another night in that house. So I got up, packed my things, and chose the option that would lead to me rather dying. I said no goodbyes. I only took what I could carry in one bag. I didn’t have much to begin with, anyway.”

“And then?” Barry urged, showing a little too much enthusiasm.

“And then Redford. I took all that I had in my little piggybank and paid for the bus that would take me the furthest away. I knew that the Tomlins would not try very hard to find me, but I still wanted to be light-years away from them. I didn’t even think about food, or where I would stay. I got off at the first stop in the city, and then I spent the night out there. It was one of the coldest nights of my life. I could almost feel my fingers and toes dying as I huddled in a corner and relied on only hope to make it through the night. When the sun came out in the morning, I could barely believe that I was still in the same state that I fell asleep in. I hadn’t been robbed or touched, but I was fucking starving. I walked around town until I found an outdoor food market on the corner of Green and Main. I still looked clean enough, so I tried to grab a small loaf of homemade bread and then blend into the crowd. The crowd was big enough, but my hand wasn’t fast enough. The baker grabbed me at the wrist before I could turn away. And fuck, his grip was tight as hell. At first, his eyes were cold as ice, and I showed nothing but fear in mine. But, I don’t know, maybe he could sense how desperate and scared I was, because his eyes softened, and his grip loosened. He told me to get lost so I did exactly that, not realising how lost I already was. Fuck me, that bread was the most delicious plain bread that I had ever eaten. I was so hungry, but it was also so good that I felt intense guilt for not having paid a cent. I wolfed my way through half of it, and decided to keep the rest for later. I spent my second night in Jones Park, making one of the benches my bed for the night. I was not any warmer than the night before, but I had taken on a more comfortable position.

“I woke up to find that my bread was still there, but it had fallen off the bench and become a feast for ants and pigeons. I was so fucking pissed, but things could have been worse, I guess. I spent the rest of the day searching for less obvious ways to steal food, but it’s not as easy as it looks in the movies. There are cameras and security everywhere. I was going hungry again, and I went back to the park at night. I had no proper sense of time, but somewhere in the colder parts of the night, I woke up to a hand grabbing my ass. It was this old homeless guy with no teeth, giving me the filthiest gummy smile that I’d ever seen. I’m usually a very light sleeper, but I must have been sleeping my exhaustion and hunger off. Luckily for me, he was old, so he wouldn’t be able to chase after me. I left my bag in my panic. I would have gone back for it, but I saw him pick my underwear out and sniff on it, and I couldn’t deal with that. It was so revolting. I spent the rest of the night just walking. I didn’t know where I was going, and I guess it didn’t matter. Just before sunrise, I found myself in a residential area. It was a very middle-class area, and it seemed nice. One of the houses that I walked past had no lights on, and a very low fence. I decided to look in, just out of curiosity. The house seemed empty, so I made my way round back and broke one of the windows as quietly as I could. Still, no sound from the inside, so I snuck in and shot straight for the kitchen. They didn’t have much food, so I assumed they were away. The fridge was switched off, and there was nothing fresh, but they had canned food, and that’s all I needed to stay alive. After stuffing myself on baked beans and canned noodles, I found my way to a bed and had the best and most comfortable sleep that I had had in years.

“When I say years, I mean it literally. I hadn’t had a peaceful sleep at the Tomlin Home for a very long time. Alone, in that house, as I fell asleep, I felt free. I felt like I was in a moment where everything was by my own doing. I was relying only on myself, and I saw a split second of hope. As I was passing out, I felt unbound. As I slipped away, I knew I wouldn’t be woken up by the voice of an unbearable bitch. But I was woken up by the voice of an unbearable bitch in the form of the owner’s dog barking out of excitement. Well, I don’t know if the dog was female or not, but you get the point. I’m glad I heard it, because it gave me the time to sneak out the way I had snuck in. And that’s who I became; a watcher who targeted empty homes for their food and bedding. I avoided staying longer than two nights at a time. I never wanted to become too comfortable or risk being seen. I liked houses with teenage girls in the family. I would always take an item or two out of their closets. Never anything too distinct, or anything that they might miss. I needed the change of clothes, and I needed their hair products when I showered. I made it through a month and a half living that way, until I found the Blake House.

“I was in a house two doors down when I noticed that the Blake family was going off on a trip. They dropped a note off at my house, whose family was out for a day and a half. Thea, the mother, slipped it in under the door. So, after they left, I opened it. It was a bunch of numbers to call, and details about their trip. Most importantly, however, it had their alarm code so that my house could check in on theirs. I took the note and used the code to switch houses. I figured that I could spend a little more time there, because I knew exactly how long they would be away, and I had the feeling of security on my side. Their food was fresher, and their daughter, Joss, was a very similar body type to mine. As with all of the other houses, I never switched on any lights, or played any music, or watched any TV. I stayed away from the windows, and did everything quietly. Six days into my time of bliss, I heard a noise in the house. The alarm hadn’t gone off, so I picked up Jimmy’s baseball bat and went looking. That’s when we met.” She looked straight into Barry’s wide eyes.

“Fuck. You knew all of their names?”

“Yes,” she sighed. “I did not have much to entertain myself with, so I would always go through books, photo albums, the works. I guess I was curious, but I was also seeing what having a real family is like. They did things together, they hugged, they kissed, they smiled, and they reassured each other. No amount of running, and no number of houses, would ever give me that. I was eternally alone. And the first person I met in ages tried to beat me up.”

“Whoa, hey,” Barry protested, putting his coffee down. “You attacked me from behind, with a baseball bat. I thought the house was empty. You could have been a ghost.”

“Do you believe in ghosts, Barry?”

“No, not particularly.”

Carly looked away. Her hand was shivering, causing the coffee to spill over just a little. “Well, maybe you should. Maybe I’m a ghost. Or maybe I will be, very soon.”

Barry jumped up and grabbed her small body as she was slipping off of the railing. Had he been just a little slower, her body would have become a mess on the hard asphalt below.

“Why did you stop me?” she growled.

He kept his arms tight around her, and pulled her down to the bean bag. He held on as her body shook and she broke out into a light sob. Her warm tears fell onto his arms.

“Because I care, Carly. I might have only known you for a few weeks, but you’re not just some passing presence in my life. You’ve been through a lot of shit, and I know this could make you hate yourself, but you’re way too young to give up, and you deserve so much more. I can’t give you everything that you deserve, but I can help get you on your way. I know it took time to trust me, and I know I haven’t taught you much, but I’m willing to help you in any way that you need. Even if it’s just me being here to listen to you. I’m not going to let you give up like this, trust me. I want to be the reassurance that you need.”

“Then teach me how to be safe. Teach me how to care for myself.”

“My grandfather’s knife,” he said, pulling a fixed-blade knife from his pocket. It was in a leather sheath, marked with his grandfather’s name. “It’s the closest thing that I have to a family heirloom. I want you to have it, as a sign of what you mean to me. And, if the time ever comes to use it, remember to first stab, but, just as important, remember to twist the blade while it’s still inside of them. That’s your first real lesson, and one I hope you never need to apply.”

“Stab and twist,” she repeated.

“Carly,” he said, holding her face and looking her in the eyes. “You have to promise me that you’ll never attempt to harm yourself again. I swear to god, hurt someone else, if you have to, but never yourself. Promise me.”

“I promise, Barry. You can trust me.” She rested her head on his chest and closed her eyes, clutching the knife with her right hand.

“I promise to be there whenever you need me most,” he said in oath, and wiped the tears from her cheeks.

“I’m gonna hold you to that.”

 

*

 

“Got somethin’ on your mind, Barry?” Ronny asked. It was evident in his tone that he did not actually care, but he wanted to make sure that the team was ready for the job.

“No, Ronny, I’m fine,” Barry answered.

“I told you; no lethal force, unless necessary. We taze the guards, get in, get what we want, and then get out. Simple as that.”

“I suppose that’s why we need Big Justin over here, right?” Barry sneered, looking at the silent muscleman in front of him.

“Come on,” Ronny laughed. “He’s a big softie. And he’s quiet. Who wouldn’t want a guy like that on their team? Besides, he makes up for all the muscle that our hacker boy here doesn’t have, right?” He nudged Justin for a forced laugh, but the massive man showed no change in expression.

“Does he actually not talk, or is he just that quiet?”

“Who the fuck cares? We’re here,” he said, looking out of the window. “Get ready. We taze the guards and then move quickly. This Mr Stein must have left somethin’ really tasty behind.”

The Stein Mansion was in full view, with two guards at the gate. They looked extremely calm, as if they had no idea that their boss had been killed not long ago. Ronny was driving, with Justin in the passenger seat. They drove up to the gate in a station wagon so as to look as innocent as possible. As soon as the car was lined up with a guard on each side, the men whipped their tazers out and hit them square in the chest. It was an extremely quiet takedown, and bought the thieving team a few minutes to find what they needed. The hacker grabbed the gate remote and granted the men access to the mansion. They car sped up the driveway and parked close to the front door.

“You all know what to do,” Ronny reminded them. “You two, find the safe. Barry, you’re on watch downstairs. Let’s go.”

“Bit odd for a rich businessman to own a Mini Cooper and park it right outside, don’t you think?” Barry commented, noticing the car.

“Just do your fucking job, Barry, or you won’t get your cut,” Ronny threatened before turning to walk through the front door.

Barry took a deep breath and looked away. He walked over to the Mini Cooper and put his hand flat against the hood. The engine was still warm. Somebody had to have arrived at the house before they did, and they were most likely still there. Barry reached for his radio to warn his team but felt himself hesitate as he noticed the scattered possessions in the back. The driver must have been female, based on the clothing and makeup kit. Barry had to think hard. Ronny had shown a horrible pattern of being psychopathic around women. Barry had only put up with it because this was their last job together and he needed the final boost of cash. However, considering the mass of blood and bruises that Ronny’s last female victim was left in, Barry chose not to radio it in. He ran into the house and started searching the first floor.

Every room in the Stein Mansion was about three times bigger than what it would be in a normal house. The rooms were also oddly-shaped, causing Barry to experience quite the run-around. He paused in the entertainment room when he spotted a painting that caught his attention. He walked closer to it to inspect it, wondering why he felt so drawn to it. He stared at the painting for a good minute before images of his not-so-distant past began to flash before his eyes. It had been so long since he had last seen Carly, but the eyes in the painting looked almost exactly like hers. He had gotten so close to saving her, but had failed in his last moments. They had both suffered a relapse of sorts, and fallen away from each other. He never thought that he would go a day without worrying about her, but keeping himself busy had made it a lot easier. He was no saviour. He was never meant to be a –

A scream broke him out of his reminiscent trance. It came from upstairs, and it was definitely feminine. He had forgotten about his search.

“Is everything good up there? What’s taking so long?” he asked stupidly. No duration of separation could make him fail to recognise the helpless voice that he heard on the other side. “Carly?” he said to the sound of uncaring static.

With blind desperation, he made a dash for the staircase. He could not afford to lose a second, and he could not afford to lose Carly to Ronny.

 

******

NOW

 

From outside, the house looked so peaceful. There were no telltale signs of the murder and bloodshed that lay behind those pristine walls. Carly wondered how long it would be before the guards woke up and investigated the mess inside the Stein Mansion, but she did not want to wait around to find out. She stepped into the car and shut the door, resting her head against the cold window. Lizzy threw a pile of documents onto the backseat and started the engine. They had both gone silent after everything that they had just witnessed. The soft hum of the engine was the only sound for what felt like an agonising eternity. Neither of them could stand it.

“Why did you take those papers from the safe?” Carly started.

“Because… I don’t know. Because I need to know why Glen lied to me. And the only secrets I can think of must be hidden in these documents. It’s stupid, but it’s worth a shot.”

“What are you hoping to find?” she asked, reaching into the backseat to grab two files.

“Carly… I don’t know. I don’t know where we go from here.”

There was a collective sigh in the car as Carly flipped through pages upon pages of legal jargon. None of it was even remotely interesting, but she persevered regardless.

“Are you going to explain to me who that was back there?” Lizzy asked. The question had been playing around in her mind since the save.

“Barry is a long story,” Carly breathed.

“Are we in any particular rush?” Lizzy pointed out, having no idea where to drive to.

“Barry… Barry sort of saved my life, at least, before he did again tonight,” she began. She glossed over the details of their meeting and initial relationship. “For the first few weeks, I lived as a drone in his apartment. I barely trusted him, but I needed somewhere to stay, and he was accommodating. He was supposed to be training me to become a criminal like him, but I had very little interest. I’m surprised he didn’t kick me out, because I was really just freeloading. And then, one night, we had a conversation that gave me a little hope, and brought me back from my deep self-pity. I started to care for him then, as I believed he cared for me. To be quite honest, I’m not sure how I didn’t fall in love with him. Or, maybe I did, I don’t know. I started learning how to look after myself, but I was also becoming really attached to him. It was all great for a while, but I couldn’t help taking risks at every turn. Maybe I wanted more of his attention, I don’t know. It’s weird, saying all of this out loud. But he was a crook, and I was a runaway, and we were both doomed to relapse.”

“How?”

“A fight – not between us – he would never do that. We tried a wallet scam on this guy who turned out to be conning people himself, except that he had muscled backup. Barry tried to fight them off while I ran, but one of them threw his fucking brass knuckles at me and hit me right on the head. I fell, and he caught up. They beat the living shit out of both of us – no mercy. They left us on the street, and we had to wait for one of Barry’s friends because we couldn’t call the cops. Despite being in a bad state himself, he took care of my injuries at home because we couldn’t risk a hospital. I still have the scars. We didn’t talk for days after that happened. I tried to break the silence, but Barry blamed himself for all of it. When he eventually spoke, it wasn’t good. He didn’t want to drag me down with him. Or, whatever, he just couldn’t stand to see me beaten up like that. He wanted me to go legitimate and get a waitressing job or something. And that sounded so fucking boring but I was in pain, and boring seemed so appealing. So I, wait,” she trailed off.

“What?” Lizzy looked.

“Didn’t you say Glen only had four strip clubs in Lutherton?”

“Yeah, he only has four. Why?”

“Name them.”

“The Decagon, Hexagon, Heptagon, and Octagon. Why, Carly?”

“They’re all geometrical shapes?” she probed, paging back and forth more furiously.

“Yeah, I guess he had a slight obsession. The buildings themselves bear a resemblance to those shapes, and they each have a strict colour scheme. The Deca is pink, the Hexa is green, the Hepta is red, and the Octa is blue. Why are you suddenly so interested in this?”

“What’s the Pentagon, then?”

“The Pentagon? There’s no such thing.”

“Wait,” Carly bit her lip, “what does Glen own on the other side of the river?”

“I don’t know, but whatever it is, it’s definitely not a strip club. That side of Lutherton would never allow such a stain.”

“Stop the car. Now.”

Lizzy brought the car to a quick stop on the side of a mountain road. “What is it, Carly? Just tell me.”

“Get your GPS out. Show me where the clubs are, in relation to each other. I think Glen’s obsession was bigger than you thought.”

Lizzy switched her car’s GPS on and loaded a map of Lutherton. She marked the four points on the map which corresponded with the locations of the four strip clubs.

“Oh my god,” Carly gasped, looking at the locations. “Do you see that?”

“What? Goddammit, just tell me,” Lizzy huffed, growing impatient.

“If you draw an imaginary line going from the Decagon to the Octagon, it makes a very square ‘U’ shape.”

“Yeah, so?”

“Well, look,” she continued, “imagine you were obsessed with geometrical shapes. If you wanted a fifth club, and wanted to call it the Pentagon, where would you put it?”

“I don’t know, what are you –” she paused, her eyes wide. “I’d put one right there, in the middle of the Ford Plaza, on the other side of the river.”

“Yes, there, whatever, and that would complete the imaginary line. That would make one massive Pentagon shape over the map of Lutherton. According to these plans, it’s what he wanted. The club would have been gold-themed, like a final achievement.”

“Yeah, that’s great, but it didn’t happen. It was just a dream.”

“Wait,” Carly urged. “He owns an expensive piece of property there, though. And he told me that this key had something to do with his life’s work. Maybe there’s something there that’s worth seeing.”

Lizzy exhaled loudly and put her head down against the steering wheel. “Carly, there’s nothing to find. This was just a wild goose chase. Aren’t you tired of running around?”

“What else are we going to do?”

“I don’t know, Carly” she blinked, “maybe it’s time we went home.”

“Home?” Carly sat up. “One of the many things that I don’t have?”

“You know what I meant,” she tried in an apologetic tone.

“It’s one more thing, Lizzy,” Carly pleaded. “One more thing – it’s the only clue we have left. If there’s nothing there, it’s done. But we have to at least try. This key must mean something.”

“Aren’t you scared? After everything that just happened?”

“Nobody else could possibly know about this place, though. It’ll just be us going on a little treasure hunt.”

Lizzy buried her face in her hands and took a deep breath. She was tired, but her heart was too restless for her to consider slowing down. “Fine, Carly. But, this time, it’s on you if anything goes wrong.”

“We’ll be fine. If we drive there any time this century, that is,” she pressed, pushing Lizzy’s chin up.

Lizzy shook her head and started the car. With a firm grip on the steering wheel, she directed the car towards Glen’s Ford Plaza loft.

Carly scrolled through the list of contacts on the phone that Barry had given her. There were only fourteen of them, and one was saved as ‘Barry’.

“What was the point of that phone?” Lizzy asked. “All you could do is wait for him to call you.”

“I guess so, yeah. But it’s something, at least. I don’t know. I could text this… Does Glen have security at this other place?”

“I don’t know, but I have a feeling that we’re very close to finding out.”

Carly looked up and saw the stretch of road ahead of her. Ford Plaza was the industrial district of Lutherton in the early days of the city. The worse side of the river became the better side of the river when the town planners decided that the mountainside deserved cleaner air and brighter streets. All of the factories and their men were moved over the river, and a city-wide revamp took place to clean the streets. The industrial buildings were all either repurposed or completely demolished to make room for more visually pleasant constructs. Gentrification would be an understatement when considering the long-term effects of the overhaul. The mountain side of the river became exclusive and only for the affluent and well-established. No blue collars existed on this side of the river. The air was clean and light, and the wallets were mostly dirty and heavy. It was the perfect place for Lutherton’s controlling powers to live. It was a place of mutual escape and eccentricity. Considering the hearts of those who populated the area, it was more than surprising that they drew the line at gentlemen’s clubs. It was a place of moral ambiguity and hard rules. It was a different state.

“This is it. This is Glen’s loft.”

Glen was a rich man who liked his privacy. All of the other surrounding lofts took inspiration from glass themes and transparency. Glen’s loft, however, was dark in all of its themes. It was a stark contrast to his mansion, and an even more intense contrast to the colours that it was surrounded by. It was three storeys of artistically-exposed brick and wood. The bricks were a dark grey that blended smoothly with the blackened wood. The larger surface areas were covered by a shimmering glass that resembled gothic wine chalices. It was impossible to see in.

“Did he seriously go with the option of black glass for his loft?” Carly asked as she took a step out of the car.

“No,” Lizzy frowned. “It’s clear glass that tints somehow. I remember him mentioning it to me in passing. I assume he makes it tint at night for extra privacy.”

“Let’s hope that that’s because he has something to hide.”

Just like his mansion, Glen had an electronic lock on his door that required a security code. The door was a tall, glossy black behemoth. Lizzy gave the keypad a hard look before considering the code.

“What?” Carly asked, reading her expression.

Lizzy keyed a long string of digits and watched as the display flashed green and the door clicked open. She exhaled angrily.

“What?” Carly asked again. “It worked.”

“Yes,” Lizzy answered, “it worked, but it was a different code.”

“And what’s wrong with that?” Carly probed as she walked into the loft. The lights to the first floor came on automatically as they detected her presence. Lizzy followed cautiously, this being the first time she was unfamiliar with something that belonged to Glen.

“I was supposed to know all of Glen’s codes and passwords. That one was a guess, which means that he didn’t trust me with it. I’m not supposed to be here. And if I’m not, I doubt anyone else is.”

“Lucky us, then, we’ll be the only ones here this time,” Carly huffed, taking a quick look around the brightly-it first floor. It was completely open plan, allowing her to see from the lounge to the kitchen. It had a minimalist design to it, with bare walls and glass interior. It did not look as though anyone lived there on a daily basis. There were no paintings on the walls, very few things were plugged in, and there were no visible signs of food. The only thing more concerning was the lack of dust. It’s as if someone came in to maintain a place that barely needed any maintenance to begin with.

A metal staircase led away from the first floor, and Carly followed it. Lizzy was right next to her as they made their way to the uppermost floor. The lights came on automatically all the way until the third floor, where only the short hallway lit up. One door stood out from the others; it was a beige door with a pentagon etched delicately into it. It was an obvious invitation. Carly marched on confidently, opening the door into a dark room. Lizzy followed her in, searching the wall for a light switch.

“I’ll help you out with that,” said an ominous, anonymous voice from within the darkness. The lights to the large office lit up sequentially after he had spoken. The room lit up to reveal Jonathan Black in a black leather armchair with an armed guard to his left and to his right. Both men wore black suits and dark sunglasses, and they were armed with automatic handguns. Jonathan Black was in yet another signature white suit.

“Fucking shit,” were the appropriate words which escaped Lizzy’s mouth. “Of all the people in the fucking world, you?”

“Who is this, now?” Carly asked, puzzled by the ambush.

“You two,” Black signalled his guards, “out – go guard the entrance. I want to be alone with these idiots.”

Without a word, the two men disappeared from the room. Black made a note of displaying his silenced Magnum, which was shiny and threatening in his gloved hands. His guests stayed put as he stood up to address them.

“You really think that lowly of me, Lizzy? Is it really such a surprise that I would know about Glen’s affairs? I was his fucking lawyer, for Christ’s sake!”

“The first time I saw you,” Lizzy grimaced, “you were his little bitch. And now you dare to mess with his secrets?”

“He’s fucking dead! Didn’t you get the memo? He’s gone! Somebody offed that fat cunt and now I get to dig into his corrupt spoils.” Black was foaming at the mouth as he howled his frustrations. He held his gun carelessly and waved it with every inflection.

“Wow,” Carly spoke, “you’re a dramatic piece of shit, aren’t you?”

“Carly!” Lizzy warned. “What are you doing?”

“If I’m about to die, I may as well die having said whatever I want.”

“Carly?” Black repeated, unsure of himself. “Who the fuck are you? What are you doing here? You look twelve.”

“I’m fucking seventeen! And I killed your stupid client. I made him beg, and I’ll do the exact same thing to you!” Her teeth were bared and snarling.

“You’ll make me beg?” Black laughed. “I’ll make you beg, you little bitch. Right after you get me what’s mine in that vault.” He pointed to his left. A door stood in a space that must have been hidden by a full-body mirror. It was a shiny, metal door with a touchpad and slot for a key. That slot could only be for one key.

“Can you believe that?” Black continued. “That idiot had a full-body mirror to hide his vault, as if anyone would believe that he used a full-body mirror to begin with! He didn’t even live here.”

“Oh my god,” Carly interjected, rolling her eyes. “Can we just open it and see what’s in there already? I don’t give a flying fuck about your villain monologue.”

Lizzy sunk her head with a loud sigh.

“You know,” Black spoke, “if you weren’t on the wrong side of this whole thing, I would probably like you. Give me the key.”

He ripped the key from around her neck and employed no caution in dragging Lizzy by her hair towards the touchpad. Carly jumped forward in protest, but was met with a hard metal jab to the shoulder. She dropped to the floor, grasping her shoulder and groaning in pain.

“I hope you won’t waste my time, because I’m confident that you know all of his codes and passwords. We’re going to open this thing together, and then I’m going to leave your rotting body behind as a final message to him.”

“Why do you hate him so much?” Lizzy asked. Her voice was sincere, and she possessed a true desire to know.

“I just did,” he answered. “I hated his stupid fucking face from the very beginning. I was willing to work with him at first, but then I started to hate his sordid heart as well. He was so overwhelmingly greedy and power hungry. And, sure, Lutherton is full of those types. Hell, some might even say I’m just like them. But, would I ever break a man’s damn fingers for a small transgression? I am a man of the law. I am a respected individual in this city. Do you know how humiliating that was? It was the worst pain I’ve ever felt, and it was still secondary to the wounding I suffered underneath. I won’t let go without taking from him.”

“Wow,” Carly laughed, “the man can bitch.”

“Are you begging me to blow your brains out?” Black spat.

Two silenced gunshots resounded from the floors below. Black turned sharply to look around, and then pushed Lizzy towards the touchpad. “Unlock this damn thing, now! If you sent anyone after you, that would have been the sound of my men getting rid of them. Enter the damn password!”

He held her face close to the touchpad and inserted the designer key into its slot. The slot lit up in a pale green as he turned it clockwise. Lizzy entered the password reluctantly. The display beeped and flashed green. There was a faint hum and a flush of cool air as the door slid open. He kneed Lizzy’s face out of the way and pulled the door wide open. It revealed a small room of shelves covering all of the walls. Each shelf was populated by black luggage bags made of leather. He walked in and unzipped one of the bags to reveal that it was filled to the brim with money.

“I knew it!” he exclaimed. “I fucking knew it!” He proceeded to open more and more of the bags, all containing the same hard cash. “It had to be somewhere. All of this time, this is what he was doing.”

“Jonathan,” Lizzy spoke, blood trickling out of her mouth.  “Please, let the girl go. She’s just a kid. She doesn’t need to be in the middle of this.”

“So, what,” Carly protested, “you expect me to just leave you with this maniac?”

“No,” Black turned, pointed at Carly’s leg, and fired. She screamed in agony. “You’re staying right here and learning a thing or two about respect.”

“For fuck’s sake, Jonathan, she’s just a kid!” Lizzy begged, horrified.

“A kid who knows too much, and clearly can’t keep her mouth shut. You,” he pointed at Lizzy, “in the vault, so I can see you while I get these bags out.”

He nudged Lizzy into the vault and proceeded to hurl the heavy bags out of the vault and onto the office floor, near Carly’s body. Each bag landed with a dulled thump.

Out of the corner of her tear-filled eyes, Carly noticed the officer door creaking open slightly. It moved slowly and silently until Barry’s face stuck through, eyeing the room until he spotted Carly. She looked back at him with wild eyes, unable to give any signals without being caught. She merely nodded her head in approval of whatever plan Barry might have had. Barry stayed low, crawling behind the cover of the office desk between him and Black. There was nothing further to take cover with, and Black’s back and forth pacing did not allow for a very big window to strike.

“Hey, Jonathan, asshole,” Carly taunted, “why keep me waiting? Why not just kill me already, since I know so much and won’t shut up?”

“What is wrong with you?” he frowned. “Do you have an actual death wish?”

“Carly, what are you doing?” Lizzy fought weakly.

Black aimed at her face and walked towards her, putting himself in a direct line from Barry. “Yeah, you have a fucking death wish, don’t you? What’s stopping me from just –”

There was a silenced bang and Black’s gun flew out of his hand, blood flying onto Carly’s face. Black screamed in confused agony, searching the room for the source of the bullet. He saw Barry as he stood up, his gun trained on his chest. He was ambushed.

Carly pulled herself up and limped towards the fallen guy, picking it up and using the butt to land a hard knock on Black’s face. He clutched his face with the unhurt hand and fell to his knees. She clasped a handful of his hair and pulled his head back so that he was looking up at her. She forced the gun into his mouth and stared into his wild, desperate eyes.

“Beg,” she ordered. “I told you I’d make you beg. So, beg.”

Both Lizzy and Barry ran towards her.

“Carly, no,” Lizzy pleaded, “not like this. You don’t want this resting on your shoulders for the rest of your life.”

“So what? I’ve already done it. But this pig is the fucking worst. He threatened me. He threatened you. He hurt us and didn’t flinch when he shot me. Why does he deserve to live?”

“That’s not for you to decide, Carly,” Barry answered, his voice calm and soothing. “You don’t want that responsibility.”

“You’re fucking scum,” she said, not moving her eyes away. “You’re fucking scum and you deserve nothing good in life. I hate you.”

Lizzy slowly pulled her away from Black and made her back off, holding her by the shoulders. “Barry, any suggestions?”

“Knock him out. Take as much as we can and then tip the cops. He’ll be found here and, with his boys outside, all evidence will dirty his hands anyway.”

“That should work, right? I am so done with this night.”

“We have to be fast. And we’ll have to split up.”

“Again?” Carly sniffed.

“I’m wounded, remember? I’ll only slow you two down.” His growing paleness suddenly became much more apparent with those words.

Carly hopped over to him and pulled him into a tight embrace, resting her head against his heart.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered.

“No, thank you,” she breathed. “Thank you for everything.”

 

To be concluded…