DISCLAIMER: Another day, another…they don’t pay me anything at all. I just do this to amuse myself and you. That’s what allows me and mine to slip under the radar while playing with characters created by those more fortunate than us.
ARCHIVING: A master list of my fiction can be found here. Please do not archive or distribute without my permission.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Special thanks to Howard Russell for all of the lovely commas.
FEEDBACK: valyssia[at]gmail.com

Crimes
What Lies Beneath
By Valyssia

 

Something brushes my thigh. The bed gives way and I fall. Breathless and scraping for…

I catch myself. Part of me springs up, snapping back into place.

Goddammit! I hate that shit!

I’m not exactly sure what part it is that lets go, but for a moment my insides feel like a dangling Slinky.

B. slides between my legs, resting her head on my left inner thigh. My stomach’s still figuring out where it wants to be when she whispers, “Sorry.” Her breath tickles.

A shiver starts at my lower back and works its way up. When it fades, I’m not sure what she said. Umm…

Was I just, uh…?

I was stressed about something, wasn’t I?

I even don’t remember moving, but I obviously did. Or maybe she moved me?

No clue.

My right leg’s bent, leaning propped up on her hip. Her breasts are crushed against my thigh. If I have to worry about something, I’d rather it be—

She steals my hand when I lift it. Hey, I was, uh…

I try, but she’s not giving it back. Alright, that’s cool. It’s probably for the best. My fingers are—

I’m not sure whether it’s a feature or a flaw that my arm’s just the right length and bent in all the right places for them to end up…

A few minutes ago, I would’ve probably thought ‘flaw,’ but…as she passes my fingertips over her lips, tasting them with her tongue, my opinion changes. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Good thing I’m used to that.

I remember being curious about the time, but I didn’t have the energy to look. Really, I didn’t care that much.

That wasn’t that long ago either. Or I don’t think it was. What with the falling, I can’t be sure.

Now I care, just not about that. It’s nighttime. That’s close enou—

Her teeth scrape the tip of my middle finger. I feel it all the way down. My toes actually curl. It’s another one of those things. I think I’m just defective.

I should move while I still can. I suck it up and open my eyes. Nice night. It’s not half as dark as I thought. Framed by the skylight, stars twinkle overhead. The hand she holds hostage slips free when I haul my sorry, lazy, worthless…

I lean in. As I help to lift her, she asks, “Is this okay?”

It’s more than okay. I try to say so, but stammer, “Umm…” instead. Half asleep and horny as hell, I make George Bush look like he didn’t just buy that diploma from Yale.†

Her lips crush against mine when I give up and nod. I may be in trouble.

She massages my back as we kiss, if it’s fair to call this that. Our tongues spar, looking for an advantage, one pushing the other out. The tilt of her head randomly changes. I match, mirror, shadow…more like just scramble to keep up. Her hands move rhythmically with our heads, our tongues, us…one side up and the other down. It’s dizzying.

Intense.

Overwhelming.

I wind her hair around my hand. Her nails bite into my shoulder and side when I pull away.

There was something I wanted and I’m going to take it. Otherwise…getting rolled up, even by her, even like this, just doesn’t sit well with me.

Warm and tingly, my lips throb as I kiss her cheek. She breathes a series of soft sighs, gasping when I reach her ear.

That’s probably got nothing to do with this. I mean, yeah…I’m sure that the nibbling’s nice and all. Her earrings click against my teeth. I like them. They feel hard and bumpy between my lips. It goes nice with the tingle.

The problem’s my right hand. It’s developed a mind of its own. I don’t notice where it’s wandered off to until she gasps. Her nipple pops from between my slippery fingers. I circle the tip, smearing the moisture around. She seems to like it, so…

Umm…

I’m sure my hand’ll find all kinds of no good to keep it entertained. Damned thing usually does. Moving on…

Moving down. Her ear’s so tender. This isn’t. Less nibbling, I follow the path set by my delinquent hand.

It amazes me how much stuff changes. I’ve always been a real meat-and-potatoes kind of gal.

This isn’t that.

Or I guess it can be, but not exactly. Not really.

It’s more like filling up on appetizers. Each taste is different. Different textures. Different smells.

I never would’ve gone there without her. And now that I have, I can’t picture anything…

I need her.

As much as I can’t imagine not doing this, I can’t image doing this with anyone else, so…

I’d be lost without her.

She says my name through a groan. The sound sends a chill down my spine, calling me back.

Lost.

I focus on that muscle, the one that bridges her neck and shoulder. What I’m doing to it isn’t very nice. No wonder she…

I stop.

She frets as I nuzzle her nipple, dragging my lips over the hard little knot, letting it slip between them…

My index finger dips into her belly button. I give my hand a nudge so it doesn’t stick around to play. That’s just annoying.

Drawing her nipple into my mouth, I suckle and flick, then let go. She trembles when I exhale. Tasting even a hint of myself on her skin is…

My right hand reaches its goal. So soft, like the petals of a flower.

That’s exactly it too. She’s just like a flower. I can even picture the one I mean, but damned if I know its name. It looks sort of like a curled up sheet of paper.

And that’s probably the tiredest simile ever. Even I’ve heard it and I don’t—

I don’t know. That part’s not supposed to be pretty, is it? I never expected to think that. Not about anyone. But somehow B…

Still kind of mindlessly teasing her nipple with my lips and tongue, I part her folds, fondling…

Skin smooth as warm butter flows beneath my fingertips…

Supple?

Supple works. And slippery…

And warm. And…

And…

And…

And distracting…severely distracting…

It still blows me away. Every inch of her is just

We’re both somewhere between here and gone. Her body’s so rigid, she shivers with the stress. I move up to find—

She draws in a desperate sounding breath. It’s amazing that something so small can—

Her hand touches mine. She’s shaking like a leaf, but the contact helps. She pushes, directing me back…

Guess she thinks I’ve screwed around enough. I take the hint and she takes over, cupping my cheek, guiding me to face her. My fingers push inside her as she kisses me. What starts with a few frantic pecks becomes—

I think this is the sort of thing people write sappy poetry about. I lose track as it grows, falling into…

Every move she makes sends a ripple through me. Pressure builds, white static at the base of my skull, radiating out, warm and blurry…

She draws in breathy little sighs between, umm…

My hand’s lost too. Leave it alone for a moment and…

Figures it fell into a rut. My fingers move back and forth rather than in and out, in sort of a subtle ‘come hither’ gesture, but with three instead of one. As my hand closes, I swirl my fingertips. This is something I do to myself. It’s soothing, but not—

The goal’s not—

It’s not what she wants.

Her hands move to my hips when I slide down. She steadies me and nothing changes. My fingertips turn the same tight circle as I focus on her stomach. I’m impatient, but I—

I take my time, tasting the salt on her skin, feeling her warmth against my lips, just enjoying…

Lingering.

I hold my leg out, swinging it wide to miss her hair before I plant my knee. She guides me to where I want to be, but I hold back. I kind of took over. It’s her turn. My eyes drift shut as she threads her arm between my legs. I concentrate on my hand, just feeling her.

Just feeling her is pretty amazing. I could get lost.

I did get lost.

As she eases herself down, I compensate, moving with her, then she kisses me. It’s exactly like that too.

And I’m pretty sure that’s stupid. What else would she do?

But this just isn’t what I expect. She takes a single lip between hers and tastes it. She doesn’t bother trying to cover her teeth. And that makes it that much…

It’s painful, but not. I ache, wanting more, but more than that, I want her. Just breathing in her scent makes me—

My mouth waters. I open my eyes and my breath catches in my throat.

Cool light creates sharp contrasts, highlighting the golden tufts of her pubes. Below them there’s a dimple with a fine pleat of skin centered inside. What I want hides behind that perfect piece of creamy flesh.

Perfect.

I swallow.

It calls to me as her lips find another fold. She’s so tender, but I’m so tender…this is gonna send me up—

Her tongue slides down fast, swirling. Pushing everything out of the way, she clamps down, singling out one spot. Somehow she finds…

My brain turns to mush. I slump against her. In the time it takes to blink, she reduces me to twitching, trembling, breathless heap. I hold on. Or try. I’m not even sure—

She’s pinched the whole wedge of flesh between her lips. Her tongue presses down. She swirls it again. And just when every nerve ending in my body tries to escape, she lets go. Her tongue pushes inside me. She could back up and I…

I can think straight and I’d really rather not. This is just…

I don’t know. Not. I mean…it’s not like I hate it. I just can’t see anyone wanting that much of—

I’m no flower.

Nine

She stakes! She scores!

Shit.

Bastard keeps coming. Embers flow over my skin.

Yeah, that wasnít lame. The only way out is through.

Ashes pelt my face. Crap gets in my eyes. Again. It burns.

Oh well, at least heís gone. My eyelids flutter. I rub them…like a dumbass. The room blurs. That was bright! This sucked before, but now…?

Fuckiní ay! This is just great! Wonderful! Itís great when a plan comes together. B. sent the little prick right at me. Tag team slaying. Just like old times. Too badó

A chill creeps down my spine. My eyes snap open. I can barely keep them that way. They itch and burn. I canít see shit. Whatever. Iím gonna have to fake it. My guyís back on hisó

I see the kick coming and swing my arm down. That wants to be a block when it grows up. His foot grazes my forearm and connects with my thigh.

Fucker kicks like a mule! The room spins. My knee buckles. I crash into the wall. Lucky me, I donít goó

The head rush wipes me out. Itís all I can do to catch myself. Thatís a mistake too. Another one.

My stake goes flying. It skips away as I smack the ground face first.

At least Iím still in the same fuckiní room. At least I thinkó

Yeah, who gives a shit what I think…or where I am?

Iím screwed. Thatís where I am. What I thinkó?

I think my leg shouldó

I think this shouldó

I gasp. This blows! My leg should hurt.

And it does. It hurts like a bitch, butó

I clench my teeth. Itís justó

Itís cool. Iíll be good if I canó

Itíll pass. I just need to breathe.

And not puke. Not puking would be cool.

He mustíve hit a nerve bundle. This hurts so bad itís almostó

Itísó

I canító

Itís almost numb.

Itíll pass. It has to. I just need time.

And timeís the one thing I donít have. I want to move, butó

Uh…

This is gonna suck. I roll onto my side and hug my right leg. Moving just that much makes the left oneó

It throbs and jabs. Pain, sharp and dull both at once. My teeth grind together.

I cringe or flinch. Or cringe and flinch bothó

Mistake?

Yeah. Total shock. That was another goddamned mistake.

I want to roll my eyes. Iím not sure I can. I draw in a breath. Itís pitiful, all trembly, broken and shit. At least my head clears. Some. Not much.

Doesnít matter. Iíll take it. Anything in the plus column works. Iím seriously not picky. Something tells me if I make it outta here, aspirinís not gonna cut it this time.

God! Iím such an idiot! Dropping my guard was a monumentally stupid thing to do. But itís not like I had much of a choice. I had to take a chance to get the job done. Passing that little shit back and forth was just gonna get one of usó

I try to laugh and end up hacking up a lung. One of us did get hurt. What-the-fuck-ever. Itís done. Heís gone. Thatís what matters.

You were right, B. Bet sheíd love hearing that. Like it was hard to predict. Shit doesnít get much more obvious.

I didnít care. I wasnít gonna let go. I had to push.

And thatís just so unlike me.

Yeah.

Oh well. Best Iíve got nowís ‘play dead.í I groan. The effectís good. And damn it, I need it. Iím sure not gonna get up. My leg throbs, warm and prickly, right on the edge of really goddamned painful. Moving again would be aó

Maybe the ceiling will cave in. Thatíd be just my luck.

A hard chunk of debris gouges my cheek. Crap sticks to my face. This place was trashed before we showed up, but now

Old construction like this doesnít go without one hell of a fight. The floorís covered in dust, ashes, broken boards, hunks of plaster strung together with matted clumps of coarse black hair, slivers of wood…

All of that wood and not a scrap in reach. Unless thereís something behind me, but itís not like I can look. An epiphany wouldnít go amiss right about now.

Itís fine. Iíll just go with what I know. What Iíve got.

That is if he ever gets around toó

Christ, Buddy! Take your time why donít you? Youíd thinkó

Goddamned gorillaís been on me like stink on shit since we got here. Heís got a serious grudge. Or he had one. Figures now that Iím down he wants to ‘savor the killí…or whatever.

Maybe he got lost. Stupid fuckiní vamps.

The little Jackie-Chan-looking motherfucker B.ís been fightingís got it just as bad. They trade blows so fast itís almost hard to watch. Not that I can. Everythingís pretty much a blur.

B. gets a kick in. He goes reeling through one of the holes in the wall. She doesnít even notice me. Iím glad. As she goes after her guy, my guy slips his hand under my chest.

I bite my lip to stifle a snicker. Instead of giving myself up, I go for the blade stashed at the small of my back as he lifts me. Itís just a better plan.

He doesnít feel a thing. It all plays out perfect. Just like in the movies. When he has me almost sittingósurprise, surpriseóI turn and gut him.

Fact really is stranger than fiction. If this wasnít just some pretty little dagger B. handed me, itíd be curtains for my guy. Sweet gesture, but a stake mightíve been more useful. Depends.

His hand closes over mine. He tries to stop me from driving the blade in deeper. I grab his hair and force him to meet my eyes. “So whereís your boss?” I ask. His other handís on my shoulder. He pushes. Iím not giving in. I want an answer. He just stares.

Clammy blood flows over my hand. No clue why, but it strikes me as strange that itís tepid. Maybe itís just how gross it is. Ashes would be better. Course with ashes thereíd be lessó

A crash comes from the next room. He jerks. I shove. The knife sinks in. Hope that was a good crash. The gasp didnít soundó

He says, “I donít naó”

“Bullshit!” I snap. Zero thought. All kneejerk reaction. I wrench the knife for all Iím worth. It plunges in up to the hilt. Thatís what shuts him up.

Itís kinda pointless to say, “You know exactly who Iím talking about.” Thereís just no way he doesnít. Sad, the bovine glaze reflected in his pissy yellow eyes says different. Itís hard to believe, but he might actually be that dumb.

That dumb or that smart. Too smart to talk. But he doesnít need to talk. A twitch will do. “Little thing, smaller than B.” I tilt my head in the direction of that last crash. “Looks like sheís twelve going on twelve-hundred. Calls herself Kako.”

He still looks short-bus stupid, but I get my twitch. The name does the trick. Fuckerís got a choice now. He can spill his guts or Iíll do it for him. I twist the knife and he screams, “Fuckiní bitch!”

“Yeah, thatís what they all say,” I grumble. “Usually happens about the time they get that theyíre screwed.” He trembles so hard my voice shakes. It makes me sound scared. Thatís the last thing I am.

I clear my throat. “I think itís time we got a few things straight.” My voice sounds a little stronger. “Youíre probably thinking that because Iím a slayer that means Iím one of the good guys. Thatís a common misconception.” I tug the blade down. The change of direction catches him off guard. I gain a few inches.

“Let me clear things up for you. If you wanted the good slayer, you picked the wrong one. Iím not her.” Easing up while I clue the bastard in doesnít go so well. He fights me. The knife twists again. “Never have been,” I grumble as I clamp down to regain control.

Heís at that point. Dead or not, instinctively heís in so much pain that heís fighting for his life. Itís kind of funny actually. There are certain things that are just ingrained.

Whatever, I just donít want him to pass out on me. Thatíd suck.

“Sheís in the next room kicking the shit out of your boy. Heíll get a clean death. But something tells me youíre not gonna be so lucky.” Grinning around gritted teeth never goes well. I can just imagine how I look. I know how I sound. Each word takes more effort than it should. My muscles quiver under the strain as I point out, “Frankly, I donít think youíre that smart.”

I may be wasting my breath. Heís getting weaker. Itís impressive. His complexionís actually pastier. If he was human, heíd be sweating. Iím really glad heís not.

I hate having to repeat myself. “So letís start over. Where is she?” I give him a sec to respond. Yeah, I mayíve broken him. Oh well, maybe if I make it simple. “Get this right and I may not have to open you up.” I pause to change the angle of the blade. “Get it wrong and I figure seeing your own guts strung around the room should jog your memory.”

He spits at me. My eyes snap closed as he screams, “Fuck you!”

Nice.

Iím not that easy. I use my shoulders to mop my face, meet his eyes and say, “Iíve got nothing but time.” The blade catches on his ribcage. I leverage the handle down. He chokes, bringing up a little bit of blood.

The thudís too loud. Too close. I canító

My attention snaps to my right as she grunts, soft and feminine.

Itís B.

Black hair frames her face. I blink.

Itís not B. I blink again.

What the fuck?

Smashed nose, crinkled brow, yellow eyes…

She blinks. Itís Kako. Howís itó?

She looks terrified.

Uh…

No way.

No way is this right.

Her beige cable knit sweater stretches overó

I stare at her tits. I canít look at her face. God! Todayís just been tweaked, turned around, fucked up backwards! I need a vacation. Itís notó

This isnít right. But her tits are right. Everything from her neck down is right.Itís B. I know itís B. I knowó

For Christís sake! I watched her get dressed.

Thatís the same brown coat. Same fur collar. A flash of sense memory takes over. I remember how the fuzz tickled my cheek.

Her head turns. I shut my eyes to avoid meeting hers. I canít. This is just anotheró

This isnít real.

It doesnít matter. I canít faceó

If Iím wrong, she can kill me. Iíd rather die. I just canítóI canít see that. Itís wrong.

I take a breath. Nothing touches me. Nothing moves. Thereís no more pain.

I open my eyes. Itís B. I was right. Itís my B. And boy, does she look pissed.

Itís good.

Well, itís good enough. I hate my goddamned brain!

Yeah, and my brain hates me. I donít know what the hellís up withó

B.ís shoulders twitch. I know whatís next before it comes. She rocks, kicks off and springs to her feet. I find the sense to close my mouth. Iím sure I look like a complete idiot. Not that she notices. She dives back through the hole, leaving me alone.

And I really am alone. No clue what just happened. My hands lay useless in my lap. Even after I drop that knife, I still feel it. It clatters against the floor. I tremble.

A bed frame sits broken and twisted a few feet away. Another casualty of war. Its stained mattress and box springs are a few feet farther from me, stacked in a skewed pile, still half on the frame. Cold air drafts into the room through an open window behind them.

My guy bailed while I wasó

Shit! Nice timing, B.

The blood on my hands…

My skin crawls.†

I canít think about that. Itís good. Iím fine. I stash my knife. Bloodstained clothes are nothing new. At least itís not my blood this time.

Getting up is a little tougher for me. No big deal, right? Just put one foot flat on the floor and stand. Yeah, thatís exactly what happens, sharp pain and all. I turn around and pull myself up with whatís left of the wall.

I should be completely flipped out, but Iím not. That was so real. Well…not real, butó

It felt familiar. So, stupid me, I gotta ask. What would terrify Kako?

I have no idea.

And I think Iím glad. I should just accept for now. Move on. Be grateful. B.ís totally right. I donít remember for a reason.

None of this is new. My reactionís not new either. Itís painfully stupid. Worse, I know itís stupid. I just canít let go. Thatís not who I am.

The smart thing would be to go help her out. More crashes, gasps and grunts come from the next room.

I should really go help. No surprise, thatís not what I want at all.

My guy knows something. I know he does. He was the only one wearing a normal face when we busted into the room. That usually means that theyíre old. They have more control, more connections. They know more. And I have this nagging need to know.

“You doing okay?” I ask, already knowing the answer. Sheís good. I know those sounds. That look. Sheís got it figured. Her guy gave something up. Sheís just waiting for her moment.

“Oh, Iím justó” she gasps “óIím peachy.”†

Yeah, you are. Among other things.

Iím fine too. My legs are fine. They were fucked this morning. Covered in welts andó

But that was this morning. Now theyíre kinda numb. They throb a little. But theyíre fine. Iím gone.

B. yells my name as I sprint across the room, bounce off the mattress and go out the window. When she adds a, “Shit!” it makes me smirk. Just like old times.

Cool air flows over my skin. My coat puffs out like a sail. Running felt good. Iím fine. Iíll roll. Itíll be good.

And this is just a blast. I fly away from the house, clearing the sidewalk no problem.

Itís a blast alright. Until I hit the ground. I tuck andó

My legs cave. I splat like a bug.

I thinkó

I think Iím gonna be sick.

My legs arenít fine. Theyíre fucked. Theyó

They suck.

But we were only on the second story!

I take a breath. The stabbing pain in my chest makes me regret even more.

This is complete bullshit!

I lay flat on my back in the middle of the street. Wile E. Coyote was more graceful.

Hell, Xander wouldíve been more graceful. Maybe a car will come along and put me out of my misery.

The clock ticks and no such luck. All I hear is the drone of traffic on the freeway. Iím alone. That much is good. Iíd make a nice snack now.

It hurts to sit up. Something clatters against the concrete. Itís my knife. I thought I put that up. So howíd itó?

Shit. I canít win.

I pick it up and put it back, lingering to take out a smoke. I need one bad, but Iíll probably burn myself. Iím having that kind of night. Placing the cigarette between my lips, I light up.

Sípose my guy really was old. They get that way by knowing when to bail. After taking a hard pull off my smoke, I flick the ash. Thatís a trick I obviously havenít mastered yet.

But Iím not old, he is. Iím just a stupid slayer. We donít get to be old.

At least I donít have to worry about cancer. Smoking is…

“What the hell did you think you were doing?”

…the least of my worries.

Oh boy!

Iím not alone anymore. Ten-to-one she has her hand on her hip. Twisting hurts, but I just have to look.

Yup.

Is it sad that I think thatís kinda cute now?

I take a drag. Yeah, itís sad. Iím so screwed up. I canít even look her in the eye.

But somehow lowerís fine?

Itís so not like me to stare at some chickís tits. And if she was just some chick…

Sheís not. Sheísó

The sense memoryís different this time. I know all of those sweet little sounds she makes. All of her tender spots. A tingle runs down my spine. It doesnít stop at my spine.

Great distraction while it lasts. She kills it by moving. Crouching down next to me, she focuses on my legs. The look on her face isnít promising, but least sheís done yelling.

At least I hope sheís done yelling. When she doesnít point out what an idiot I amóstupid, stupid meóI have to prove it by looking too. And of course, the moment I see the bloodstain on the left calf of my jeans, the pain really sinks in. Itís about the size of my palm. Imagining whatís underneath is worse. I tore that cut open again. My stomach knots up. I need to puke…proving once and for all exactly what an idiot I am.

So much for my smoke. I flick my middle finger and send it sailing. It bounces a couple times, showering red sparks on the street. Figures, the instant itís gone, I want it back.

I roll my eyes. Whatever. Waking up beat to shit and having no clue howó

Iíve had better days.

And I just canít let go. I know if could, the shitíd eventually come back. Like it or not, it always does. Iím not helping a damned thing byó

Iím just making a fool of myself.

A face drifts to the surface of my muddled, blurry, twisted mind. This is one of the few things I remember. Itís not really a face. Dudeís wearing a mask like some Mexican wrestler. Iíve never seen him before. At least not that I remember. Could Kako seriously be afraid of this dork? I doubt it, but heís mixed up in this clusterfu…somehow. I meanó

Oh, I donít know what I mean. Whatever his deal his, he gives me a wicked case of the creeps. No idea how he fits.

B. wasnít doing so hot herself this morning. Maybe we got Ren and Stimpyed by Granddaddy Lout and sheís just too embarrassed to talk about it.

Unlikely, but funny. God knows Iíve had those nights. A little too much tequila and what mightíve been a good time turns into a vacancy. Like mental Swiss cheese.

Then thereís the barrage of embarrassing stories from people I barely know.

So where are all my stories? Iíd love some right about now. I could use a laugh.

She doesnít say shit. She wonít. Just the obvious. “We need to get you home.”

Maybe she doesnít remember either. Thatís not the impression I got, butó

She stands and offers me a hand, asking, “Can you walk?”

Hell if I know. Guess weíll find out. My right legís bent at a funny angle. I move it. Iíve had worse. It just looked weird.

Ignoring her question, I ask my own, “You take care of Jackie?” One of them playing Casperís bad enough. Getting jumped on the way to the car really would be worse.

She doesnít move. “Jackie?”

“Your guy,” I reply. “He looked a little like Jackie Chan.”

“Jackie Chanís Chinese, Faith,” she says. “But yeah, heís gone.” Her voice is dry as hell. Sheís not amused.

And that doesnít matter. Itís still funny. I gotta take that where I can. My head may explode if I donít.

She finally catches up. Itís good to hear her laugh, even if it is just a snicker. “I guess he did look a little like Jackie Chan.”

Her fingers twiddle impatiently. She wants me on my feet and thatís probably a good idea. Beats sitting in the street. My ass is cold.

I look up, take her hand and wink. “He did,” I reply. My teeth grit as she hauls me up. Sharp, stabbing pain pretty much kills the funny. Here I was thinking ‘outtakes from Buffy meets the Drunken Master.í Wonder if she could do that thing with the ladder. Could be our ticket to fame.

Was that in the Drunken Master?

I donít remember. I was thinking about trying it until I watched the gag reel. It looked damned painful.

Now for the hard part, which leg to favor? Theyíre both pretty screwed.

Blood dribbles down my left calf. It feels weird. A little like warm syrup, but really distant.

Well, that cinches that. Right leg it is. This is gonna be fun. More like old times. The nostalgiaís killing me.

Putting my arm around her, I take my first step. She clutches my side. The painís kind of hard to get past. I wince. My jaw tightens. The worst part is the cut. It opens and closes when I put pressure on my leg. I force myself to focus, breathe evenly, look at where Iím going, all the shit you learn. The crest of the hillís so far away, a flat notch on the horizon between two little tufts of trees.†

We still have that unspoken thing. I wouldnít think twice about picking her up if the tables were turned. She just lets me struggle. She probably wouldnít like it either, but sheíd put up with it to make me happy. And Iíd want to take care of her. I bet she wants to take care of me, butó

It gets easier as I limp toward my goal. My legs get kind of numb somewhere between the jolts of pain. I figure out just how much weight I can put on the left one and avoid that. Or at least dumb it down a little. Relearning how to walk never gets old.

“We did the best we could.”

Her voice throws me. I didnít expect her to say anything. I almost donít hear her. Just putting one foot in front of the other is plenty. I reply, “I guess,” turning my attention to the ground at my feet.

I wish sheíd talk to me. More than a few words. More than just the obvious. The fact that she wonít…or doesnít, or whatever…itó

This is something really bad. It has to be. Mask guy, Kako, all the bruises…

My stomach tightens. The knot comes back.

I donít bruise. Not usually. Not easily.

Shit!

The cutóitís wrong. I know itís wrong. I just donít want to accept it.

Itís the kind of cut the other half gets in the kitchen. Straight, clean, deep…only the angleís bad. It runs up my leg. Not across. Face it, the only way I got a cut like that is if I let it happen or I did it myself.

Maybe I was kicking somebody and they got in a lucky shot?

No. It doesnít work that way and I know it. Something like that would be one in a million. Fact is, that cut should go the other way.

Iíve been a lot of things in my life. Iíve done a lot of really stupid things, but Iíve never cut myself. Not on purpose.

I remember those girls. They made me sick. Pathetic drama queens. Such a waste of flesh.

The part that really screws with me is that Iím happy! Iím happier than Iíve been inó

I donít even know. No clue. I donít think Iíve ever been this happy.

Why would I hurt myself?

The only thing that comes to mindó

Hell, the only thing that makes any sense at all is that I was protecting her. Thatís it.

So, I cut myself to protect her? How does that make sense?

It doesnít. Thatís the trouble. Nothing makesó

Her shoulders dip. That mightíve landed me on my ass…if I was actually moving. Iím really not. I havenít been. Not enough to make any difference at all. Pressure at the back of my knees tells me one thing: sheís sick of waiting. “Iím sorry,” she whispers, “Itís justó” lifting me into her arms. “I need to get you back to the car so I can look at that leg.”

Thatís the trouble with unspoken things. You really donít know. She has no idea how grateful I am.

My left footís wet. It squishes in my boot. I donít sweat. Not like this. Not when itís this cold. My right footís dry. From there, the mathís pretty simple. Itís blood.

Maybe she does get it. The signs wouldnít be that hard toó

I donít hold back. I latch on, twisting my upper body and wrapping my arms around her. Itís not something I even have I think about. I crave the contact. She feels so soft, but so strong, so good, but so small. Itís amazing that someone so tinyó

This feels really strange. Itís not like me. Trust isnít something I freely give out. “Just take me home,” I reply, staring back the way we came. Itís sad. I didnít even make it half a block.

Her fuzzy collar rubs my cheek, tickling me as she moves. This feels like something from a dream. Her hand grips my side. It wasnít a dream. The bounce of her stride, the faint pat of her footfalls, the soft pant of her breath…itís all familiar. This happened last night. I may not remember, but itís not that hard to figure out.

At first it hurts a little…the movement. I tense up, trying to hold my leg still. Itís useless. Dead, prickly twinges shoot through my calf with each step. A lump forms in my throat. I swallow it back. The view distracts me. Sort of. In the distance I can see downtown. Itís pretty. Skyscrapers jut up from a grid of twinkling lights.

As she builds speed, things get better. We level out. I relax. My eyelids drift shut.

Iím safe. I know I am. And knowing thatís enough.


I’m no flower.

Yeah, and all I have to do to fix this is raise my head. It’s not that damned hard.

As I lift myself up to focus on her and forget, a gloved hand clamps around my throat.

It strangles away my gasp, flipping me up and flinging me back. I hit the ground, sliding across—

Kicking and scraping, but I can’t stop. The crown of my head cracks—

Pain blinds me.

My neck buckles. My shoulder folds. I crumple against the wall.

Before I can grunt or groan or…he’s on me again. I grab his wrist as he goes for my throat. It’s no use. He jerks me upright. My head smacks into—

Another white flash and more sharp pain drowns everything out. Splotches of light dance with shadow streaking my view. They leave behind a blurry blob when I try to blink them away. The inkblot looms inches from my face. I shut my eyes. My ears ring as I bear down, hoping something will change.

Goddammit! Can I just go back to the part where—?

Where the hell is she? You’d think she’d be pissed. I know I am.

So, I’m not there?

Or she’s not here? Wherever here is.

He didn’t throw me that far. I should be—

I should’ve gone through the wall. I should be in the back yard. As hard as I hit…

The way I was thrown, from where I was on the bed…I would’ve hit beneath the window. And the wall…

Sharp edges cut into the back of my head. That isn’t drywall.†

I’m definitely not there.

Well, fuck! Maybe if I knock my heels together…?

Nope. That’s out. My legs are screwed.

I’m screwed.

Guessing games are out too. Last time I felt this bad, some cocksucker used my skull to bust a tombstone. I swallow. My stomach’s so queasy I may—

If I think it, I’ll probably do it, so…I get around to cracking my eyes a little sooner than I want.

Shit. It’s the same son of a bitch from the other night, doubled. Just what I needed: two-for-the-price-of-one masked mystery villains. They must’ve been on sale.

Squeezing my eyes shut doesn’t do a damned bit of good. I’d rub them, but I’ve got my hands full keeping Mucha Lucha from throttling the shit out of me.

So, two it is. He’s got a jagged yellow stripe down the middle of his face. Seeing that twice is really special.

Wonder what he calls himself. Sparky? Or maybe Bumblebee?

I’d laugh, but I think my head might fall off.

Struggling’s pointless. He’s got a grip like a vice. I can’t even pry one of his fingers up.

My elbow touches the wall when I draw back. There’s no room to swing, but I have to try. Focusing everything I’ve got two inches behind the target, I unload. My fist cracks against his ribs.

He barely moves. His impassive mask just hangs in a cloud. A cloud of fog I created because he gave me some slack. I suck the cold air in like each breath might be my last. I need to get my head on straight. My hand throbs as I clutch it. This is just sad.

And screaming…? “I said no!” Oh yeah, that helps. A sharp twinge shoots from my temple to somewhere behind my right eye. What’d be truly helpful is knowing the— “If you think cracking my skull’s gonna get you shit, you’re stupider—”

His fist comes out of nowhere. My head snaps sideways. More stars. More pain. Huge surprise.

What’s really sad is that’s mostly true. Feeling it build, hearing myself scream and having no clue what or why is plenty enough mindfuck for me. The rest of this is pure bonus. Tasting blood is only thing that doesn’t come as a shock. I spit and two identical red globs splatter the crappy, overlapping yellow stripes.

He yanks my hair and sends me flying. The in-flight scenery includes a jagged, vaguely oval hole in the brick—not drywall—wall and double the rubble littering the floor.

But it’s the abrupt, bone jarring, deep-tissue-bruising stop and the accompanying white flash that really suck. I flop flat on my face.

My shivers turn to shakes when he snatches me up. I have all the coordination of a ragdoll, but I really don’t need any. He just pins me by my throat again.

My scalp feels wet. That’s not the best sign. But when I check, it’s actually dry.

Huh.

Well, at least the fireworks are pretty.

I let my arms fall. Anything else would be a waste. I can’t do shit. And I can breathe, so…

This could be so much worse. I mean…

I guess.

It’s slim consolation, but at least no one ever taught Sparky the Wonder Troll how to dish out pain. There’s a point where more of the same’s just kind of…duh, the same…and pretty much pointless.

We blew past that a while back. I’d be easier for me to pick out the parts that aren’t screwed. I think the big toe on my left foot’s fine.

Or maybe it’s my right foot. I’m still having a hell of a time telling what’s what below my waist.

Point is, there is no point. Shit just goes numb when you wail on it. I’d roll my eyes, but I might pass out.

I’m still breathing hard, almost panting. Wouldn’t want him to think he’s actually getting to me, so I force a deep, calm breath.

One breath gets me a whole lot more than I bargained for. But it’s not the breath, it’s what I smell. I have trouble making sense of it. The sweet, vaguely floral scent just doesn’t match the carnage. 

One isn’t enough. As I inhale slowly, just enjoying the smell, a weight lifts.

Nine

B.’s got this down. I’m impressed.

Actually, it’s kinda sad, like she knew I was coming. Most people would’ve just baked a cake. She picked up a suture kit. It even looks like she knows how to use it.

No idea what that says about me.

Nothing good.

She says, “I always wanted Mom to teach me how to sew.” Her voice is so soft…comforting, but not. “But I dunno, there was just something about it. She enjoyed doing it for me so much.” The bed feels good. At least that much just is what it is. “It didn’t seem right to change what we had.”

She stops long enough that I consider checking to see what’s up. Good thing she beats me to it. “It figures I’d learn how to do this instead.” I’m a little buzzed from the local she gave me. At least she’s over the doom and gloom.

That makes one of us.

I imagine the smirk I know is there. I’d love to smirk too, but there’s just something about hearing her talk about Mrs. S. that’s—

I can’t. Buffy’s mom was never anything but nice to me. And I really wasn’t nice to her. Not last time I saw her. Now it’s, uh…well, I must love guilt. I sure racked enough of it up.

Thing is, it’s not just that. It’s everything. B. must’ve given me Lidocaine. Or that’s how it feels. My heart thuds a tight rhythm in my chest. I’m completely relaxed on the one hand, but on the other…

I hate this! It’s like I’m being pulled in two.

Every move she makes sends a twinge through my leg. I feel it, like spiders on my skin, scuttling under my skin. She pulls on the thread and it pinches.

It’s not really thread. Sort of ironic, it looks like spider’s silk when it comes out of the package, but it wicks up blood and turns black. It’s nasty.

This whole thing’s nasty. She tugs and the bottom of my left foot—my lower back—they twitch. I have to concentrate not to tense up.

Just dealing is enough. Staying distracted, but not really distracted. I have to focus. It’s all I can do not to pull away.

People say crap like ‘it makes my skin crawl’ or ‘it sets my teeth on edge.’ Neither of those things really covers this. It feels almost like being tickled, only nastier.

Yeah, ‘nasty’ is the best I’ve got. There’s a sick feeling in the pit my stomach that goes right along with it.

It’s nasty.

Each moment becomes an eternity of preparing for the pinch. My nails dig into the palms of my hands. The pain’s actually good. It takes my mind off of everything else.

That’s one half. The other half of me is happy to be clean. The terrycloth robe feels soft and warm. I’m still a little damp from my bath.

She’s totally ignoring herself. Talking care of me is just more important.

That’s pretty messed up, but I get it, really, I do. That’s how we all are, us slayers. We focus on what needs to be done and nothing else matters. We get this wicked case of tunnel vision.

Like tonight, the vampire, the knife, all that blood. You’d think I’d learn, but that’s what went wrong. That’s what always goes wrong for me. My robe sticks to my skin kind of like my shirt did when…

I feel it coming. This time I’m grateful for the interruption. She pulls. My teeth grind together. Not really bad, but bad enough.

The wave of thrill-less chills finally passes and I swallow. That’s a lot more work than it should be. My mouth’s pasty. Stupid drugs again.

I wish she’d say something else. I really don’t care what. She could talk about the latest Cosmo and it’d still beat the shit out of this.

It’s pretty bad, like a part of my brain’s set to sabotage the rest. Anything good gets shredded.

I focus on just breathing, searching for some trace of good, taking in all of the smells, the human ones and others that we think of as human but they really aren’t. Stuff like dryer sheets, shampoo, laundry detergent. Sweet, artificial smells that are no more human—

Something really pinches. I gasp. My eyes pop open. I tense my leg to keep it still. My stomach lurches. I manage to focus just in time to see her tie one those slick one-handed knots. She makes it look too easy.

In the moment or two it takes for me to remember that I need air, she snips the thread and starts to pick up. Thank God that’s over. Now all that’s left is the gift wrap. Maybe if I’m a good girl she’ll give me a pretty bow.

Or a lollipop.

“I’ll remove these in a few days,” she says. “Till then you’re gonna have to take it easy.”

So much for my lollipop. Figures I’d get the same tired story instead. When she saw the cut, it was over. She lectured me half the way home. It wasn’t the first time I heard how I made something ‘so much worse.’ And it probably won’t be the last. I’ve got this gift.

All she says now is, “We’ll have to find something else to keep you busy.” The look on her face tells me she has something in mind.

I really don’t get her. It’s not like I’m complaining, but I thought for sure she’d start bitching again. I desperately deserve it.

Thing is, it’s not like she ever really bitched. She seemed more concerned about me than anything I’d done to her.

I’m not even sure how to take that. I completely trashed her day. Most people would be pissed.

I don’t know. I s’pose I shouldn’t question it. Sometimes it’s just good to be wrong.

She gets that smirk before I shut my eyes this time. She earned it.

Her pillow’s right next to me. It smells like her. Not just her shampoo and perfume, but her, the human smell. Something good. I wrap my arms around it and breathe in. It’s a little different than I remember, but that’s not surprising. People change. Their scent can change with even the simplest things. Stuff like onions and garlic make a big difference and she barely touches them now. Not that she went overboard before, but—

We were at one of the best pizza chains in the states last night and what’d she order? A salad with shrimp on it and a little bowl of fruit. I was seriously worried that estrogen poisoning had damaged her brain until she went for the table bread.

She cleans around the cut once more with a sterile wipe. It chills my skin. Of course my leg’s so numb that it feels really weird.

It’s messed up. That’s one of the last things I remember. We talked. I do know that.

From there, all that’s left are pieces. Some of them are just impressions. It’s like my brain’s playing hide and seek. I remember being worried about her. She was freezing. And I remember seeing the sign for that stupid chili place. That’s probably the last thing I do remember. How fucked up is that? I have mind like a steel trap for inane details.

Anything else?

Well

It’s cool. I’m not going to worry about that now. She’s right. It’ll come back. I need to trust her. She would’ve said something if—

If things were really that bad, if there was really some reason to worry, she’d say something. I have to trust that. I know it’s true.

Paper tears. The tape dispenser squeaks. One of those nonstick pads touches my skin. It feels strange. Weirder than that last thing. I have to look. It’s not what I expect. It’s some sort gauze, but with a waxy coating. Clueless what it is and I don’t see the wrapper. Guess she already pitched it.

“I did my best, but you’re gonna have a scar,” she whispers as she tapes it in place. Then she glances at me like she expects something. Or maybe she’s just nervous? Who knows? I wish I had something for her, but what can I say? ‘What else is new?’ ‘Yeah, I got that.’ ‘It’ll go well with all the rest.’ None of those things really work, so I keep my mouth shut and nod.

She completely misses it. A single glance was all she had for me. She’s all wrapped up in my leg again.

Well, not wrapped up in it—’cause that’d just be—but wrapped up in wrapping it up.

Fuckin’ ay, she must be rubbing off. And I wasn’t gifted with an overabundance of smarts to start with. This is definitely worse. Thank God she’s too busy to notice. Bet my expression’s priceless. I fix that and mumble, “It’s cool.” I truly don’t care about another scar.

She glances again. The stress shows for just a sec. She covers it up with a smile and goes back to work, tearing open a roll of gauze.

I just wish she was done. This has been a couple dozen different kinds of not-fun ever since she announced that those little white plastic strips weren’t gonna make the cut. Or fix the cut. Guess I really outdid myself this time. And all she wants is a shower. I could take over from here, but it’s pretty pointless to interrupt her now. I’m not even sure how she’d take that. She’s so close to finishing.

She lifts my leg to wrap a layer of gauze around it. Holding it up is about the most useful thing I can do. I need to chill. I’m starting to annoy myself.

I shut my eyes and breathe in. I love the way she smells. It’s not just her pillow. The whole room smells a little like her. Not so much that it’s off-putting. Just the opposite.

Actually, it’s kind of a blend of both of us. The lingering fragrance of sex. A tingle comes with the memory this time. I can almost taste her, feel her skin under my fingertips, the way she trembles, all those soft sighs and…it’s nice. I bite my lip to snuff out a shit-eating grin.

And on the other hand…

Crap.

It’s time I got real. I’m such a killjoy.

This isn’t like me. I don’t get attached. And I sure don’t pine for…

There’s just something about her. The more I see, the more I want. I need to just admit it. I’m screwed.

That’s such nice way to put it. She’d hit me if she knew. Good thing she doesn’t. She hits like a truck.

Yeah, well, truth hurts. That’s how I feel. I sure didn’t plan for this. This wasn’t even something I imagined. Not in my most twisted dreams. I wondered what kind of drugs she was on. And now…

People try to sell how great love is, but it’s really only good for one thing in my book: getting me hurt. I’m not ready to reprise my role as a doormat.

All heart-fluttery, giddy, ‘grinning like an idiot’ happy and fucked up, nervous as hell, afraid you might sneeze wrong. Put those things together and I think they call that ‘crazy.’

I just don’t know what to do about it.

I suppose could tell her the truth. Wouldn’t that be fun? I can just imagine the look on her face if I told her that I’m afraid. That I’m terrified I’ll say or do the wrong thing and she’ll go back to being the same old B. And leave me a total wreck.

Makes me want to just get that out of the way. Hit the road and not look back.

Like running ever got me anywhere before. It only makes things worse.

No clue where my brain was. You’d think I had a dick.

Well, it’s too late now. The choice is made. I have to deal with whatever happens next…whatever happened last night. And I feel I’ve been split right down the middle. One hand and the other…

But not just that. That’d be too easy. I’m being pulled in more directions than that. There are too many pieces to count.

One of my many pieces wants to tell her not to waste her time. I’m hopeless. I keep tripping over the same old shit. You’d think I’d learn.

Yeah, that’ll be the day. I really need to hit something.

Hell, I’d settle for a smoke. But just laying here, being quiet, trying to look relaxed…I’m losing what’s left of my mind. If I could just cut loose, things would be—

The tape thing squeaks again. They’d be exactly the same. Let’s face it. Anything I ‘cut loose’ on right now would have to walk up to me and hold really still. Yeah, that happens all the time.

Light pressure transfers through the gauze. It amazes me that I feel it. I guess that means she’s done. Now maybe she’ll take care of herself.

I don’t know. I don’t know about any of this. I’m probably just flipping out for no reason. It’s not like she—

The bed jiggles. A few more things hit the trash.

She knows what she’s getting into. If anyone can see me for exactly what I am, it’s her. Maybe there a chance this can actually—

The blue disposable mat brushes my calf. She wads it up and stuffs it into the trashcan as I put my leg down.

‘This can actually’ what? What do I think’s gonna happen? We’ll get a place in the suburbs and settle down? Maybe we could even put in for the token two point three kids and a loveable mutt named Spot.

That’s exactly what I need. More liability. More shit to stress over. More people to destroy.

I blink. Between my arm and her pillow, there’s not much to see, just the top third or so of the stained glass window. The bright purples, pinks and greens are deep and dull now. It’s dark as hell outside.

I wish she’d just let me go. That none of this had ever happened. It’d be better for both of us if I was a couple of states away. She’d be safer. Which for B. is pretty damned incredible. And I could just worry about myself if it wasn’t for her.

Like I was doing such a great job before she showed up. Truth is, I’m kidding myself if I say I don’t need her…that I don’t want her around. That’s bullshit.

I just don’t want to see her get hurt. There’s the truth. I don’t think I could handle that. I’ve done enough to screw up both of our lives.

She stands and picks up the first aid kit. Faking it must be working. I’m invisible. She walks around the bed without a word or a second glance.

I really don’t get her. She tried to explain. And it was nice. Sweet, in fact. But this still doesn’t track. Not with our history.

Nothing’s changed. I sure as shit haven’t. And last time I saw her she was the flipping ice queen. By my count, she should still hate me.

There’s enough chemistry that a fling wouldn’t come as a shock. That could’ve happened years ago, but it would’ve been—

It would’ve been totally hot, but painful as hell. We would’ve fucked each other senseless, just because…

Her closet door opens.

…because we couldn’t stand each other. It sure wouldn’t’ve been this. This—

This seems insane. I mean…

Things have changed. I get that. I could maybe see her wanting some sort of a friendship, but this?

This is a complete one-eighty.

The clattering and grumbling almost makes me grin. I’m just too fucked up to let it happen. She could be less of a packrat.

Yeah, and I could fix my head.

That does it. The smirk wins out. I even snicker. Good thing she’s too busy trashing her closet to notice me. Having to explain would just suck.†

I roll my eyes. Back on point…

She doesn’t hate me. The one-eighty obviously happened. And she’s spent a lot of time trying to explain why. Dwelling on stuff she said she didn’t want to talk about. So…

So, I dunno. I guess…

The way things went down in Sunnydale was an absolute clusterfuck. She had a vamp pulling for her and no one else. At the time that looked pretty bad. After last night, ‘pretty bad’ doesn’t even begin to cover it.

The reasons are different, but…hindsight…

I had no idea. It doesn’t really matter whether he stopped or she stopped him or whatever. I don’t need the details to know that the damage amounts to the same. Something goes missing when that happens. No wonder she was such a wreck.

Some heroes we were. We really had her back. No one jumped on board until they had no other choice. And we still thought we were screwed.

The hero of the day came out of there with a few estranged friends. Her reward for saving all of our asses…and everyone else was a bunch of girls who either resented her for a choice she had to make or worshipped the ground she walked on.

I got a little of that myself. It sucked. I can’t say that blame her for wanting out.

But ‘wanting’ and ‘getting’ are two different things. That second part was pretty pricey.

What she got for the ‘getting’ is a dying woman she barely knows. That has to be impossible for her.

Shit. I shake my head. She’s still tunneling to China, so…

With her history, anything would be better.

And here I am, ‘anything,’ but at least I’m familiar.

More significant to us, she’s just as screwed up as I am now. Somehow we met in the middle. We match.

Well, that’s a little cold, but it works. It almost sounds like by questioning the reasons she cares, I’m questioning whether she cares at all. That’s not it. I don’t think this is some sort of game. Not even close. Point is, B.’s not really a ‘me’ person. She needs someone else to care about. That’s part of who she is. And someone with similar flaws is just…

Huh. And here I thought she was just talking about slayers in general. I grin. And this time it’s genuine. It feels pretty good. I think that’s what she’s been trying to tell me all along. She’s just way too polite to say, ‘You’re as fucked in the head as I am.’ Like ‘polite’ matters. Well, I guess it does to a point, but I’d rather she just be straight with me.

She puts the trashcan back by her dresser before she walks around the bed to my side. She’s leaning down, already in her bathrobe when I twist my upper body and open my eyes. I close them and she kisses me. It’s just a peck, but it’s really sweet.

What did I do to deserve sweet?

“I’m gonna go grab a quick shower. I’ll be back,” she whispers. Not exactly news, but her breath on my cheek feels nice.

I reply, “I’ll try not to get into any more trouble while you’re gone.” My voice is even reasonably calm. Kind of a shitheaded, but I sound convincing. Things might just be okay. I top the whole act off with a smile. Sad, I’m still not sure myself, but she buys it.

Yeah, but if memory serves, B.’s not half bad at this game herself. She might just be shining me on. Not like it matters, but—

The naughtiest thing I have planned is to sneak off for a smoke. She probably won’t be thrilled. I think the idea was for me to stay put once she got me here.

I shut my eyes as she stands up. Sorry, B…not gonna happen. I snuggle up to her pillow again and turn onto my side, expecting to hear the door.

No such luck. Drawers open and shut, things clatter and bump. What the hell is she doing?

Clueless. S’pose I could look, but there’s a limit to my curiosity.

Besides, knowing won’t change anything. I still have to wait till she’s gone. If I don’t, she’ll just want to help and—

I’d rather wait.

She’s probably stalling. If the tables were turned, I might be afraid to leave me too. I’m a nightmare.

Yeah, so…

Self-analysis is fun! I spent much more time alone in my head and—

Fuck it.

It’s the only way I’m gonna get shit straight.

So where was I?

Huh. It’s funny. Clean it up and that little trip down memory lane I just took could be from some textbook. Or a Watcher’s Diary. It was skewed enough.

Not that that stuff’s not true…from a certain point of view.

What I failed to mention was that Little Miss Perfect sounded insane. Probably because she was about six and a half years past due for a vacation.

Perfect?

She’s not.

But I don’t think she thought that. I know she doesn’t think that now. It’s just…

We were all wicked stressed and trying to see our way clear. The difference was, most of those girls were only in it to save their own hides. Sunnydale was B.’s turf. She felt responsible for them and everything else. Situations don’t get much shittier.

Her intentions were good. I clear my throat to cut off a snicker. ‘Good intentions’ are as much of a trap as ‘hindsight.’

Truth is, B. was like a tyrant in training. ‘Humorless’ begins to cover it. ‘Sanctimonious’ hits a little closer to the mark. So glad she chilled. She was headed for a coronary…or a nervous breakdown. She’s almost a completely different person now. Maybe it was the humble pie?

A snicker slips out, but I cover it with a sigh. I can just see her saying ‘me…oww’ like she used to. I miss that B. She was funny. She grew up. Grew old…

She’s right where she put herself. Tough lesson. I know.

Even now there’s just something about her. I should’ve seen it then. But I guess I always did. She used to annoy the piss out of me. I thought her luck would eventually run out. I didn’t want to be around when that happened, so I followed my gut and a lot of people got—

It sucked.

Lesson learned. B.’s—

The door shuts. Huh. She’s gone. Cool!

I open my eyes, turn onto my back and sit up. I don’t know why, but half expect to see blood. That I don’t is a good sign. Doesn’t stop me from needing a drink. Standing makes me want one that much more. The stitches pull when I bend my leg. And my calf’s so numb…

I can practically taste that drink.

There’s just no way. She really would flip out. I’ve pushed my luck enough for one day.

There’s no way I’m digging through that bag either. I’ll just borrow something of hers. I doubt she’ll mind. About that at least.

I barely feel the floor underneath my left foot. What starts with me limping deteriorates to me hopping pretty quickly. It’s just easier. I’m sure I look like a dork, but at least I won’t fall and bust my ass.

Or worse, my stitches.

Yeah, I’ll pass. B. really would kill me. And I’d just have to let her.

I reach her chest of drawers, bend down and open the bottom drawer. All I need is something warmer than this robe. From there, everything’s negotiable. There’s a pair of blue sweats on top. I grab them and move to the next drawer for a shirt.

Getting dressed is no fun. I have to put weight on my left leg once. It doesn’t exactly go smoothly. But there’s no bloodshed. That’s what counts.

Thank the Powers for small favors. It’s always the little stuff that’s sucks. Just getting from point ‘a’ to ‘b’ can be a major hassle. I jack a hoodie from B.’s closet, pull it over my head, slip my arms through the sleeves and bail. I start off dreading these stairs, but the fact that they’re cramped actually works in my favor now. I use the center pillar and the wall to brace myself. The corners are a little tricky, but really…

It’s mindless. I hold my bad leg out, press against the walls and hop. Move my hands down, press and hop. Getting back up them might be entertaining, but—

Yeah. This isn’t a problem at all. It’s just monotonous. The real problem is my goddamned life. I need a new one. Or at least a refund.

Wouldn’t that be nice? Too bad they don’t hand out refunds for shit you’ve broken. I sure did a number on…

…and press and hop…

…pretty much everything.

I think it’s hard enough for normal people to stay clean. Feel good about themselves. Not doing anything questionable or just plain wrong. Toss ‘it’s my job to kill shit’ into the mix and things get fun.

Who am I kidding? They get really twisted up really quick. Even B. has trouble keeping this crap straight and she’s a whole lot saner than I am.

The ground rules say ‘only kill to save a life.’ Sounds simple enough, like ‘kill the things that deserve it’ or some shit, but it doesn’t always work.

Tell me how a bunch of kids deserve it? Remembering quilt-girl really isn’t helpful, but that’s where all this bullshit started.

And with such a great start, huge surprise that everything went sideways.

Though, truth is, it wouldn’t’ve mattered what I did, things were gonna go straight to hell after I took out Dae. How it happened didn’t matter. I only hurt myself by—

Guess I hurt Wood too. I laugh. It doesn’t sound anything like a laugh.

Yeah, bringing him up is helpful too. Maybe I could rip off a few scabs for an encore. I’ve got a nice one on the palm of my left hand that just bugs. It could go. And bleeding…

That never gets old.

I still say the dumbass would’ve died anyway. But the way he died…there’s no sidestepping the fact that that one’s on me.

I hop down the last few stairs and into the hallway. My smokes are in the coat B. gave me. I have no idea what happened to mine.

Well, I can guess. Kako’s mixed up in this somehow. It’s a pretty safe bet she took it. The damned thing did belong to her man after all.

It’s cool. I don’t need the reminder. And I sure don’t need some trophy.

That wasn’t it at all. I was just cold.

I pause by the bathroom door for a moment. The shower’s running. Tea’s not normally my thing, but a cup sounds good. I’d like to ask B. if she wants one, but I don’t want to bother. She’s gotta be enjoying her time off. I’ll just make her one. I should be able to make tea and have a smoke before she gets done. I move on to the coat closet, being careful not to make too much noise.

Here’s another fact. One I don’t want to hear. Things were bound to turn ugly with or without me. An ancient, petulant brat-vamp wanted a war.

Snot-nosed little bitch got one. Imagine that. All I did was hand her the targets.

But really, we were already targets, so…

Maybe?

Hell, I don’t know. I guess that works. Maybe I should just keep saying ‘it’s not my fault’ until I believe it. Building a nice case of denial could help pass the time.

At least I’m alone with my denial. Putting on a face for the roomie wouldn’t end well tonight. It’s been hard enough with B.

I grab my smokes and head for the kitchen. This is the tiniest room in the house next to the bathroom. It still takes me a second to remember where the cups are. From there, I’m golden. I stumble onto the tea while I’m opening cabinet doors. There are like twenty different kinds. I’ll let B. decide what she wants, but I’m gonna go for some Constant Comment.

I’ll take all the ‘soothing’ I can get.

No surprise, I’m not alone in that. It looks like the house favorite. There are two boxes. The open one’s on the top of the first stack. I take out a packet and fill the cups.

Gimping from the sink to the microwave with two cups of water isn’t any fun. Three minutes should be plenty. The microwave beeps as I enter the time. Once that’s done, I duck out the back door into the little screened-in patio just off the kitchen.

I bet this is nice in the summer. It’s too cold now. I can see my breath. But this is as good as it usually gets for us smokers. There’s even an ashtray.

Flipping the pack open, I take out a cigarette and my lighter. My feet are already cold. I should’ve worn shoes, but that would’ve required some planning.

I’ll be fine. There’s a braided rug by the door. It’s chilly in the way that only dense fabric gets chilly, which is not really. Not unless it’s wet and this isn’t.

I lean against the wall next to the door and light my cigarette. My eyes drift shut as I slowly let the smoke go. For something that’s so bad for me, this feels pretty good.

Maybe it’s just good to be alone? This little patio could be anywhere. The only entrance is from the kitchen. It’s a box on stilts twelve feet off the ground with trees on two sides and the house on the other two. The only signs that I’m in a city are the smells and the sounds. Mostly it’s regular traffic. Car tires hum against pavement, engines rumble. Thankfully, the air quality’s got nothing on L.A.

A couple more drags and all that’s left are the sounds. No great loss. I’d rather smell tobacco smoke than city any day.

I’m actually glad things went down the way they did tonight—B. landing where she did when she did. I thought it sucked at the time, but it was actually perfect. Her timing was perfect. I don’t need to go down that road again.

Me, getting hurt was perfect too, almost like I was sabotaging myself. Who knows? Maybe I was. I do know what that does to me. I need to get my head straight. Now I have no choice.

I just wish I’d made it easier on B.

Leaves crunch in the neighbor’s yard to my left. Sounds like a squirrel. The rhythmic crackle turns to scraping. Yeah, it’s a squirrel. If I cared, I could probably spot the little bastard, but something else has my attention, something high-pitched behind all the other familiar sounds.

This one’s familiar too. That’s why it bugs. I can’t place it. I lean my head back, resting it against the siding, straining to listen, trying to put my finger on what this is. It’s making me a little crazy. Doesn’t help that it isn’t constant. I just know I know it, I know I’ve heard it, but I have no idea where or when.

What I do hear sounds almost like someone’s stroking the rim of a wineglass with their fingertip, making it sing. It’s not the same, but that’s the closest thing I can think of. It’s not exactly a ‘city’ sort of sound.

My arms are folded. I don’t remember doing that. The right one’s just free enough to let me mindlessly puff on my smoke. No clue when I put my cigarette pack in the pocket of B.’s hoodie either, but my forearm brushes it when I make myself relax.

Moments slip by and not a single screech. Doing nothing doesn’t sit well with me. I want to get moving. Find out what that is. My nails tap against the siding. I force myself to stop.

As I take another hit off of my smoke, I catch the faintest hint, just a trace of that sound. It’s so soft, I wonder if I’m hearing things. It’s probably wishful thinking.

There’s a car approaching on the main drag. It’s slowing down. The only turn is the one that leads back into this neighborhood, so…

I expect them to drive past the next turn, but they don’t. They bang another left, headed this way.

Great.

It’s dumb as hell. I’ve already heard all I need to. But I don’t know. I feel like if I can just hear that sound once, without anything else to get in the way, I’ll know exactly what it is and everything—

But everything’s working against me. A car alarm goes off somewhere to my right. Each honk completely blocks out any chance of me hearing the shriller, fainter and even more distant sound.

I need to hear it.

The car passes the front of the house. It figures that the person driving can’t parallel park. They need a couple of trial runs before they hit their mark. At least they don’t hit anything else. That really would be worse.

Yeah, this is just dumb. One little sound isn’t going to make any difference. All this shit isn’t gonna suddenly make sense just because…

Still, I can’t help racking my brain, trying to remember where I might’ve heard it before.

It’s sexist as hell, I should be ashamed, but it doesn’t surprise me that I hear two female voices when the car doors open. It’d be fairer to think that any street around here’s gonna be a bitch to park on after ten.

I’m too annoyed to be fair.

The car doors click shut one at a time and their bullshit chatter drowns out everything. I could give a crap less about some guy named Roger. I’m sure he’s a real stud, but can’t you two shut the hell up for a sec so I can…? Heels click against pavement, drawing nearer as I struggle to ignore the interruption.

I don’t get why this is so important. I just know it is. I can feel it. And I’ve lost it because of Roger.

Fuck Roger.

The car alarm continues blare in regular, even pulses. A door opens and shuts. It’s the front door of that same house, the one to my left with the squirrel in the yard. The squirrel’s gone. And thank God, those girls are gone too.

Well, they’re not exactly gone. They move around inside the house. The patter of feet accompanied by the occasional creak of a floorboard is much easier to overlook. Their voices are reduced to a twitter. The TV’s a little worse, but I can deal. Or I think I can.

My head throbs. Probably the start of a headache. I’m due one. Goddamned Lidocaine. I hate that shit. It’s easier to just deal with the pain.

The microwave chirps in the kitchen behind me. I’m so focused on finding that sound again that I almost jump. It’s really gone. But as I massage my temples, straining to listen, something else takes its place. Something nearly as strange and unlikely: laughter.

Not that laughter’s unlikely. Those idiots next door have been giggling like a couple of schoolgirls since they pulled up. But this isn’t like that. It’s a soft trill. It fades and blends with the drone of their voices, getting lost in the noise from the TV. It’s a child’s laugh. After midnight on a weekday, I’d call that pretty unlikely.

If the horror movie clichť isn’t enough to send a chill down my spine, what first springs to mind is. Kako laughs like that sometimes. But with her it comes off like she’s pleased with herself…like she’s done something naughty. This isn’t quite the same.

My instincts really aren’t the best. If I was smart, I’d go back inside. I’m not. I creep forward until the screen’s right in my face. I can see the ground below me from here. There’s nothing there except for greenish-gray grass, scattered leaves and a few pools of light from the first floor apartment. Gnarled branches sway in and out of the blackness in front of me.

She’s out there, somewhere, but this isn’t her. It’s something different. I just know. I feel it in my gut.

My breath hangs in my throat when I glimpse my playmate. It’s just a light blur between the trees at the back of the yard. I sink. Not literally, but I get that fucked up feeling that everything’s about to go completely wrong. I want to run, but I couldn’t move now if I was on fire.

As she teases me, hiding, allowing me quick glances, just enough to freak me out, I realize that something’s missing. There’s plenty of giggling. She’s happy as hell. But there’s no crunching. The closest thing is the tree limbs rustling in the breeze. She’s running around without making a sound. It’s creepy. She’s a ghost, a phantom from my past in a blue gingham dress, all ruffles and bows. Her dark braids almost reach her waist. They whip behind her as she plays.

Alex.

I close my eyes. I don’t need to see any more. I couldn’t be more screwed if I tried.

The owner of the car finally gets his shit together and shuts off the stupid alarm. It figures, there’s nothing left to hear. I know what this is all about now. I see her smiling face. Her hazel-green eyes twinkle with mischief. It never occurred to me before, but that’s probably why I never liked Willow. Their eyes are so similar.

I should at least try get away. Thing is, if she’s here to send me to some hell dimension, that’s not exactly gonna help. The screen presses against my forehead. I catch myself on the window ledge, locking my elbows to hold myself up. The board presses into the palms of my hands. I twist my arms, curling my fingers around its edge.

Maybe she’s just got the munchies and she’s hoping she can trick me into singing the Oscar Mayer Weiner song. Bet she thinks I’d look good on a bun.

I really have lost my mind. I’m up shit creek, but somehow I manage to find the nerve to grin.

She mocks me. Her giggling turns to humming. She’s on the move. There’s nothing I can do. Just listen as she closes in. She hums through the first part of the jingle, but last part she sings, “…so Faith Lehane would be in love with me.” It’s weird. Her voice is so pretty, yet it almost sends me out of my skin.

She’s behind me. I snap from terrified to pissed off. As I spin around, she says, “She’s not real, y’know?”

“She who?” I demand. My voice is anything but pretty. All that’s left is a low, threatening growl. I clench my fists so hard my knuckles crack.†

Here I thought B. made me feel conflicted. She’s got nothing on Alex. Part of me wants to rip her apart. Another part—the smart part—knows if I try, she’ll end me.

But that’s not even the bad part. Part of me wants to see the little girl. My imaginary friend. I feel like I’m threatening someone who’s only ever tried to help me. Somebody who doesn’t even exist.

And of all the stupid, senseless, lame-brained—that’s the part that’s winning. She’s just so sweet and unassuming. I’m a dumbass. That feeling doesn’t last. It goes away the second she opens her mouth. Her lips purse and I see it coming. She makes the ‘bu’ sound before I cut her off, “She’s more real than you’ll ever be.”

What I say doesn’t set her back an inch. But why should it?

Alex asks, “Are you sure?”

No, I’m really not. I’m not sure of anything. She seems real enough. If that’s true, she’s only got a few thousand years on me. She only tricked me into a grudge match with her worst enemy. The worst of the worst…and his legion of rabid bitches.

I want to roll my eyes, but I can’t. Even my snark has limits. That little smack-down cost me my watcher. Miss Dormer might’ve been a tight ass, but she actually gave a shit about me. Not many people have. It sent me running cross-country. My life went spinning out of control. This little cunt’s the whole reason my past is such shitty subject.

I can’t even look at my own arm and not feel sick. I’m still branded with his goddamned mark. ‘Father,’ my ass.

I need B., but what am I gonna do, call her? The shower’s still running. I can just see her busting through the door in her bathrobe to kick Carol Anne’s scrawny little ass. I guess it wouldn’t be the first time she’s kicked a demon’s ass in her bathrobe. But it probably would be the first time the demon was just out of diapers…and oh, so cute.

No, I can’t put her in the middle of this. She’d just get hurt. Better me than her.

I reply, “I’m pretty sure.” It’s just a gut reaction. And it’s not even right. As the words cross my lips, I realize I’m clueless. It’s true. I’m not sure of anything. Alex has changed. She’s lost a little of her baby fat, mostly in her face. She’s taller too. This kid isn’t six.

None of that matters. I still have to run my mouth, “What the hell are you doing here? I know I’m pretty beat up, but does it look like I’m about to croak?”

It’s pointless. She just stares. Vengeance demons don’t age. Or I don’t think they do. I’m not sure about the kids. But if that’s true, then she really is just a product of my defective brain…an apparition.

As the hot pressure at the back of my head trickles away, I get that I’m still trembling. And I still feel like my stomach’s learning the cha-cha. Everything’s changed, but nothing’s changed. I’m still screwed. It just might not be the way I thought.

My knees turn to mush, landing me flat on my ass. I couldn’t care less that my stitches pull. It’s only pain. This is so much worse. She stands over me. I have to look up to meet her eyes. She’s too damned tall.

Reaching out to touch me, she says, “I’m not what you think I am.”

I want to shy away, but there’s nowhere for me to go. I flinch when her hand meets my cheek. She’s so warm. It doesn’t hit me exactly how cold I am until she makes contact. She caresses my temple with her fingertips. It feels nice. I really don’t want it to.

“Just touch me,” she whispers.

I reach up to put my hand over hers. It fucks me up when what I feel is my own cold, trembling fingers against the side of my face. All the warmth’s gone. It’s like her hand dissolved. Reflexively, I try to grab her, but my hand passes through her chest.

“See? I’m all up here,” she says, pointing to her temple. “Think about it, Faith.”

My hand falls to my side.

“If you were an ancient, powerful demon, would you bother helping a little girl cope with her nightmares?” She smoothes her dress beneath her as sits down in front of me. “Wouldn’t it just be easier to take advantage of something that was already there?”

You mean Alex was real?

Christ!

No! That’s not what I mean. I know the one from—that thing, Malice—I know she was real. I’ve got the scars to prove it. But there were two? The other one was actually real?

Well, not real because if what you’re saying’s true, I made her up. But there really was a good fairy who helped me out when I was little? Like something from a bedtime story?

And you’re her?

Yeah, I’ve lost it. The fact that she nods makes it even worse. I didn’t say a goddamned word. Shit like this is a first-class ticket back to Belmont.

And that’s if I’m really, really lucky. Belmont was practically a country club. There are much worse places. I know. I’ve been. And I don’t have ‘Belmont’ kind of luck. Not anymore.

No, the way my luck runs, I’d end up in Danvers…or wherever they lock up the criminally insane here in Ohio.

Can we back up a little bit? I liked it better when my brain was just playing hide and seek. I can deal—

“You’re not insane,” she says.

That’s comforting.

She’s got all the answers. I don’t even have to talk. I intend to ask her to stop, but instead, I snap, “Just leave—”My voice cracks before I finish. “Leave me—” I fall apart. It’s fucking pitiful. Sniveling and bawling, I plead, “Why are you doing this?” I draw in a shaky breath. My head feels like it’s gonna explode.

It doesn’t even feel like me when I lash out, screaming at the top of my lungs, “Why can’t you just leave me alone?” Of course, my hand just passes through her. I’m such a waste. Tears drip off of my nose and chin, splashing onto the knees of my sweats. I hug my legs. I wish she’d just go away. Why won’t you go away?

She replies, “Because you won’t let me.” The warmth returns. She tries to lift my chin. I can’t look. I just wish she’d stop. She doesn’t. “Faith, I’m not here to trick—” Go away!† “I’m not gonna warn you—” This is just insane! Go the fuck—! She raises her voice, “There’s not gonna be an apocalypse. Not today at least.” Fuck! “The reason I’m here is to help you face your worst enemy.”

What the hell is she talking about?

I find the strength to meet her eyes. ‘Worst enemy’? The only one I know of is Kako. Alex is here to help me take her down, ’cause that’d just be great. The imaginary girl is gonna help me—?

When, predictably, she comes off with, “Yourself,” I feel like a complete schmuck. I played right in. She mumbles something else while I’m kicking myself. Did she just—?

I look up and she repeats herself, careful to stress the words, “Kako’s gone.”

This kid’s got some nerve. I mop my face with my sleeve. “You’ve gotta be fuckin’ shitting me,” I seethe. “You expect me to believe that?”

She looks hurt. I don’t know why I care, but I do. I’ll just add it to the pile of crap I don’t understand and go—

She asks, “Do you even remember me?” Her brow furrows. “Not that other thing, but me?”

Why she bothers is beyond me. She knows I don’t. I shake my head. The best I’ve got are impressions. I remember she used to make me feel safe. That’s why it was so hard when she showed up again. I trusted her.

But it was more than that. She was a part of me. I trusted her like I trust myself. It wasn’t like I was even making a choice, handing out trust. It was automatic. And she used me like a cheap whore.

I expect her to correct me, to deny what I said…or thought. All she does take my hands. And I let her. There’s another thing for that pile. At this rate I’m gonna need a shovel.

“I need to show you something,” she says.

She wants me to shut my eyes, so I do. No thought, just instant trust again. What the hell is my problem? I’m seriously setting myself up for a Darwin Award.

I know I’m still sitting on the porch. My knees are pulled up to my chest. I get that. But I’m also on my hands and knees. The sensation is more than a little disorienting. I can’t really feel my body, but I can tell from the position of my head. And I sort of see my hands and arms. There’s something around them.

None of that bothers me half as much as the thing I can’t see. It’s right in front of me. It’s all blurry and it stutters when I try to look right at it. I feel like if I can just…

Struggling against whatever this is makes me kinda queasy. Let me see this! Someone’s there. It’s a person. I know it is. I can kind of make out their shape. Or maybe it’s people? Anyway, it’s important. I need to see who—

“Stop it!” Alex snaps. Her voice rings in my head. I’m not even sure if she actually yelled it. That might be the most disturbing thing yet. I go from kinda queasy to downright nauseous when she goes on, “Faith, I’m here to protect you. You want to know why Buffy’s being so nice? Well, here it is. She knows the same as you do. If you remember all of this at once…”

I take a deep breath and swallow. Both things help. They connect me to the me that’s on the porch. I kind of get it. This isn’t where I was looking when this—whatever it’s gonna be—happened. I’m trying to see something I wasn’t seeing at the time.

“That’s part of it. But think about what I said,” Alex replies.

It’ll hurt me. I can’t handle it. That’s why.

“That’s why I’m here,” she says. “You need to trust me. I know that’s impossible right now, but try. I’m not asking much. All I want is for you to look the other way. If you can’t, then just open your eyes and I’ll make it go away.”

I direct my attention to the wall on my right. This is what she wants me to look at. It’s just a plain old, grubby brick wall. Haven’t I seen enough of these for—?

“Thank you,” she says.

“Yeah, don’t mention it,” I grumble. That headache—the one I was getting—it’s moved in to stay. My left eye threatens to fall out…or explode as I stare at the stupid wall.

The room comes to life. It begins with the sound of laughter. There’s no mistaking this time. It’s Kako. She’s almost directly in front of me and little to my left, exactly where I’m not supposed to look. Why am I staring at this goddamned wall?

Low rumbling comes from outside the room. Crumbled concrete rains from the ceiling. It sounds like a truck’s crashing through the building, first one wall, then another, then another…

Guess that explains my fascination. What the hell is—?

Kako runs right in front of me as the wall comes apart. Bricks fly. Dust fills the air. I have to blink, and when I do, she gets lost.

The next time see her, mask guy has her. She’s hanging by her ankle. He holds her out, but she latches hold of his right leg. That doesn’t end well for her. He drops to his knees as she tries to bite him. It’s almost hilarious. The crown of her head crashes into the floor. She lands flat on her back. Before she can move, he grabs her throat and stands up. This is—

Kako’s expression pretty much says it all. I saw it earlier. That same terrified look. It’s like I was trying to tell myself…

This is the problem with puzzles. The more pieces you add, the more places there are to put shit. Who is this guy? And why the mask?

Alex picks one hell of a time to get chatty, “I can’t show you everything. It’d be too hard. If you don’t trust me, just ask Buffy.” I completely miss it. He’s gone. And Kako’s gone right along with him. They disappear back through the hole in the wall while she yammers. I didn’t even hear what was said.

I open my eyes. “That’s it?” I ask.

“That’s all for now,” Alex replies. “Oh, and he said, ‘We need to talk’.”

“That’s all he said?” I ask, hoping she’ll toss me another scrap. There has to be more. She nods. “But that sounds like they had something going on. Like maybe they knew each other,” I suggest. I’m not sure so I tack on a, “Maybe?”

“Maybe,” she replies with a shrug. I feel cheated, but she pushes things along by saying, “There’s not much time and I have a few more things to show you.”

Shit.

My eyelids feel heavy. They drift shut.

That entire thing—all ten seconds of it—had a ‘daddy’s pissed’ kind of vibe. So that means Kako’s seriously working for this clown? I didn’t think a vamp that old would work for anyone. But then, she might not have a choice. For a dweeb who borrowed his look from the funny pages, he’s pretty damned scary.

Hot pressure builds inside my skull, causing my ears to hum. It makes my headache all that much better. My face is burning up, but I’m cold. Shivering and sweltering all at once. I feel like I have the flu. That’s just what I need.

With the heat comes light. Behind my closed eyelids the black turns to gray. I want to look, but I—

Something tells me I shouldn’t. It’s not done. No clue. I’m not gonna fight it. The light continues to warm, growing brighter and yellower. Dawn isn’t for hours, but that’s how this seems.

As this impossible sunrise takes place, the hum fades, pushed out by another sound. That first sound. The one I couldn’t place. I know what it is now. It’s a goddamned train yard. Other stuff fills in around it. In the distance there’s the constant drone of a freeway. More cars pass on nearby streets. Birds twitter overhead. All around me children play.

Some guy shouts, “Jimmy! Supper!” as I open my eyes and blink, trying to take it all in. Everything’s changed. It’s like Al—

Her name’s not really Alex. I’m not even sure what to call her. She’s still sitting in front of me. We haven’t moved a muscle, but everything else—

She answers, “It’s Alicia.”

Helpful, but I already knew that. I just—

To my left a little boy whines, “Aww, Dad, just a few more minutes?” James Duncan. I haven’t thought about him in years. He was a rotten little shit. He’s playing with some other boy, Steven something…maybe? I don’t remember his name. They’re moving the dirt and wood chips around at the base of the jungle gym with Tonka trucks.

“You couldn’t say my name when we met,” she reminds me.

Yeah, I know that too. I remember watching her write her name in one of her coloring books. I sounded it out. She’s probably the first person I ever nicknamed. It sort of figures that trend started because of a speech impediment.

Yeah, I’m a real hard case.

I was four. What did you expect?

“I didn’t expect anything,” she replies. “I was just happy you wanted to play with me.”

So was I.

I’m too screwed up to do much else, so…

Ah, drama. Jimmy goes for the full blown, flamboyant sulk when his father says ‘no.’ Mr. Duncan starts across the lawn, making Jimmy’s decision for him.

I expect a parting shot. Something witty like, ‘What are you looking at, dorkface?’ but he breaks tradition. Maybe I’m too big now? Or maybe he doesn’t see me at all? I don’t know. Anyway, without giving me so much as a glance, he grabs his toy truck and stomps off toward his dad.

Jimmy was one of those kids. He was bigger and older. And he knew I didn’t belong. I was just some poor kid from Southie.

But really, he was just a bully. I’d seen plenty of them already. My problem was—

God, this was almost twenty years ago. It’s like my little friend went rummaging around in the back of my head to see what she could dig out of the dust and the cobwebs. I’m amazed it’s all so clear. This is a five-star hallucination. The sunset paints the horizon in a palette of colors from pale pink, about the color of cherry blossoms, to a deep orangey-peach. It’s dusk, not dawn. And judging from the wildflowers that sprinkle the lawn, it’s springtime.

I may belong in Belmont.

Or worse.

We’re sitting in the middle of a neighborhood park. One of those places where all the kids come to play. There are swings and slides and a merry-go-round and teeter-totters and trees… It’s all bordered in kind of a rough triangle by the backs of houses.

A couple of minutes ago, if someone had asked, I’d’ve sworn I’d never been here before in my life. But I’m here. I’ve been here. I know this place.

This has been…

Shit.

It’s been one bitch of a day. I’ve been catching phantoms out of the corner of my eye. Hearing things I know aren’t real. And now I know why. It’s that goddamned sound.

Strange, it’s kind of like music…shrill, atonal, haunting music. The rails sing as the train cars slide to a stop. The whole thing ends in a crash when the cars couple.

It reminds me of this place, Beacon Park’s just across the ninety from here. Cinci’s the same way. There’s a train yard just across the seventy-five from where I really am. It’s a little farther away, but—

This doesn’t even feel real. Like maybe it happened in another lifetime. But I know that’s not true. I remember now. This is where everything fell apart.

I stare at her face. Alicia’s face. That doesn’t even sound right, but what am I supposed to do? I have to call her something. Figures a trivial detail from my childhood would come back to bite my ass now. I couldn’t get past the ‘sh’ in her name. I tried. Her dad used to call her Lesha. But I can’t stand him either, so…Alicia it is.

Besides, that’s just one tiny thing. There are too many to count. It’s fucked up. I spent four summers here. I remember getting excited when it started to warm up. That meant I could come here and see my friend. She’s part of my life. She helped me through—

She helped me through some really awful shit. And I—I didn’t even remember her name. We used to talk for hours. It was—

It was really sweet at first. But I don’t know…

That changed. Not really, but—

Life has this way of getting complicated. My third summer here I ran out of stuff to talk about, so I listened.

She asked me what was wrong. Telling her meant explaining and I couldn’t. I couldn’t bring myself to—

The more she asked, the worse I felt. She just wanted to help, but I couldn’t do it.

It wasn’t really her, but it was. She had this perfect life, a good home, nice parents…and mine was…

My life was anything but nice. I was ashamed. I figured she’d see the real me and that’d be it. I couldn’t make myself talk.

It’s not like I didn’t need to. I wanted to. But there just wasn’t anyone. It wasn’t till the next summer that things…they changed. I couldn’t believe that she was just like me.

Well, not ‘just like me’…I was the ping-pong kid. A mistake that nobody wanted to own. My mom was too fucking high to care where I was. And that was actually good. It was better that way. I just couldn’t get my head around—

It’s so seductive…the idea that privilege can make things better. The problem is you have to want to change for that to happen. I couldn’t believe that they wouldn’t even help their own daughter. I guess I was naÔve enough to think that the grass might actually be greener, but people really are pretty universally fucked up.

Her parents were the sort of people who liked hospital corners. Everything had to look just so. And Alicia upset their perfect world. Turning a blind eye was just easier than dealing. Something so horrible would never happen under their roof.

I didn’t think I’d ever told anyone about the shit that happened to me. When Alicia finally broke down and told me that her cousin scared her, I—

I lost it. That was first time I ever wanted to kill someone. I was eight. Talk about the model for the well-adjusted child.

After that, there wasn’t much left to tell. And that became a game. It was kind of like Truth or Dare. ‘Penny for your thoughts?’ And if there weren’t any thoughts…

I think people kind of do what they know, but this was different. It was better. Alicia was the first person I ever kissed. The first person I touched. The first person I ever wanted to touch me. I really cared. We were just kids, but—

That made it worse. I put myself out there. I didn’t even think.

I didn’t think—

My stomach turns. I was so stupid. As much as I’d already lost, I didn’t think they could take away what we had. I stare at my hands because I can’t face her. My fingers are laced in my lap. I clench them to stop the shaking. Typical childish shit…I thought we could just run away. I thought—

No wonder women make me nervous.

“That’s the problem with you,” she whispers. “You only remember what you want to. You pick and choose. And the things you do pick…”

Oh, cut me some slack. That’s not fair and you know it. It’s not that I didn’t want to remember. I just didn’t. They acted like something was wrong with me. I went from having friends and staying with relatives to social workers and foster care. My whole life changed. And all I did…

It’s no wonder I didn’t want to remember. I didn’t do anything wrong and my life went straight to hell. I became a joke. One of those kids who—

I wish she’d just shut up, but she doesn’t. And I can’t exactly ignore her. “You twist the memories you do have. Turn them into some sort of story. If what’s there doesn’t sound quite cool enough, you get creative.”

It’s not bad enough that I feel regret. Or shame. No clue why I feel ashamed now. I didn’t then. They expected me to. Past the initial shock, I couldn’t. And it’s really no wonder. Look at the adults in my life. I was a goddamned angel.

They thought I was sick. I wasn’t sick. None of this was sick. I needed her. I needed to know that someone cared. And she needed the same thing.

I cringe when she whispers, “I guess I wasn’t cool enough.”

Everything’s a blur. I reach up to wipe my eyes. My cheeks are wet and slimy. I crane my neck and rub the sides of my face on the shoulders and sleeves of B.’s hoodie.

What happened felt natural. There wasn’t any sense of urgency. There weren’t any goals. We just knew it felt good. The same as we knew it felt good when we were alone. It was soothing. We played, but it was never more than that. I almost felt okay when I was with her.

But it wasn’t just that. We held hands wherever we went. We kept each other’s secrets. She was my first and last best friend, but not just…I couldn’t imagine being without her.

“Eventually, after you talk shit long enough, you don’t even remember the truth.”

She’s right. Sometimes I don’t. A little creative editing can make things easier to swallow. I’ve pretty much quit doing that, though. My life sucks. End of story.

The night Gran caught us—I didn’t forget that part. I thought I was just messing around with some other neighborhood kid. I didn’t know—

I didn’t know she mattered. The two things didn’t line up anymore.

I remember the look on Gran’s face. It figures that part stuck. Disappointment, rage, hatred…all rolled into one. She hit me. She’d never hit me before. It hurt, but I didn’t care about that. It was the other part—the disappointment—that’s what I couldn’t get past.

I thought Mrs. Grant actually cared about me. I don’t even remember how we were related now. It was obviously distant enough that she didn’t have to think twice about throwing me out. I never saw her again after that night.

“Then there’s that other problem,” Alicia mumbles. “The gaping holes because you can’t deal with what’s happened.”

Helpful.

She’s just being mean. No clue what I did to earn it, but—

Some woman in a suit showed up to get me the next day. I freaked out. A little piece of me died when I finally got what was up. It didn’t matter how pissed off Gran was. Nothing really mattered.

Alicia’s right about one thing, I couldn’t deal. The nightmares came back. Things clawing at my skin, chasing me… I woke up screaming. I needed someone, so…

I need a cigarette. No clue what happened to that last one. My thighs are still pressed against my chest. I let them go. My jaw tightens. My left leg’s completely asleep. I let it down easy. It doesn’t hurt anymore, but I don’t want to make it any worse.

The sweatshirt fabric rubs the back of my hand when I reach into my pocket. It feels good, fuzzy and soft. I pause for a moment before flipping the pack open and pulling a smoke out along with my lighter.

So, why now…after all this time? I snicker or sneer…or both. It’s not funny. Why’d you have to pick now to show me this?

“Oh, please, you know exactly why.” It figures, she busts my chops again. I ignore it.

It’s because of B. I needed to see this. It’s part of the reason—

It’s why she’s so special and everyone else—

It’s why she scares me so damned much.

And to think I ranted at Giles about being straight when he sent me here. I was. The last thing I wanted was…

Yeah. I’m not sure what I am now. And I’m pretty sure I don’t care. I’m a lot of things. None of them are very nice. This is the exception.

I’m little better. My heart’s stopped trying to leap out of my chest. I can breathe again. I just feel limp and soggy. Like someone sucked all the life out of me.

The first thing Alicia said comes back. ‘She’s not real.’ Really? “What’d you mean?” I ask.

“Nothing,” she replies.

That’s what sucks about this. She’s a phantom buried somewhere deep in my twisted brain. I might be able to figure out what she meant, but probably not tonight. No, I have to ask again, “Really, what’d you mean?” It’d be nice if the same rules applied for both of us.

Quicker too.

Alicia places her hand over mine. For a phantom, she feels pretty real. “I was just stating the obvious,” she says. “You’ve been questioning this since you got here.” I look up. She’s grinning. “It’s your fault. I knew it’d piss you off.”

I roll my eyes. That’s another problem with her.

Her smirk fades. She puts a finger to her mouth, mock pondering as she asks, “What was it tonight?” Point taken. “She smells different. She’s ‘a completely different person’.” Doesn’t matter what I think. She just has to rub it in. “The real problem is that you don’t believe yourself. Things can’t just be what they are. You have to search for some sort of catch.”

It got dark. I’m not even sure when. We’re back on the porch. I’m freezing, but that doesn’t matter either. It’s not like I can take this inside. B. really would tweak over me having a conversation with my imaginary friend. Having to explain…

Now that’d be priceless.

I lean back against the wall, close my eyes and smoke my cigarette. Alicia’s gonna run her mouth. I may as well let her. She asks, “Would it really matter?”

No, it wouldn’t. Funny, I don’t even have to think about it.

“I’m not saying that anything’s going to happen. I don’t know that. I just have to wonder why it matters so much. You love her and she loves you. If that doesn’t change, then…?” I glance in time to see Alicia finish by turning her palms up to imply a shrug.

And sometimes she makes me feel like a real idiot. I don’t get why—?

“Why I’m being so mean?” she asks. I nod. “It’s not me. It’s you. You’re mad at yourself. I’m just a reflection. Remember? I don’t even exist.”

I tilt my head up, exhaling first, letting the smoke drift away before I admit, “I’m sorry.” I feel like a shit, but there’s only so much I can do. Just getting used to this—

“Oh, don’t bother. You’re right. I don’t exist. You made me up,” she says. “If you just need to apologize to someone, save it for her.” It strikes me as a little weird that there’s not even a hint of bitterness in her voice. She laughs, but I don’t find what she says amusing at all, “I’m probably just some used-up girl, still living in Allston, a couple blocks from her folks with an abusive husband, two kids and another on the way.” It’s pretty sick actually.

The truly disgusting part is she’s probably right. Alicia was one of those good little Irish Catholic girls. That made things so much worse all around. It’s amazing how religion tends to do that. For something that’s supposed to comfort, it sure causes a lot of pain.

Our last night together was hell. It might’ve been okay if Gran had only kept her mouth shut. No surprise, she didn’t. The real shock came early. She didn’t throw me out onto the street like I was. That’s what I expected.

What she did do was worse. She couldn’t leave it alone. My life became a joke after that. Like White Oleander with less curb appeal.

God, I hated that movie.

The major difference was my mom wasn’t in jail. She never paid for a single thing she did. I was always the one who paid. Another year would pass and she’d show up on some new program, talkin’ shit, saying ‘It’ll be better this time.’

It never got better.

People like to pretty shit up. Put a nice glossy coat of paint on it. But it didn’t matter what color they painted us. I was still defective and she was still a drunk.

Yeah, Alicia probably did exactly what her parents programmed her to do. I did.

“I don’t know,” she whispers. “Maybe I was smarter than that. Maybe I understood that what we had was special. That it wasn’t what the adults saw: two kids diddling each other under the covers at night. It wasn’t something dirty. You really wanted to make things better for me. I felt like someone cared when you held me.”

I think we both know that’s not true, but she goes on living the dream. “Maybe I let go of the pain and moved on, but I managed to hold on to what we had. Maybe I waited until I found something like it again.”

Nice story. It’s the hardest thing in the world to get off that path once you start down it.

“Maybe I saw that sex isn’t something to use like a drug. It’s not supposed to be ‘popped’ to dull the pain of the moment.” I’m so wrapped up in feeling like a waste that I miss the topic shift. When I catch up, it just makes me sick. I hang my head, but she doesn’t let up, “Get off, lead the latest trick to the door and toss him his clothes as he stares at you dumfounded.” I see a dozen nameless guys as she speaks, all wearing the same stupid look. I used to love that look.

Not so much now.

The reality check’s helpful. My sensibilities are intact. Like there was ever any doubt. Hearing even a vague recap of my sex-capades from a kid is enough to completely squick me.

It’s actually worse. I get why I was doing that now. And it really wasn’t because I loved myself. I could live without the reminder.

I hold back a cringe when she starts in again, “It can be something so much more when you take time to listen. When you care about how your partner feels. When you realize that by listening, you can sense some of what they feel, like a voice in the darkness. That that can be so much better than anything you feel yourself.”

Hearing that from her is pretty strange, but it’s not gross like the other. I hadn’t even tried to put how that feels into words. I’m not sure I could’ve explained it better.

“Of course, that’s nice too, but this other thing, it’s like a reflection.” She pauses thoughtfully for moment and it occurs to me that I sort of just did. “Or maybe an affirmation. Anyway, there’s something profound about it.”

That’s really it. One of the things that makes B. so special. Hearing someone say it aloud feels almost like an epiphany.

I look up, but Alicia isn’t paying any attention to me. She’s focused on her hand. It’s still resting in mine. “But I don’t need to tell you that,” she mumbles.

She missed something. When B. touches me, sometimes I feel…

I don’t know. It’s like an echo. It’s weird…and umm…really hard to describe. I guess…

I guess I get a sense of what she’s feeling. Like…well, that’s what Alicia just said, but this different. I’m not sure how to put it.

No. It’s not weird. That’s not fair. That sounds so negative. This isn’t. ‘Profound’ kind of covers it, but I’m not sure I like that word. It’s, uh…it sounds so pretentious. This isn’t that. Not at all. For all the complication, this is actually pretty simple.

It’s beautiful.

Yeah, that works. One thing’s for sure, I wouldn’t trade it for the world. She’s right, it doesn’t matter.

Alicia lifts her hand. I know what’s coming before she opens her mouth. “It’s time.” That doesn’t make it any easier. I want another minute or two of just this. I feel okay, even if I am so cold that my teeth are chattering. I know she gets exactly what that means. How rare this is.

“We can’t wait any longer.” No rest for the wicked. I drop my smoke on the porch. I’ll pick it up later. I focus on her as she tells me what I already know, “There’s more I have to show you.” I shut my eyes, but I still see her face. It’s strange that I forgot her. “It’ll be better this way. We can take it slow. You already know you won’t like what you see, so…”

The train song returns. It starts off soft. She whispers, “I’m sorry.” A few seconds tick by and it grows louder, like it was in the park, but I’m not there. I know I’m not. I’m still too damned cold. I take a breath. The air’s dank. I feel like I’m going to shake right out of my skin. I cross my arms and pull my legs up. Tensing helps a little, but it doesn’t make the shivering stop.

Nothing’s changed. My patience is wearing thin. I’m about to ask what’s up when I realize that something is different. It’s just not what I expected. There’s a sickeningly sweet smell. It’s like someone cracked open a coffin.

The smell starts off faint, just like the sound. As it grows stronger, Alicia’s eye color shifts, turning sea-green. It’s not just her eyes that are changing. Everything else is blurred. It’s like I’m standing too close. Her complexion’s darkening. I do get that.

A cracking noise joins the chorus. It’s loud now. I could be standing on the overpass, above the train yard and this wouldn’t be much different. The new sound doesn’t fit with the rest. It’s too regular. Tree limbs rustle in the wind. That part’s real, but it’s just a faint clatter next to the rest.

Steely blue eyes peer into mine. B.’s face comes into focus. The only surprise is the look on her face. I know it. She’s so pissed. But that’s not it. That’s not all. This doesn’t feel real. It’s like I stepped back in time. It’s like that night Angel—

The inside of my index and middle finger—my right hand—it burns. I jerk away. My elbow smacks something. The crash accompanies a sharp pain that cuts through my shoulder.

My eyes snap open. I focus on the splash of red sparks. It’s just my cigarette. But—

Why’s—?

I blink. Everything’s turned sideways. It’s—

How’d I get here?

I’m on my side in front of the door. My head throbs when I turn it. I hit the screen door. That was—the crash—that’s what it was.

I was wrong about the doormat. My left side’s damp. I sit up and lean forward, reaching for my cigarette butt. Stretching hurts. There’s not much left. The cherry burned into the filter. No wonder it—

I look around. There’s only one butt. I know I smoked two, but—

So, I passed out?

How long? I stare at the filter.

Five minutes, maybe? There’s no way that’s right. Didn’t I hear the microwave? That was ages ago. It’s been at least half an hour, probably longer.

I toss my cigarette butt into the ashtray. It’s the only one. Huh. That’s messed up. I remember—

I was supposed to relax, right? I think?

Yeah, that’ll happen. I’m freezing, my head’s pounding and my tongue’s stuck to the roof of my mouth.

Licking my lips is a total waste. I remember—

B.’s face surfaces from the haze. I know that expression.

The kitchen passes by in a blink. I don’t remember opening the door. I guess I did.

I hope I did.

I don’t even remember getting up.

I grab the doorframe. My arm pulls tight. I turn.

I don’t feel anything at all. I see her. I can’t see all of her, but what I do see is enough. She flinches. It’s so subtle. Her shoulders barely move.

I sprint toward the bathroom door. This hallway’s so short. It’s too dark. I remember—

One detail’s enough. She’s so arrogant, so determined, so angry…it’s the same righteous indignation that made me want to rip her face off when—

I can’t see. I’m too close. I can’t tell. I think she’s wearing the same dress. The one she had on last night. That’d track. It’s torn open in the back. The neck drapes down.

Her dress moves. I don’t know who moves it. Someone jerks it down. Her breasts jiggle and sag. All I can see is the top part—the part just below her collarbones. The rest is—

I don’t need to see. My imagination fills in the rest. Kako rips her bra off and—

I need to stop!

I extend my arms just before I hit the bathroom door. They collapse. I stop.

The door swings open. I opened it. The doorknob’s in my hand. I don’t remember—

B.’s standing next to the tub with her right foot resting on its edge. In the blink of an eye, she goes from drying her leg to clutching the towel to her chest. Her mouth falls open. As kneejerk reactions go, I want to think it’s silly. I might if my heart would start beating again.

I need to see. I need to know. I can’t even breathe. All can do is stare.

Her back’s—

They didn’t just beat her. They beat the crap out of her. Her back’s covered in welts. There are dark red ones and pink ones with little bits of scab. Some of the marks are a mix of both, red on the outside with a pink, raw-looking stripe down the middle.

The door’s the only thing holding me up.

Everything that didn’t seem right today—it was all because of this. This is what she was hiding. The way she was dressed this morning when we woke up. That was the first thing. She had on two shirts and pair of sweats. That was the first time she’d worn anything to bed since—

It didn’t make sense. It does now. I wish it didn’t. She took care of me and didn’t have anything left. She put all of that on so she wouldn’t bleed on the bed. So I wouldn’t see. So she wouldn’t scare me.

What else is she hiding?

Turning to face me, B. says, “It’s okay. I’m alright,” as she wraps the towel around herself.

I can’t believe her! She’s not alright. Not even close. This is my fault. She should be screaming.

When she says, “Just go back to bed, Maeve,” I’m torn by what to do. She adds, “We’ll be fine.”

I want to shout, ‘No we won’t!’ I can’t. I can’t even make myself move. I can’t take my eyes off of B.

I need to look. I feel Maeve behind me, like static on my skin. I can’t believe she snuck up on me.

Maeve babbles, “But—” I feel her breath on my neck and want to hit her.

I don’t.

B. says. “Just go back to bed. I’ve got this.” She looks so calm now.

How’s she calm?

I step inside the bathroom and slam the door. She tries to stop me, but I rip her towel away.

She’s fine. Pissed off, but fine, beautiful, perfect…

And I’m staring at her tits again. I’m such an idiot.

My nails are digging into my palms. I ease up.

She backs off, stooping to pick up her towel. I’m sorry. I—

I see her shoulders. My breath catches. I’m a fucking idiot! She’s not fine! Her—

My stomach churns. Acid burns my throat. I gag, push past her, drop to my knees, flip the seat up and stare into the toilet. I—

A knot hangs in my throat. My stomach muscles clench. I retch. Teardrops cling to my lashes. I blink and they fall, hitting the water. Ripples stir the surface. I’m so fucked up!

Her hand rests on my back. She whispers in my ear, telling me it’ll be okay, making gentle hushing sounds. How can she say that? It’s not okay. I—

I can’t breathe. This is my fault. I brought this on her.

I can’t—

I need—

My stomach heaves. I need to puke. I can’t. Even a finger down the throat’s useless. I choke. Nothing comes up. There’s nothing left but this goddamned lump.

It’s like my eyes. They leak. They’re just as useless as the lump. I draw in a breath through my mouth. The cool smell of chlorine makes me gag again. My body shakes. It’s useless. I cling to the toilet to make it stop.

I’m useless. My head feels like it’s gonna explode. I wish it would. We’d both be better off.

I rest my forearm on the toilet seat and mop my face on my sleeve. She rubs my back and whispers. She’s protecting me.

What the fuck is wrong with me? They beat her to a pulp, yet somehow this is about me? I should be—

Fuck!

I rest my forehead against my arm. The sweat soaks in. Some of the pressure lifts.

I can just imagine what she thinks. I shake my head and giggle. I really am an idiot. A bona fide idiot.

She asks, “Are you—?”

Seriously? She wants to know if I’m okay? No surprise, she can’t finish the question.

I need to move. I sit up really slowly so I don’t hit her. She needs a second. I give her time. Standing isn’t fun. She helps. It’s good. I’m barely standing, my ass is wet from the floor, I’m falling apart, but I’m good.

She’s not. She didn’t even put on her robe. I reach around her and grab it off the door as she does the ‘I’m a dumbass’ dance, hanging her head and refusing to meet my eyes.

She doesn’t get it. I’m the dumbass. I’d love to ask the same thing. I want tell her that I’m okay. Just lie to her. Reassure her. Make her feel better. I can’t. I can’t make myself speak any more than I could make myself puke. I open my mouth. Nothing comes out. I know if I force it, I’ll wind up on my ass again.

I drape her robe over her shoulders. She slips her arms through the sleeves. I stare. That’s all I’m good for. As she ties her robe closed, I open my mouth only to shut it again. Not a peep. My throat catches and more tears come. I need to tell her.

Something.

Anything would be good.

In a stunning display of grace and contradiction, I shake my head ‘yes.’ I give up. Guess I can’t lie to her either.

It’s cool. I don’t really want to.

Moving sucks. My legs are numb, heavy and stiff…like the rest of me. I slip past her and turn on the sink. The mirror’s fogged up. I don’t know if I care enough to do anything about it. I suppose I should. I already know it’s gonna be bad. That’s no mystery. I wipe a spot in middle clean with my sleeve and stare at myself as I wash my hands. It’s bad.

I cup my hands under the tap, splash my face and swish some water around in my mouth. My face is little wetter now then it was before. Not much. My skin’s just as blotchy. The dark circles under my eyes look like they were painted on. And that’s all okay. How I look doesn’t matter. I reach for a towel to dry off.

Her towel’s still on the floor. I turn the sink off, grab the towel and toss it into the dirty clothes. Leaning down’s a mistake. The pressure in my head shifts. I don’t hit anything or anyone. She moves with me, staying out of my way. And I don’t fall over. But the look she gives me is—

She’s worried. I don’t blame her. I’m worried too. My chest feels tight. Breathing sucks. And thinking straight…

That’s a joke. It’s like I’m standing in a storm. Everything’s coming apart around me. But right here…

I’m okay. I know one thing. And that one thing’s all I care about. I know I wouldn’t change her if I could. She’s perfect just the way she is. I love her. That kind of clarity’s such a rare thing. I wish I could explain. I can’t.

I take her in my arms. After all that, it’s a little surprising she comes willingly. I’m a mess. My cheeks are wet again. I rest my hands below the belt of her robe. I don’t want to hurt her.

I lean forward. Some of the tension lifts when our foreheads touch. She’s so warm. I open my mouth. This time the words come, “I’m sorry.” They don’t come easy. I sound like complete shit, but that doesn’t matter either.

Right now, the only thing that matters is…I need to take care of her. I need to show her. She needs to know that I’m good for something besides causing her pain.

And I need to know that too. Probably more than she does.

Page 5

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