This has been my baby for the past two years. And, finally, it's finished. I don't expect everyone to enjoy it or to even care, but to those of you that do, thank you. You're who make writing all the better.


I used to think—and I mean really, really think—that my life couldn't get any fucking worse. I mean, come on, the fucking dirt is richer than my folks are and it could probably hold a job down for longer, too. Dirt doesn't do shit but at least it can do it right. . .

I can't do a fucking thing, though.

My grades are below F's—the teachers probably only put those pretty D's on my report cards so that I can get my ass out of their classrooms next year. Makes the folks happy, though—think me some sort of genius 'cause I haven't flunked out like Kevin or got some bitch preggers yet—and they stick each new report on the fridge with the one plastic-letter L magnet we have, just to gloat how much I fucking suck. Which is fitting—L stands for Loser.

I've had every job this piss-hole of a town has to offer, from delivering pizzas on Stan's bike (which I had to fucking borrow every day I worked) to being a janitor at the high school (now that was a blast, I swear those fucking bastards made half those messes on purpose, just to get back at me for somethin') to even doing a little corner work, if you catch my drift. You'd be surprised just how many fucked-up freaks pass through South Park.

Hell, I was surprised just how many of those same damn freaks lived here.

And, because of my reputation as the town-whore, I can't get a girlfriend to save my pitiful life. Tried, trust me, to tell them the reason why, but bitches don't listen if you don't cough up diamonds after every syllable. I got sick of it real quick and haven't bothered with them since.

To sum it all up, and I'm one retarded, broke, lonely bastard who sucks dick every weekend just to get enough money to buy cigarettes to last me through the goddamn week.

'Course, you're probably thinking how that leaves room for the 'couldn't get any worse part', right?

Well, get this, 'cause it's the fucking cherry on my shit-sundae—I'm totally crushing on one of my best friends.

Who's a guy.

And who's totally in love with someone else.

"FUCK IT!" Kyle threw the dice-cup down on the Yahtzee! board with a scowl, arms quickly folding up over his chest.

We're eight and Yahtzee! is the fucking shit of all shits. Pwning your friends with dice and getting to strut around announcing it? Oh, hell yes. We're eating it up—even Cartman, who usually pitches goddamn fits whenever we do something that doesn't involve the words 'Halo' or 'Grand Theft Auto'.

But that may be because he's totally cheating—and winning because of it.

Kyle knows. 'S why he's so pissed. But Stan and I don't really care. We're just havin' fun for fun's sake and it's my goddamn roll and I don't care if Cartman rolled another six-straight Yahtzee. So I pick up the cup and the six dice Kyle abandoned, shake 'em up real good and let 'em roll.

I have no fucking luck, so I get three ones, a two, and a five. I pluck the two and five up and roll again, this time getting another one and a six. The six goes back and I shake, shake, shake until it feels right to let it drop.

It hits the board, the one facing up, but it's got too much momentum and flips over so I get a worthless three.

Cartman snorts, ripping the cup from my hands, and scoops up my pitiful roll while I scribble it down on my score sheet. Well, four points up is better than no points up, right? I'm in last place. Stan's in second and Kyle's in third. Cartman, as I already said, is first, but not by much. One high roll and Stan could wipe his ass outta the game.

Which is just what everyone is kinda hoping for. Especially Kyle, who can't keep from glaring at Cartman as he makes a show of shaking up that stupid dice cup. Then he lets them drop, suddenly, and they dance around the board: six, six, six, six, six.

Kyle screams and gets up, storming from the room. Stan and I share this weird glance thing that I can totally, like, read and I scrambled up to follow him while Stan picks up Cartman's latest Yahtzee!

At first, I don't know where he's headed. The kitchen is dark, reeking of Pledge too, and I can't see a fucking thing. The only thing I hear is Stan telling Cartman that he was gonna win and Cartman's jeering protests.

I'm about to give up when I notice the glass door is half-way open, like someone was in too much of a hurry to close it. I walk to it, hood drawn up, and slip out into the night.

Kyle's sitting in the backyard, cross-legged, back against the only tree rooted there, seemingly looking up at the stars—or, fuck, the grain in the wooden floor of the tree house he and Stan had just built. As I get closer, I notice he's not just looking, he's fucking glaring at whatever he's staring at. Sulking. Pissed.

I take another step and Kyle finally seems to realize he isn't alone. Some of the anger soothes away and he asks a quiet, "Stan?"

I try not to notice, but a burning ache stabs my chest. Like I was impaled by a white-hot iron again but didn't die this time.

'Course he'd want Stan, they were, like, best friends or whatever. Still, it kinda hurts he'd just assume. And I don't say anything. Maybe he'd figure out it was me.

He does— the fucking next intake of breath. He's not the smartest kid in our class just by title alone. He catches shit quick.

". . .Kenny?"

By this time, I'm standing in front of him, so I nod though he doesn't need to be reassured that he's right. Just how many orange-parka wearing kids could he know?

He doesn't say anything to me this time so I take it upon myself to sit down next to him. Kyle doesn't protest though he doesn't exactly look any happier either. Guess that's what I get for not being Stan.

We sit there for a while, Kyle looking up at the sky and me looking over at him, and we don't say anything. We don't even say anything when he scoots closer to me, one skinny-stick of an arm held out to the stars.

". . .see that one," he asks and he should know better—all those stars look alike to me. Tiny, bright and pointless. But I nod for him as if I were staring straight at the one he's talking about. ". . .it's not really a star at all." I frown. It's not? "It's Jupiter."

Jupiter. . .

That's a planet, right?

He starts telling me about Jupiter—about the storms constantly happening on it, to its four moons, to its Roman-god inspired name. When he's done, he points to another star and tells me about it, talking, talking, talking, and cramming my head with shit I didn't think I'll ever need to know.

But I listen and remember every word of it.

And I learn something more than whatever he tells me, that night, beneath the stars I've never cared for—I'm totally head-over heels for him. I almost want to kiss him, but we're eight. . .and that'd just be wrong. . .

Still doesn't help the thought from crossing my mind more than once. . .

In fact, I tried. No shit. I tried to kiss Kyle Broflovski when we were fucking eight—didn't work out, though. . .

Just as I covered Kyle's hand with mine, lowering it so he'd focus on me, Stan came outside, smiling broadly in the dim light of the crescent moon.

"Kicked his ass," he states, striding closer. Kyle moves from me the moment he took that first step and lurches up, going to him with a congratulation and a "fuck yeah!"

That was something else I learned that night: Kyle had the total hots for Stan Marsh.

Go. Fucking. Figure.

It gets lonely sometimes. Being me. You'd think otherwise, being a whore and all, but I am. I'm lonely.

I guess that's why I started taking care of stray cats. Well, okay, just one stray. I couldn't afford anymore than that—fuck, I couldn't afford the one I had.

Named 'er Pussy. Cute, right? I thought so—Stan laughed at it, so did Cartman, but Kyle just seemed irritated by it. Still, though, annoyed or not, I caught him scratching her behind the ears, making soft cooing noises to calm her down.

That's something most people don't know about Kyle: He's always wanted a pet. He never told us that, of course, I just found it out by watching him.

Once, we visited a pound for a school trip. I was pretty excited about it—hell, we were getting out of class—but Cartman skipped it, saying he didn't have time for wimpy-assed animals or whatever. Stan wanted to go the most, said he might even adopted a new dog (kid had a soft spot for animals that no one else could understand). Kyle, like always, just seemed annoyed that we weren't going to do anything 'enlightening', meaning no tests, grades, studying and all that school shit. But he went. In part 'cause the teachers told him too and, probably the true reason, because Stan was so psyched about it.

So there we were, us three, walking down the line of cages, looking at the abandoned animals quivering, barking, pissing behind the bars. It made me feel sad, seeing all those dogs and cats without someone to love them—it, really, when you boiled it down to the quick, reminded me of. . .myself.

I am unloved, unwanted, unneeded. . .South Park is pretty much as shittiest of a cage as anyone could be shoved in. . .

It struck home.

I remember how pissed and upset I was 'cause I didn't have enough to even cover the donation fee to adopt one of them. Apparently, I couldn't conceal that too well. Kyle, who'd been quiet the entire trip (opposed to Stan, who bitched the entire time), reached into his pocket and pulled out a five.


If there's something I hate more than being poor, it's when people start dishing out the charity money.

I declined it and scowled into the cage, at the cats nestled back in the far corner, away from the passerby, away from the glance at freedom. They looked miserable. I almost regretted my decision to not take Kyle's money.

"They kill them, you know."

I turned my blue-eyed scowl to Kyle, who was tucking the bill back into his pocket, ending the offer.

He took one eye-full of my expression. Then looked into the cage as I had. "The animals. If someone doesn't adopt them in a week, they kill them to make room."

Well. If that didn't just make me feel damn peachy.

I folded my arms across my chest, frowning, and said nothing. What could I say? 'Hey, Kyle, on second thought, can I have that five bucks so I can save one of these poor fucking things?'

Pfft. No.

I don't take charity money. Even if it's for a good cause.

Anyway, that's how I found out he liked animals and wanted his own pet. I know, you don't see it 'cause I left out a lot of the story, like how he almost adopted a puppy and took it home. I didn't tell you that he gave up the five dollars to Stan, like, twenty minutes after he was going to give it to me, in order to help him pay for his own new puppy. I didn't tell you that he let Kyle name it something like Bombay or some stupid third-world country name—I can't fucking remember shit like that.

So, whatever. Just know that Kyle, secretly, really, really wanted to bring home something that he could name and keep and love himself.

Things die.

Plants die. Animals die. People die.

Hopes die.

Dreams die.

Wishes, too.

Sometimes, they die more than once. Like me.

I die all the time.

It hasn't happened in a while, though. Which is pretty fucking spectacular.

Go figure it won't happen when I really want it too.

I had a bad week at school. Even stealing a few of Pop's beers couldn't make it any better. Weed might. But I ain't got the money for it. Or, trust me, I'd be fucking baked right now.

I don't like sharing stories. Not really. But I know you're probably really fucking curious right now, right? Guess I could tell you. Since, you know, you've stuck along so far.

Okay. So. Math class.

Boring as watching a dog shit but as excruciating as hammering nails into your fingertips. I—and get this goddamn straight—have no talent for numbers and really don't give a shit if I can't add, subtract or long divide. But my teacher is yaking about something ten-times (ha!) worse than long division—isoso-whatever triangles—and it's blowing right past me.

Not that I'm paying attention.

I'm too busy staring at the sweet curve of Kyle's ass. His jeans were too tight that day and I'm taking each moment for granted. Gotta burn it into my memory. It's not often Kyle slips up and wears his size-too-small pants to school.

Not so bad, right? Where's the goddamn drama? It's coming, give it a fucking second.

See, Kyle catches me looking. He twists in his desk and stares at me, his green eyes glinting with bottled-up anger. "The fuck are you doing," he snaps in a hush, not wanting dear 'ole Miss Math Teacher to overhear.

"Wondering how the hell you noticed," I mutter, voice already muffled 'cause of my drawn up hood. Kyle's had practice, though, plenty of it, and he hears every word. Never have I seen him blush like that. Least, not when Stan's attention wasn't directed at him.

He doesn't say anything and just turns back around, ignoring me, like he would do the rest of the day. And tomorrow. And the days following that.

Trust me, I tried to apologize, but Kyle would just walk away.

Let's see. . .that happened on Monday . . . Stan came up to me a couple days later, Wednesday maybe, and asked me about it.

"Why's Kyle so pissed," he asks after managing to catch me at my locker. I was kneeling on the ground, trying to cram the books I never use back in there after they had spilled out. I only opened it 'cause I thought my pack of cigs was in there. No luck. But we already knew that.

I look up at him, saying nothing.


"Well?" Stan raises an eyebrow, studying me. I take a moment to respond.

I shake my head and shrug. "No idea, dude. . ."

I'm a fucking liar. I know why Kyle's pissed. So do you. So shut the fuck up about me bein' a bad friend for not telling him.

You're to blame, too.

Stan frowns and unhitches himself from the lockers he so casually leaned against. "Huh." He doesn't mean it as really anything but I take it as a dismissal. I stand up, slam my locker door shut, and walk down the hall with my hands shoved real deep in my pockets.

My fingers brush against the pack of cigarettes I stashed there earlier.

Later that same day, I'm at home, sneaking Pussy bits of my Eggo dinner so she won't fucking starve, when someone calls me from the kitchen. Uh-oh. I pat my cat's head for reassurance, slip her outside from my window—with a promise to get her later—and walk from my room.


It's Dad. He's in front of the fridge, drunk, wobbling as he points to the empty shelves inside.

My heart sinks. Fuck. He's noticed I've stolen his beer. I try to look confused, hoping it'll pull off enough to make him second-guess what he's about to say.

"Where's my fuckin' beer," he slurs, pointing again. As if I didn't see him before. I stare anyway, frowning.

". . .Like I know. You probably drank it."

His eyes narrow. I try again.

"Maybe. . .Kevin took it?" It was meant to be a joke. Kevin was kicked out a year ago, for getting some slummy chick named Mona pregnant. . .twice. They got hitched or something and Dad hasn't spoken to him since.

I haven't either, for that matter. . .He doesn't live close anymore. I think he moved to Denver.

Anyway. Dad doesn't take it like a joke. He takes it like I'm rubbing disappointment in his face and his stare gets dangerous.

I should've known better.

He cocks back his hand and throws the bottle of beer he's holding at me. I don't dare avoid it. It strikes me in the side of the head a moment later, shattering. Glass tinkles to the floor—well, what all doesn't embed in my cheek and sticks in my hair.

It hurts, but I don't say anything.

I really know better than to do that.

Ever since Kevin was kicked out, Dad's drinking has gotten worse and worse. Mom stopped staying with us, fed up, and went to live with grandma on the other side of the country. She pops in from time to time, bringing Karen over for the court-demanded visits, but doesn't have anything to do with him—with me—other than that.

Being alone with just his loser of a son really set him off to the path to alcoholic hell.


Oh, that. Yeah. I lied when I said my folks put my report cards on the fridge and are proud because I haven't failed at life so completely. I just said that to make me feel better and more important, but it was really just a fucking lie. Doesn't matter, though. I can pretend the electric bills and car payments are marks of my achievements. . .

Anyway, Dad glowers at me and takes one step closer, which is enough to make me lock-up. I pray that he'd be too tired to hit me.

'Course, you can guess what happens next.

I pick myself up off the floor when he finally passes out on the couch and slowly shuffle to the bathroom to take care of the bleeding cuts and to check out the bruises he's left. I won't be able to do much about them. . .I guess I can skip school tomorrow so no one will ask about them.

He didn't use to be this way. There was a time, I'm guessing, that he loved me. Like he loved Mom and Kevin. But that was before Karen was born and took all of his love away. I don't blame her, of course, she's a doll and I love her too. Just. . .I miss my Dad.

For that matter, I miss my Mom, too. And my big brother.

When I see my refection in the mirror, it smiles at me, cracking its lip even wider. A new rivulet of blood drips from the opening, going down its chin and disappearing past the view I have. Probably hit the dingy off-white sink, staining it momentarily.

The reflection blinks lazily, weariness flickering in the depths of ice-blue.

Its tired of all this shit, of always getting beat down by life then tossed aside for someone else to worry about.

It doesn't want to always be covered in cuts and bruises just 'cause it slipped up and said something wrong. It doesn't want to be the poor kid walking around, alone. It doesn't want to be in love with someone that doesn't love them back.

It just wants to find someplace to sleep and dream of something better—

—but it lacks the imagination to do so.

So, with ridiculous wads of wet toilet paper stuck to its split lip and with redish-purplish-gray shadows forming in unnatural places, it strays from my line of sight to go find someplace to lay down and dream of black nothingness.

I wake up to a loud yowl coming from outside my window.

I sit up immediately, momentary fear stabbing my stomach. But it goes away the next second. I hop up and open my window. Pussy jumps in, purring loudly as 'hello'.

Smiling, though it hurts, I rub my hand over her head and frown suddenly. "Oh," I say, picking her up. I take her to my bed. "Someone hurt you."

It's true. She's covered in tiny, crusted cuts, her white fur matted with dried blood. A bite mark is still oozing on her leg. One of her eyes is swollen shut and leaking some yellow puss shit.

Still, she purrs for me even though she should be hurting. My eyes prickle and I curl a hand into a shaking fist.

If I hadn't have put her outside earlier, she would've been okay. But, here we go again, me messing shit up.

Bending over, I groan, hating myself. Hating my Dad, my Mom, my brother. Hating Kyle and Stan and Cartman and everyone else in the fucking world who has it better than me.

Salt stings my just healing wounds, but I can't help from crying.

Pussy curls up in my lap and purrs, like everything is okay.

After I cleaned her up the best I could, I left the house, needing a distraction. I'm pissed off, I ache, and my cat was beat to shit for some fucking reason.

I go to the corner, not really caring if I get a customer or not. Though I'd fucking love to get some weed to mellow my ass out. I'm wired and I feel like killing something.

Cherri's there, leaning back against a streetlight, half-smoked cigarette perched on her bottom lip. She sees me when I approach and she gives me a knowing stare. ". . .Oh. Again, baby?"

I nod as she digs into her tiny, red, clutch purse. She withdraws a tissue and rubs at my eyes, clucking her tongue. "You should just come and live with Missy and me," she tells me. "We'd take care of you, cutie. . ."

I decline and am passed a new cigarette for my response. Cherri holds a battered zippo under it to light me up.

"The offer doesn't expire. Come out whenever you need a place to stay. You're welcome anytime."

I nod. I inhale a lungful of minty smoke, frowning at the feel of it, like ice shards cutting your tongue all the way down to your lungs. I exhale with a grimace. Fucking hate Menthols.

I talk with Cherri for a while. It feels nice 'cause she's really sweet to me, like she actually cares about me. She even gives me a little money, saying, "For cigarettes. My treat."

Eventually a car pulls up and Cherri, all charm and huge tits, leaves with her customer for the evening. They vanish away with a loud peel of Mr. Hotshots tires on the icy road and, again, I'm all alone.

Not for long, though.

A black Cadillac, with a serious need for a new paint job, pulls in, drops off a too-skinny girl with dark red hair, and drives away. Well. I have company now.

The girl turns around. She sees me and her spring-green eyes widen. "Oh. My. God. Kenny?" I frown as she steps over to me, a delicate hand reaching out to brush over my swollen cheek. Her fingertips are burnt. "What the fuck happened to you?"


I haven't seen her in a while and I can't exactly say it's good to see her again.

She looks like shit. Not beaten-in-the-face-shit but more. . .I-think-she's-using-shit.

Her face is all taunt and sunken in, especially around her cheeks. Scabs dot her face, like she'd dug her chipped nails into her skin. Her lips were dry, cracked, and lacking any color. The slinky black dress she wears. . .like. . .absorbed her. She almost fucking disappeared in the damn thing. And her hair didn't look like it'd seen shampoo in weeks.


I lean away from her touch. She breaths a small "Oh." and looks away.


Totally fucking using.

Who knew?

We don't talk but she busies herself with a cigarette, smoking it too quickly. One of her legs jitters and won't stop moving. It's freaking me out. When she reaches the filter, she flicks the butt to the street and lights up a new one.

"You look pretty beat up," she mutters after a moment. I look at her. "Why?"

I shrug. That's all I offer her. She gets the hint and stops trying to talk to me.

A little while later, another car pulls up and this time I'm the one getting in. I don't even say goodbye.

Inside smells like cheap champagne and cigar smoke.

The man at the wheel isn't anyone I recognize. He's ancient, too, like, over thirty. He keeps wiping his palms on his pant-legs. Must be nervous, I think. Maybe I'm the first (male?) hooker he's ever picked up.

Oh well. Money's money, I guess. Maybe I can get that fucking weed now.

I know this game well—I slide up next to him, our hips pressing against each other. His face goes red and he jerks the steering wheel pretty hard. We almost end up in a ditch, which I find hilarious. I haven't even done anything yet.

"H-hi," he tells me, gulping. I cock an eyebrow at him.

"The fuck are you," I ask, "A virgin?"

He shakes his head vigorously. His eyes return to the road, like he's just now realized we could possibly die from his lack of attention, and sputters, "N-no! This. . .is. . .just my first time with a. . .a. . ."

"A guy," I finish. Again, he shakes his head.

"A kid." He corrects me, rubbing a hand on his leg.

Hm. Can't say I really expected that but, whatever. It's not gonna stop me from doing what he picked me up for. I rub my hand down his stomach and over his crotch and he gasps like a good boy should.

"Don't worry. I may be a kid but I know what the fuck I'm doing." I pause, squeezing my hand as I lean towards him, lowering my voice. "Now, tell me what you want me to do."

He doesn't say anything, just stares out the windshield, eyes glassy. He wants me. I can tell. A smirk twitches up one side of my mouth and I brush my lips along his jaw. "Well?" Only thing he does is lift his hips up against my hand, sighing at the rough brush of fabric over his dick.

That's all he needs to do for me to understand what he wants.

I fiddle with his zipper for a second, jerk it down and move lower. I swear he grips that fucking steering wheel tighter. His eyelids flutter. I hope he can watch the road and drive while I blow him. . .It'd suck not to get any money out of this.

But he seems able to keep it together, at least, for now. I realize a second later, when I press my tongue to the head of his dick, that I was wrong. We swerve again. Not as bad as the first time, sure, but still enough to nearly throw me from my seat. I don't stop.

He grunts. I don't think I've ever said it before, but grown men make fucking disgusting noises when you give them head. This one's especially bad and I get annoyed really quick. I block him out the best I can as he drives to somewhere—

And I just realized that I have no fucking idea where that is. . .

I'm sitting at school. I don't remember where or why the hell I was there, but I do remember that I had Kyle's hat in my lap.

I'd managed to steal it at some point and I ran with it. Part of it was 'cause Cartman told me to book it. I can't remember the real reason , really, but I guess it was something along the lines of me trying to humiliate Kyle after he rejected me. Something like that. I think. Ah, who gives a damn?

Anyway, I was plucking at a lose string when Kyle finally found me, up—oh, that's right, I was in the school theater, sitting dead center of the stage. Apparently, I wasn't trying to hide myself as much as I thought so.

He came up to me, stood right in front of me, and narrowed his pretty green eyes. "Give it back," he spat, hands curled into tiny fists by his sides. "Give me my fucking hat back!"

I leaned away from him, tucking his ushanka behind my back. What hat? I didn't have his goddamn hat. I gave him a bewildered look and said with all the fringed innocence my ten-year-old self could muster, "I don't have it."

That just pissed him off even more.

He stamped his foot against the stage, glowering. "Give. Me. My. Fucking. HAT!"

I said it again: "I don't have your stupid hat."

But Kyle wouldn't listen. "I swear to God, Kenny, give me my hat back! Right the fuck now!" He took a step closer, which I countered by sliding back a bit. Kyle screamed in frustration. "GODDAMIT!"

I really never saw the point as to why Kyle wanted to wear his hat all the time. Sure, he's got some fucking weird hair and , sure, people like Cartman would make fun of it. . .but it really wasn't so bad. At least he got the chance to wash it every night. At least he didn't hide it 'cause he was afraid people would point out the fact his family didn't have enough money to buy shampoo that week.

Kyle never really got how lucky he was. He focused too much on the few bad points of his life to see all the good he had to make it better.

So what, kid has diabetes. Has to stick himself with a couple needles every day to check his blood sugar and has to make double sure not to accidentally eat the wrong thing. At least he doesn't get flattened by falling satellites or randomly catch on fire. I'd rather deal with a few pin-pricks than having to go to Hell every other day. And at least his family has the money to buy food, whether it be low in sugar or whatever.

I could go on but, really, who wants to listen?

I don't want to listen and I'm the one fucking telling the stupid story.


I decided, since Kyle knew I had his hat (not that I was really trying that hard to hide it in the first place), that I'd strike up a bargain with him. Like, he'd give me something in return for his hat and we'd call it even. I told him this and he gawked at me, ears getting redder by the minute. I wondered just how pissed he really was.

"You want to fucking trade?" I nodded, not saying a word. "What, then? What the hell do you want? My allowance?" He reached into his pocket and pulled out a twenty dollar bill. He tossed it to the floor. "Take it! Now give me my hat—"

"That's not what I want," I told him, standing up. I ignored the money because, frankly, it pissed me off that he just assumed that I wanted it.

"Then what," he asked, rolling his eyes. "What do you want?"

I was quiet for a moment. Kyle waited impatiently.

"Kiss me," I told him suddenly. "Kiss me and I'll give you your hat."

We pull into a shady motel. He parks the car and I sit up, licking his taste from my teeth. His face is flushed and he won't stop panting.

"Get out," he commands. I cock an eyebrow but open the door anyway and get out of his car. I expect him to follow after me, to lead me to one of the rooms to fuck me or whatever else his money pays for.

But he doesn't turn off the car. Doesn't move except to get his wallet.

"How much," he grumbles and I can't tell if he's just embarrassed or unsatisfied. I don't answer and just shrug, too tired to even care.

He throws two twenties at me. I fold them up and jam them in my pocket, stepping away from the door and slamming it shut. The man peels out of the parking lot and I'm left standing alone with barely enough to cover a one-night stay.

I stood there for ten minutes before heading home, already planning on using that forty bucks for weed.

He stared at me.

Like, he didn't even blink. Color heated up his face a hot-red. He shook and continued to fist and unfist his hands at his sides.

He opened his mouth to say something, then snapped it shut. Like, he couldn't figure out what to say exactly. Like, I scared all the words from him.

I pulled his hat from behind my back, clenched it in my hands. Held it out for him to take. Fuck the offer. I knew he wouldn't take it.

"Here. . ." I muttered, staring down at the chipped faux-wood of the stage. Black scuff-marks flecked the surface. I never realized just how ugly it was in there until that one moment, when Kyle rejected me for the second time.

Then it happened.

Kyle stepped up to me, ripping his hat from my hands. I thought, for sure, he was either going to hit me or just storm away in one of his rages, but he didn't do either of those things.

He, after some hesitation, leaned forward and pressed his lips to mine, in the most chaste, wonderful kiss I'd ever had.

And, okay. My first kiss, too.

I remember my eyes went huge, like the size of the few unchipped dinner plates Dad hadn't broke. And then he left. I watched him go, not saying anything. Just watched as he stormed down the steps, down the narrow aisle between the rows of tattered seats, and out the double doors.

I stood in the center of the stage, bathed in the spotlight, an actor without an audience or even good enough dialogue.

Now it was my turn to redden.

Red snags my arm as I try to walk past her. I'm trying to get to Clyde's. Or Craig's. They usually have good weed for cheap but, in order to get to their side of town, I have to walk past the corner, right past tweaked out Red, who looks like she's coming down from something.

"Hey," she stage-whispers, cracking a smile that looks too wide for her face. My stomach twists and I feel more than sick; I literally want to blow chunks all over her.

I don't want to mess with her or the shit she's dealing with. I've heard bad things about it from some of the guys at school—none of them tried it, but they knew too. They've heard stories like I have.

I jerk my arm away from her, but her fingers dig in real deep, adding to my list of wounds, and she leans in too close. Her breath smells sickly sweet—or, I don't know, that might just be her. I don't know. I don't care. I don't want to mess with her.

"Hey—" she says again and I try to move away from her. But, before I can get too far, she slips something into my pocket and then, just like that, she doesn't have anything to do with me. Another car has just pulled up and she's at it, chatting away in a crazed ramble.

And, it's not the greatest thing on my list of achievements, and something I take no pride in, but, don't laugh. I ran.

From her.

She scared me that bad; whatever she was on scared me that bad.

And I wanted nothing to do with it, with her, with the guy oblivious to it in the car that had pulled up to abduct her from the street.

But, you already knew that, didn't you?

I skip getting weed for tonight. It's too early in the morning and both Clyde and Craig are asleep. And though I'd pay them good money for just one fat blunt to help erase the memory of tonight, I know neither of them would be too happy about getting woken up.

So, yeah, I went back home.

I strip down to my boxers and hit my mattress, hard. It rattles me and it hurts and, you know what?, I don't care. I'm too beat to care. I'm probably too beat to fucking sleep, but I close my eyes anyway.

And I wait, wait, wait until something comes along—a numb unconsciousness or, maybe, a half-formed dream. My luck, though, I'd get a nightmare.

Or, you know, not get to sleep at all.

Guess which one I had to deal with?

Yeah. I didn't sleep a wink.

I laid there, for hours, just remembering random clips from old memories. Mostly about Kyle. I thought about him a lot; sometimes Stan would come in, though, and ruin it for me. 'Cause, even in my head, Kyle'll pick him over me. Always. And every single time.

I didn't go to school today.

But that doesn't mean I got to laze around the house. No. That was Dad's job. And if he caught me doing the same thing, he'd beat me again for risking truancy.

After I got dressed—in the same clothes from last night, I'll mention—I opened my window and slipped outside. It's not that uncommon. Even if I'm going to school, I pick the window over the front door most often.

For the simple reason that Dad haunts the living room couch. And, I know from experience, that if I tread too heavy or rattle the litter of glass bottles and aluminum cans too loudly, he'll wake up pissed and I'll wear new bruises to school.

So, you can see why I'd rather shimmy out the window instead. It's safer that way.

Well, except for Pussy.

Bless her heart, I landed on her tail by accident. Again. She yowled something terrible, which just made me feel even worse. I scooped her up and snuggled her into my chest in a quick hug. I completely forgot how she'd been torn up by something, though. Some of the cuts had reopened and seeped disgust on my parka—blood, pus, and God knows what else. . .

I didn't think. I put her into my room and told her to rest. She mewed and I thought, This is stupid. I'm talking to a goddamn cat. . .

But, truthfully, it made me feel better. 'Cause, Pussy loved me. More than anyone. And, you know what? I loved her too. She was mine to take care of, to feed (which I had to remember to do when I got back), and to love with all the love Kyle wouldn't accept. That no one would accept. 'Cept her. 'Cept that stray cat.

I walked away from the house feeling better about myself. And not just a little bit, either. I felt like I could actually make it through today.

I ended up spending that forty bucks on Pussy, actually. I bought her real cat food—the good shit, too, that comes in a can and some dry, too, 'cause that lasts longer. I got her some medicine stuff to put on her cuts and some bandages to wrap around her one bad leg. That was all pretty expensive, 'specially the medicine stuff, but I got it anyway.

I even had enough to buy her a collar. So I did. It was lime green with little lines of bright blue sewn through it in some sort of criss-cross pattern.

I even had a few bucks left over to get me some weed. Just a little, though, not enough, probably, for an entire blunt—but just a little would be amazing. So, I went to Craig's house, not thinking about the time. No one was home though, so I didn't have to put up with any awkward explanations as to why I'm not at school.

"I'm sick" doesn't seem to cover it real well if you're on their stoop, arms weighed down with Petco bags.

I'd planned on going to Colfax Point, to earn a little green so I can buy some more green, but I just went home again.

Dad was still asleep, thank God, and Pussy was too. She'd slept on the floor by my bed, as if she knew she was leaking and she didn't want to get it on my mattress.

Have I told you I love my cat?

Quietly, 'cause I knew it was risky even being home, I took her to the bathroom, wet a rag, and cleaned her up. Then I went back to my room, smeared the medicine stuff on her wounds (which stunk, by the way) and wrapped up her leg. I snapped on her collar next and—

—damn, I think I started crying.

'Cause, she came right up to me and rubbed her head against me and I pet her and she just seemed so happy, you know? I guess you can't really gauge when an animal's happy or not, 'cept a dog or something 'cause they wag their tails, but with cats, you just gotta guess.

But, I swear, Pussy beamed at me. And she purred and she stayed pressed right up against me, loving me 'cause I loved her enough to take care of her.

And it just made me cry.

I can't tell you why. . .you'd just had to have been me right then to really understand it.

Not long after that, I left again. Pussy got to stay inside and sleep on my mattress this time. I think that made her happier. I guess, anyway. Like I said, you have to guess with that kinda thing.

This time, I did go to Colfax. And I'll fill you in on a little secret—don't go there if it's the middle of the day. You won't get no business. Hell, you won't get no company either.

No shit, I was there for hours, smoking cig after cig. I ran out of my pack and forfeited up the rest of last night's money to get another one, which I chain smoked too.

I caught myself half-way though, and I stopped. And I shoved my pack into my pocket, to hide it from me, and, get this, I felt something there. A little plastic square, heavy with—

My eyes bugged.

That's right, Red had stuck something there when I was walking home. I'd totally forgot until right then, but, I didn't doubt what it was.

Sure enough, when I pulled the little packet out of my pocket, there was a snowy-colored dust filling it to the top. Smack? Cocaine? Heroine? Crank?

There was a note scrawled on it with permanent marker: BETTER?

Temptation is a bitch.

A real, cold, hard bitch.

And she's staring me down right now, picking up that little package full of some sort of drug and waving it under my nose. "Do it, do it, do it, do it," she chants away, trying to lure me under her stupid spell.

And, I hate to tell you, really, 'cause you've put up with all this so far, but I'm falling for it. Bad.

It wouldn't hurt, right? Just a little huff to see what it does. Maybe it will make me feel better, like Red's note said. Maybe it'll be like weed. I can take a little, then set it down and never pick it up. . .

Maybe I won't get too addicted to it. Maybe-maybe-maybe-

I've heard stories, though, bad ones, dark ones, scary ones that could make a grown man keep the light on at night, and I've always said I'd never fall into that crowd—but part of that was because smack is expensive. Really expensive. Like, eighty bucks for an ounce—which can last a little while, I heard, but it's never enough.

But, God, they say it can make you fly.

Okay, so maybe I shouldn't have messed with it. Maybe I should've found someone to sell it to or just, I dunno, give it back to Red, but, trust me, you'd be in my exact shoes if some whore gave you something to make you feel 'better'—ha!

But, yeah, you know it, I break down. I don't want to (I do so) but I end up doing it. Right there. In front of God and the empty street.

And it's all rather simple and easy—I just shake a line out along my thumb and rub it up against my nose like I'm sniffing away snot and no one's any wiser about it. Not like anyone's here anyway. But, hell, doesn't hurt to be safe, does it?

There's no wait, like with weed, 'cause I swear to God, right now, right the fuck now, all of everything I've been feeling is gone—up, up, up to the clouds. And I'm feeling so gooood. Like nothing can stop me from getting what I want. Like I'm King Kenny. Like—fuck, I can't even tell you. But, you could be sitting in a gutter, take one hit of that and shoot over the goddamn moon. You'd probably pass me, you know, 'cause I'm there, spinning in craters, fucking aliens, stuffing my mouth full of moon cheese. Everything. I'm doing everything.

Before I stop myself, I take another hit 'cause, hell, if one feels this fucking amazing, two's gonna make me fly all the way to Pluto and beyond.

Here we go. My turn to tell you another story. I'm remembering shit like crazy. I'm crazy. The world's crazy. You're crazy—

But it's all cool, and funny and I'm laughing can you tell? Hahaha—

This story's not even funny and it's cracking me up, dude—

Anyway, this is another one about Kyle. And about Stan. And Cartman in some sort of way, but I can't remember exactly what he was doing. We're supposed to be, like, best friends like Stan and Kyle and I don't even pay attention to him most of the time. Huh. Oh, well.

Okay, set up. Picture, uh, picture—hell, I think it was the pond, maybe. I remember snow, lots of it, but I don't remember the pond. Maybe we were at school. Or at Kyle's house. Or Stan's. Or Cartman's.

We were somewhere.

And, anyway, we were having a snowball fight, 'cause we were, like eight. This is all happening a few days—weeks—months?—since I tried to kiss Kyle beneath the tree house on Yahtzee! night and Kyle's not mentioned anything about it. Neither have I. Though I want to bring it up again.

But I'm trying to ignore it by pelting Stan with my snow balls, which makes me feel better, just to let you know. Kyle's over yonder, making up a pile of his own ammunition and Cartman's, I think, throwing snow balls at Kyle while he's doing it. Which is really pissing Kyle off.

"Goddamnit, Cartman! Stop it!" he shrieks, scooping up a load of snowballs. Cartman, I can remember, laughs and just continues, spewing something about Kyle being a stupid Jew.

Nothin' new there.

But, this is where it gets funny.

And I don't mean laughing funny, 'cause I'm pretty sure the only reason I'm cracking up right now is because of the heroin. You can't really blame me though, 'cause I'm feeling so great right now I'd probably grin at my own mother's funeral.

Okay, see, Kyle keeps getting hit in the face, chest, head with all that snow, barely able to chuck what he has at Cartman, and it goes, like, all slow-mo now. I stop aiming at Stan and all my ammo hits the ground. Stan manages to throw one last ball at me, right into my fucking hood, but stops to watch too. Cartman's laughing, laughing, ohmygod he won't stop laughing because Kyle is swaying on his feet, looking paler than white.

Stan realizes it before I do. And, I guess it must be, like, his BFF senses or something, but he's slipping across the snow, snapping at Cartman to fucking cut it out. He doesn't. Instead, he's calling Kyle a "Pussy-assed Jew" for not fighting back. Which just pisses me off. Something's obviously wrong with Kyle and Cartman won't let up for a second.

I remember lunging at him and pushing him hard to the snow. I might've punched him once or twice 'cause the day after he had bruises on his face. But, at the time, I didn't give a shit.

Okay, I didn't give a shit the next day or the days after that either.

Anyway, pretty much after I get done with (hitting?) Cartman, Stan's bitching at me now.

"Goddamnit, Ken—the fuck are you doing," he yells at me. He's by Kyle now, pulling him up from the snow. I hadn't even realized he'd fallen down. "Go get his mom!"

It took me another moment to realize that Kyle had passed out. I stopped looking at him and bolted to the door—oh. So we were at Kyle's. Thank God for that, too.

To cut out the boring details, I burst through the door, got his mom, and she came barreling outside with a thin syringe. She was barking out orders "Take off his jacket! Roll up his sleeve!" but Stan knew what to do and already had done it. To her cries of "Oh my poor baby! My little Shnookums!" he did nothing but stare down at Kyle in worry.

It was pretty scary, you'know? Like, I'm used to dying violently all the time. I get my head split in two or acid-dipped or dunked in a tank of starving piranhas on a daily basis and it's all chill. I'll come back in a few days or the next morning. Kyle can't do that. When he dies, he'll be gone forever. And it's his own body that attacked him, did you get that? He fucking passed the shit out 'cause his blood sugar was too low or too high—fuck, I don't remember which—and he could've, like, slipped into some sorta comma and just—whoosh. Dead. Like that. 'Cause his body's fucking retarded and won't do what it's supposed to.

But all it took to get him safe again was a little prick to his arm. That's it. That insulin is like fucking cure-all to diabetics, I swear to God. Kyle got some color back the moment Mrs. Broflovski injected him with it. And I don't mean, like, a few seconds after, I mean right the fuck then.

You could see it, everyone breathed again all at the same time. It was funny 'cause I didn't remember that I'd stopped.

Kyle tried to play it off when he finally woke up, like four seconds later. He kept saying he was fine, but none of us could hear him because his mom picked him up and squished him to her giant knockers. Everyone knew he was embarrassed, though, 'specially me and Stan. We looked at each other again and I noticed that he was really pale too, like his blood sugar had dropped or whatever and he was the one in need of a shot of insulin.

I figured I must've looked that way too by the look Stan gave me. I understood why, though. We were both so freaked over Kyle—I mean, he's never fainted on us before.

Kyle didn't get to play after that. His mom carted him inside. We had to stay outside, with our forgotten snow-forts and snowball piles, while he rested for two days. S'okay, though. None of us really had the heart to play without him there anyway.

I ran out.

The bag's empty. Not a trace of white powder left. I used it all. Every bit of it, each individual grain. Ate it up like Halloween candy.

And, okay, I feel awesome. Like, fucking awesome. I'm all giddy and, hell, I don't even care that I haven't bathed in a few days. I don't have anything to worry about—I'm just. . .gliding.

Nothing can bring Kenny Mc-fucking-Cormick down. Not the growling of my starving stomach. Not the wailing I kinda-sorta-hear in the background but am totally gonna ignore. Not the fact that I suddenly find myself home, naked, face-down on my mattress.

Okay, that last one kinda bugs me a little. I mean, I was at Colfax last time I checked. But, nope, I'm pretty sure this isn't a hallucination. At least, I hope I'd make up a better delusion than my own, crumby room. But, unless I'm too tweaked out or I don't have the imagination to think of something better, then I gotta be back home, really, truly pressed against my stained mattress with nothing on but my skin and my goofy grin.

You know what it's like, don't you?

Huh. This is, like, the third time it's happened to me. The first two were 'cause I was piss-assed drunk—but Stan confessed the next day he was the culprit who drug me from Craig's house all the way to my bedroom. But I don't remember anyone else at Colfax point when I was zoning out on that heroin-cocaine-whatever. I was by myself.

I hope I walked myself home.

I sit up and I rub my hands over my face. I'm cold and I stink and holy shit I want more of that powder stuff already. That's really all I can think about. Get more get more getmoregetmoregetmore. Well, fuck.

Ignoring it is gonna be hard to do, but I decided that maybe noshing down some waffles'll help a little. Compensate by giving into another craving. Hell, maybe I'll jack off later just to keep the compensating up.

Or, maybe I should go check out what's causing that God-awful noise.

Like, I'm not kidding—it sounds like someone is standing outside my window, skinning a cat—

—oh, shit.

I don't think I ever got up so fast, but I'm at my window next time my heart beats and I'm pushing the glass up. Leaning over the sill, I see Pussy in the snow, jaw opened and a loud cry coming from it.

Guess she's hungry too.

I shush her—which she obeys 'cause, you'know, she's my cat and she totally loves me, even if I'm zoned out and had been ignoring her—and reached down to get her. I dump her onto my mattress and rip open her bag of food and just pour a little pile on the floor for her to eat. Then, I think I shut the window. Or maybe I put on my clothes next. I don't remember, really.

I'm still sorta freaking out when I sneak into the kitchen to get me something to eat. And it's not because Dad's sawing logs on the couch either.

It's because, I just noticed that I can't seem to recall shit as good today. It has to be because of that drug, but I can't even remember that I was back in my room, with a half-eaten Eggo sticking in my mouth until Pussy rubbed her head against my knee, wanting to be pet. I barely even remember letting her in.

My memory's all fuzzy and black-edged. I try to pull up something familiar to see if it's just my short-term that's broken or not, and I think of Kyle, of course. I see him clear as rain, right there, standing in my doorway, tiny hands fisted on his hips in a way that clearly tells me he's raging pissed at me.

Maybe I could've thought of something more sexier than that, but, hey, it was an experiment.

"The fuck are you on?"

Oh. Well. . .maybe not.

Or am I hearing fucking voices now?

I'm confused. The Kyle—Illusion? Real?—looks it too, but at least he doesn't just gawk at me like I'm doing to him.

"Hello? Kenny?" God, he's irritated. His ears are starting to turn red because I won't answer him. I don't wanna be wrong, though—I don't wanna be yakking away to some damn good hallucination.

"Kenny! " He's making too much noise, fake or not. I don't want my dad to hear him so I tell him to shut up. He screws up his eyes at this, glaring at me, and asks me the question he's already asked me. "The hell are you on?"

I just smile. "Nothing. I'm completely chill. Why?"

"Oh, I don't know, maybe because I've been in here for ten fucking minutes and all you've done is nibble on a waffle?"

Huh, had he really been in here so long? But I only imagined him a few seconds ago. "I ain't on nothing', Kyle." I tell him again. Then, I tagged another question at the end of it: "Why are you here, though?"

"Trust me, I don't want to be—" I think his retort is supposed to hurt me; all I do, to his disappointment or not, is grin at him. "—but I had to drop off your homework for today. And you better be damn thankful, too." He added the last sentence when he dumped my books at the floor by my feet. I almost yell at him to watch it, 'cause Pussy's eating there, but my cat's no where to be seen.

I panic.

"Shit, dude, did you let out my cat?" I glare up at him and scramble up, lurching for the door. If Dad sees her, he'll kill her and beat me black-blue-and every other color for having her in the first place. I don't make it too far, though. Kyle's hands are on my arm and pulling me back into my room before I can lumber out in the hallway.

"No," he tells me, thrusting a finger to the opened window that I thought I'd shut. "She went outside, like, five minutes ago when you were tripping out." He stares at me real hard and I squirm out of his vice. "Dude, you're still tripping. What the hell?"

"I'm not tripping. It's just—just—Weed. I had some heavy weed, kay?" Kyle raises an eyebrow at this, but I ramble on to stop him from questioning it. "And, yeah, dude, I'm tripping out a little, but I toked, like, three blunts today—so I'm totally—whoo—all the way up there in Chillland, ya'dig? I'm riding all the rides, the loop-de-loop coasters and those spinny-fucking tea-cups. I'm stoned off my balls? Yeah. Yeah. I'm not tripping. Just enjoying the high."

He takes a full fucking minute to answer me and it's not really an answer, just him going "Right" in the most cynical tone his 98-pound body can muster.

"I'm telling you, Kyle—I'm not—"

But he isn't there anymore.

I didn't see him leave or anything. And I'm flipping out all over again 'cause I don't know if all that happened or not—until I see the pile of books by my bed. That pretty much gives Kyle-being-actually-here an alibi. Or evidence that he was here. Whichever. Whatever.

And then it hits me.

If Kyle had been here, then that meant school had let out and that it was sometime after four. I snorted that powder at noon, at the latest. But I can't remember anything past that. It's all just—flat-lined. Four hours of static.

What the hell had I done?

I take a nap. Trying to ignore the black blank in my memory and the desperate need for more of that feel-good drug.

It doesn't work, but I try. My body doesn't want to rest, though, and I keep jerking out my legs and arms and I roll over every three seconds, trying to get comfortable enough. When it doesn't work and I realize that I've wasted an hour and a half tossing and turning, I lurch up off my mattress.

I go and shower, something not much more than covering up my B.O. with hot water, and change into some clean-ish clothes. Seconds later, I'm out my window and stamping through the snow, due East, no destination set. I just gotta walk. Get the kink out of my legs. Maybe exhaust myself enough to help me sleep.

I don't get very far, actually.

Sure, I had this idea that maybe—maybe—I'd sneak into the theater at some point, catch the tail end of a movie I never would have seen anyway and just laugh at how goddamn ridiculous it was. Or I thought I could go walk to the South Park sign, kick it a few good times (to help my legs, ya'know?), and then head on home. But, no. I wind up in the kiddie playground next to the elementary school. Middle school. High school. Fuck, it's all the same building and it's flanked by the same merry-go-round, twin slides and duplicate swing sets.

I'm on one of the latter.

I'm not even swinging, really, just kinda drifting back and forth and back and forth, staring down at the snow at my feet, thinking. Trouble is, I don't know what to think about, so I do more staring, really.

The chains, below freezing to the touch, wanna stick to my skin and creak, creak, creak so goddamn annoyingly as I move. Trust me, if my legs didn't have to move, I would've just sat the fuck still. And, okay, I'm still irritated 'cause I really don't know why I'm even here anyway.

It's not even calming or anything. Quiet, sure. Cold as hell, fuck yeah. But calming? No. My legs twitch even more, wanting to run back home or down to Colfax for a pace around the block. I may even feel a little sick but I don't know if that's just me coming down from that drug or the playground's fault.

See, this place, every thing from the creaky, dull fire-engine red swing sets to the snowcapped merry-go-round, is full of memories. Good ones. Bad ones. Worse ones than that. Memories of playing, of slipping on invisible ice patches in the snow, of patting snowmen armies up to pelt down with our grenade-slash-snowballs. Memories of when Cartman climbed right up behind Kyle on the slide and pushed him, too hard, down it as a joke, to scare him; he broke Kyle's arm and got the shit beat out of him by Stan and me, right there, next to the monkey bars.

Memories of me dying, here and there, on the slide, next to the merry-go-round, on the merry-go-round, and even here on one of these swing sets. Though, that one was a feat, if I do say so myself. I still don't know how the heavy chains snapped, slipped around my neck like a metal noose and snapped my neck in two. Guess I sat on it wrong or something. I really don't know.

It took me a week to come back from Hell that death. The more violent the death, the more it seems like I'm meant to stay dead that time, the longer I stay gone. The worst one was when I got some muscular disease and kicked it in a hospital bed. I didn't come back for a year after that one.

Still, like always, no one said anything about it. Stan asked where I had been and I didn't answer him, didn't have the chance to, really, before he and Kyle and Cartman started to walk away. But I doubt he asked because they'd missed me. No one ever misses me when I die.

And thinking about it just makes me depressed.

Creak. Creak. Creak.

I look up at the rusted joints barely supporting the hundred-pound chains and my added 125 pound self and wonder, for a brief moment, if I could snap them just right again.


I told you once that it was lonely, being me. Here's a perfect example of it. I'm alone, on a swing set that is in need of a replacement, thinking about how I die all the time. Of all those times I've died, not one of them has been a suicide—not in the slightest bit have I ever desired to die so badly that I cut out the bad universe karma and do it myself.

Until tonight, when I'm taking it into some serious thought.

I kick off, propelling the swing into lurching forward. I go up in a graceless arch, hands clutched around the chains, and the metal frame moves with me with a violent, iron groan. As I go back the opposite way, the swing set moves with me, tilting backwards instead of forwards now.

That's all it does. The chains don't break and the structure doesn't collapse on me. I don't fly out of the seat and crack my head open on the monkey bars a few feet away. I just. . .swing. And even though I know I can let go whenever and possibly achieve that, I don't let go.

I guess I'm too scared to try it after all.

A few minutes later, I stop, get up, and leave.

Again, I have no set destination and, again, I end up heading home. I realize, half-way there, that I want to see Kyle. Or Stan. Or Cartman. Anyone. I just don't want to be alone right now.

But, it's pointless. Kyle thinks I'm on something—which I am, I guess, in a loose form of the term—and that means Stan's heard all about it. Cartman probably hasn't been told but it's nearing eight o'clock and there's a two-hour block of shows he has to watch so he wouldn't pay any attention to me.

I think about going to Craig's and decide against it in the next second. He doesn't particularly like me any more than I like him and the only thing he's got going on is that he somehow gets bags of weed to sell. I don't have money so I can't get any which pretty much drops me to the bottom of his 'want-to-see' list. Plus, I bet Tweek's probably there. Craig hates it when someone comes over when he's there, for some reason, so I better just leave him alone.

My legs start to spaz again and I stop walking, suddenly feeling real low and like shit. Kinda like I suddenly caught a cold or something—all I want to do is find some place to lay down and sleep it off. Two minutes later, I feel better. And three minutes after that, I feel like crap again.

I end up going home and, by that time, I'm crawling through my window, dodging Pussy as she tries to welcome me back from under my feet, with a pounding headache and the un-ignorable need to get whatever Red had given me.

Too bad I a.) have no money or b.) don't know what the fuck it is.

It didn't get any easier as the night stretched on. All I keep thinking about is getting more of that heroin, cocaine-crack shit. And cigarettes. I ran out of them sometime around one, after I chain smoked through the whole pack while leaning out my window so Dad wouldn't catch a whiff of it.

I fed Pussy twice more, in between laying down, smoking, and trying to sleep. I even do a bit of my homework—I filled in a few answers to my algebra worksheet then scribbled over the rest of the page with horizontal 8's with nipples. Flipped through an old Penthouse and gave myself a hand-job beneath my underwear, which made me feel a little more hyped-down and sleepy.

One of Dad's beers ended up the medicine for my insomnia.

I filched a bottle, quiet as I could, and snuck back into my room with it like I was ten again. I screwed off the top in a hurry and was gulping it down before I had enough sense to sink down to my mattress. Too soon, I'd drank every drop but I was starting to feel a little bit lighter-headed and not as able to think straight.

I hid the bottle and grabbed up Pussy, checked her bandages for leaks and junk, decided I could wait until morning to change them, and I curled up to finally drift to sleep.

I was out like a light two seconds later, Pussy purring up my lullaby.

I dream of Kyle.

He visits me in pre-dawn hours, tapping away at the frosted glass of my window. He does it real quietly and I swear I barely hear him, but when he doesn't stop, I eventually get up and open it for him.

He's naked which makes me pretty damn sure I'm dreaming. And he's smiling at me, not cold or blue or covered with frost either, which is hint number two.

"Can I come in?" he asks, leaning up on his tip-toes to peek past my windowsill. I see some snowflakes caught in his hair, melting down to water, that I'd missed when I first saw him. Still, I don't get why he isn't fucking freezing, dream-Kyle or not.

"Yeah. Come on." Stepping aside, I get out of his way and he's climbing into my room, rather clumsy-like, and winds up just sliding to my floor. He gets up to his feet and I notice that he's actually wearing socks. Purple socks with little blue hearts all over them.

He flexes his toes when he notices me looking at his feet. "Really, Ken—" I look at his face when he calls me that. That nickname is over a decade old and hasn't been resurfaced for at least six of them. "—of all places to stare, you chose my socks?"

Kyle's right, of course—when's he ever wrong? Except with the whole loving Stan thing. Yeah. Anyway, my eyes flicker down from his face, which is still split with a grin, down his flat and undefined chest and stomach, to the scarlet tuft of pubes between his pale thighs. I take in his cut dick, half-hard from the attention, and break first.

I slam him up against the wall, my mouth crushing against his hard enough to bruise those pretty lips of his. And he doesn't pull away, like in most of my dreams. He kisses me back, just as hard, almost as if he wants to make my mouth sore too.


His fingers are at my parka, blindly searching for the zipper as I slip my tongue practically down his throat. He takes too long and I end up helping him, kinda. My dream kicks in with the convenience and I find myself suddenly as naked as Kyle, minus the socks.

My hands are all over him, pressing down against his chest, scoping out the smoothness of his belly, coasting over his sharp hipbones. His skin feels flushed and hot under my fingers, not cold and clammy like it should've been from standing outside in the snow.

Who really gives a fuck though? Not me. This is a dream after all.

Kyle makes a sound in the back of his throat and I jerk back slightly, threads of our mixed saliva stretching from our swollen lips. As we catch our breath, I take the spare second to scan my eyes lazily over his face. His eyes, half-lidded, give me a look that sends shivers down my spine and up my cock.

"I wanna fuck you."

He laughs. Not in a mean or incredulous, whatever that means, way. He's simply just laughing for the hell of it, I guess, and he tells me, voice barely above a whisper, "I know." A pause when we do nothing but look at each other. Then: "Go on. Fuck me, Kenny."

Say no more. Because, trust me, I'd planned too. Multiple times, dream or fucking not.

But, remember? I have no luck. Just before anything hotter than making-out happens, I'm jerked awake by someone screaming out my name.

Red-alert mode kicks in.

I stuff Pussy's food in my closet and, as I'm running over to shut my window that I don't remember leaving open again, I grab Pussy up. I dump her back outside with a promise of getting her later and I pointedly slam my window shut.

Just in time too.

Dad slams open my door, hobbling in, reeking even more strongly of alcohol than he usually does. There's a beer in his hand and I half expect him to throw it at me before he tells me why I'm in trouble this time. Probably over the bottle I stole just a few hours ago, if I had to guess.

"The fuck," he spits at me. He's right at me, leaning down so close that the bill of his SCOTCH hat presses into my forehead.

I screw up my face in a practiced mask of innocence. ". . .what? What'd I do?" Except the usual, I resist adding on.

The bottle makes contact with the side of my head. It's full. Entirely unopened and fucking full.

I swear to God something cracked or split or busted because I almost cry out, it hurts that goddamn much. But I don't give him the pleasure. I will never let him win.

"Your school called me," Dad sneers. I can barely hear it above the ringing in my ears and the man's practically roaring at me. "Where were you?"

Not answering him will earn me the reward of more pain, and though that's a McCormick Commandment, I can't unhinge my jaw low enough to rattle off a lie.


My skin splits open this time. Blood slicks down my face and seeps into my left eye, stinging. The ringing turns into screaming bells and I can't catch what he's said next. Blankly staring at him, trying to comprehend, earns me another whack to the head.


I crumple from that last blow, hit the floor in a lump of skin and bones, and blurrily stare up at him as his face goes red in anger. "I—I—" My lie breaks off in a weak mutter and I hate myself for not being able to stick up to him.

Dad gives me three seconds to speak, to move, to do something other than being entirely worthless. He always gives me three seconds to act — one for each of the people he drove away from me.


I still won't move. I know that if I do, I'll pass the fuck out from my head injury. Or die from massive blood loss or something. And he'll hit me again. If I get up. If I stay down, too. So why's it even matter?

He used to do this to Kevin too. That's why he really left. I doubt he had a girlfriend or a baby at all. He just wanted to get away from this monster.

I wish I'd been clever enough to think of doing it first.


I manage to open my mouth again. But nothing comes out. Dad prepares for my disobedience by drawing back his leg—his steel-toed boot. My ribs scream in terror underneath my skin.

Of all the things, I'm glad Karen never had to deal with this. Kevin and I learned to protect ourselves—and each other. But both of us worried what he might do to her, to Karen, if she ever brought out his bad side. This side.

That's something that never happened. Dad loved Karen so much that he never dared hurting her. Kevin and I. . .we didn't compare to her. Then, whenever she first was born, or now, when she's not even around for him to love.


"I—I was out looking for a — a job —" There. I said something. Weak and low-pitched, I doubt he heard it but at least I fucking tried.

Momma. Mom wouldn't let him do this to me. She would take the hits instead. For me. For Kevin. For Karen, too, I guess, if Dad ever hated her as much as everyone else. Momma'd be the one bruised and cut and battered each night. We'd see so when she came to tuck us in. And though she always looked and felt like shit, she'd read us stories and sing us lullabies and tell us over and over that she loved us until we finally fell asleep.

I haven't seen her in two years.

And, fuck, I miss her. . .

And Karen. And Kevin, too.

My three seconds are done. I tense up and wait. Dad's boot'll be in my chest any breath now. Better inhale while I'm able.

Another Kevin-Karen-Momma passes. And another. And another. Nothing happens. Unless I'm numb and just haven't felt it yet. Which I don't entirely doubt. Except, I'm still staring at his foot, at that drawn back boot in silent horror.

When he moves, another moment later, he doesn't thrust the toe of his boot between my ribs, but does something I think is impossible—he settles it down on my stained carpet.

I dare to flick my gaze up at his face then, brave from the lack of pain, and I see that though his skin is still tight and red, he's not as angry as he was.

"Get up."

I obey, scrambling to my feet before he has the chance to cock back his leg again. Once up, I stand straight and still, the way of soldiers, and wait for what he has to tell me.

He gives me a long look, one that makes my insides twist in more fear, before he says, "You find anything?"

I'm afraid to shake my head but I can't exactly lie to him, not in this situation. "No. . .I applied for a few places and—"

"You're going out today too, ya got that," he interrupts, the slur of his speech seeping back in. His previous outrage had smoothed it down to the point where I couldn't hear it in his shouts, yells and screams. "Skip school again. Ya got that, son?"

My stomach lurches and I'm all too conscious of the throbbing of my busted head. ". . .I got it," I say. There's a moment where I almost slip up and tag the word 'sir' to the end of my defeated mutter. I catch myself though, a second before I do.

Dad adjusts his hat and nods at me and tells me, "Good boy" like I'm a fucking dog. Then, he twists the cap off his bottle of beer—the one with my blood on it—and takes a sip.

I feel sick again. How can he drink out of that bottle, that weapon of choice? I have to look away because it's blatantly obvious that Dad doesn't give one flying fuck what he had just used that bottle for.

And though that's enough to make me uncomfortable—really, really fucking uncomfortable—it can't compare to the gut-wrenching sickness I feel when he pauses in sampling his favorite brew and holds the bottle out to me.

"Wanna sip, Kenny?"

I force myself to throw up when I leave a few minutes later.

The beer tastes even worse the second time it floods my mouth, and it's not because it's mixed with stomach juices and burns like hell. But because I have to think about it again, about his offer and knowing that there was no way I could decline it without getting the shit beat out of me again. I'd taken that sip and had downed the rest of the bottle when he told me to.

I think he knew I'd stolen another one of his beers. I think that's why he forced me to take this one. And, I don't know if it was his plan or not, but I'm done with that. I promise right here, in front of God and you, that I won't steal another one again.

And, okay, I'll let you in on something—I don't plan on going job-hunting today, though I'll spend all day spinning a respectable sounding lie to tell Pops when I come back home.

I don't plan on going to Colfax either, though I'd love to get some money and finally make a down-payment on a big bag of Colorado's finest weed. Or, you'know, go stalk down Red and beg her to tell me what she gave me and, hopefully, share some more, if she had it on her.

I'm actually going to school. It's the best thing I can think of to get back at Dad right now. And, trust me, if I could think of anything better, I'd do it but I'm hoping that someone will take notice of the gooey split down my forehead and ask what's up.

Maybe the teachers or the principal or, hell, Mr. Mackey will call someone and they'll toss my Dad's lazy, worthless ass into jail. Then I won't ever have to bother with him again.

Maybe Momma'll find out and come back to get me and she'll let me live with her and Karen and grandma in Tennessee. I bet they'll even let me bring Pussy along, as long as I promise to call her Cat or something in front of Karen.

It'd be perfect.

Well, except for never seeing my friends again.

I came to a stop in the middle of the sidewalk, probably perfectly the same distance from home as I am from the school, and have to think about that.

Is freedom really worth leaving behind everyone for? Or, really, is it worth leaving Kyle?

Call me stupid—no, really, go ahead. I've been called worse before—but I don't think I can leave him, I mean. He may not love me like I love him, but there's still a chance, right? Slimmer than Wendy Testaburger, but, fuck, I still have a chance with him.

Stan might reject him, after all, and that'd mean I could slip in and—

I bite the inside of my cheek to shut my head up. I think Dad did some damage when he hit me—I'm thinking retarded things that won't ever happen.

As if I'll get out of this piss-hole, white-bred, mountain town. As if my Momma would want to come back for me anyway. As if Kyle Broflovski would ever see me like I see him.

I don't go to school.

Well, actually, I don't go in it. I walk by it, hood drawn up over my head so, even if someone were to look out or walk by, they wouldn't see the secret hurting me underneath.

And good thing too.

'Cause while I'm taking my sweet-ass time peddling by, Kyle happens to pass right by the window and I can see that he stops 'specially just to look down at me. I stare back at him, noticing that he looks either pissed or worried or, fuck, he could be smiling at me and I couldn't tell. He's too blurry for me to see properly.

But, then, like that, he's vanished and I'm all alone again.

I walk on 'cause, for all I know, that moment never even happened.

This one happens years back. Before Momma and Dad split up and our family broke into a thousand miles worth of pieces.

I don't remember how old we all were, but I had to have been at least eleven, 'cause Karen's old enough to kinda talk to us. Well, it's more like babbles and gabbles and most of the family can't tell what it is, except me and Mom, but it's as close to talking as you need to know.

Me and Kevin are sitting in front of the battered up old TV we always suspected Dad fished out of a dump, flipping through the grainy channels for something Karen would like to watch. She's cooing in between us, smacking her toy blocks together and probably not even paying attention to the TV at all, but, even though we both know this, we still settle on the Disney Channel, for when she does want to look up at the screen.

And, sure enough, Karen looks up, blue-green eyes trained on the cartoon flickering, black-n-white, up on the TV.

"Look, look," she screams in delight, pointing her finger at what I think was a mermaid swimming between hunks of rock and reef. "She pwetty! She fish—" No, that's not quite right. She pauses, biting her lips 'cause she knows that it isn't really a fish but she can't think of what else to call her. She doesn't know what a mermaid is, not yet, and I make a mental note to ask Mom to tell her the story of The Little Mermaid tonight when she comes and tucks us in.

"Oh-oh—" Her blocks are forgotten at this point. All she sees is that mermaid, doing loop-da-loops and side-swipes through the ocean current. "Look! Kenny—Kev—look! I wanna that. I wanna that!"

Kevin, who hasn't caught a word except 'Look!' and his own name, just gives her a small smile and a nod. "Yeah," he tells her, glancing over at me. In the kitchen, there's a mutter of angry voices. Mom and Dad. They've been arguing for a while now and Kevin has been listening in on them to see if the fight was getting out of hand while I focused on keeping Karen's attention away from it.

He looks worried. And I feel it too, the heaviness that's starting to creep in from the kitchen. Karen doesn't. She's too focused on her mermaid.

"Oh," I say, too late. "You wanna be a mermaid, too?"

She turns her eyes to me, wide as tiny moons. "Mowmaid?" She says it funny, that foreign word, and I break out in a smile despite the sinking in my stomach.

"Yeah, a—"


Kevin's up. I'm up, pulling Karen to her feet. She looks confused, her tiny forehead all up in wrinkles.

"Kenny—What?" I told her to shush and, just as the muttering turns to full blown screaming, Kevin and I drag Karen off to the safety of the furthest bedroom, my room, to hide.

We heard more crashing, more swearing, more screaming. It all vibrated up from under the crack in the door, thickening the air of my room with dread. This was a bad one, both Kevin and I knew, one of the worst. Usually, Mom and Dad fought like any old married couple would, with just yells and shouts of nasty things, and Kevin and I would laugh at them. But when they started to try and kill each other—well, that's when all the humor was lost.

Especially now, when we had Karen to look after.

Sometimes I think we did rather well, keeping her safe and oblivious to how her mommy and daddy acted when they were pissed and drunk, but other times I don't know if we did as good as I hoped. You don't know it, or hell, maybe you do, but it's hard to keep something like that hidden for long. After a while Karen started noticing and asking questions.

And, by impulse, I lied to her about everything. Not because I didn't think she could handle it, not because I didn't want her to face it yet—but because I wanted her, out of all of us, to have something better than what God threw at us.

For a little while, like the day Karen discovered mermaids, it worked.

But everyone has to wake up sometime, don't they?

There's something behind me. Or, actually, someone.

I can hear them move closer, stepping lightly, quickly in the snow, but I don't turn around.

I don't want to be disappointed if it's someone I don't want to see.

It went on for hours.

By the time our folks had settled down, Karen was sleeping and Kevin and I were exhausted from listening to all the abuse. We don't allow ourselves to sleep, though. We're too afraid that once we let our guards slip, Dad will come in and steal Karen away from us.

That's why we're both scared shitless when our door yanks open and someone steps into my room.

It's only Momma. I remember we both relax when she walks into the room, shutting the door behind her. But that's only a momentary thing. We see her bruises when she walks to us and we both feel sick. Well, I feel sick—I can't really speak for Kevin.

Momma kneels down in front of us, skin tight and black-n-blue, and reaches between us for the sleeping lump of Karen. She doesn't wake up. Just curls up to Momma like she could tell, even when asleep, that it was her.

"Come on," Momma says, drawling out the words like always. Her voice is tired, strained, weary—but she always sounds like that after a fight with Dad. It's normal. It's comforting, to us.

I remember following her into Karen's room, which was once Kevin's room before she was born. Now me and Kevin have to share my room, though neither of us complain about it. We're safer in numbers. At least, against the threat of Dad.

Momma puts Karen in her own bed, tucks her in with the only comforter in the house and sits down on the edge of the mattress. Kevin and me sit down on the floor next to her, our little knees to ours chests with our chins poking down on them.

Then we wait. Listen, for the sound of Dad slamming the front door to announce his leaving us for his family at the Bar. It rattles through the house like a roar of thunder; the engine turning over in his beat up trunk is its echo, bouncing off the Colorado mountains. And, when it's quiet, Momma sighs a long, loud sigh that makes me feel like crying.

We can see her bruises, again, in the dim light of Karen's starfish nightlight. They are darker now, less yellow-y, and blue in their middles. They look like they hurt, a lot, and we wonder what it would feel like to have them instead of her.

We—I mean, I—wonder why she does it. Why she even protects us like she does. I mean, she doesn't have to, me and Kevin can take care of ourselves. We're tough—Momma's told us so. Strong as little soldiers. At least, that's what I remember her saying. It was late though and she'd just tucked us into our beds and pressed kisses to our hair, murmuring sweet little things like Moms do. I was practically asleep when I caught her whispering that and when I asked Kevin about it in the morning, he said he had already fallen asleep and didn't know what the fuck I was talking about.

But I'd like to believe it. I'm a soldier, the home is the front line, and Dad's the enemy. And I may not have a gun or much training or whatever, but I have the best strength of them all—the ability to survive.

Okay. I didn't realize that until later but, still. I always had to have it, right? Or I wouldn't have made it when Dad beat up Momma or when Kevin ran away or when Momma got smart and high-tailed it outta here. I mean, I had to be strong to be able to be the only one here, with Dad, right?

Or does that just make me stupid?


I ignore the call. Keep on walking. Keep on making prints in the snow. Keep on remembering times Momma was here for me and I had an older brother to lean on, a younger sister to protect.

Each step just makes me a little sadder, a little more conscious of my own bone-deep loneliness, weariness. This must be how Momma felt. Except, like, a million and one times worse.


I don't look back, even still, even when the footsteps pick up and whoever the hell is wanting me jabs me in the shoulder with a long, slender finger.

"Goddamnit, Kenny, fucking stop, would you?"

And I do. Because I know that voice, recognize it above every other voice in the world. But it doesn't make sense. Why would he be here?

Why would he come after me?

That night, Momma did something she'd never done before: She woke up Karen.

"Hey, hey, little angel," she whispered, her southern accent heavy in that pitch. She touched her shoulder, shook, shook, shook it with a tenderness only a Momma could have. "Wake, wake, little angel."

It took me years to realize that she was singing Karen a song. Something to ease her out of her sleep so she'd wake up smiling.

And she always did.

When she peeked open her eyes, lips in a smile, like Momma had wanted, Momma bent down and kissed her forehead. Just a brush of her mouth against her skin—a treat for waking up, I guess, or for just being Karen.

She said something, a murmur of pre-sleep noise that Momma and me understood. Kevin, left out as always, dropped his gaze from us to the floor to stare at his feet. At least he could understand them. Or, really, they didn't make noises that he had to pretend to get.

I moved over to him, scooting those few inches between us until my leg touched his. It was a simple gesture, probably one you don't understand, but it made his shoulders relax for the first time that night.

"Kenny told me you wanted to hear about mermaids," Momma said with a quick glance over at me. I nodded my head. I don't exactly remember when I'd told her—and maybe I hadn't actually. She might've just picked up on it from the cartoon mermaid swimming around the t.v. screen and heard the snippets of our conversation before us kids fled.

Karen's eyes lit up and she sat up, excited. "Yeah, yeah, yeah!" she cheered, too loud. My back tensed, my neck turned automatically for the door and I watched it on pins-and-needles, expecting it to fly open at any moment and Dad to storm in. Kevin jumped, alerted by my sudden on-edge, and I bet he looked to the door too, for just a second, before he touched his hand to my knee. Safe. We're safe.

He remembered before me that Dad had already left and gone to the bar. There was no threat. Not now. Not for a few, quick-passing hours. I wondered, later, if that was why Momma woke Karen up instead of waiting until another night. But, I don't really know. I never had the chance to ask her.

For whatever reason, Momma told Karen—and Kevin and me, 'cause we listened too—about mermaids. How they could swim forever without drowning because they had gills or something and they had huge underwater cities where they lived and had mer-families. She told us a little about one of the cities, Atlantis, that apparently sank underneath the ocean. The people, she said, were too advanced, too smart, too pretty and the Gods, who spent all day watching them and doing whatever else they do up wherever they are, got, like, super jealous. They sent a tidal wave to swallow up the city. Everyone died. I assume, anyway, Momma changed the tale at the end, saying that one Goddess felt bad for what the other Gods were doing and, just at the last second, turned the people part-fish so they could live.

At that part, Karen's eyes got big and shine-y as marbles. She clapped her tiny hands together and said, over and over, "I wanna that! I wanna that!" like she'd squealed at me earlier. Our Momma just smiled, shook her head and told her gently, "You can't, sweet heart."

Karen wilted instantly, a pout jutting out her lips and a scowl drawing down her eyebrows. "But—! But—!"

She didn't understand that she couldn't ever really be a mermaid. Ever. No Goddess would turn her into one, even to save her from Dad and this shitty life she was unfortunately born into. She could only be one in a story, one of Momma's tales, and, even then, what was the point? She'd just grow up with that dream swimming in her mind, 'round and 'round, until she realized her ocean was just a pissy-assed pond and she needed air to live. She'd have to come up sometime.

Me and Kevin never believed in dreaming. It's a waste of time, really. But Momma didn't think so. She dreamed up all her stories, every night, and whispered them to Karen as she laid her down to sleep so she could have bright, intricate dreams too.

I guess one of us should.

"Listen, listen," Momma soothed, running her hands back through Karen's hair, the same color as her's. "Why would you want to be a mermaid, hm?" Karen turned her big green eyes up at her, listening. "Would you rather have the ocean over us?"

No matter how hard I try, I can't remember what she answered. Whether she was childishly self-centered enough to say 'yes', she would choose gills and a fin and the endless depth of the ocean over a family that loved her enough to protect her and weave her dreams in the first place.

I'd like to think she said 'no'.

Well, I really hope she did. I'd choose her over a lot of things I'd rather have, like a good-paying job, a house over my head, clothes. Probably I'd chose her over Kyle, too. At least then I'd be loved back, right? Even if it's just the unbreakable bond of siblings—of survivors.

"The hell aren't you in school?" The question is snapped out, curdled with bitterness. I tug my hood tighter, so my bruises are hidden from view, though its taken as an avoidance to the question. "Fuck, Kenny! Just answer me."

I look at him and shrug.

What? It's an answer. Besides, I don't want to see him. I thought earlier maybe I wanted to, so he could see my bruises and my cuts and my blood darkening the orange of my parka. But now I don't reckon that's such a good idea. He'd probably just think I got into some stupid street-fight. . .over alcohol or drugs. He'd never think that my Dad was the cause of it.

Yeah, as you probably already guessed, it's Kyle standing here in front of me. And, clearly, he's not happy with me. For skipping school. For tripping on him the night before.

An unfamiliar gnawing grates my insides and I press my hands to my stomach with a frown. Kyle doesn't notice. He hits me in the arm, a later rebuke for my earlier silence, with a small, plastic rectangle I recognize is a hall pass. Frowning. Always frowning when it comes to me.

I'm such a goddamn disappointment.

He opens his mouth to snap at me again but I cut him short. "—Shut up, Kyle. Go back to your notebooks and your stupid homework assignments. You know as well as I do that I'm not cut out for that shit. I quit." The revelation slips past my lips as easily as if it were greased. I quit. I fucking give up. School was never something I was good at anyway. I only ever failed my classes and wasted money repaying books I lost when something killed me.

It's not worth it. Even if it's the only way I really ever see my friends anymore. It's just not mother-fucking worth it.

Kyle's eyes grew wide. Shock, surprise, disbelief flicker through them like tiny, emerald fires. But he tucks it down, deep, deep down until I think I only imagined it.

"Like fuck you are," he tells me, hitting me again. Pain bursts up from the day-old bruise he manages to hit and I almost wince at it. "Get back in there. You can't quit."

"Yes I can, Kyle. And I fucking will. Leave me alone." I turn and start to walk again, only to feel Kyle's fingers dig into my parka sleeve to keep me from going far. And it really just pisses me off further. When I spin back around, I see the momentary flash of disappointment in his eyes and he lowers his hand, a flutter of a motion that reminds me of butterflies.

"Listen—" he begins, his voice pitched all quiet-like, softer than the snow drifting around us. But, even though I'd love to listen to him on another day—and, God, you just had to make it today that Kyle would go out of his way to talk to me—I'm in no fucking mood to listen to someone else tell me what the fuck to do. I can do what I want to, ya'know. I do have that freedom at least. Don't I?

So, of course, instead of listening to him, I snap right off the wall, breakdown in to a rant that's been thirteen years in the making.

"No, you fucking listen, Kyle. I don't have to do anything you tell me to do. I don't have to waste my time in school—you know I don't ever accomplish shit there. I don't get math and I barely understand what the hell they want from me in English. Biology is fucking retarded and the only class I'm even half good at is P.E., if I didn't sleep all the goddamn time. So why do you want me to stay, huh? Why's it even fucking matter if I'm there? It's not like you even pay attention to me, like you care, like everyone else in this goddamn town, that I fucking exist!" I pause, and in the instant I'm drawing in another lung-full of chilly air, Kyle manages to sneak in one sentence to defend his side of the argument.

"—you're my friend, though. . ." he tells me, all quiet again because I don't think he's so sure anymore.

"Like fuck I am!" I watch as his shoulders draw up, tense with shock and unmistakable hurt, but I keep on yelling at him because I've gone this far already and what's the point in stopping now? "You never hang out with me. Never come to my house because it's filthy and shit, don't deny it, Kyle, I know! You never go out of you fucking way to be with me—it's always Stan-Stan-Stan with you and I'm so damn tired of it!" I stamp my foot against the sidewalk, finding some sort of comfort in the way it signals pain up through the bone. "You never took the time to even—"

He shakes his head and I notice how bright his eyes are, too green in the pale of his face. He opens his mouth again, to speak, but I don't give him the pleasure.

"Shut up," I snap and Kyle seals his lips with a jerk. "You don't understand me at all. You don't care about me at all. So go. Go and pine after Stan when it's so goddamn obvious he only cares about Wendy. You realize that, don't you? He'll never like you back!"

Whatever color had been in Kyle's face drains when I say that. He's paler than the snow again, too white, and my heart kick-starts in my chest with worry. Oh God, is he going to pass out again? That's what I think—and, in the next moment, it's gone and I no longer give a fuck.

When he doesn't make an attempt to answer, I spin on my heel and leave him there to stare after me.

I feel wrecked when I finally stumble to the red-light district—to the whore-strip of Colfax. It's only about noon and already the girls are lining up, shaking tits and rubbing thighs at passing cars. I join them, hood down, jacket open to a naked, bruised chest, and try to look damn sexy. I work those bruises and the cuts and the flaking crust of blood matting my hair down. Looks? — yeah, I get 'em. But, it's whore code not to ask and not to tell what the fuck happened to gain such badges.

Cherri guessed it, or had some half-thought about it, and, one night, filled me up with enough booze to make me spill-all when she asked the right questions. She's the only one who knows though—whores keep secrets best, after all, and she's sworn by that.

The girls to my left and the boys to my right don't know shit, though. They can think all they want, brew up some sick play-by-plays in their minds as to what might've happened, but they'll never really know. Just like I don't know about them or how they got their scars or caught their diseases.

All they know is that being battered gets the occasional soft-hearted passerby. And, as I'm slipping into the warm, leather seats of the back of a sparkling red Porche, my nurse in the front seat checking me out in the rearview mirror, I wink at the faces I'm leaving behind and take their twitching fingers and partial nods as unspoken good-byes.

She doesn't give me her name and that's just damn fine. I give her mine, though, when she asks because I'm technically hers for the next few hours, as the lump sum in my pocket tells. A hundred bucks and she's got me until three. Two hundred more and I'll skip going back home for the night.

She insists I call her by something—"Give me a nickname, Kenneth," she tells me, my 'name' dropping from her polished lips like flower petals—so I call her Lily, because she's wearing a stalk of a green dress that clings to her form wonderfully and her hair is so blond, it's almost white. She looks like a lily flower.

Her perfume smell like them too. Sorta. Like, if you took a bouquet of lilies and dunked them in chemicals, poured that in a crystal bottle and added in car fumes. . .then, like that. She smelled just like that.

When she smiles those red-stained lips of hers, I know she approves. "Lily, hm?" I nod, repeat the name to her, and she reaches into her purse and pulls out a small baggie—half-full with white powder.

My heart lurches with want even before Lily passes it back to me, telling me to take a hit. Just one. To loosen me up because we're going to a party. I gave her a look through the mirror but she just smiles and, fuck, I'm not gonna argue with free score.

I draw a line up on the back of my hand, from wrist to knuckle and snort it all up. I wait for the blast of euphoria I felt when I breathed in Red's stash, but nothing happens. I just sit, idle, feeling nothin' but a burn in my nose from nostril all the to the back of my throat—not that intense ride from before.

Guess it wasn't the right shit after all.

With a sigh, I toss the bag back to Lily, scoot down in my seat and look out the window. Snow pelts the glass, melts there and turns to water; the scenery—familiar buildings with equally familiar faces—drips past like a watercolor in motion.

Lily doesn't like the silence I offer her in exchange for the hit. She taps the brakes and, when I heave forward a bit, broken out of my sluggish thoughts, she shoots me a look through the rear view mirror. Expecting her to start yelling at me, I'm surprised when she says instead, "You look a mess. You need to get cleaned up, if you're to escort me."

I cock an eyebrow. Like, how the hell am I supposed to get all damn ready for a party I had no idea I was going to? Did she think I walked around with a tux stuck in my back pocket?

No, but she had.

With a few quick alterations, and these curious plastic snaps, I'm dressed to the teeth, looking better than I ever had. A few baby wipes later, the dried blood is flaked away and my hair is relatively clean. At least it smells clean, which is a huge step up from what it was.

Lily seems to approve. Kinda. She keeps making this clucking noise as she looks me over and, every now and again, she makes a tiny adjustment of either my suit or my hair. Finally, she steps back, eyes still trying to pick out flaws, but she's quiet, no chicken clucking, and she seems generally happy with my appearance.

She takes my hand and leads me from the gas station bathroom and allows me to pick out something to drink for the ride. It's two hours away, she confesses, on the outskirts of Denver. Which, is cool and all. I don't give a fuck where we're going. She didn't pay me to ask questions. But to act like her escort to some high-end party, I'm guessing.

I really have no idea.

I pick out a Starbucks coffee energy drink, needing the pick-me-up and thinking it'll make me seem a little better than white trash. An approved smile is flashed my way. The drink is purchased, along with another treat—two packs of cigarettes, for me to smoke at my own leisure.

I butt one up the second step to the car.

And I get to smoke the rest of it from the passenger seat, where me and Ms. Lily pass it back and forth between the two of us. We fill the car with our smoke.

Neither of us really care.

Party time.

I can tell that we're close by the faint heartbeat of music trying to pry the car apart. And by Lily's hands, that flutter, flutter like erratic, scared June bugs. Her deep green nail polish catches on the passing street lamps with bursts of shimmering rust and ultramarine—looking like wings.

As we inch down the road, she briefs me a little about what's going to go down. Tell me the part, really, that I'm supposed to play.

"You are to be my lover." No surprises there. I'm a fucking hooker after all. "And you and I are to walk and talk through this party, score us some smack and coke, possibly steal a beer or two for the road, and leave."

I nod in understanding, though I don't see my true part in this act. Why is a lover needed? Surely she could just flounce in, jiggle those luscious money-jugs jutting from the bodice of her dress and snag bags of drugs, along with a few bleeding hearts.

"Be as quiet as you can," she goes on to say, glancing over at me as I light up another cig. After I inhale, she holds out her glimmering hand for a hit and I obediently pass her the fag so she can copy. "Don't talk much. Don't tell anyone what you really are or who you really are." She jerks her chin to the space of seat between us, where a delicate porcelain box sits. "Open that."

I do. Carefully, I'll add. 'Cause this fucking box looks like it costs more than my shit-dump of a house, three-times over.

Inside lay two strips of material. One black, the other a velvety green that reminds me of Kyle's eyes. Before I can think better of it, I reach out and stroke the fabric, rub it's smooth texture between my fingers and want it for my own.

"No, no," my Lily chides. Her hand comes over swatting, littering ash and spewing smoke. "That one is mine, silly boy. See how it matches my dress? You take the black one."

The fabric slips from my fingers. I take the black one instead, realize instantly that it doesn't feel soft and new, and draw it from the box to take a better look.

At first, all I noticed was that it was long and had these weird slits in the center, shaped like stars. It totally didn't click that they were fucking masks until Lily clucked at me—in mother hen mode again—to tie it around my face, like a good boy should.

I look fucking stupid with it on. Ms. Lily, with her eye slits cut in the shapes of clovers, looks like a queen. Immediately, I feel a little more overshadowed by this woman. Her looks, her car, her money, her grand perfume. I'm just a small town boy with a fucked up life, who has, well, nothing but his looks to run with.

No point in asking questions. I've got money in my pocket that's better than any explanation.

We find a place to park relatively close—at least, I think it's close. My skin is jumping from the loud music. The car fucking shakes with it. And there's this weird smell in the air. Like sugar and sour milk. It overpowers Lily's expensive scent.

"Now, Kenneth, darling—" I look at her, giving her my attention once again. "—behave, understand? Us city girls can't go into parties alone. People might jump us for the diamonds at our throats." The one choking her neck is the size of a walnut. I wonder just how much it'd cash out at the pawn shop. "Besides, a pretty face makes other boys jealous. And they'll try to win me with gifts of the really good stuff." She gives me a wink and reaches over to graze her nails over my cheek. "So, you must, must, must be positively charming, understood?"

I snatched her wrist, to keep her hand there and still, and turn my face in her soft touch, spin her wrist softly to press a murmur of a kiss to the inside of her wrist. "Of course," I tell her, pitching my voice in a low, purring mutter, smoothing up the corners of my mouth in the most charming smile I can muster. "I'll be your prince for this evening."

A look up through my lashes tells me I've hit the mark—

—and that I'll be getting much more than two hundred bucks for my cooperation tonight.

This isn't like any party I've been too and, trust me, I've been to more than you'd think.

Blue lights wash the room when I walk in, arm-in-arm with Lily, but they quickly flicker between all hues of the rainbow, so the once cerulean blue room plummets into a purple darkness then blazes back to life in a rush of scarlet that burns my eyes. All in the pace of two bassbeats.

And the people. Holy fuck at the sheer number of them, crammed in this tiny club, vying for the attention of those shifting lights. Woman swish by us in hideously extravagant dresses that dust the floor with glitter as they walk and sweep it up with long, lace-worked skirts. Men with more make-up on than the woman, strut by smelling faintly of musk, sex, and fruity alcohol, dressed up in suits or animal costumes. Both come in all sizes—short, tall, thick around the middle, or anorexic skinny. And everyone is dancing around, throbbing in time to the beat.

"Isn't this fabulous," Lily says at my side. I look at her and she looks so different than before, when she first rescued me from the street-side. It must be the heavy black shadow she smeared on her eyes before she left the car—it makes her seem almost dangerous. Feral. Like she wants to eat out my heart and liver with her too-white teeth.

I nod my head at her. It is fabulous, I guess, in a way. Otherwordly. Alien and foreign. "Yeah. . .It's pretty cool. . ."

She frowns at my lack-luster response and drags me through the ocean of bodies to the thin strip of a bar to order us drinks. The bartender slides her a colorful concoction decorated with flowers and slices of lime. Mine is clear, rather plain looking, and tastes sharply sour and gross. Whatever it is burns all the way down my throat to the hollow of my belly.

The room swims around, moving faster and faster. Then, nothing. Everything seems still. Too slow. I feel like I'm moving too fast.

I down the rest of the drink in a single gulp, slam the glass down on the counter, and ask for another. Lily's smile brightens and I swear she says something along the lines of, "There's my boy." But I'm suddenly too smashed to know for sure—I think the powder has something to do with it.


The bartender slides me another and I take it, nurse it to my mouth like I'm a suckling baby. A sip here. A sip there. I make this one fucking last.

Each drop makes my brain turn into liquid. And I'm swimming around, here and there, following the bubble trail Lily leaves me so I don't get lost. So I don't drown.

The lights go back to blue. Stay blue, blue, blue. And I can't focus on where I'm stepping. Everything is bleeding together, becoming the same blue. The floor is the ceiling; the people are delicate glass cups holding rainbow-colored liquids. It all spills together, blurs, and I find myself melting right along into it.

Right into this pretty, pretty blue.

Lily, oh Ms. Lily, why'd you let me fall in this puddle?

Don't you know I can't swim?

I wake up gasping, lungs craving air, with my heart thudding a steady drumbeat in my chest.

I'm surrounded in cloud fluff. It cradles me, holds me up tight in strong vices of white. I thrash around, trying to get out, but my legs and arms and me entirely feels so heavy and sluggish that I give up. Laying there isn't so bad anyway. It's soft. Warm. Clouds. Why'd I want to get up in the first place. . .?

No. No more moving. I don't need to leave. It's safe here. . .safe and warm. . .and hey, Maw, look, I think I'm fucking flying—

The second time I wake up, I'm throwing up chunks of food I don't ever remember eating all over the clouds. My soggy mess sinks into them and turns them a sickly yellow and makes them smell sour.

With a gag, I dig my fingers into the dampness and rip it away from me, bundle it up throw it to a corner somewhere. Away from me. Get it the fuck away from me.

When I puke again, I manage to pitch it off the cloud shelf and to the world beyond. It hits close by. Confusion sweeps over me, making my head ring, at how that's even possible.

Until, with a few rapid blinks, my world swims into focus and I see that I'm not on a cloud but on a bed, ensnared in satin white bed sheets. I'm not sure how I even got here. Everything from before is a blur. I can't remember shit.

I sit up, take a look around. I'm alone, obviously, in a small ass room that has only the bed, a bedside table with a lamp, and a small dresser in the corner. Nothing else.

I'm still dressed up in my suit, so that reassures me, but nothing else really does. I mean, I don't know how I got here. I don't know where Lily is. I—

I quickly feel up my pockets for my money. It's there, 'cause I'd thought to take it with me, but my clothes are gone, left in Lily's car. She might still be around—I don't know how long I was out—but I'm not going to get my hopes up. Nothing good would ever come from it.

I also find my cigarettes—more than half gone already. I don't know if I should be pissed or not, 'cause I might've been the offender who smoked them all. My lighter I find stashed in the pack, buddied up alongside the ten cigs. I pull one out, set it to my lip and light up.

The nicotine helps calm me, if only for a little bit.

Until the worry about getting home creeps in through the vertebrae of my spine and chills each passageway of marrow in the middle of my bones.

How was I getting home?

By foot? Ha. Seriously, I can't walk two fucking hours in the snow to home. I don't have my parka to bottle up my warmth. And, directions? I wasn't looking at the roads as we drove here but the pretty chauffer to my left, so knowing my way back is a bust.

I pull out the bills in my pocket, recount them. Two hundred and fifty. Fifty? I don't know how I got that but I'm not going to complain about the extra pay. It's enough to bribe a cab to drive me home, with still leaving me enough to pay the water bill at the house. Good.

Folding the money in half, I slip the bills back into my pocket, hide them from this plain room. I notice that my bile is causing the air to smell like acid and alcohol and that the tail of ashes from my cig is close to dropping. I flick the charred end into the soiled sheets because, hey, they're filthy anyway, what's a little ash to that?

"You really shouldn't do that. . ."

I start at the noise, find myself jerking to the other side of the bed, cigarette nearly flying out of my hand. "Fuck—!"

I look towards the door, where the voice came from, and see Red standing there, back to the door, watching me with her dead green eyes. The urge to throw-up returns. I swallow it down and straighten up, putting the shaking cigarette to my lips once more. All I taste is smoke and the sharp slap of bile on my tongue.

"Maids'll have a fit, ya'know, having to clean all this up. . ." She pushes off from the door and takes a step towards me, hips shaking and poking like hills under the cover of her black dress. Her entire body is nothing but a jigsaw puzzle of bones and thin skin and even thinner fabric. When she gets close, I blow the smoke at her, as if it could defend me from whatever she has planned.

"I don't give a fuck," I tell her, then lean back against the headboard of the bed and try not to tense up as Red sits down onto the mattress, her body getting way too close to mine.

Her lips are drawn up in a smile. Looking like death in dress. ". . .Glad to see you're finally awake and talking, baby. You had us all in a tizzy-tizzy trying to get you up here." Us? I want to ask about it but don't. The cigarette is placed back to my lips, burning away all questions with another inhale. "Passed out. Remember? Just toppled over, hit the ground and got trampled by the crowd. We were dancing. Everyone was drunk. We didn't see you. . . .We thought you died."

My expression narrows at that. I can feel my face pull in—lips pressing, eyes narrowing, brow dipping low. I didn't die, they all thought wrong about that. There's no tingle in my new skin, no memory of lights and the clover-scented air that haunts my flesh afterwards like a charm. I don't feel alive. I feel the same as before.

"But, seems we were wrong," she laughs, touching her spine back to the headboard, nails painted like blood-coated daggers plucking at her fishnet tights. If she moves, she might make music with the springs of the bed and the dips over her own vertebrae catching on the wood. I hold back a disgusted grimace.

Until my stomach lurches and I'm flying over the side again, mouth agape, leaking smoke and saliva. Cramping, I heave dryly. Behind me, lurking like a shadow, comes Red's hand, patting at my back, to help coax my body into rejecting yet another round of vomit.

I shrug away from her touch with a snarl, tuck myself back to my side of the bed, scowling at her. She holds up her hands, gestures, sinks away knowing she's unwanted. Her nails flash dangerously. They could take out my eyes, tear my skin, with barely a flick.

"You alright there?" Cooing. As if I'm a baby. "Momma gave you something nasty, didn't she? And, poor baby boy, you sure did earn it, didn't you?"

Confusion colors my frown. What the fucking hell is she talking about?

"It's to be expected," she goes on to say, still voicing her unwanted soliloquy. "You're pussy-footed around stuff like that. And with that drink? Kenny, you're lucky to be awake right now."

"What time is it," I say, ignoring everything else she's spoken. All the words are red as her nickname, her nails, and the blood rushing through her heart. Dangerous. Not to be trusted. "How long. . .how fucking long have I been out?"

Her green eyes flash. I can't name the emotion dancing behind them like flames. "Oh, nothing long. Few hours. Maybe a day. Can't you tell time?"

Now I'm red, heated with an annoyed anger. "Fuck you, bitch!"

I say it, then suck in a breath. Red. I'm talking to Red.

She's the one with the answers. She knows what happened to me. What Lily gave me. The name of the dust she gave me herself.

She notices my change in demeanor, how I become desperate in a split instant, eyes wide with a startling need, want—I'll do anything for another try— and greets the new me with a smile and a simple offer:

"Fuck me and I'll give you more than just answers, pretty boy."

Once she plucks a heavy baggy, filled with powered-white, from between the hot crease of her breasts, I'm there, right with her, jacket thrown off and mouth at the hallow of her throat.

Her offer accepted.

You have no idea how to regret. You may think about it, may believe with every ounce of your heart that you will never be how you were, how you want to be, because you've done something to fuck it up.

But have you ever been forgotten? Lost in the galaxy of someone's head, outshone by other stars rotating out your shine?

Have you ever flickered out, ceased to exist, lost the ability to breathe?

I've died in water. In ice. In fire. In cold earth. With the aid of heavy steel, bright-blue electricity, the lack of air.

The elements hate me. They battle me. Overpower. Consume.

And each time, no matter the cause, the way my inner light flickers out and is goddamn smothered, no one remembers.

I've done things I regret, generally after I come back, when my body is still on pins-and-needles from the return. I'm high off the rush of it and say things, do things so goddamn stupid. . .and they always remember those moments. My bad ones outweigh the good. Scale imbalanced.

But this one moment, spent twisting in sheets with some bitch I hate, breaks the whole damn scale to little pieces.

And I'll come to regret every, heavy second of it, for the rest of my immortality.

The room stinks, smells like sex and musk and cigarette smoke and it makes my head swim, my eyes swim, my stomach swim.

I've never hated myself so much.

I've never been so goddamn weak. I feel like a willow branch, bent back by this wind that wants to snap my spine cleanly along each vertebrae.

Red's the wind. The drug in the little baggy she still won't share's the wind. My own addiction to it would become the storm in the middle. I can already sense it, but, fuck, I'm still begging with my palms up, craving the powder so bad that I'd do a thousand more nights worth of payment in order to snag just one hit.

I wanna fly.

I wanna forget.

Red, please, fucking share.

My lips replace the cigarette at her mouth when she pulls it away and I can taste her smile there. She's so fucking pleased right now—the stench of it can't be masked by what we've just shamelessly done in some random bed, in a random room, in a building I barely can remember.

I'm just hoping it's enough.

And, when she presses a tiny, square weight against my chest, I know that I've won this match and I nearly kiss her again, just because.

"Here, Sunshine," she croons, "You earned it two-fold. Enjoy the rush."

I don't hear it. I'm ripping open the bag, turning away from her to draw up neat little lines on the table to my left. I've got one down, shakily made and wavy from my excited hand, when Red leans across the mattress towards my plot, clucking her tongue like a reprimanding mother.

Flicking her ashes over the side of the bed, she turns her wide, nearly hollow green eyes to my face and shakes her head. "You're doing it wrong," is all she says.

It pisses me off because I think she's making fun of my line, of how it curves along the pathetic gloss of the cheap wood finish. Opening my mouth, I'm about to snap at her, to tell her she can tweak her lines to the shape of daisies and dicks if she gets off that way, but before the words have a chance to slip out, Red's mouth is on mine and the baggy disappears from my fingertips.

Then she's gone, leaning off the other side of the bed to fetch a clutch she's dropped to the floor. Snap, it's open. Her shit rolls out and falls to the sex-stained sheets. Condoms—similar to the one she instructed me to wear before our tumble—and a tiny bottle of cheap perfume. A tube of ruby lipstick. A pack of ultra-slim cigarettes and a lighter. A couple, burnt-looking metal spoons. Two latex strips, like the kind doctors knot around your arm to take your blood.

And a single, obviously used needle.

At once, I'm shaking my head. No. I'm not doing anything that involves me stabbing myself in the tender, fleshy folds of my elbows or the soft skin behind my knees.

But the craving hits me again, makes my bones melt and cramp and my muscles stiff and aching.

If it feels amazing snorted, injected straight into the bloodstream has to be. . .a thousand—no, a million times better.

My hands start shaking again. Red picks up the spoon and the lighter, holds them out to me.

And I take them without a fuss. Because I'm a good boy. Everyone knows that good boys get treats. I want mine now. Now. Now.

The powder melts when heat is applied to the gentle cradle of the spoon; this slightly-blue smoke curls up from it, smelling like sugar and antifreeze. It slides up the syringe easily. Fills it half-full with a brownish liquid that has so much more promise then the dusty lines of the table ever dared to.

Red plays miss Nurse. With a quick, practiced hand, she ties one of the cords around my arm so tight it hurts. My veins pop up, stand out, ready, so ready for this.

"There'll be a little prick, and it's gonna hurt going in, but it's so worth it." Red's sighing out words, doing something with her hands and the needle. Tapping at it. Squirting out just the tiniest bead of the drug to prove the air's all gone. Swiping that little gem from the needle point to rub it into her gums. Not to waste it.


I watch her, fascinated, blood already singing. "It's fine," I tell her. "Just hurry up and fucking do it."

She looks almost offended at that. I can tell by the way her thin brows shoot up her forehead, up into the bangs of her deep-red hair. I almost worry she's not going to share with me, but, just as I thought it, she leaned into me, and I feel a prick.

Afterwards, I'm gritting my teeth and turning my head and knowing this was a fucking bad idea.

She's injecting straight fire into my veins—fire that's like a slow-moving syrup in my bloodstream. Clogging it up. Preventing my blood from fucking flowing right.

My arm cramps. Hurts so fucking bad. Why'd I agree to this? Why did I fucking agree to this?

Red takes the needle from my arm, holds it up, thumb tapping against the plunger as she watches me. Waiting. Her eyes look narrowed, pupils feral slits. Like a cat who's just trapped her prey under a massive paw and has hooked her dagger-sharp claws into its ribcage.

I feel sick. Bad idea. I shouldn't. No. Oh God, what have I done? I'm so stupid. Why did I even come here with some woman I didn't even know? I'm so worthless. Pathetic. No wonder I always have to die. No wonder my life is already the hell enough to keep coming back too.


Swallowed in crystal blue. Pleasure rushes, in, out. Fills me. Makes me burst. Pop! Pop! The bubbles taste like marigolds. Pain makes me see flashes of pretty pink. And everything feels so damn good.

I think I moaned aloud 'cause Red's laughing at me. And it's such a nice laugh that I find myself grinning at it, finding whatever humor she had. Then she's moving towards me, another kiss that tastes awfully sweet on my tongue, and then she's gone again, probably to fix her own hit.

The sharp smell of the blueish smoke caresses the inside of my nose, floods my vision up with blue, blue, blue. I was right. The thought makes me giddy. Right. Right. So goddamn right.

Come join me, Red. Swim up and down in this too-bright blue. Breathe it in with me. Don't let me drown alone.

And she's there, soon enough, and we are laying together, head-to-head on the bed, grinning up at the chipped paint of the ceiling, at the cracks spider-webbing out in-between. She's laughing under her breath, I think, though the sound is like wind chimes to my ears.

I think I love the sound.

Or I fall in love with it. Right then, when she laughs again and looks at me while she does it. She's happy. So happy. Her face splits in half she's so damn happy about everything. I copy her. Copy, copy cat and there goes my face. It's broken in two and has slipped to the floor, lost in the carpet and our laughter.

The night throbs with my decisions. The ones I've just made and the one that aches under my skin now, making me feel angry and sluggish, like my blood can't move so my muscles can't contract and so the marrow in my bones has dried up to dust.

The aftermath is the worst. I'll learn that lesson better later on. But right now, I'm getting another taste, another quick, hard sip from the glass. It's taste like lemons, I think, but I can't tell over the cheap-lipstick and burnt sugar flavor of Red still assaulting my tongue.

I don't remember how, really—because my memory is just achingly blue and pictures are dyed with it, wrung out of shape, flat and 2-dimensional—but I manage to get home. I have a theory that Red, who's probably used to navigating through the lapis high, is the one who called the cab and took me to my shit-dump house on the wrong side of town.

I wake up on my bed, at least, and not some foreign clouds that stir a sickness in the center of my belly. No puking this time. Just teeth-grating pain and a headache that feels more like my brain is being handled by a jackhammer.

Was it better? No. It sucks worse than vomiting out my insides. But, still, in a way, in a really small, microscopic way, it's also better. 'Cause I know what did it. And I know how to care for the packet of the drug hidden away in my pocket.

I can do it again. I think that and my skin tingles and my mouth parts and I crave it right then.

But I don't move from the sheets. Not yet. My head hurts too bad. My eyes don't like the colors of the room. The browns, the greens, the dried redish stains—what are these colors? They're not my blue. I miss my blue. But I don't want to go dive into it too fast and get lost in that blue alone.

Red's not here—and for the first time I find humor in her name. Red. Red. She's a color. The first color. Red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet. Red, red, red. I bet she wants to be my color. Wants to fill up my world with her hue. But, sorry hun, I don't like your shades—I want—need—something cooler to handle.

The clock beside me says it's well past noon. Or is that midnight? The curtains are drawn and the sunlight—or the moonlight—is blocked from my sight. I guess that means I have to get up. I don't want to. My body protests but my head says yes so I get up and my legs are jell-o. I last maybe, like, three seconds before I topple down, fall into the flatness and springs of my mattress.

It kinda hurts, but I just laugh, because look at me. Fucking look at me. I can't even get out of bed right. I can't even remember what walking is.

Try two ends up the same. Third-time's-a-charm helps me stand longer. The sixth becomes my lucky one and I manage to snag my hand against the bedside table before I swoon. I stand there, clutching at it, until my head clears some and, when I take a step, I don't stumble so bad.

I creep to my window. Pull back the shades. And wince at the sun. Fuck. I draw them back real quick, eyes watering from the white. I don't like white. Or yellow. And the world's bloated with it right now.

I turn to go back to my bed and manage a wobbly step towards it again when I hear her, yallerin' outside my window. I grind my teeth down, annoyed. I have to go face that blinding color again and I hate Pussy for it. Stupid fucking cat. Stupid retarded animal.

She's probably starving or whatever and it'd be mean to leave her out in the snow. What a fucking bother, I think, parting the curtains with squinted eyes and throwing the damn window up. What a fucking bother.

There she is, my little Miss, sitting in the snow, looking up at me with big, saucer-plate kitty eyes. "Meow, meow," I coo to her. Her tail goes swish-swish before she jumps up, purring and arching up, wanting my hand.

I grab her and throw her into the room, slamming down my window and snapping the curtains into place.

If a cat could be offended, Pussy is it. Her tail swells up, fur all sticking out like someone had thrown her into the dryer on the tumble cycle. Her mouth is parted too, fangs poking out and menacing and I think I can see hurt coloring her big eyes. I've never hurt her before.

The thought catches me, twists around me, snaps my manner back into place. I threw her. Fucking threw her. The cat who loves me. The cat who I spent my cigarette money on. The cat who is my only friend. And I got so fucking mad at her. FOR NOTHING!

I scream with agony inside my head. What's happening to me? What the fuck is wrong?

I drop to my knees and hold out my hands, call for Pussy, hoping she'll come to me so I can check her bandages and pet her and say I'm sorry, I'm so fucking sorry. I watch her static tail go swish-swish again, twitching against the carpet, hearing the promise of a growl in the back of her throat. But I don't move and I keep crooning to her, because I love her and I don't want her to hate me. I couldn't stand it if she hated me.

It feels like forever, but, eventually, Pussy steps over to me and rubs herself against my hands. She isn't purring anymore. But, hell, it's a start.

She's fine. Pussy is. Her wounds look better, with that crusty-look of healing. I bathe her anyway, gently scrub around the scabs so I don't peel them to soon and dry her off with the only towel more carefully. I smear more of this stuff on her that reminds me of petroleum jelly that has stuff packed into it to make the healing process go faster. I think it's for humans only. But it seems to be working on Pussy just fine so fuck the label.

Our bathroom door doesn't lock. Hasn't since the time Dad kicked the doorknob out when Mom ran in with baby-Karen and littler me and big bother Kevin. We hid in the bathtub, behind the drawn curtain that smelled like mildew and old showers. I remember feeling safe, like Dad couldn't find us behind it. Ever. It was strong and it would stand his hits and kicks and we would crawl out when he got tired to run away, into the snow, gone away from the house.

Anyway, I push a bucket in front of it, one half-full with leaky roof-water that rains down when the snow melts, so Pussy was stuck in the bathroom with me and wouldn't wander around. Dad could see her and now that thought terrifies me. I must be coming off the drugs. Or the after-effects of them. Thank God.

I decide to shower. The water won't stay hot for long, but when it's spewing down fire, rinsing the memories of Red and her filth and of that drug that sent me to the blue skies of Heaven down-down-down the drain in a tiny, quick moving tornado of water.

We got nothing but soap in the shower and I use it to scrub at everything, till my skin is raw and red and sore with cleaness. I rinse off, watch the suds snow into the water, then cut it off, get out, and dry off quickly.

Pussy's in the sink, taking a cat-nap. I say her name and she cracks open a bright eye—the other is still swollen but not as bad as before—and makes a little noise. I touch her behind the ears then scoop her up, holding her to my chest. Her fur skins to my wetness but she doesn't squirm away or sink her claws into my like I thought she might. Just lets me, as if she knows I'm sorry and that I wasn't Me when I came home.

We leave, hide back in my room. She nibbles on kitty food as I slip into a clean pair of underwear. I lay down on my mattress and stare up at the cracks in my ceiling, thinking. When Pussy has her fill, she comes to me, lays next to me and I stroke my fingers down her matted, medicated fur, dodging her cuts.

It's boring and quiet.

It's normalcy.

I remember this one time, I was sitting in the bathroom, ass in a puddle, bubbles in my hair, fingers wrinkled like a geezer's. I wasn't miserable. I was fucking happy. So happy. I had a grin on my face and it didn't leave for days.

I think it was before the door broke. I was littler, Karen was a baby, but I got to give her a bath in two-inches of water, three-inches of bubble-gum bubbles. She had the bath filled up with toys and toys, but you couldn't see them. They were all at the bottom, hidden by the foam.

She kept smiling. "Pway, pway!" And I would play, making the mermaid dolls swim, the ducks 'quack', the fishies squirt little streams of water onto her big, baby cheeks.

It was the first time I ever got the chance to give her a bath. By myself. No Momma taking up the water and bubbles with her, holding Karen away from the toys as she scrubbed tearless shampoo into what little wispy hair she had. And I was so proud. Despite the water that got everywhere. Despite the fact that I got soaked too. Despite the fact I got so caught up in playing with Karen that I forgot to wash her right and she came out smelling like bubble gum all over instead of that baby shampoo.

Momma didn't get mad. She smiled, real big, and it stretched up and up, getting in her eyes so they shone like green-green stars. She said I did good. Then cleaned up the water before Dad could see the puddles swamping the floor.

He ended up seeing them, stepping in them with his socks, which absorbed it like white sponges. But he didn't get mad. Not enough alcohol. Not enough hate. Not yet. He was still full of love for baby Karen and her baby cheeks and her baby smiles. That's why she had so many little toys. All throw-aways, of course, or picked cheap from the Good-will, but she had more than me or Kevin did—and what we did have went to her anyway. Our hot wheels cars and G.I. Joes were sunk at the bottom of the tub, buried beneath bubble-mountains.

I don't remember falling asleep.

But I'll never forget waking up.

Pussy yowls, poking her tiny kitty-claws into me enough to hurt. I don't know if it was the pain or her voice that lures me from sleeping, but I'm up and I'm in half a panic. What was wrong? Was anything wrong? Why did my head hurt so suddenly?

"Where the fuck have you been?"

I jump at the voice, skin stretching as my skeleton tries to leap free. Something explodes in my stomach—a bomb of fear that leeches the stamina from my startled bones. They sink back into place with a marrow-deep ache.

I'm in trouble. The air stinks of it. My old bruises flush different colors on my skin, shift around to make more room for the ones about to come.

Dad stands in the doorway. I smell the beer now, too-late. How'd I sleep through his storming down the hallway? How long have I been out with him shadowing at my door, watching me sleep with Pussy curled up in my arms?

There's another bomb, another flash of white-hot fear and I'm jumping up now, scrambling to stand up and grab Pussy before Dad has the chance to lumber over and beat me to it.

He's faster though. When did he get faster than me? I think back to the drug and wonder if I'm still crashing from it, muscles fatigued and tired.

He jerks up Pussy by the scruff of her neck, pinching hard with his fingers, making her yowl and hiss and sputter. Her wounds look so ugly in this lighting, all crust and puss and I ache for her.

Trying to be quick, a joke that all my muscles are laughing at, I jerk my arms out, fingers just barely grazing across Pussy's matted fur. "Let her go!"

I get punched in the face and I hit the dirty carpet before I can comprehend the fall. Vertigo rushes at me, spinning me, causing me to forget which way is up. Outside, worlds and worlds away, I can hear Pussy cry out and something thumping towards me.

"What the hell is this?" Spit rains down on my face, like acid. I screw up my face, blink away the dots of color, and find the etching of my Dad's rage looming above me, purple and red and deadly.

I try to scramble to my feet, to solider on in front of him, to prove that I can still get up again and again no matter how many times he breaks my bones or pops the blood vessels beneath my bruised hide, but I stumble and end up falling on my ass again.

"'s my cat. Let'er go, she's hurt-" How can I sound like that? Slurred, watered down. From the drugs or the blood welling in my mouth, slipping inbetween my teeth, staining them with gore.

At least my gaze can't waver. I stare him down, the only act of defiance I can manage without trying to move or speak.

He isn't impressed, and why should he be?

Pussy writhes in his grip, all fur and cuts and leaking puss. Somehow, she sinks her claws down flesh, deep enough to make him feel it, deep enough to make him bleed.

Swearing, he strides over to my window, jerks it open, and throws my cat out into the snow so hard and sudden, I think the world has forgotten how to twirl.

He used to smile all the time, like his face didn't know how to do anything else. He had the strongest hands and he always smelled like oil, grease, and iron. He used to give us hugs, remembered to pack our meager lunches, and sometimes would come in at night, when we cried out, to check the closet for stowaway monsters.

Then we grew up, Mom gave us Karen, and we realized that he had been the one hiding there all along. He was the monster, the sharp-toothed boogie-man in the closet.

His claws were sharp and made of steel.

I don't remember passing out, but who really does.

My head is spinning, regardless, a washer on high. My guts feel like there swimming around and, when I spit, congealed blood comes out.

The room is quiet. Outside of my walls, the snow may be falling, or the world ending, but all I hear is this odd ringing in my ears, high pitched and endless. I wait for something to break it, a cough from another room, a yelping car horn from the street, but I don't get any relief.

So, I pull myself up and shuffle to my window. It's closed now, something else I don't remember. I throw it open again, thrusting my head out into the evening. All around is snow and silence.

No cat.

Not even a smudge in the snow.

I wonder where she's gone or if she's still around and just buried beneath the fresh snowfall.

Barefooted and gloveless, dressed in boxers and a thin tank top, I dive in.

Do you know how quick your skin will flush when you submerse yourself in particles of ice?

Two-point-eight seconds, approximately.

I'm raw-fleshed already.

People walking by probably think I'm stoned and, truth be told, I don't fucking know if I still am or not. My head's swimming in a pool of blank memories and lost time. All I know is right now, I'm terrified that my cat is laying out in the snow, broken or bleeding or fucking dying because my Dad chucked her out of my window.

I spend what feels like an hour shifting though the snow trying to find her and all I come up with is snowballs and frostbitten fingers.

Shivering and depressed, I climb back into my room, bury myself beneath my worn comforter, and try to find some solace in sleep.

I don't dream about anything.

Sometime during the night, I wake up crying and craving.

Red's a pretty sight today. She's dressed up in another one of her swallow-me-whole dresses. It's blue. Not baby-blue, but a rich navy that sets off her hair in this weird, mesmerizing way. If it were washed, she'd look a million times better. But I don't tell her that.

"Jones-ing, baby," she asks me, cocking a bony hip against the doorframe. Behind her, some strangers look like they're having one hell of a party. One I suddenly want to be a part of.

I turn on the charm, max it out on high, exactly like how I want to be. "Only for you," I smile, scratching at the side of my face. It itches like a bitch and hasn't stopped all day. For some reason, that makes Red smile back at me, or maybe she's smiling at my smile like she caught it off my face.

"Come join me." Her hand catches my arm and drags me inside.

It wasn't the same caliber of party me and Ms. Lily had attended, however long ago that was, but there was good music and a lot of grinding dancing going on. The air stank like sweat, you know, with undertones of something sweet that sent my stomach rolling.

Unable to wait, I push Red into a wall. I kiss her, hard, tasting her cheap, cherry lipgloss. My hands go to her breasts, groping them through the thin blue fabric of her dress, the only thing on her that hasn't been affected by what she's hooked me on.

"Please." I'm almost desperate enough to beg her on my knees. My fucking skin won't stop itching. "Please, Red, share."

Her eyes are my manacles, locking me there, a medusa in her stare. "What do you have to trade for it?"

"Anything. Name it." I don't have anything to give, I want to shout at her. Nothing but the parka on my back and the dick in my pants.

When she glances down between my legs and reaches forward, bony hand sliding down the front of my crotch, I know which one she's claiming as her price.

Momma hasn't stopped dancing since morning.

She's so pretty, red hair done up in knots, dress the perfect shade of green. The music from the radio can't keep up with her. It tries and tries, but Momma just out-dances each song that comes on, leaving the cheap black box breathless.

We're dancing too. Me, Karen, and Kevin. None of us really know how to dance. We shift our feet and jump, down and up, down and up, flapping our arms and trying to mirror Momma and how she glides.

Karen can barely walk. Kevin doesn't really seem too interested.

But I try, I try, I try.

And I try so good, that Momma smiles her secret smile at me and tells me I'm a star.

I miss her.

I miss her and Karen and my cat.

I miss talking to Kyle, being his friend.

I miss yesterday, when things were easier to handle.

I miss a lot of things. But I'm pretty sure I've told you that already.

Morning bitch-slaps me awake with the brightest, bloodiest sunrise I've ever seen. The sky fucking looks like someone has gutted an entire army of people and decided to recycle the gore up amongst the clouds. It's pretty, in this morbid way. But it kind of makes me sick too.

Admiring it only lasts a second. I memorize the shapes and swoops of the clouds, the high arch of color and blood. And then I fall back to Earth, crashing through the layers of crust and mantel, and my body is cramping and aching and I fucking don't remember where I am.

Something shifts next to me, sighs and murmurs sleepy words. I look. Red's there, naked and laying above the sheet, her skin mocking a healthy glow beneath the eastern light.

My heart flutters.

Or maybe that's my stomach.

I puke afterwards, violently, staining the carpet all over again, so it was probably my stomach.

When I'm through, I lay back down next to her and close my eyes against the light.

It feels like I'm sleeping with a skeleton.

Things happen fast after that. You might think that time would slow down, go like molasses tipped out of a jar. But it doesn't. It flies by, tick-tock, the clock's on hyper drive.

Everything is drugs and Red.

Drugs and Red.

My skin smells like her now. Cheap and sickly-sweet.

Drugs and Red.

My two loves, my two needs. Them and her.

I need them more, but she's the only way I know how to get them. She knows that's the only reason I come by anymore, to fuck more drugs out of her. But she doesn't complain. She just takes it, spreads her legs, and passes me handful after handful of that delicious white powder.

Sometimes I snort it, sometimes I inject that liquid fire straight into my veins, sometimes I chase the dragon and drink down it's smoke.

Sometimes I'm gentle, sometimes I leave bruises, sometimes I make her bleed.

It's the same either way:

Drugs and Red.

Sex and drugs and sex and Red and mornings when I can't even remember my name.

It feels like a day has gone past, that's it, nothing more, before I leave Red (pockets loaded down with Better) and go back home.

Turns out, I've been missing an entire week.

My Dad isn't too happy. He yells, he throws punches. My skin's too hard now and each hit glances off of me, leaving no damage. I think he can see the change in me, how I've grown eight-feet tall and sprouted daggers out of my fingertips, because he suddenly stops.

He stays out of my way.

Nearly giddy, I go back to my room, fall down on my bed, and pass out all over again.

I dream of fucking Kyle against my bedroom wall.

When I wake up, I reward myself with a few white lines of heroin. Breakfast for my body.

I start to tingle all over, feel nice and strong. I could get up and punch out the wall, that's how good I feel. I can turn the sun upside down and not get burned. I could grab the moon from the sky and use it as a coaster.

I don't fucking know what I'm thinking about anymore.

All at once, I remember my dream. I remember how Kyle moaned and moaned and came and came and, fuck, now I'm horny, thinking about it. Heroin probably helped with that.

For a while, I wait, but I don't get hard. Bummer. I could've used a bit of fun before I rolled out of bed.

Disgruntled, I rise, rubbing at my face. Flakes of something drift off, brown and nasty-looking. I vaguely wonder when the last time I had a shower was before I decide it couldn't hurt to take one now.

I go to the bathroom and it looks funny to me. Like, not right. Like. . .Like someone took my memories of it and switched a few details so it almost is perfect, but not.

Oh well. Doesn't matter. The water that runs from the shower is hot and not brown or anything like that, so I wash myself clean as I can (there's soap, what a treasure) and get out. Dry off. Dress again. You know how showers go.

I hit up the kitchen next, digging deep down into the fridge for some actual food. There isn't anything, really. Just beer and leftovers older than I am.

I find a bottle of ketchup three days from expiring and take it to my room. I pass Dad on the way. He's laying on the couch, but I don't look to see if he's awake or asleep or dead.

He doesn't say anything to me anyway, so why should I care?

There's only a little bit left in the ketchup bottle, not even a fourth of it. It's sour going down, burning a little, too much vinegar for my taste. Still, I drink it all and my stomach cramps and takes it and probably wonders why I don't eat real food.

I wonder right back at it and ask when's the last time it's had a real meal.

It doesn't say anything because it can't think of an answer.

I do more heroin while it's quiet. Then I take another nap, and when I wake up, I call Craig and ask him to get me some weed.

He hangs up on me. I'm not surprised.

Two days later (I think), I find Pussy outside my window.

She isn't meowing anymore, or purring either. And she definitely isn't hungry.

I thought I'd smelled something funny.

I kick some snow over her so I don't have to see.

I don't know how long it's been now, I'm losing track of days and nights. Everything kind of blurs together when you're fucked up most of the time. I'm not that fucked up, but sometimes I get my hours confused. Whatever. This happened after I found Pussy, I guess. Like a while after.

I know because I found her again and this time her bones were starting to show. I kicked more snow over her, to hide her this time. No body wants to see that every morning. I sure as hell don't.

It was mid-afternoon, I think. Cold, bright. Normal Colorado weather. I'm bundled up in this dirty sheet, fighting against the chill, trying to nap but not getting anywhere. It's almost peaceful, I guess.

So, you know it won't last.

I hear footsteps in the hallway. Dad's, I assume. My door gets thrown open and that pretty much seals the deal—then I notice him, thin, be-freckled and a mop of deep red curls on his head.

Fuck. Kyle.

I sit up, rubbing away the grit at my eyes. Stupidly. The moment I do it, my body hurts and I just want to sink back down and try to find sleep.

But I won't look weak in front of him. Never have. Never will. Fuck the clich—s but they're clich—s because they're true.

"What?" My voice breaks, sounds frail and gritty. I've only spoken to Red these past few weeks, and then, not even her. She's more into the language my body speaks, not my mouth—though sometimes that gets her off too.

He doesn't say anything. Just stands and stares. At me? At my room? I don't know. I meet his eyes but he looks away. They've never seemed so green—apple flesh in summer trees, green as green can be.

"What do you fucking want?" I'm in no mood. There's a baggie beneath my pillow that's making lover's calls at me. I want to dive in again. It's only been an hour and I'm already ready for another hit.

Funny, I never thought I'd say that and mean it.

More staring, more scrutinizing. He's scouring my skin with his eyes and I feel exposed, naked, lain out for him to inspect my insides. Probably seeing just how fucked up I am, deep, deep down, past the layers of orange parka and hide.

"You look like shit," he says. I know he means it, but for some reason, I laugh at him, because it's the stupidest thing I've ever heard.

"Fuck you. I don't give a shit what I look like." I grin; he frowns, staying close to the door. Afraid? Maybe. Maybe I'm terrifying now. And look like fucking hell.

"What the hell has happened to you?"

Bullets in the shapes of words. The hit me, bouncing off. My skin is steel now. I don't feel a thing.

"Why do you suddenly care?" I snap back and there, I see it, that glimmer in his eyes. The apples are decayed, leaking and disgusting.

Hurt. I've hurt him.

He tenses, straightens and I can see the effort quivering in his jaw as he clenches it firm. Do I feel bad? Almost.

". . .I'm your friend, Kenny," he mutters, like a lover would. All soft and quiet. I pick up his syllables and rearrange his words, and, still, I don't believe him. "And you need help, that much is obvious. . ."

"Help? Help?" Suddenly, I'm standing, yelling at him. My body is shaking, my arms jerk and spasm at my sides. "If you wanted to fucking help me, where the fuck were you all these goddamn years? Where were you when my mom left? Where were you when my dad started using me for target practice? Where were you, Kyle? Where fucking were you?"

My bedroom has never been so quiet. The world has never known this kind of silence. Not since man came along, making all his noise.

It feels like forever before he says something. But I'm getting my hours confused and my minutes are muddled and slippery. But this is what he tells me, it's the same now or then or six hours from now:

". . .I was right beside you. The entire time. Don't you remember?"

I'm thirteen again, standing in my mom's room, watching solemnly as she packs in a rush. She stops when she sees me. A bruise bigger than the moon rests on her cheek, dark and new.

Seeing it terrifies me. Seeing her, nervous and flying around her room, terrifies me.

She comes to me, holds me in her arms and squeezes, pressing the last of her strength inside me, lodging it next to my heart, an ember of apology. "You'll be okay," she whispers into my hair. "You'll be okay until I'm come back for you. I will come back. I promise. I promise, Kenny."

The next morning, her and Karen are not in their beds.

The house is full of ghosts.

It's the first time I've seen my Dad cry.

It's the first time, too, that he slams his fist into my ribs, trying to knock out that strength Momma left in there for me.

I'm at Kyle's now, nursing my bruises. I'm not stupid, I don't show him, but I ask if I can use his shower. I make up some lie about broken pipes, lack of shampoo—I don't know, something—and he shows me to the upstairs one, the one he and his brother uses.

He tells me I could use his shampoo, if I wanted. Then left me there to do what I needed to do.

A home cooked meal was waiting for me when I got out, hot and steaming and so good I nearly cried.

I ate it on Kyle's couch, sitting next to him, and we watched something stupid on tv. Just us.

No parents, no siblings.

No Stan.

A year later, Momma still hasn't come back. My birthday comes and I don't get anything. No birthday wishes or a cake or even presents. I don't care. All I want is my mom, my baby sister, and to get out of this stupid house.

My friends stop by later, with a misshaped cake and apologetic smiles.

Kyle lights my candles.

I blow them out and wish for him.

First day of high school and I forget to pack my lunch. I don't have any money (not anymore, cigarettes aren't cheap), so I resign myself to wait until I get home to scavenge.

Kyle splits his sandwich with me and buys me a coke.

I've had a rough night, filled with abuse and whoring and bad booze. I mange to trek into school, to put up with the florescent lights and the babbling noise of people, but I haven't done a fucking bit of my homework.

He finds me during the free time before the bell rings and slips me a few papers. Notes, answers to the homework. Relief.

He's the first person I tell about my cat.

He smiles and I think he loves her just as much as I do.

Did. . .


Don't you remember?

Don't you?

I don't say anything to him, just stare at him back with broken baby-blues. I notice that funny glimmer again, then, nothing. Hard green instead of bright. He's not happy. Well, tough shit, neither am I.

". . .You're pathetic, you know that?" He tells me like I don't already know, like it isn't tattooed on my skin or scrawled down on my birth certificate. "Goddamn pathetic. And fuck you. Fuck you."

He storms out of my room and doesn't look back.

I let him go, too tired to deal with any more of it.

I should have ran after him. Should have begged him to help me. To help me get better. To remind me of times when he could have loved me back. To tell me the days and the minutes so I know where I am and who I am and why I fucking matter.

But I don't.

I lay down. I sleep. I dream of something that doesn't stay and I think I dream of him. Of his hurt, of my stupidity, of the scabs on my face and arms because I can't stop scratching.

Waking up and taking other injection helps. For a minute. Then I crash, feel like shit, and I hate myself even more.

I dig into my skin. I want to rip it off.

Someone rip it off for me.

I want to wear something new.

I'm tired.

Tired of fighting, tired of breathing, tired of telling you my story.

Don't worry. It's almost over.

The story? Yes, that.

But I was talking about everything.

I was talking about me.

I'm almost over.

Over the weeks, the days, the hours, the minutes, I only get two more visitors.

The first is just my Dad, peeking in at me through the cracks in the walls. I would almost say that he looks concerned and almost frightened of me now, acting like a Dad should. But I'm not that high. Not that fucking stupid.

Still, I see his eyes sometimes at night, when I've climbed in through my window like an addicted cat and slink not-so-quietly to my bed to lay down, usually exhausted from the night. And Red.

She's getting more demanding as of late, playing off my need for her little baggies full of snow. I give into her every time, no matter what she asks. I give it to her and more, just for another taste of momentary bliss.

It's effecting me, I know this. Some people, when they get addicted to something, don't realize just how bad they got it. But I do. I do. It makes me feel stronger knowing that I can still tell myself apart from the old me.

I don't want to change back to him. I like how my life is now, the addict says, gapped-toothed and grinning.

The second visitor, though, is really two people and they alone almost make me buckle and turn back to the old ways.

But even they are unfamiliar and liars all the same.

She comes in the morning, still small and nervous, with brown hair like Kevin's, like Dad's. It hangs to the middle of her back in a braid, secured with hot pink ties. She looks clean and freshly washed but she doesn't look comfortable in her clothes, which seem as new as the fear in her eyes.

I roll over when I hear the door open and stare and stare. My heart sinks. No, it does more than that, it shudders to a halt, right there in my chest, a chunk of misshapen stone.

Her tiny hand flutters—no, not tiny, just small now. She's grown these last few years, into a girl. Into a stranger. Not the same little girl I built mountains in the bathtub for her G.I. Joes to hide beneath.

I wonder what I look like to her eyes.

". . .Kenny?" She bites her lip, scared. "Brother?"

I snort at her; her body jerks up, surprised and then, again, terrified. "I haven't been a brother in years. Don't fucking call me that."

With effort, she ignores that and takes a valiant step towards me with her small, princess feet. "You're face. . .What did you do to it? Did you fall?"

She doesn't understand. Or she doesn't want to believe I've sunk so far and low beneath the surface of her idea of me. Where was her protective older brother who would fight for her and hide her from the Monster's seeking fists?

Long gone. All the way at the bottom of the ocean.

"Why the fuck are you here?"

Her face scrunches up, her lip pinched between her teeth again. "Momma said. . .we came to get you," she says, whisper-soft, watching me with wide green eyes. She looks like Momma, just with bits of Dad thrown in to make her both of theirs. The arch of her nose, the splash of freckles against her cheeks, the shape of her eyes.

Sick, I roll over, giving her my back. "Go away. I don't need you anymore."

From behind, I hear her start to cry, softly at first, then all at once.

"But you have to, Kenny! You have to or Momma says you'll die! You can't! You can't!" There's tears in her words, thick as the ones streaming rivers down her face and to the floor. I don't turn, but it takes everything in me not too. "Please! Momma says you're sick, that's all, that Daddy made you sick—She wants you to come back with us. To live with us again—we can find Kevin too. We can be us again. A family!"

She's so smart it makes my head hurt. And passionate. She wants this, me, this false picture of an actual family to exist in her life.

But it won't.

She won't fetch Kevin away from his own kid and his wife.

And she won't get me to move from my bed, which has acted more like family than everyone in the world combined.

It's stayed with me for years and years, comforting me when I hurt or felt ill, lulling me to sleep, being a constant presence throughout. Not my Dad. Not my little sister, who I loved so fucking much that I would have died for her (maybe still true). Not my Mom who promised me in tears and forced smiles that she'd be back for me.

"Please, please, please. . .get up, Kenny—Come back with us—" She's sobbing so hard, she's sucking in air, sloppy, wet noises accompanying each inhale.

I let her cry.

Even when she's begs me to turn around to just look at her, I let her cry and cry and cry.

I'd let her cry for three fucking years before I got up to hug her, to dry her eyes.

Three years before I could start to love her again.

Momma's next. She doesn't smile, doesn't frown. She just looks blank.

She says two words to me: "I'm sorry."

For what, she doesn't elaborate.

I feel her standing there for a long time, waiting, but I don't give her anything but a view of my back, my spine rising up through my parka, mountain ranges against the fabric.

Maybe a year passes before she ushers Karen out and they go back to the world they came from, leaving me for alone for a second time.

After that, there's no point in anything. I follow the same routine: I get high, I run out, I find Red, I fuck her stupid, get more drugs, repeat repeat repeat.

One night, I crawl out of my window and decide to never come back.

I leave everything but the clothes I'm wearing; a ghost doesn't need material things.

I won't tell you where I went. I won't tell you how I'm doing. I won't write and tell you lies inked on pages and pages of letters. I won't give you hints or clues or addresses to find me by.

There's no point.

Think about it, long and hard, and you can probably figure it out.

But don't bother.

Because you'll just come, say things to me I don't want to hear, and then leave when I don't do anything that you want me to do.

I'll admit, it's been nice, talking to you for so long. You're probably bored of this or have stopped listening entirely.

You probably already left me too.

And, you know what?

That's okay.

Because I don't blame you.

You don't have to apologize.

I probably would have left me too, if I could've: Long, long ago—way before the start of this stupid story.