Happily ever after. The hard way. David Fitz and Juno Conjay quit the drugs, each other, but life isn't getting any easier. Stuck in cut-rate witness protection with some strange neighbours, things get really complicated when David's old boss gets out of jail and comes gunning for him, and the secret uncovered in his new place of residence seem to be much worse than what they've been running from.
David Fitz is a small time drug dealer and con artist who funds his habits and that of his girlfriend, Juno, through drug sales and petty crime. Both are eager to get clean and start a new life, far away from the dangers of the city.
They hatch a plan, with an ambitious police officer, to provide evidence against David’s boss. Together they will bring him to justice in return for witness protection. It sounds simple enough, but as soon as they kick their habits Juno gets cold feet. She decides that she no longer wants to rat on David’s boss, or to be a part of David’s life anymore, though she knows that staying together is the only way to stay alive and that the original plan will have to be carried out.
Things get even worse when the cop they are working with leaves them in the middle of nowhere, with no money, no real protection and no long-term plan.
When David’s boss is released on bail after just 24 hours they know he will soon be after them. And when he phones them at their new home, they find that there is yet another twist in their already complicated situation.
In their seemingly nice new neighbourhood, David and Juno befriend Cadence and Brent. The couple seem friendly enough, but why are they so keen to help when they themselves could face untold dangers?
With ever dwindling options, and David’s boss closing in on them, he and Juno are forced into trusting their new neighbours with their lives. Their strange alliance has to be better than the certain death they are facing if David's boss finds them
Then again, it could be much, much worse.
This summer I stayed a district away from home at my favourite uncle’s house. Actually, to be honest, I’m not really sure he’s related to me. I think my mom just calls him uncle because he helps out by watching me when she has to go away. I’m not even sure she’s ever really met him. He said I should start out this paper by writing that I really hope I get a good grade on it. I told him I didn’t think we were allowed to do that. But he insisted, so I put it in here. It’s not the first sentence, like he wanted, but I think he’d be happy it’s in the first paragraph. He also said I shouldn’t write that I think this sort of essay is too childish an exercise for a teenager to still have to do before the beginning of the school year, but I’m putting that in here too, so you’ll know what I’m writing is honest and true.
I learnt a lot of things living at my uncle’s over the past three months. For instance, when I first got there and wanted to watch some television he said to me: “Look around you, Davey. Look at your world. Are you surrounded by things you love? Why not?” I didn’t understand what he meant. Except, I thought maybe he meant the world is a beautiful place and I needed to live in it, not just watch moving pictures of it, to really experience its true wonder. He would never explain himself. I think it’s because he figured me out a long time before I really understood myself. Or maybe he just guessed correctly, based on what he knew of my relationship with my mom. He knows I need my world to have some sense of certainty. But he insists I’ll be better off if my world is a puzzle. A riddle. Something to work on, inside my head, when he isn’t around, which is almost all the time. I’m not really sure why my mom thinks it’s a good idea to have him look after me when she’s away, but I don’t have much say in the matter and it gives me the freedom to do whatever I want when I’m living with him. Except watch television, because he doesn’t own a TV set. Or any lights. He doesn’t own a lot of things most people do. My bed is usually a mattress on the floor in an otherwise empty room.
I think the most important lesson I learnt this summer with my uncle, I learnt on my own. While I was feeling truly alone. While he probably assumed I was sitting around my room trying to figure out whatever confusing response to a simple request he’d left me to ponder. I had a few friends in his borough and, even though my uncle and my mom probably wouldn’t approve of me spending time with them, it’s not like either of them were around to complain. As long as I made it back home by night, no questions were asked. If anyone was there to ask them.
My friends and I spent most of the summer doing nothing of real consequence. That’s what summer’s for, I think. I got to watch television with them, so that made me happy. But it also made me sad, I guess, because they liked to watch the news and that made me think of what my uncle had said in response to my initial plea to waste some time sitting in front of a TV set. The stuff the news reported on every night wasn’t good. And it wasn’t fun, like most of the times I spent doing stuff around town with, or without, my friends. It was all depressing. And it made me not want to watch any more. Mostly, it made me realise that, when I was watching the television with them, I felt like I wasn’t surrounded by anything I loved. My friends were there, sure, but the terrible things the news people showed us were happening all over the world—even in our little part of it—made it seem like maybe my world wasn’t really that beautiful a place after all.
But my uncle, for all of his strange and evasive behaviour, had managed to get that philosophical muscle working overtime inside me. And sometime around a week or three into my vacation, I started hanging out by myself a lot more, after my friends and I got done doing what we did for fun. His little questions even got me wondering if what I considered fun was really that great, because what my friends and I did for fun wasn’t legal and, if we ever got caught, we’d get in a lot of trouble. My uncle told me not to put that part in this paper, either, since he said it might put him in a fix too, but I thought I should, since it directly relates to what I learnt and he’s never going to read this far into my essay anyway. I could be wrong. I can’t predict what he’ll do from moment to moment. But I’m positive I won’t be there in person to hand in this assignment and get whatever grade I deserve.
During my first three weeks in town, while I was hanging out with my friends and we were having fun, I met a girl I liked a whole lot. I’d seen her many times before, over the years, on other summers with my uncle and on days when I didn’t have school and my mom had to go away. And I always remembered seeing her, even though I was sure she never noticed me because we didn’t have the same friends, I was never in town on any sort of regular schedule, I didn’t want her to meet my uncle, or see my room, and she was way too pretty to just go up and talk to. My friends would make fun of me whenever she was around. They were being mean, but I felt sure they were trying to help me out in their own way.
They started out calling me a chicken whenever I couldn’t get up the guts to talk to her but, as we got older, they began telling me she had a stupid looking face and she was fat and ugly and I could do a lot better. It made me angry when they talked about her like that, but it also made me feel special. And it made me feel lucky. Not to have friends like them, but to know the one girl who could stop my heart with a glance in my direction might be meant just for me. If she looked as repellent to the rest of the world as she looked attractive to me, that had to mean something really good. It made sense to me, anyway, and I didn’t care much about what the rest of the world thought as long as I could look at my world and see myself surrounded by at least one thing I loved.
Her name was Melody. And I suppose, if she’s still among the living, that hasn’t changed. Although I’m pretty sure the last time I saw her was the next to last time anyone ever did.
She was stunning. Skin as white as milk and orange-red hair that looked darker in the sunlight. Covered from head to toe with a nearly invisible soft white fur. A little heavy around the sides of her lips, but the whiskers were incredibly sexy and not masculine at all. Very small breasts. Long, skinny-fat arms and legs. Hips that looked wide, even though they weren’t broader than her waist, and an ass that looked wide too, and flat, even though it was fat at the bottom. Her upper thighs were big and soft, perfectly shaped and fluid and the lower half of her stomach was an adorable pooch belly. Most of these imperfections, if anyone were to consider them imperfect and not impossibly arousing, she kept tucked away in body slimming undergarments. Hosiery she wore from the waist down instead of the revealing lacy panties all the other girls wore underneath the extra short skirts they dared us not to peek up while making sure to give us every opportunity. She wasn’t textbook beautiful, but that made her all the more appealing. I think, if I can be sure of anything, I fell in love with her the first time I saw her. Back before she slowly began crumbling under society’s ridiculous definition of glamour and she still wore her gorgeous body with pride. With a confidence that was more perfect than any subjective standard ever could be.
And over the past summer, when the things my friends and I did for fun expanded into moving drugs from dealer to dealer, we finally began to mix in the same social circles. But by the time I really met her, she was already dating some older guy named Dan, which, after all that time, hurt bad enough. And the guy she was with dealt drugs for some big hitters, and a few of my buddies told me he pimped her out from time to time. Only to show everyone he could, they said, because he could just as easily finalise any drug deal with a handshake or a gun. And that made me sad and angry at the same time. Because they said I could have my favourite girl now, if I still wanted her. Just like everyone else who was interested in buying whatever her boyfriend was selling. For a long time, before my friends told me that, I was convinced they were looking out for me when they talked down about her. Trying to keep me from getting my heart ripped out by some girl I was too scared to approach anyway. And, before I found out she was seeing someone steady and they told me the real deal, I honestly felt like my world was starting to fill up with things I loved. Or, at least, one thing I could love.
I tried not to get too close to her after that, no matter how desperately I still wanted to. Even though, as the days passed and we stayed out hustling more often, I’d see her here and there. At a party or on the streets with her friends. On the rare occasion when I couldn’t run away and hide, I’d ignore my bruised and battered ego and talk to her and she was very friendly, very well spoken and proper, and also very shy. That confused me, because my friends talked about her like she was a piece of property and they told me she was like all the other girls, except easier. Yet I never felt that from her. Whenever I saw her and we’d notice each other, I felt a sadness that wasn’t coming from inside me. But my friends had poisoned my mind to a degree, and their voices were always in my head fighting with my uncle’s. Telling me she wasn’t a thing I loved. That she was just really good at seeming like one.
Still, my uncle’s wisdom, or maybe it was insanity, always won out. Because I wanted to believe the world was a beautiful place. And I wanted to believe I was surrounded by things I loved. And love, as I understand it, has to work both ways. When it only works one way, when it’s not returned, it’s just infatuation, dependency or desperate need. I didn’t want to believe my world merely consisted of things I was addicted to. I wanted Melody to be better than the drugs her boyfriend dealt, and my friends and I helped him move. I wanted her to be something beautiful and I wanted my feelings for her to be something true. So I kept my distance, which kept me safe. Not knowing for sure if what my friends told me was true was better than having my heart broken. I thought.
But she kept showing up in my world. Maybe it was circumstance, coincidence. Maybe it was because the universe, or God or whatever it is that makes everything the way it is, was making sure we both found out what we really meant to each other in our respective worlds.
And I truly connected with her for the first time the last time I saw her.
It was a late afternoon when the sun was shining more brightly than I thought it should have been, after my friends had gone home and I was heading back to my uncle’s. I only had a little while left before I had to go back to my mom’s and I was feeling down. Melody was walking on the other side of the street in the opposite direction and when she saw me, I could swear her eyes magnified the light from the sky as she stopped to wave at me and smiled. I looked back at her, my expression blank as my hand raised to return her greeting, at once totally aware of how empty the street was and how beautiful she looked painted against its backdrop. I remember she didn’t do anything in particular to make me slow my walk and stare back at her. She never did anything in particular, any of the times I’d seen her, to make my heart melt. She just was. Her smell, her skin, her hair, her strangely adorable body, her awkward social manner, the way she moved and the way she spoke. The fluidity of her features. All of those things, weaving together to form something greater than the parts, like magic.
Then she continued to walk, the skin of her face flushing pink as she looked down at the ground with embarrassment and brought her hands back together in front of her stomach. As I watched and wondered why she had suddenly broken contact, I noticed she was wearing a fine white dress that zipped up the back and was made of a sheer fabric that seemed to show her nipples. As her gaze darted back up to meet mine and drifted away sadly again, I felt like she had seen something in me. That the way my eyes adored her made her sense I believed the things she knew my friends, and everyone, said about her. And, ironically, the look she threw my way convinced me the things my friends told me about her couldn’t possibly be true.
I remember I crossed the street, to put myself directly in her path, very quickly but very cautiously. Like I was afraid if she saw me approaching her, she’d run. But when I said hello to her and asked her how she was, she just looked up and fixed my gaze as she replied, questioning my motives or maybe questioning her assumptions. No shock, no surprise. I took off my jacket and wrapped it around her shoulders, covering her dress’ top, even though it wasn’t the least bit chilly out, and I asked her if she wanted to take a walk with me. My head didn’t even have time to process the fact that I was asking her to do what we were both already doing before we saw each other—or that by covering her up I’d unconsciously confirmed I had noticed her breasts—in time for me to feel appropriately ashamed and embarrassed before she said yes.
She waited for me to lead, so I walked her in the direction I was originally heading. Back to my uncle’s. The one place in the world I didn’t want the girl of my dreams to see, ever. By the time I realised where I was guiding her, it was too late to change direction without seeming even more like a nervous little boy. But she walked with me and we talked about almost everything except what we really wanted to and, before I knew it, the sun was going down and we were standing outside my uncle’s house.
As I tried to think of how to offer to walk her home, so she would be safe, she asked if she could come in and watch television with me. For some reason, I felt small when I explained to her that my uncle didn’t own a TV set, but she said that was fine and she would love to meet him. And, even though I didn’t want to, I agreed and walked her inside. She was quiet and strangely obedient. Much more reserved than I had thought or felt in any of our brief interactions before. And that reassured me even more, because she couldn’t be the way my friends said she was, and be the way she was around me. At least, I’d never met anyone who could act that well.
Luckily, although it was more of a given, my uncle wasn’t home. She didn’t seem disappointed, or even nervous, as the sun continued to set and the inside of the house grew darker. Instead she asked if we could sit and talk in my room. Even though I told her we didn’t have lights and my room wasn’t really any more comfortable than the downstairs floor, she insisted. So we made our way upstairs and I showed her into my room with the dirty, lonely mattress that lay on the floor in the middle of it and a stand up mirror I’d found discarded by the roadside and propped up in the corner so I could have some idea what I looked like after I groomed myself. She hung up my jacket on the side of the mirror and sat down on the mattress, drawing her knees up to her chin, resting her hands on them after making sure her dress covered her properly, and she patted the space to her left, motioning for me to sit beside her. I could see in her eyes she knew why my uncle wasn’t there. Why he never really was. But her eyes never judged me, and I sat down beside her as the cruel fading light made it harder and harder to see her beautiful face.
And we talked some more. She was very soft spoken and kind and seemingly not at all aware of her sexual attractiveness. Perhaps she’d heard the things my friends, and everybody, said about her over all the years. Perhaps she’d heard all of those ugly words all of her life, so often and so loudly she’d given in to believing they were true. Yet, in that small amount of time we spent together, she’d revealed herself to be more charming and articulate than any girl I’d ever had an actual conversation with.
I took her hand and kissed it on the top after I told her that maybe it would be best if she got home before it got too late. Not because I’m a gentleman, or I ever do that with anyone, but because I was alone with her for the first time in my life, and I wanted to taste her and smell her as deeply as possible. So I’d have something to really regret as the end of summer drew near and the beautiful blinding light existing in my universe blew out like a matchstick flame.
She pulled me into her, then, tucking her legs under her dress, wrapping her arms around my neck and giving me a warm, comforting hug. I put my arms around her waist and returned the gesture. And as I felt myself drowning in a million past summers—a million opportunities to get to know her before she gave herself over to someone else—I felt the top of her hosiery and the indentation of her spine in her back. And when I drew my hands up to her shoulders she bit her lower lip and made a weak noise that sounded like pain. Through the sheer fabric of her dress I saw she had what looked like deep bruises running up the insides of both of her shoulder blades. And I wondered how I hadn’t noticed them earlier, in the light of day. I wondered if I’d been lost in her eyes or ogling her body for the entirety of our initial connexion. Hoping it was the former and she wasn’t beginning to peel away from me out of unease.
She relaxed her hold and put her face in front of mine. So close I could taste her heavy, delicious breath. My hand brushed her left cheek and, instead of pulling away like I feared she would, she rested her head on it, closing her eyes and experiencing its warmth. Then she took my hand, kissed the inside of the palm and placed it back against her cheek. And, as she closed her eyes again and rested her head on my hand, I could do nothing but watch her eyes roll under their lids and listen to the sound of her breathing and her comfort.
Then she told me she felt sorry for me, as she kept her eyes closed and kissed lightly at my fingers and thumb. She told me she didn’t think it was fair I should have to squat in another abandoned house while my friends lived in regular homes. And she told me she believed me when I said I lived with my uncle, even though she’d never seen him, and she thought that was doubly sad. The both of us having to live with nothing.
I smiled at her with muted sorrow while she talked and, when she opened her eyes slightly to look at me, her face returned that affection. And she told me, as she let her eyes open fully and moved my hand to the back of her neck, that, if it made any difference, I hadn’t ever really been living with nothing. Not alone. Not like I thought. Not in a world where I wasn’t loved and cared for. Not since we were younger. Not since she first saw me. She told me that, yes, she’d noticed how I watched her, and the way I looked at her, ever since I’d started coming around town to visit my uncle. She told me she’d always hoped the world would make up some excuse to push us together. She told me that, when it finally had, she loved the way I talked to her and not down to her.
I opened my mouth to tell her I’d felt exactly the same way about her. For all of our days together. That I’d known I’d loved her since the first time I saw her and how beautiful she was to me, but she placed her other hand over my lips before I could speak, nodded, and told me she knew. And that knowing was enough for now. And, if what we believed about each other was true, the world would keep bringing us together until it was our time. As she spoke those last words, she began to cry. She didn’t sob and moan like the distraught women did on the television news, but the tears that flowed down her cheeks were warm—not fake—and she had nothing to gain from me by shedding them.
And as much as I wanted to take her right then and there. As much as I wanted to pretend she wasn’t temporarily promised to some other man who treated her like filth. As much as I wanted to do that, I couldn’t find it within myself to compromise her expressed desire for me in order to satisfy my physical longing for her. Not when she was in a relationship with someone else. Not when she’d made herself truly vulnerable and given me the opportunity to be the sexually depraved bastard every adolescent boy hides away deep inside.
And not when I felt that my uncle was watching.
I kissed the hand she held over my mouth and she shivered as the room lit up slightly and the normally pungent smell of her skin began to reek even more heavily, mixing with a salty sweat. Then she removed her hand and she kissed me. Looking into my eyes. Making love to my mouth with her own. She kept her eyes open the entire time, watching me with wonderment as she bit around my lips, her breath so heady and warm I felt intoxicated, and she kissed my chin and then the tip of my nose. Seeing the awe she felt echoed in my gaze as she continued to taste me. And, in those odd moments when I could focus my vision, I could see she was lost. In the mirror I could see the bruises on her back that looked more like burns against the pale white of her flesh as she pushed my left hand farther down and encouraged me to explore the soft fat of her hips and thighs while she placed my right hand across her breasts and allowed herself to experience how much I truly loved the natural size and shape of every inch of her body.
Her breathing grew more heated as we kissed. Her mouth loving me even more passionately. Her hands touching me in ways that aroused me more intensely than anything I’d ever known before.
And, as immediately as she had begun kissing me, she stopped. Looking around the room. Noticing, as I did, the darkness of the night and the glow of the moonlight that pierced through my bedroom window.
She stood up slowly and held out her hand. I took it and we walked back downstairs, to the front door and outside my uncle’s house. I offered to walk her home to make sure she got back safely and she told me that, even though she didn’t think it was a good idea, she would love me to do that for her. She looked up into my eyes once more and framed my face with her hands, adoring me as much as I’d been adoring her for all of our years together. As much as she claimed to have been adoring me all that time, as well. She took my hand in hers and we walked.
As we got closer to her boyfriend’s home, I could feel her beginning to shake and she pulled a baggie out from the waist sash of her dress. It was filled with a brown powder and she took out a pinch and offered me a taste. And I took it, even though I’d never ever used the drugs my friends and I moved before. As soon as I snorted the junk, she tossed the baggie away, even though it was still full. She said she was sorry she’d pressured me into using, she didn’t do drugs ever, she hated them and what she’d done wasn’t right. But I didn’t really think much of it and, even though she already knew from watching my body’s reaction to the brown poison, I assured her it was my first, and hopefully last, time and it didn’t change anything about how I saw her. That made her smile and she gave me one last soft, slow, painfully lingering kiss on the lips as she let go of my hand and we walked the half a block to her boyfriend Dan’s house.
When we reached his doorstep, as she was thanking me for walking her home and, I hoped, contemplating whether she could kiss me one more time, her boyfriend’s front door opened wide and her body went stiff.
She apologised to him, like a reflex, which made me feel cold and abandoned, as she rubbed at her nose, visibly shaking with terror. Explaining perhaps a little too eagerly about how she’d been out a bit too late and I’d been kind enough to make sure she arrived home safely.
He questioned her about who else she’d been with and how she’d managed to lose track of time, as he motioned to us both and she passed me on the left. Her hands directed me to follow. Dan closed the door behind us and soon we were standing in his living room. As brightly lit inside his house as it was pitch dark outdoors.
Melody watched anxiously as her boyfriend stared into my eyes and grilled me. Asking me why I was such a nice guy all of a sudden. In my peripheral vision, I could see her eyes and face begging me to keep cool as she mouthed another apology. And I knew for sure everything she’d said to me on the dirty mattress in my room had been the truth. And, in the weight of her gaze, I could feel the shame she endured under the thumb of her boyfriend. The humiliation of being used as an incentive. And, though she tried to momentarily pretend it away for my sake, I could see she really had felt the same for me as I’d felt for her. For all of those years. That she still did.
And it wasn’t plainly obvious to just me. It hadn’t been for a good long while. Melody had been right. As magical as it felt, walking her home and spending a few more moments with her hadn’t been a good idea.
Dan smiled pityingly, looking at Melody and back at me. He gave her ass a loud smack, making sure I saw he was getting a good handful, as he told me how, ever since he’d known her, she’d been asking about me. Well before he decided her body felt way too good to let her looks ruin all the fun he could have with it if he turned out the lights and kept her drainage ditch of a mouth covered with pillows or buried in his lap. And he laughed as he wondered aloud why she’d really thought all of her asking, and incessant pondering, about how I was over all those years could possibly seem innocent to anyone. Then he made sure to let me know that, even though her infatuation with me was beyond annoying, he didn’t let any of that get in the way of him catching more than he could ever ask for in a girlfriend: Dumb as a post. Afraid of her own shadow. See-through as Saran Wrap. Well aware of her place.
I stood there and listened to him as she begged me with her hands to let it go.
Then he began to really humiliate her, and I wished I hadn’t been such a chicken around her when we were younger. That I’d never let her feel lonely enough to date someone like him. She didn’t use. And she was a brilliant and beautiful girl, though the world she lived in had constantly insisted the opposite, probably for most of her life.
And my friends’ voices were in my head, drowning out my uncle’s. Asking me if I was surrounded by things I loathed. Asking me why.
Dan continued groping her harshly as he goaded me. Illustrating, with his hands, every vicious and needlessly cruel point he had to make. Twisting and turning Melody around, exposing the exquisite beauty of her body, as he ran it into the ground with his mouth. Listing out the inventory of things about her that made him sick to his stomach: Her cottage cheese thighs and dumpy ass, just one big fat catastrophe. Her pudgy little gut. Her breasts that, according to him, were non-existent. Her skinny-fat arms and legs. The turkey-folds of flab in her armpits. The weak fatty consistency of her neck. The soft white hair that covered her entire body. The whiskers around her mouth and beneath her lower lip. The coarse hair that grew way too thick for his taste in her big long goofy looking nose. How, if she didn’t smell like a horrible accident at a sardine cannery right then, he’d swear she was a seven-year-old boy.
As I watched Melody cringe, I interrupted him. Asking him, politely, to cut it out, trying to keep my cool. Getting even more angry. Angrier than I’d ever gotten at my friends when they talked down about her.
He continued to slip in the digs, reminiscing about how she’d doted on me even before she’d started to bleed, and how adorable it was that I felt such devotion for her, too. How I was actually blessed to never have kissed her, because she had breath that could melt glass and, if I got within an inch of her mouth when her hormones got going, I’d probably vomit. How bad the disaster area between her legs smelt when she got excited and soaked the forest of a front lawn she couldn’t be bothered to trim.
He smacked her across the face and she pressed her lips closed as he clipped her another one across the chin and backhanded her to watch her stumble. He looked over his shoulder quickly, pointing at her with his thumb, as he asked me if I really wanted that pug-ugly mess all for myself. He backhanded her again, even harder, and I began to move forward as she begged me with her hands to retreat. Then he looked at me and told me, even if I did still want her for whatever reason he couldn’t possibly understand, it was just too bad, because she belonged to him until he decided otherwise.
My uncle’s voice raged in my head and I fought to drown it out as the lights inside the house grew dim and I told Dan to knock it off. That it wasn’t funny anymore. That it never had been.
He pulled a pistol from the back of his trousers and whipped Melody on the right temple with the butt, snapping her head backward and sideways into the wall and making her fall face down on the floor as she covered her head with her hands and cried out. He kicked her in the stomach as she whimpered in pain and looked up at me, her eyes begging for help. And he told me what my friends had told me. That I could have her if I still wanted her, just like any guy who needed a good spit and polish could, as long as I bought what he was selling or, at least, helped him move it. Like more than a few of my best buddies already had. Like he could smell on her breath every time she came back home after collecting his money from them.
From her place on the floor she begged me to stop fighting for her as he stamped on her back, threatening to break her in two. And she told me I wasn’t the one who needed saving. Maybe not realising I had no idea what she meant. Admitting once again, to her boyfriend’s delight, how she’d always felt about me. And, to his puzzlement, how she didn’t want me to get hurt any more.
As Dan kept his attention fixed on Melody, taking so much pleasure in crushing her bared soul beneath his boots, I wrenched the gun from his hand, slamming my elbow into his jaw and sending him crashing to the floor.
My uncle’s voice roared in my head again. Asking me the same questions, over and over. And it began to look like sunset inside.
Dan looked up at me and laughed as he wiped the blood from his mouth. Telling me how, no matter what I did, my precious Melody would be spending that night in his bed, making sure he was completely satisfied, and if I didn’t walk away immediately, he’d have us both beaten down so badly we’d wish we were dead. And if I had the sac to shoot him, we’d both actually be dead. Real soon. Telling me she wasn’t worth it. That my Melody was just a not-entirely-disgusting-yet pie-faced low-rent slut with a face and a body that were only going to get uglier and more bizarre looking with age. A plain piece of nothing that did who and what she was told. And that was all she’d ever be.
She looked up at me, as her boyfriend twisted her head in his direction, yanking the hair on the back of her neck as she begged me to leave. But I wasn’t about to go. Definitely not without her. Not knowing she was with him and wondering how badly he must hurt her when no one was there to see.
Melody’s mouth trembled open, continuing to plead with me to walk away, and Dan began slapping her around again as he pulled her hair harder and told me to get lost.
As she cried, I felt my fists begin to clench in anger. And the sunset turned to twilight.
From behind me, I felt my uncle watching again and I saw a shadow begin to darken the room. And that shadow grew. I tried to convince myself It was just the night. The sun going down. But the lights were all on and the blinds were drawn and that shadow consumed everything as It crept up my back. And as It overcame me and the world went dark, I felt nothing but hatred. Vengeance. Death. Pure evil.
And I will swear until the day I die that I released my grip on that gun. I let my hands go limp and felt it fall from my grasp. I heard it hit the floor. But the shadow grew darker. Enveloping everything in Its black cloak of night. And, though I won’t ever be able to explain how, It put that gun back in my hand and It pulled the trigger.
When the gun went off, it splattered Dan’s head all over the walls. The pistol had been silenced, but the sound of his skull exploding and the echo of its grey matter smacking up against the walls was deafening.
Then the shadow disappeared. Dan’s body was no longer there. The walls were sparkling clean and the gun lay at my feet. Safety on. And, in that moment, I didn’t question where in God’s creation the shadow had come from or where It, my uncle and the bloody, horrifying mess they’d created had gone.
Melody jerked back in shock and confusion, and I picked her up off the floor, adjusting her clothing and straightening her hair. She hugged me tightly, pressing her head into my chest that grew warm with her tears as I shook with fear and reassured her as best I could, kissing her and holding her as she chewed on my shirt, completely traumatised.
We exited the house quickly, hand in hand, and when we got to the street she released herself from my grip. I stopped to scan her eyes, questioning. She looked petrified and helpless.
I told her we needed to leave, fast. That her boyfriend was, or had been, very well connected. She let me know she was aware of what he was. And she begged my forgiveness for putting me through the ordeal we’d just suffered. Telling me that what he’d said about her and everything I’d heard about her from my friends—all the things she’d done under his brutal direction—were true. Telling me that, if I could still stand to be with her, she would prove to me she wasn’t what he’d made her do, and she would be mine, just mine, for as long as I would have her. And if I really thought it was the best thing, and I insisted she leave with me that instant, she’d follow me without question. She’d leave everything behind and go with me to catch a bus. Right then and there.
As I looked into her eyes, I felt time slow and the moon made the night just a little bit brighter. I touched her face with my hand as she relaxed her cheek against it and I told her that whatever she’d done, whatever she thought she was or ever had been, didn’t change how I felt about her. That, in my eyes and in my heart, she would always be the same beautiful girl I’d loved from a distance for far too long.
I looked around my world as she smiled and kissed at my hand. And everywhere I looked, she was there. I was surrounded by things I loved. I could finally answer my uncle’s riddle, or at the very least, render its closing question impotent and illogical.
I asked her if she was sure she could get what she needed from her parents’ house and be back quickly. The light in her eyes burnt more brightly than I’d ever seen as her smile grew wide and she told me she could be back in a snap with extra money so we could get as far away as possible and I nodded my assent. She traced her hands around my face as I touched my fingers to her lips and she gave them a soft warm kiss. And she told me the only thing I’d ever wanted to hear: She was going to make me happy.
I let her know she already had, and a blissful smile drew itself across her face as she nodded and pulled me into her once more. Kissing me desperately one last time, then biting her lower lip, blushing.
We went our separate ways and, after I collected my things from my uncle’s and said goodbye to the empty house, I made it back to our meeting place at the bus terminal in record time.
And I waited. Hiding in the shadows and watching when she didn’t show up as quickly as I’d hoped. I waited for hours. And, when she still didn’t appear, I cased the location and searched the crowded streets for days. Avoiding my uncle’s watchful eyes, and the authorities who’d mistakenly classified me as a missing person for reasons I still don’t understand. But she never arrived to meet me there. She never showed up anywhere, and I waited.
And, almost as soon as I’d realised something was wrong, the shadow had come back. It followed me everywhere. Keeping me hidden. Keeping me safe, as I searched for her in vain.
And when I’d called in every favour I was owed from every friend who wasn’t too afraid to speak to me, and I tracked her down to every place they said she might be, no one I questioned could honestly claim they’d seen or heard from her since that bitter night.
And the shadow kept coming back. Consistently. Horribly. More and more violently.
As I continued to seek her out, I grew more desperate. Fearing for her safety. Fearing for her life. And a few of my impromptu interrogations nearly sealed my fate. They’d certainly gained me a reputation as someone not to be trifled with. Everyone who refused to help me find her went missing. Consumed by a darkness I didn’t fully understand and didn’t feel it necessary to at the time. And their friends and loved ones began filling up emergency rooms all over the boroughs. Too terrified to talk, even if they could somehow rationally explain the young man who’d come to ask them questions about a girl named Melody and the blackness that followed him, swallowed them whole and spat them back out.
Yet, as far as anyone else knew, she had simply disappeared. Right along with her boyfriend.
And I, at least, never saw her precious, beautiful white face again.
And I, for certain, would never ever be sure if she was safe. Or where she was. Or if she even still was at all.
And I still spend every single day, even as I take a moment to finish writing up this ridiculous assignment, remembering Melody. Remembering that beautiful coming together—that silent and singular moment—and dying inside. Odds are I’m not okay yet. No matter when you happen to note my absence.
And when the summer was over and I returned to my mom and our empty shell of a home, I took a really good look at my world.
And I asked myself: Are you surrounded by things you love? Why not?
To tell you the truth, it doesn’t make a bit of difference to me anymore. Not all questions are meant to be answered. Some are meant to bind us to a path. To break us and keep us broken.
Right now I should be balled up, crying like a baby. Because, this summer, I learnt I could realise dreams I never thought I ever would. I learnt how love was supposed to feel, and I experienced it fully. I learnt life is mostly cruel and unfair. I learnt that, if I’m ever really hurting and I need to feel Melody’s embrace, the brown poison can take away my pain for a little while. I learnt that, once upon a time, life was beautiful. But, most importantly, this summer I learnt, to depths I never fathomed possible, how not to care.
And if I don’t get a good grade on this paper, my uncle says he will be very upset. So please give me an A. If you don’t, his shadow will find you, It will take you and It will torture you without end.
It promised me.
And you’d better believe It’s fuckin’ serious.
David Fitz pushed his last balloon of brown early Friday morning. The leftover he’d stopped pocketing to maintain his and his girlfriend’s habit, and started pocketing to clock paper, over three weeks before. Quit cold turkey. As they’d both promised they would, every time they went shopping to stock up on over-the-counter medications, bananas, bread, peanut butter, soup, crackers, vitamins and everything else they’d need following their quit day. So many years ago, it seemed. Only three weeks.
Three weeks of waking up and wishing they hadn’t. Still unable to shake the memory of the first three days: Gorging on Tagemet and Imodium with grapefruit juice and water. Avoiding work, visitors and phone calls to writhe around on their apartment floor. Fighting and fucking like monkeys to keep each other from making it back to the street to score.
By the middle of the fourth day, they’d both been able to eat most of a peanut butter sandwich without vomiting. Cutting back on the anti-diarrhoeal medications and maintaining something close to regular sleep from that point on. Fighting the persistent flu-like symptoms with NyQuil and Gatorade for longer than either of them wanted to remember, though the entire process only took them completely out of the game for a half a week. Not much time, really. But the longest days either of them had ever lived.
As he walked into his claustrophobic apartment, burrowed in an alley off the streets of his claustrophobic city, he knew the eyes he’d hoped would catch him doing his deals on the side, definitely had. And the wire he’d been sitting on would be getting some use soon. That was as close to a good plan to kick the drugs forever, and escape the prison he’d help them build, as he could come up with.
In bed with a bent cop who was as likely to be setting him up to take a fall as help him out.
Maybe, in the end, he and his woman would bid farewell to the life. The life they’d grown to hate more than anything, for countless years, yet had still managed to suffer gladly. Most likely, though, they would die. Pathetically. Probably begging. Certainly not looking back with fondness on anything or anyone they’d be leaving behind.
Still, he couldn’t bring himself to give up hope totally. Not when his world was growing brighter with every passing second. Not when the demons that haunted him had taken leave, or at least given him peace. And not in his heart. The centre within him that always dreamt life could be better, and maybe believed it had to be, eventually. The only real question was how ‘better’ would end up being defined. The genuine joy of freedom, or a gutter funeral?
“What took you so long?” his girlfriend, Juno Conjay, called from the soiled mattress in their dark and dirty living room. “Did you get me more, like you promised? Did you?” She stood, scratching at her dirty blonde hair. Looking rough. Not a bath in days. Still anxious and unable to beat the insomnia. So beautiful, if he remembered correctly, underneath all the grime that clogged her pores. Filth that used to make the floating last a little bit longer.
“No.” He walked into their apartment, quietly closing the door behind him. “No more. If I promised you anything, I promised you that. I sold the leftover. More money. No more horsey.” He scratched behind his right ear as he made his way down the hall, past the bathroom, to hold her as she shook. “Did you eat?”
“Yeah. I’ll never get sick of the peanut butter and stale crackers, mother fucker.” She growled, almost cried, as she worked her teeth along his left shoulder. Gnawing at him. Eating away the pain. The need. She took his face in her hands and looked him in the eyes. “You promised. Why didn’t you get me more? I fuckin’ hate you.”
“Because we kicked, baby.” He ran his fingers through the dirt on her face. “We’re clean.”
“Why?” She gripped him tighter, throwing her arms around his waist and dropping to her knees. “You don’t get to make that decision for me. I’m not your property.”
“You know why. Our plan. I’ve been working it since before we started kicking. Like we agreed. We’re getting out. Away from all this. And don’t mistake me for chattel either, Juno.”
Juno: The girl who he thought he could love. The girl who’d turned to prostitution in her early twenties and barely gotten out of the game with her life when the junk made her useless. The girl who, had she not also been a slave to the dope when they met, he might not share one inch of common ground with. The girl who, now that things were going the way they’d both said they wanted, was calling their relationship quits.
“No.” She pulled into him harder. “I don’t want it. I’m not going anywhere. All this? This is over.”
“What do you mean, over?” He followed her as she turned and scurried back into the living room, finding a corner and making herself small in it. “I’ve been working with a cop. He’s going to help us. If we can take Paulie’s operation down, they’re going to get us out. That’s what you said you wanted, right? We agreed.”
“You were serious about turning on your boss?” She twitched and pulled at her night dress, yanking it from mid-thigh to knee over and over. “That’s stupid, Davey. Your head is more fucked up sober. How is this a good plan? And no.”
“Look.” She shrunk away from him as he approached and tried to touch her. “It’s not a good plan. And maybe it is twenty-four or five degrees south of whatever’s level. It’s just the only way I could see out.”
“Do what you have to. Just leave. And leave me out of it. I’m not going to die because of you.”
“Really? Three weeks ago you didn’t give a damn if the smack got you a toe tag for your birthday. And I’m not going to get killed because you don’t want to die. I did this for us.”
“There is no more us.” She made herself even smaller in the corner. “Didn’t I just say that?” Tears streamed from her eyes, making furrows in the grunge coating her cheeks as she pushed him, punching at his chest. “Look at me, Davey. Look really hard.”
“What am I supposed to see, Junie?”
“Exactly,” she snapped. “Now that we’re clean, you can’t pretend I’m someone else anymore. I don’t know why the fuck you’d want to because, let’s face it, you got better than you ever had when you landed me. But I’ll never be the girl of your dreams. I’ll never be the one. So just forget us. It shouldn’t be that hard.”
“Look,” David said. “I don’t know where you’re going with this, but I never—”
“You used to call me her name in bed, you fuckin’ asshole. When you were too jammed to keep it up any other way. I mean, God bless the bitch. It worked, but I’m not her, I never will be and I never want to be.” She punched him in the chest again. “So, I’m out of this. I’m not going down with you.”
He grabbed her by the back of the head as she crumbled into him, her hands flailing. Trying to punish him. “I’m sorry, baby.” He held her head in his hands. Knowing she was right on at least one level and desperate to get back on point. “The cop I’m working with. He’s already watching. And today it all ends. Today I tape record my weekly drop and the police pull me out. Don’t give up now. We’re almost home.” She tore at his clothes in frustration. “I understand you’re scared, but—”
“You’re being stupid. And don’t call me ‘baby’ anymore. You tricked me when we were kicking. The first three days. Maybe I promised then, but... No. I’m not doing this. You just go. Enjoy your new life. I don’t need you or your problems.”
He held her head with increasing pressure, staring deep into her eyes, as she reached to pry his hands away and he shook her. “It’s too late for that now. This has already begun and there’s no way to stop it. You don’t want to be with me anymore? Why? I’m too good? Not good enough? I don’t get it. And it doesn’t matter. They don’t know you decided we’re through. If you don’t run with me after I’m done starting Ricky and Paulie on their way out, you’ll be dead in a day. If they’re feeling generous.”
“No. You’re dead, you selfish bastard. If we run, they’ll kill us both. If you just die, then—”
He shook her head harder. “Then what?”
“I’ll figure something out. Fuck you for putting me in this position.”
“He moved his hands from the side of her head to her shoulders, guiding her up slowly into the centre of the room. “Look, here’s the truth of it. There is no way to keep you out of this. Because, no matter how I go, when I’m gone they’ll come and get you. Put you right back on the junk.”
She smirked in the middle of her crying jag. “You say that like it’s a bad thing.”
He cracked her across the mouth and it was right back to nothing but tears.
“They’ll get you hooked again, they’ll pimp you out and they’ll keep your tab running so you never get back to good.” He turned her to look out through the dust and dirt on their living room window. “You’ll be on the streets again, broken glass in your knees. Getting banged up and banged around like a nickel slut. And you’ll be doing it all for, maybe, a meal a day and enough flea powder to keep you from getting sick on the customers.” She tried to turn back around to look at him, but his grip was solid. “And when the sickness starts to show. When no one wants you anymore. Again. When the junk eats you alive, like it almost did before we kicked, they’ll see you die too. But not like me. I’ll be over quick. You’ll die every day for months, maybe years, until you spend your final days burning up and freezing to the bone. Shitting yourself, pissing yourself, puking, starving, and wishing you were dead. The only way your end will come any faster is if you work up the nerve to kill yourself. Because they’ll watch you twist, and they’ll love it.”
“Would that make you happy?” she asked as his grip relaxed. “To see me go like that?” She turned around and held on to the window sill. “You describe it so well. Is that what you want? Would that make it okay? If you got me killed, but I was just some worthless junkie whore and not the girl who dumped your pathetic ass?”
His grip began to tighten again and she pulled away, cowering against the window and holding up her hands as he shouted. “No. Just... Quit pushing my buttons. You think this isn’t hard for me too?” He went to stroke her hair and she flinched. “I’m trying to make a point. Your pride is going to put you in a very bad place. You don’t want that to happen. Don’t you remember how hard it was to kick? How painful? Do you want to do that again? I want us to get out. I want for you to be safe and I don’t want you to have to go back to being what you never wanted to be. That’s all I want. A fresh start. This is the only way. We’re done? Okay. But I still care about you, Junie. I would never hurt you.”
She touched lightly at her lips, still feeling his hand punishing her. “Except when I make you angry, right?” She smacked him in the face full force. “And you’d never put me in danger, just like you’d never hurt me? Never hit me?” She smacked at him again, missing his face and clipping his shoulder.
“Listen. All I need you to do...” He tracked her eyes, making sure she was paying attention. “All I need you to do is clean yourself up and go shopping.” He pulled a wad of twenties from his jeans pocket and threw them at the mattress on the floor. “You go out shopping. At the thrift store. We’ll come get you when it’s time. Until then, you stay away from here.”
“No,” she said. “I’m not going. Just leave.”
“If you don’t go out, I can’t guarantee you anything.” He looked into her eyes again. “I mean it when I say I care about you. When I said we’re getting out, I meant you and me. Both of us. Even if we’re over, I promised I’d get you out.”
“Like you can do anything. Those guys own you. I love you, you stupid fuck, but you’re not calling the shots. You don’t have the balls to pull this off. Not now that you can’t shoot up your courage. You’re not even man enough to handle me. Good luck with the big boys.” David’s hand raised as her eyes followed it. “So I’m not going to take a shower and go out and shop, because it’s part of your brilliant master plan to get us out of the life.” She turned around as she gave him the finger. “I’m going back to sleep. You let me know how it all turns out, you selfish prick. If I don’t hear from you by noon, I guess I’ll run. Or maybe,” she added, “maybe I’ll take a shower and go shopping. That would fix everything, right? Fuckin’ idiot. You don’t owe me anything. So just fuckin’ leave.”
“I’m saving you,” he called out, following after her. “Like you’ve been begging me to. If you decide you want to come back after we get away, I won’t stop you. But we’re getting out.” Juno stopped, turned around quickly and moved to slap him again. He caught her hand with his own and pushed it aside. “And you’re going to do your part, you little...”
She looked into him as he paused. “Say it, Davey. Call me what you want to call me. Call me a fuckin’ whore.” He began undoing the buttons on her night dress and she scratched at his wrists to stop him. “You’re going to make me take a shower now? Big fuckin’ man. Why don’t you hit me again? Maybe that will help.”
“You’ll thank me tomorrow.” He grabbed her by the elbow and dragged her into the bathroom, to the tub.
“You’ll be dead tomorrow. Because you can’t pull off whatever it is you think you’ve got all worked out. Even if you get lucky, you’ll find some way to fuck it all up. You’re a loser. That’s what you do.”
“You get cleaned up, put on some clothes you haven’t ruined, go shopping and, by tonight, we’re free.”
She continued to protest, lashing at his face with her fists. “I’m not going. You can’t do anything to make me. I want to fix. You do too. Admit it. It’s killing you. Making you crazy. We just need more junk, you stupid piece of—”
Breath blasted from Juno’s mouth as she wrested herself from David’s grip, the momentum tripped her up, gravity bounced the back of her head off the wall and she slumped into the bathtub.
“And...” He looked her in the eyes as they fluttered open. “If you don’t shower, get dressed and go shopping, then by tonight, this is as good as it’s going to get. Except this sort of thing won’t be happening by accident. And if you even think about pulling this kind of crap. Talking back, being a smart-mouthed little pain in the ass, when they’ve got you back on the streets? They’ll kill you and toss your body in an alley dumpster. For anyone to find. So your mommy and daddy will have to come and ID you. Know what you were.” David turned to leave the room. “You don’t want to go? All right, I can’t make you, like you say. But I’m out. And, for your sake, I hope I see you later.”
“Whatever happens, we’re done,” she said, her speech slowing and her body relaxing. “I don’t know if it’s the withdrawals, or if you hate me, but now that we’re clean. Us... We don’t make any sense. Maybe I still love you, but I don’t think so. Maybe you think you still love me. It’s too confusing. Especially now.”
“Look, I’m sorry that—”
“Don’t.” She stopped him as he began what she assumed was an apology for the unchecked rage. The physical violence and the cruel words that, she knew all too well, were the only things that made sense if the hurting came back and you needed to forget. “We’re both fucked up. The kicking is making us insane.”
“Just don’t die for no reason,” he said as his anger and frustration left right along with hers.
And for a while, they both felt calm. Like the cravings had never existed. Like they’d never used. It wouldn’t last much longer. It never did.
“Fine. I’ll get dressed and go shopping,” she said. “You’ll be watching when I go, right?”
He nodded. “I’ll follow you. Until you’re out in public. Then I’ll go my way. I’ll be back to pick you up in an hour or so. Probably sooner. Like twenty-six, twenty-seven minutes. Can you shop for that long?”
“Can I shop for that long?” She laughed, even though she was well aware of the negative stereotype she was perpetuating.
“Just remember, the thrift store is where you’re supposed to be. Don’t go more than a block from there. Stay on the same side of the street if you have to leave.”
“Okay.” She got up and turned on the tap. “I’ll be waiting. Forget us. But don’t forget me.”
He walked into the kitchen to grab a sandwich while he waited for her to wash up. “I won’t forget you. Not that way.”
“...This is not a fairy tale...”
I’ve been back in this slice of nowhere, on this Petri dish located in the middle of a mediocre universe, watching over the sickeningly sweet-natured, confused objective of my mission for a little less than what I suppose is a month now. And while it’s a welcome break, I already miss the violent, focused insanity of my unwitting aide. My favourite monkey. He’s been keeping me busy for most of the last two decades, but he’s only a means to an end.
“...This is not a fairy tale...”
I’ve been chanting that mantra since I got here, and It still ignores me. I know It can hear, but It won’t give me the satisfaction of recognising me. It won’t even acknowledge what I know to be true. It wants to kill me but It’s still too confused to commit entirely to removing me from Its world. Whether that’s because It knows It can’t and fears the consequences, thinks It might need my help to fix what It thinks is broken, or knows It can use me, it’s impossible to tell. I can read Its monkey mind, but after all this time, Its mind is a maze and a mess. And I’m only invested in It finding Its way Home so I can go back too.
It’s content, instead, to drag Its tainted wings through the thinning blood on the floor of this wooden box. Sniffing all around It. Foraging for scraps. Staining Its white fur thick with disease as It licks the floors and walls cleaner than they’ve ever been. Sucking up chunks of bone and vomiting them back out. Always so upset with the result. Always so upset with Itself. Knowing what It’s attempting to do is futile, but never stopping. Desperately seeking out crumbs because It can’t admit It might be wrong.
And It has to have known, ever since It made the decision to fall and take refuge on this simian garbage dump, the way back Home is easy. But It didn’t want to come back for many years. And when It decided It did, It was lost. Confused. Too prideful to accept my help. And too dense to see Its pride is part of the problem.
Today, It looks up and stares into me. Its mouth dripping chunky liquid over Its breasts, and down to the nothing between Its legs, as It wraps Itself in Its dark purple wings. Leaking red poison in pools beneath It as It bares Its primary fangs, opens wide and allows the indefinably long protuberance It calls a tongue to slither through the air and open the teeth that make up its tip. A secondary set of teeth that allow the snake-like tongue behind them to shoot out and glide through the air as its tip’s teeth begin chomping at dust. If I weren’t familiar with the Underneath, It might scare me right now.
It asks me why I’ve come back. Though It knows I know It knows. And I tell It Its way Home is near. And it will be coming to It presently.
It growls when I tell It the truth and sucks me down from my comfortable place on the ceiling. Attaching me to Its back for a moment as I begin to give It visions. But, before I can make them clear, It shakes me off. It tells me I can’t be trusted. That It’s not falling for my pranks. That I’m a liar, a trickster and a cheat. That this isn’t a game.
And I laugh as It considers ending me. I laugh harder when It threatens to. And I let It know once more, if It really wants to leave this miserable plane of existence, the opportunity is coming again. Very soon. I let It know that, though It doesn’t want to accept it, the vessel that hasn’t needed me for three weeks now is a way Home. A conduit back to where It’s been dying to return for so long. And I let It know, if It can’t manage to stop acting like a vicious, lethal infant and trust me for once, the opportunity will most certainly pass again. And there won’t be another one for quite a while. Perhaps for aeons. And I tell It I’m going to be riding It harder than It’s ever known me to, and there’s nothing It can do to stop me.
I tell It the smell is growing stronger and It pulls me back toward It, growing me and shrinking me and then letting go and looking confused. Muttering Its favourite ape phrase. As if It’s ever really loved anything.
It knows I’m not lying and that scares It, which makes me think this time there might be a chance I’ll be able to complete my mission and go back Home.
But I’m never sure. And I can’t tell what Its intentions are as It passes through me, and the roof of this bloodied wooden box, and hooks me with Its talons. Trading Its smaller prison for a larger one like It does over and over again. Passing from the Underneath to the In-Between. Taking to the sky and trying to convince Itself It’s free as It casts me wide and dark over the small town It’s been calling home for far too long. Getting angry with me again, as It does, when I laugh at all the monkeys below, directing their gazes upward in fear of getting wet, as It passes above them and paints a sliver of night across their precious dirt.
Then It makes Itself small and releases me to find another corner where I can wait inconspicuously. It returns Itself to the clean wooden box It calls home and assumes Its monkey form again.
I pray It will get things right this time. Mostly for me. And, I’ll admit, for my favourite monkey.
It realised Its path to redemption, when It first met my favourite monkey, and It ran from him like a yellow dog. Too confused about Its own lust for the monkey flesh to differentiate between sin and simple primate need.
But the smell is all I require to keep me on my game. The smell means I might be going Home soon. With or without Its help or consent. If the smell attaches to It again, I can complete my mission easily.
And I call after It, over an alternate channel so I don’t introduce any more fear into the monkeys’ lives than they insist on manufacturing for themselves:
“...This is not a fairy tale... And I’ll be God damned if you fuck this up for me again.”
Juno arrived at the thrift store around noon. David followed her halfway there. Until she got to the street. Until she was among the crowd of regular people going about their days, doing what they had to do. Or what they wanted to. Until he could be sure no one was going to make her disappear.
She’d looked back and given him an obvious nod when she felt safe. Then she’d watched to make sure he left. Hoping he’d be getting them as far away from where they were now, as fast as possible. But not believing. He was a dreamer and, though he tried, he never came through. Not all the way.
Trying to figure out what it was about David that changed since their last taste, wondering if nothing had, and just breathing the same stale city air made her want to shoot up again. Despite how freshly the pain of withdrawal still lingered in her mind and how terribly it still stressed her body. And she couldn’t start slapping around random strangers on the street to relieve the pressure. Not without suffering noticeable consequences. At his most violent, David never hurt her badly enough that she needed make-up to conceal the damage. And, though she could ignore them when she was alone with David, or the heroin took her to that place where she could forget, her looks were more important to her than she could bring herself to admit. Perhaps, that’s where her fear of freedom came from. If she died young, she’d never have to know the indignity of ageing.
And personalities were no substitute for good looks. Personalities were for ugly women who needed them.
She was all clean and a little too dressed up for the thrift store but, ironically enough, the pricey, form-fitting white dress she had on was the only piece of clean laundry she could find. The only outfit she hadn’t wrecked when she’d been kicking. Looking for anything she could destroy to keep her mind off using.
“Junie? Is that you?” a voice called from behind her. Her body stiffened as she felt the words worm their way under her skin. She recognised the voice and she never wanted to hear it again. If David was right, and he did have a workable plan, she wouldn’t be hearing it anymore after that evening. If David was wrong, she’d be hearing it often and much sooner.
She turned around slowly, pretending she felt casual. Acting as if nothing out of the ordinary was going on. Like she belonged where she was, looking the way she did.
“Excuse me?” She looked into steely grey eyes, pretending to be surprised. “Ricky? Ricky Nevil?” Richard looked back at her. He was big. Six feet, easy. Wide, but not fat at all. His face was ugly. Like someone had set it on fire and extinguished the blaze with alcohol. But there was an air of calm about his features, and in his voice, that made him deceptively attractive. Even when you knew what he was capable of, how little you meant to him and what he would do to you if you crossed him, no matter who you were or what you might have thought you were worth.
“You’re looking good, Junie.” He stepped to her side, as if he, too, were going to begin browsing the second-hand ladies dresses. “You clean up nice.” A smile hinted from her lips. “You look like a sparkling clean human toilet now.”
“What? I mean, thank you.” She kept her voice clipped, looking straight ahead. Trying not to show any shame as she felt his words hit her and his eyes molest her. Ogling her without any tact.
“Hardly recognised you,” he said. “Last time I saw you I thought you were living in a ditch. You looked worse than the piece of shit you are. Figured Davey must have given up on you. You still fucking that junkie lunatic on the house?” He gave her left ass cheek a lingering squeeze and she brushed his hand away, keeping her stare fixed. Her lips beginning to tremble with embarrassment. “God damn, girl, you could really be earning. With that body and that face. It’s a shame.”
“Davey and me are done. I ended it.” She moved down the rack and brought her voice to a whisper. “But I don’t do that. Not anymore. Only the six or seven times after. When I had... problems. That wasn’t—”
“Oh,” he said, whispering too. “I didn’t realise your fucking strangers for smack was a secret. Did Davey know how you were helping out with the rent when you were his one and only?” She looked down and away. “Of course he didn’t.” He looked around to make sure no one was paying them any strict attention. “You know, if you want, all you’ve got to do is give me a call. Give me a call and I’ll set you up. All the dope you want and, if you keep looking as good as you do now, real money clients who can boost your income. Or you could start sucking some other loser’s dick every day for free. I’m sure Davey’s uncle would take care of you. Matthew, is it? I’m sure he’d help you out in exchange for the only thing your stupid little ass is good for. How long you been clean?”
“What do you want from me?” she snapped, still keeping her voice hushed. “I’m trying to find some nice things to wear. And I don’t know his uncle. Matt whoever. Davey says he’s homeless. A drifter. What does it matter? Why are you treating me so...? Look, just because I used to work for you doesn’t give you the right to... It just doesn’t. Please stop.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to upset you. I know how highly you value your status in the community. I wouldn’t want anyone to get the wrong idea about you and that lovely, talented mouth.” He moved closer. Sniffing the air. “Your breath smells funny. Not enough protein?”
She wanted to tell him to go fuck himself. More honestly, she wanted to grab a pair of scissors off the counter by the sewing machines, cut out his heart and eat it while she watched him die. But, as angry as Richard could make her, she never got brave around him. Though he’d never once raised a hand to her, she’d seen him deal with problem girls. And what she’d seen him do scared the hell out of her. She felt certain he would hurt her if she pushed anything too far. That he’d beat her half to death anywhere, any time, for any reason, if she gave him a good enough one. Right there, in broad daylight, if she forced it. “Ricky. Come on.” She inched down the racks in the opposite direction. Moving herself sideways in front of him as she passed. Making sure her bottom grazed his trousers as she moved to his other side. He chuckled with pity, as it did. Watching her facial expression show him she’d noticed, even when she was looking good, she did nothing for him.
“You got somewhere you’re going?” he asked. As she looked away from him, pretending to care what was written on the clothing tags, her face went white. “I don’t mean to be nosey, but I haven’t seen you looking this good in as long as I can remember. Not even back when you could turn heads without grinding up against the customer. Ever, maybe. What’s the occasion?”
“Don’t you have somewhere you’ve got to be?” Her skin flushed red and she continued to look away from him. If she turned around now, he’d surely see nothing was right or, at least, something was definitely wrong.
“You’ve got the most beautiful face.” He gently pulled her hair from the front, back over her shoulders. “I’d forgotten.”
“Thank you. That’s kind of you to say. Why are you...?” She could feel her sense of time slipping away, along with her sense of safety. Wondering where David was, and why Richard wasn’t with him. Trying to remember what David had said the plan was. The plan that was going to get them out of the life. Out of the city. She felt Richard’s hand lightly touch her chin as he turned her around to face him. “It’s not. Really. But thank you.”
“You are adorable. You’ve got butterflies. All because of little old me? I never knew you liked me, Junie.”
Juno shook inside and she could see her fear registering in Richard’s eyes. It felt like it was the time David said everything was going to be happening. And when Paul’s operation was shut down, Richard would have to be there. If he wasn’t, he wouldn’t go away when the cops showed up. If the cops showed up.
“Listen, Ricky. It’s just...” she said, losing track. “Why are you acting so...? Why are you treating me like this? I didn’t—”
Richard’s voice dropped to a growl. He looked around once more, making sure no one was looking, and anyone who was knew to fuck off directly. “I treat you like I treat you because you are what you are. I’m getting older, I’ll admit, but I’m not senile and I haven’t forgotten what an underhanded little piece of trash you are. You hear?” She nodded and her eyes began to float as he continued. “Maybe you don’t remember most of the fucked up shit you used to do to stay high, or the beatings you came this close to taking when you crossed my line. But I know you can feel it when you hear me. Though you’re looking like something special today, all cleaned up with the merchandise packaged nice and pretty, I know what you are. I know what gutter you crawled out of. I know you would have sold your soul to keep yourself in dope if it wasn’t for that piss-ant dead-beat supposedly-ex-boyfriend of yours. The one man on this earth who looks at you and doesn’t see a disgusting used-up junkie whore. So here’s what I want to know.” He looked around again. Not a soul was minding any business but their own. “Why the fuck are you all dressed up like you’re going on vacation? Why are you looking so tasty?”
She didn’t move as he squeezed her chin. Trying not to show that he was hurting her. She could see in his eyes what she’d felt in his pants: her looks and her manner did nothing for him. And she feared the worst. That he knew David was setting him up. But when goons like Richard started intimidation with vague threats, character assassination and open ended questions, odds were they didn’t know the score. They just wanted you to think they did, so you’d tell them. The lie was always worth the risk in that situation. David had passed that pearl of wisdom from his uncle on to her. But David was also putting her neck in a noose.
Richard’s eyes pounded into hers. Waiting, in complete silence, for her to answer. Juno’s focus went soft and the shakes from the inside trickled out. Letting him know she felt scared before she opened her mouth. “Look,” she said, the skin around her eyes going red and puffy. “Davey’s been bad, okay? That’s why I dumped him. He’s—”
“Bad how?” He moved his hand from her chin and gripped her firmly by the neck. “What’s that little fuck been up to?” He banged her left temple with the heel of the palm of his free hand. Swift and painful. “And don’t you start with the crying. Davey may fall for that bullshit, but I’m not him. You shed one tear and you’ll regret it in a way you’ll never fuckin’ forget. I promise you.”
“He’s... He’s been...” She looked at him, shaking harder. Her face twitching. Trying not to lose it. “Please don’t make me say.”
He pulled her in closer, pressing his forehead against hers, whispering even more softly. The calm before he bounced your head off a kerb. “You’re going to tell me what you know, Junie. You’re going to tell me or the next time anyone asks, I’m going to have to tell them I have no idea where you went off to. You catch my drift?”
She looked directly into his eyes. Frozen.
“Tell me or I’ll do worse than kill you, I promise,” he continued. “I’ll start by putting you in the hospital. Fuck up that beautiful little face so bad you’ll have to learn how to type. I’ll do it right here, right now, in front of God and everyone. And no one will see a thing.” He shook her. “You know I used to let your bullshit slide because Davey’s a good earner, right? If you aren’t with him anymore, you’re just another cheap piece of product to me. Remember that.”
“He’s been hustling,” she said, her body paralysed. Sniffling as the fear gripped her face, making her features contort. Losing all hope as she cursed herself inside. Like that, Richard had won. He’d make her ugly in front of a crowd, no doubt. Selling David down the river didn’t seem so wrong when compared with the consequences of being caught in a lie by the likes of Richard. “When he made what he was supposed to bring back, he held on to the leftover.” Richard’s grip got tighter. “He kicked. He quit using like he used to. And he made me quit with him. Wouldn’t give me anything. Kept me locked up in the apartment. I had no say. He sold the leftover. Put the money in his pocket, Ricky.” She looked down and then back up at him again, begging for mercy. “He treated me like an animal when we kicked. He took me when he wanted, against my will, to keep the urges from winning. But he promised me we’d be cleaned up and going away soon. We’d be leaving to start a better life with the money he made selling. I swear. I know what he did was wrong, but he... I didn’t know what to believe when I was hurting. I wanted it to be true, so I could keep waking up and get through another day without using.”
She buried her face in his shoulder, swallowing hard, as he let go of her neck, batted the back of her head and his eyes did another sweep of the thrift store crowd. “It’s okay. You did the right thing. Telling me.” She clenched her teeth. Mentally preparing for the serious physical and verbal degradation he’d surely begin making her suffer next. In full view of all the unseeing eyes at the thrift store. “Don’t worry, though, baby.” He paused as he rubbed her lower on the back, running his fingers below the waistline of her dress. “As soon as I take care of him...” He pulled her head off his shoulder and kissed her on the forehead. “...I’ll take care of you. I’ll fix you up.”
“What do you mean?” she asked. Confused.
“You’ll see.” He stepped to her side and slapped her ass. Smiling as he watched her try to keep her entire body from quaking uncontrollably. “Still nice and bouncy.” He looked at her backside. “I’ll make sure you don’t go hungry. Take that how you will.”
“Whatever,” she muttered, dismissing him with a slight wave of her quivering hand as she began to turn away. Trying to look tough. Failing miserably.
He smacked her head back around to face him. “Whatever?”
“I don’t want to go back to doing what I used to,” she managed to whisper in choppy breaths. Regaining her balance. “I’m... I’m sorry I said that.”
“Too good for that now? Well, you won’t be, soon enough. You can thank Davey’s corpse when it floats by you in the gutter.” He backed away from her, gave her left cheek a light slap and straightened his tie. “You’ll be pulling in good money at first. Right now, you pass inspection and then some. But when you go back to using. And you will, I can see in your eyes. I’ll still keep you around. I’ll keep you well fed and doped up. You’ll be back to servicing the real low life scum for smack in no time. Next thing you know, you won’t give a shit where you are or where you came from.” He looked at her with loathing as he brushed the spot on his shirt where her face had rested. “That’s as good as a stone waste of oxygen like you could hope for. You may be gorgeous on the outside, but inside you’re garbage. Scum. Always have been, always will be.”
“Please, Ricky. I told you what you wanted. Can’t you—?”
He patted her on the back and smiled as she continued to shake. “You need to get used to agreeing with me or, when you’re back on the dope, things aren’t going to turn out quite as pretty as the picture I painted.” He stared in her eyes as she fought to keep from cracking. “Show me you can follow orders like you used to. Give me a reason not to fuck your life up right here and now.”
“You shut your mouth unless I tell you to talk. And keep your hands at your sides. Do you hear me?” Juno’s arms dropped as she nodded her understanding. “Tell me the truth. Tell me you’re a stupid, worthless cunt.”
“I’m a stupid...” She paused, her lips trembling, and Richard’s hand clamped back around her neck. “...I’m a stupid... ...worthless cunt.” She stifled tears and fought to keep her hands from raising to defend herself. Seeing Richard knew anticipating the pain was damaging her much worse than the real thing.
“You’re an ugly, used-up junkie slut who does who and what she’s told. Tell me.” Richard whispered as he felt her swallow hard. “And say it like you mean it.”
“I’m... I’m an ugly, used-up junkie slut who does who and what I’m told.”
Richard watched her eyes losing focus and smiled. “Now, thank me for reminding you what you are.”
“I’m...” Richard clenched his fist, choking her and easing up. “Thank you for reminding me what I am, Ricky.”
Richard let go of her neck and gave her a bracing slap. “Cheer up, sunshine. Life will make sense again soon. I promise. Shooting up your meals and swallowing your pay will come back easy enough. Like riding a bicycle.” He looked her up and down once more. “You stay tight, and I’ll get you started.” He paused, rubbing his forehead. “Colour your hair, though. The carpet and the drapes. Get a tan, maybe. And wear lots of make-up. So I can pretend you’re not you. I like to think I’m a fair man, and I’ll cut you a break, but if I’m going to be your cash machine I don’t want to have to close my eyes and dream of someone else so you can get me off. I can do that on my own. You understand.”
Truly giving up David, and not just spouting half-truths, felt entirely necessary as Juno looked into Richard’s eyes and felt them prying into her. “Ricky, look... I need to tell you—”
Richard raised a finger to his lips. “No point. You already told me what you are. Like a good bitch. You just make sure you get checked out by a doctor at the free clinic. Be ready for me when I come by to pick your weak little ass up later. Me and six or seven of Paulie’s crew. We’re going to have a hell of a time making that face look even dumber than it naturally does. We’ll see you soon. At the apartment. Be there.”
He winked and walked away.
She continued to spasm and shake. Hyperventilating. A smile drew itself across Richard’s face as he stopped to listen to her on his way out the door. He looked back at her, chuckled, and he was gone.
When the door closed behind him, she turned her back. Hiding her face in her hands as she tried not to whimper. And then tried not to sob. Breaking down completely and tearing a blouse off the racks to cover her head as she wept. She tugged at her dress to even it out, and tugged harder still to shake off the memory of that bastard publicly humiliating her like he owned her. Wiping runny mascara from her face and collecting herself.
She prayed David’s plan worked, even as she hoped it all went to hell. The only downside she could see at that point was not being able to spit in Richard’s face if David did come through. But she couldn’t lie to herself and believe that would happen.
As much as she may have ever loved David, she’d never really trusted anyone but herself. And she’d begun telling herself that being with him was stupid and dangerous ever since they’d quit being slaves to the dope. She could only assume she’d been telling herself that for the entirety of their relationship.