Phoenix Suicides III

Over the course of the New Year, Archer was spending more time in the gym, as the Elite Eight now seemed right around the corner. Earl had taken to venturing into the gym more too, though he avoided another match with Archer. When Zoe some free time, she would come watch Archer workout. Archer spent a great deal of time sparring with Javon, or going through combos with Tom. However, when Archer saw Daeron in the gym, he stopped everything to watch him workout. Archer and Daeron had no beef, but the two did not engage besides nodding at one another as a way of greeting. Daeron got to work with his trainer immediately.

“Gonna fight him or just stare at him?” asked Earl from a punching bag nearby.

“You should pay attention to your bag, Earl,” said Archer. “Otherwise you’ll get KO’ed when it swings your way. You know you fall asleep faster than a newborn.”

Earl grimaced at Archer and mouthed “fuck you” to him. Archer smiled and then turned back to watch Daeron.

Tom tapped Archer on the shoulder. “Earl has a point. Either fight him or get back to work.”

Archer glowered at Tom. “I want to fight him. I just need to know how he moves. I know he’ll be in the Elite Eight. If it comes down to us two, I want to beat him this time.”

“You’ve been in the ring with him three times,” said Tom. You should know him by now. Watching him go through basic routines isn’t going to help you learn anything you don’t already know. Let’s get back to work.”

Archer didn’t immediately obey. It took every ounce of effort in him to turn away from the silent Daeron, who was focused on his workouts. Archer got back in the ring with Javon and continued to spar. However, he took a few more lumps than usual, and even got knocked down once. Everyone stared. Archer had a cut beneath his left eye. He turned to Daeron, who was paying him no mind. He growled and got back to his feet, but Tom called an end to the spar.

“You’re heads not into this and that’s getting it beat in. We’re done for the night,” Tom said.

Archer growled again, took off his gloves, threw them at Tom, and left the ring. He silently stalked into the locker room, glancing over at Daeron as he passed. Archer thought he saw Daeron’s green eyes flash his way as he passed, and yet Daeron still didn’t miss a beat in his training. Archer entered the locker room, bitter. Archer didn’t notice Earl smiling behind his back nor Zoe’s look of concern.

Archer was sitting on the new couch he purchased. His mind had been on Daeron again, only his frequent bathroom trips had finally distracted him enough to google “frequent urination.” He was reading the top results.

“Hm,” he hummed, “could be overactive bladder syndrome from too many ab workouts. Could be bladder cancer.” He contemplated that for a while. It made him think of his grandfather. “Guess I better take Tom’s advice and lay off the abs for a while.”

When he heard the keys jingling in the door, he quickly locked his phone and stuffed it in his pocket, and pretended he was watching the television.

“Hey,” he said as Zoe entered. “How did the exam go?”

“I don’t know.”

She looked morose. Archer rose and walked into the kitchen to meet her, placing his hands on her shoulders. “I’m sure you did fine. You always do. Here, do you want a drink-”

“I don’t know what we are.”

Archer froze where he stood. He was simply looked at her. “Do you want a drink?” he asked again. “I made you a Screwdriver this morning, but you didn’t drink it.”

“What are we Archer?”

Archer stood paralyzed. There was a tingle in his extremities. “We’re…” he paused. “Roommates, right?”

“We share the same bed.”

“Is this about the sex?”

“Why is everything about sex with guys!”

“I don’t mind having sex if you want to have sex.”

“No normal guy says he ‘doesn’t mind having sex’ when he wants sex. He says, ‘let’s fuck.’”

“Yeah, I’ll just be like the rest of those assholes you’ve dated because that seemed to work out so well for you.”

“At least I don’t take out my anger for my exes on punching bags like hitting things will make everything better.”

“No, you just think that by being stuck up and creating a wall between you and men, that you’re protecting yourself from more heartbreak. News flash, you’re just creating an illusion that you’re in control and can’t be hurt if you don’t let anyone in.”

“Don’t let anyone in? You show your sparring buddies more passion than you’ve ever shown me.”

Archer took a step forward and got right in her face. She doesn’t back down, staring coolly back into his eyes.

“So, you want passion?” He asked. His voice had changed. It was low and soft, barely more than a whisper. So had his demeanor.

“Just shut up Archer!” screamed Zoe. “Shut up! This isn’t some boxing match! I’m not Earl or Javon or Daeron. Don’t talk to me like I’m one of the guys beating your head in everyday, just so you can take out your anger!”

Archer stepped back away from her, out of the kitchen. “I don’t fight because I’m angry.”

“I don’t give a damn why you fight! You can be fighting for world peace, I don’t care! Just don’t kill yourself doing it!”

“You don’t understand. I don’t fight because I’m angry. I fight…” he broke off and looked around the tiny apartment for a moment. She didn’t understand. She couldn’t understand. She didn’t even notice the anime in the background painting the crimson picture of his desires. To fight a glorious battle. One he could be proud of. To a worthy opponent like Daeron. Not losing some trivial battle to cancer like so many people these days. He recalled his grandfather, a legend in the city. His greatest battle was fighting to breathe, as the cancer had eaten away at his lungs. He just wanted that one fleeting instant. Whether it was victory or defeat. The first and last thing anyone could say about him. But he couldn’t tell her that.

“I fight to feel,” he said

“Feel what, exactly?”

“I don’t know. Something.”

“And me? What do you feel about me?”

Archer stared at her across the room. The only light was from the TV. She was half a silhouette, half an illuminated angel.

“I don’t know.”

Zoe picked up the glass of forgotten orange juice and vodka and threw it at him. He dodges it at the very last second and it crashes against a wall. The glass shattered against the wall and the drink splashed everywhere, painting the wall, the couch, the back of the man standing dumbfounded in the living room.

“Tell me how you feel!” Zoe said.

“I…Zoe, I –!” Archer began but he couldn’t finish his words. But it didn’t matter. Zoe had turned on her heels and left the apartment without another word, although Archer was sure he’d heard a sob as the door closed.

On Valentine’s day, Archer waited in the bathroom for Zoe that morning, who was shocked to find him there.

“What are you doing in here?” she demanded.

“It’s the bathroom,” he said smiling.

“You’re never up this early.”

“I’m always up before you. I simply pretend to be asleep to give you your privacy while you get dolled up.”

“And today?”

“I just wanted to see you without your makeup.”

She simply stared at him. “And?”

He smiled. Admittedly, her golden skin was a little pale, almost gray-tinged under the bathroom lights, but she didn’t look any different than how she usually looked with makeup. He smiled and walked out of the bathroom to make her morning Screwdriver. Zoe looked at it after she finished her makeup, then set it back down and left without a word. Archer watched the phenomena with a blank expression. He noticed a weight in his chest he didn’t usually feel when dealing with Zoe. He opened his vial of pills on the table and took one.

Not long after Zoe left, Archer received a call from Tom.

“What up doe,” Archer said.

“We have a problem,” Tom said. “Can you come to the gym right now?”

“What’s going on?” Archer asked.

“Just come to the gym. I’ll explain everything there.”

Archer was worried again. It wasn’t like Tom to sound so stressed.

“I’ll be there in fifteen,” Archer replied and hung up. He threw on his gym clothes and rushed out of the apartment, but not before taking another pill.

“They can’t do this!” said Archer.

He was reading over the paperwork Tom had given him, his face incredulous.

“They just did,” Tom said, shaking his head.

“This is bull!” Archer said. “I already have my hands licensed! But now I have to pay for promotion and health benefits and all this other crap just to fight in the regular circuit! That’s not even getting into the Elite Eight! This is going to take all of the money I have saved up and then some!”

“I know, I know,” said Tom, placing a hand on Archer’s shoulder. “How much have you got?”

Archer thought for a moment, “about twenty-five hundred, give or take.”

Tom nodded. “That’s not too bad. I take it the bills aren’t a big issue.”

Archer shook his head. “A bit. Buying the new couch was a minor setback, and Zoe cut back on her shifts to study more for the bar exam, so I’ve been paying more than usual on the rent. But I also cut back on shifts so that I could train more for the Elite Eight — that I now have to pay for qualifying rounds and medical expenses just to participate in.”

Archer hung his head. Tom grabbed him by the back of the neck.

“You can still do it. We’ll take off training on weekends so that you can pick up those shifts and make more money. You only need to win two more fights to qualify for the Elite Eight. You just have to make sure you save every dollar and you’ll be fine.”

Archer nodded. “I’m supposed to be surprising Zoe with dinner tonight.”

Tom looked at him seriously. “Are you two official yet?”

“I…I don’t know.”

“Well what’s more important, a dinner you can do any time, or winning a tournament you’ve been training your whole life for?”

Archer looked up and stared into Tom’s eyes. It was easy for Tom to say. Boxing was his life. And at the end of the day, all Tom had was Javon and Archer. But Archer had Zoe, and that held promise.

“Yeah,” said Archer, nodding. Over Tom’s shoulder, he noticed Daeron reading the same paper he was with his trainer. The mahogany eyes met the green. Would their fists meet too?

Zoe’s wore a smile as she sat across from Archer in a restaurant they’d never visited before. It was more upscale than the quaint cafe they usually frequented, with private booths so that patrons couldn’t be disturbed, save for by their server. Archer was happy that she was happy, but his smile was wan.

“Thank you for bringing me here, Archie!” Zoe said.

“No problem, Zoe.”

“What kind of drinks do they have here?” Zoe asked.

“Nothing hard. I was going to order a Pinot Noir.”

“Ooh, fancy!” Zoe said.

Archer smiled again. This time, Zoe noticed that there was something off about it.

“Are you okay?” she asked.

“Fine,” Archer said, looking around.

“You know you’ve never been good at lying to me,” Zoe said.

“Guess it’s a good thing I never lie to you,” Archer said, he smiled a bit more genuine now.

Zoe smiled back. “I’m sorry, about the argument about ‘us’ the other day. I was just –”

“It’s fine,” Archer cut across. He paused for a moment. “It’s not that I don’t feel anything for you. It’s just that I don’t know how to tell you.”

“The truth is usually the best option,” said Zoe.

Archer smiled again at that. “Then you should know how I feel.”

Zoe’s head tilted to the side as she regarded Archer. “I suppose so.”

They ate and drank in relative silence until Zoe suddenly exclaimed, “Oh yeah! I got the internship!”

Archer looked up with wide eyes. Then he smiled. “I expected no less.”

He called for another bottle of wine. They were all smiles and laughs. Until the bill came. Archer’s face fell at the damage.

“Is something wrong?” Zoe asked.

“No,” Archer said.

“Is it too much? I can pay my half.”

“No.”

Archer reached into his pocket and pulled out a couple hundred-dollar bills. He placed them under the wine bottle. Zoe looked concerned but Archer raised his glass in a toast. “Happy Valentine’s Day, Zoe.”

“Happy Valentine’s Day, Archie.”

Their glasses kissed.

“You haven’t been to the bathroom once this entire dinner,” Zoe said after downing her drink.

Archer smiled. “I laid off the ab workouts.”

“Good,” said Zoe. We can’t afford to get a bigger place if you’re paying hospital bills.”

Archer smiled wanly again.

Over the next couple months Archer was out of the apartment more often than not. Zoe noticed that he didn’t go to the gym on weekends, but was picking up shifts at the bar, sometimes working doubles. He barely spoke to her, generally being asleep whenever he was actually home. He was so worn out that he nearly overslept for the second of his scheduled qualifying fight. Archer muttered “wassappenin?” when Zoe roused him.

“You’re about to be late for your fight!” Zoe said.

“Dammit!” Archer said, pushing himself off of the couch and going to the bedroom to get dressed. Archer returned with his shorts on backwards and a t-shirt thrown over his torso to see Zoe reading some crumbled papers he’d been using as a pillow. Her brow is furrowed.

“What is this?” Zoe asked.

Archer froze.

“Just some paperwork I have to turn in for my fight.”

“Archer,” began Zoe slowly, “there are expenses on here. Charges for medical care. Charges to even fight. Is this why you’ve been overworking yourself?”

“It’s nothing, I really have to go,” Archer said.

“Archer,” Zoe said. “You barely have enough money to pay for food these days. Why do you need this so bad?”

“Zoe, I really don’t have time to talk about this. I have to go. We can talk after –”

“Here,” said Zoe, throwing the papers at him. “have fun killing yourself in the ring.”

“You’re not coming?”

“No. I can’t watch this anymore.”

There was an anime playing in the background of the room. Archer nodded, turned and left the apartment.

Archer barely won his last qualifying fight. Despite his performance, he was still ranked second to win the tournament overall. Javon was fourth, Earl third, and Daeron the favorite to take it all. After the fight, Archer and Daeron locked eyes. Archer had bags beneath his. Daeron’s were full of determination. Archer left the ring, Tom rubbing his shoulders and encouraging him that he’d win everything in the end. Archer nodded, told Tom to take care of his paperwork, taking his gloves off and dropping them in his bag, which he slung over his shoulders and walked out of the gym. He didn’t even get in his car. He simply began walking.

Archer got back to his apartment after midnight. It was dark and empty. He checked the bedroom. No Zoe. He into the living room and sat on the couch. On the table was an envelope. He picked it up and found a note inside:

Here’s the money you need for admittance into the Elite Eight. Good luck. I’ll be at Gwen’s.

           

Archer pulled out a piece of paper. It was a check. Archer looked at the amount on it. He crumbled it in his fist and threw his head back on the couch. He didn’t sleep, the silence was beating his head in too bad like a gloved foe.

Archer had taken two weeks off before the start at the tournament, at Tom’s behest, though Archer didn’t need much urging. At the tournament, his body was well rested, but his mind was on the fact that he didn’t spot a red head in the crowd. The tournament was designed so that each fighter would have three fights, with the winners advancing into the Finals, and there were two consolation rounds for those that won at least one or two fights.

Archer’s penultimate match was against Earl. Daeron awaited in the Finals. He didn’t have to fight third match as his would-be opponent was injured in his prior fight. Earl was smirking at Archer.

“Hey Archie, where’s Zoe?”

Archer ignored him.

“Dumped ya, did she?”

Archer ignored him.

They walked forward to the center of the ring. Earl was still smirking. “Who knows, maybe Zoe will date a real guy like me now, and you can have Daeron, who you’re so obsessed with –”

The mention of Zoe got Archer’s blood boiling. He didn’t touch gloves with Earl when the ref called for it. When the bell rang, a brawl began. Archer didn’t seem to be thinking about strategy or even dodging. He was purely on offense. He and Earl were simply throwing flurry of punches at one another. This went on for five rounds. In the sixth and final round, both men, worn out, bruised and bloody, staggered into the center of the ring and began swinging again. In the final twenty seconds, both men threw punches. Archer, recalling his training of dodging and sticking, as well as a glass of vodka and orange flying at him, ducked one of Earl’s punches at the last second.

Only he dodged the wrong way and got caught by a hook.

Archer’s punch landed flush against Earl’s face. Both men stumbled back and dropped to the mat. Archer was vaguely aware of the referee counting as he lay on his back. Why am I getting back up? He thought as he began to push himself to his feet. It would be so much easier to stay down. Why am I even fighting at this point? For what? For a medal? For pride? He’s using the ropes to pull himself up. The ref is in front of him, asking him if he can continue. Archer nods automatically. Why did I nod? Why am I fighting. Before they told me, I needed an outlet for my anger. Then hitting that bag became my passion. Then I got this dream of going to the Olympics to be a champion. But for what? I remember wanting to impress, but I can’t remember who I wanted to impress to begin with. Was it you, Gramps?  I always envisioned my end would be in the ring. Not in a hospital bed, fighting for air. But after so many fights and wins, came the boredom. Where was the challenge? I want that rush back. That thrill that I only get when I’m throwing hands with someone, I call my equal or better.

He looked at Earl who was also back on his feet.  He is not my equal. The ten second clappers sounded somewhere from far away. Archer and Earl advanced on one another one last time. The thrill I seek is through him, Archer thought, thinking of those green eyes. But as he threw a punch that rocked Earl, he saw a vision of red and recalled another thrill he had that he got from only one person. One he might have lost forever because he was here.

Earl had been rocked but didn’t fall. He stood back up and seeing Archer preparing for one last punch, retaliated with his best counter.

He spit in Archer’s face.

The bell sounded but Archer didn’t hear it. All he heard was raging red current in his head. He threw a barrage of punches at Earl, who retreated into the ropes. Archer was beating every inch of him he could and had to be restrained by several officials. He vaguely heard the ref disqualify him. He was beside himself. Tom was holding him back in his corner, yelling, “calm down! It’s over! It’s over!” Archer watched as the ref raised Earl’s hand, who looked his way, smiling. Archer felt cheated. Robbed. How had the ref not seen the spit?

While Tom argued with the ref, Archer left the ring with blood still rushing in his head. As he made his way to the door, he locked eyes with Daeron again. A meaningful look passed between the mahogany and the green. Daeron nodded and Archer returned it. Archer then turned away. He made his way straight for the door and disappeared through them into a blazing sunlit world.

Archer was on a beach far removed from his tiny apartment. He was wearing a pair of tropical colored swim trunks as he lay back on the sand on a towel under an umbrella. The accessories that adorned his upper body were his sunglasses and a watch, which he had checked frequently for the first couple of hours he’d been there until he dozed off. A book was beside him: Moby Dick. The laughter of children running across the beach roused him. He looked at his watch again. It was already after six in the evening, yet the sun was still blazing. Late he thought. He’d been on the beach for several hours.

He rose from his spot under the towel and walked to the water’s edge. He stuck his hand in his pocket and pulled out a medal. It was bronze. Third place. He stared at it as if trying to vaporize it in his hands. The waves lapped against his feet, cooling them. The sound was pacifying. He looked up at the sun on the horizon. He then wrapped the ribbon around the medal, took aim at the sun and tossed it as far as he could into the ocean. It landed with a soft plop in the water, several yards away.

“Well that was stupid.”

Archer did not turn as he heard the voice behind him, but his mouth did twitch a bit as its soft tone played on his ears.

“Yeah, well, I’ve done a lot of stupid things lately,” he said.

Zoe stepped beside him and looked out at the water. “Well, I always was the brains of the operation.”

“True. I’ve been completely lost without you.”

The waves crashed one over the other at their feet.

“You were following your passion,” she said after a moment.

“I was obsessed.”

“Everyone needs a hobby.”

“With the wrong thing. It almost cost me what means the most to me.”

“Your looks?”

“Well if you have the brains, I have to have something.”

The waves were singing a soft tune and the children’s laughter rang was like a melody.

Archer rummaged in his swim trunk pockets and pulled out a crumbled piece of paper. He handed it to her. She took it and looked at it with her brow furrowed. She then looked up at him.

“You shouldn’t have to pay for my obsessions. And won’t anymore.” Archer said. “I’m sorry.”

Zoe stared at him as if meeting him for the first time. “I know.”

The world seemed quieter as their eyes locked.

“I found out who stole our couch,” Zoe said.

“Should’ve brought it here so that we could sit on it and watch the sunset,” Archer said.

“Fine, you’re the brawn of the team too. Is that what you want to hear?”

“Or did someone have the sex on it?”

“There were a couple of stains on it.”

“Damn, we can’t use it when we get a bigger place then.”

“Third place pays out that much?” Zoe asked.

“More motivation to do better.”

They both turned back to the horizon.

“Ya know, I don’t think it went that far out,” Zoe said after a moment.

“What?” Archer began, but before he could finish, Zoe had stripped and had begun to walk into the water in her bikini. When she got deep enough, she dived under the waves. Archer watched and waited for what felt like an eternity but soon he saw fire dancing on the waves of the ocean against the sunset. It was the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen.

Phoenix Suicides II

Zoe sat beside Jenn in the gym a couple of week later. They were a part of the crowd waiting for the fight between Archer and Earl to start. Archer was leaning back in the red corner, wearing an apathetic expression. Tattoos adorned his golden arms. Earl called from the other corner, “I’m going for the knockout this time, Arch.”

            Archer’s expression didn’t change. He turned to Tom, who had been whispering instructions in his ear, and motioned for him to take his mouthguard out. Tom did. Archer turned back to face Earl across the ring. “You’re not going to beat me, Earl. You’ve never beaten me, and you never will. I know you’ve been training the past two weeks for this fight. Waste of time. You can practice 999 punches, for 999 days, and just when you realize that this still not enough, and you go for 1000, I will still beat you, because I am 1001 times better than you. Nothing will ever change that truth.”

            Earl simply stared at Archer as if he’d already decked him from across the ring. Then a mutinous look crossed his face. Tom motioned to put the mouthpiece back into Archer’s mouth, but he shook his head. “Don’t need it,” he said. “Do you want headgear?” he called to Earl. “You should wear headgear.”

            “I don’t need headgear,” hissed Earl, spitting out his own mouthguard.

            Archer nodded in a “suit yourself” type of way and swaggered to the center of the ring. Earl rushed to meet him, getting in Archer’s face until the ref separated them. Archer merely looked down at Earl, smirking. He easily gave up five pounds to Earl, but Earl was rock solid, whereas Archer was leaner. The ref told them to touch gloves. Archer raised his fists and Earl tapped them with more force than necessary. Archer raised an eyebrow and grinned wider. The ref called a start to the fight.

            After it was over, Archer stood over an unconscious Earl, his fist raised, the bored expression still on his face.

            Jenn turned to Zoe, saying, “well, at least he’s not all talk.”

            Zoe nodded. “Far from it.”

            “Have you been to all of his fights?” asked Jenn.

            “A few. They’re all the same.”

            “I take it you mean he wins all the time?”

            “He’s lost twice. He drew once. All of those fights were against his friend Daeron. He’s never beaten Daeron. But those were his best fights, by far.”

            “How did he get so good? Years of practice?”

            “No,” said Zoe. “He was a psych major. He knows people. He studies them, psychs them out and goes for the ‘sweet-spot’. He knows exactly where to hit you to knock you out. He’s very skilled athletically, but his mind is why he’s most lethal. He once beat up one of my ex-boyfriends who had stalked me to our apartment. He was banging on the door, yelling my name. Archer answered it. My ex said, ‘who the fuck are you?’ Archer simply hit him three times until he was on the floor with a broken jaw and said, ‘the guy that lives here.’ He had to get his hands licensed after that.”

            Jenn nodded silently as they began to rouse Earl. Archer even helped him back to his feet. “It’s ironic,” she said after a moment.

            “What is?” asked Zoe.

            “You seem to know this man well. Yet he seems more engaged in the ring, than he does with you.” Jenn turned to her smiling genially. “At least from what I’ve seen.”

            Zoe simply stared blankly at her, then composed herself into a smile. “Well you haven’t seen much of us.”

            Both Archer and Zoe’s birthdays were close to Christmas; Zoe’s was on the twentieth of December and Archer’s the twenty-first. In order to avoid hearing complaints about having to spend money on gifts and the time consumption of holiday shopping, they celebrated their birthdays on New Year’s Eve. This year, they decided to have a small get together in their small apartment. The place was overcrowded with barely a dozen people there. Archer did all he could to help Zoe enjoy the festivities, constantly keeping a drink in her hand to distract her from her upcoming exam. However, he had his own worries, like his frequent trips to the bathroom, despite the fact he drank little. The crowded apartment wasn’t helping his mood.

            Earl had come, though Archer didn’t remember inviting him. He was alone, and had possibly drank more than Zoe, whom he seemed to be avoiding. He cornered Archer as the latter emerged from the bathroom.

            “Where’s Jane?” asked Archer, looking around for Earl’s tall fiancé.

            “Jenn? We broke up,” said Earl. He had a dark look on his face.

            “Oh,” said Archer. “What happened, if you don’t mind me asking?”

            “We argued and she said some things,” started Earl but he broke off. “It doesn’t matter. It’s done now.”

            “Sorry to hear that,” said Archer, patting Earl on the back. “Well, Shoot Your Shot 2016 starts in about five minutes, and you have about-” he took a quick head count, “-six women here to choose from.”

            “You didn’t count Zoe.”

            “Thought you didn’t like Zoe?” asked Archer.

            “She talks too much,” responded Earl, glaring at her across the room.

            Archer stared down at him the same way he did in the ring. “Zoe is strongly opinionated and has a way of getting under people’s skin and beating them into submission with words, but she’s a good woman.” Earl looked up at him and saw the look in his eyes. “And besides, if fate brought you and Jane together, it was fate that broke you apart.” He smiled. “Excuse me while I get ready to lead the countdown. And don’t forget to shoot your shot.”

            The revelry after the ball dropped reached the pitch of sporting event. Archer had popped a Xanax, which had led to him drinking more than he usually did. Zoe had taken one too, just to try it. Eventually the two were reenacting dance moves from the “Hotline Bling” video, much to the delight of everyone else. They even did their own version of several songs, which people recorded and posted to their social media pages. The party didn’t start to die down until after 3am. Archer had visited the bathroom a dozen more times, then went into the bedroom where Zoe was already laying down, taking off her clothes.

            “Oh,” he slurred. “Didn’t know you were in here. I’ll come back-”

            “Noooooo, Archie!” squeed Zoe. “Come take a picture with me!”

            Uninhibited by inhibitions, laid beside Zoe, their heads on the same pillow, as she snapped a picture.

            “I look really stupid in that one,” he said as they reviewed it. “Don’t upload it. Let’s take another one.”

            They lay there until inhibitions no longer revolved around taking pictures but simply lying beside one another, talking and laughing, until soon they were lip-locked again. They didn’t even notice as Earl, the last person to leave, peaked his head in the room:

            “Hey Arch, your – Oh.”

            But what he saw made his mouth fall open in a dopey, still half-drunk way and his eyes widen like a lemur. He backed cautiously out of the room, slid the door back closed, and raced out of the apartment, slamming the front door shut behind him. It didn’t even disturb the tenants, who were too far gone.

            Archer awoke first the next morning. He had a headache and felt all the symptoms of a hangover. Rolling over, he saw something red on the pillow beside him. He realized it was Zoe. He blinked a couple of times, then looked around the room. They had fallen asleep next to each other. In the same bed. That much his brain could process. Scattered images of the previous night played across his mind, some more bizarre and simply ludicrous than others. As gently as possible, he slid out of bed and tip toed unnecessarily across the carpeted floor, praying he still had some vitamin waters or orange juice in the fridge. When he exited the sliding door, however, he saw that his apartment living room had been renovated without his consent. Or at least something was missing.

            “Hey bab…Zoe,” called Archer, staring at the large space of living room.

            “What?” groaned a voice from the bedroom.

            “Do you remember selling the couch last night?”

            “What?” she repeated.

            “The couch. Did you sell it?”

            “No.” She sounded half dead.

            “Did we give it away to a friend?”

            “Why would we…no! Why are you asking?”

            “Because we’re missing a couch.”

            There was a great rustling of bed covers and pounding of feet against carpet as Zoe raced to the door, almost bulldozing Archer out of the way.

            “What the fuck,” she said, looking at the space where the couch had been, annoyed. However, she had moved too fast and her body swayed on the spot. Archer caught her to hold her steady.

            They both looked at one another for a moment, then burst into laughter.

            “Those assholes stole our couch,” Archer chuckled. “And after we sang and danced for them and everything!”

            “I guess we should start making some calls to see which of our friends did it!” Zoe giggled.

            “Those were your friends,” said Archer, mock serious tone. “You call them.”

            They laughed some more.

            “It’s fine,” Archer said as their laughter died down. “I’ll buy another couch this week. I’ll sleep in the sleeping bag until then. We just won’t be inviting your friends over anymore,” he added, grinning.

            “Well,” started Zoe, “We could share the bed.”

            There was an ostensible silence so deep, you could hear the snow falling in mounds outside. Archer looked at her and blinked as he had when he woke up beside her.

            “It’s really no problem. I can buy a new couch in a few days,” he said again.

            “Or we can just share the bed.”

            The snow was playing a beautiful symphony outside.

            “Okay,” he said.

            The staring continued. Archer’s face was hot. He looked back to where his old bed had been.

            “Do you remember anything from last night?” asked Zoe slowly.

            Archer turned back to her. “A little bit of it. Not much. Had some weird dreams.”

            “Yeah. Me too.”

            They were staring at one another again. “I can’t believe they stole our couch,” Archer said.

            “It’s almost like they wanted to force us into the bed together or something,” said Zoe.

            “They must have thought that would help us have the sex,” said Archer. “Convenient.”

            They locked eyes again and broke into laughter once more. Then Zoe unceremoniously vomited all over the floor, right at their feet.

            “Well thank god you missed the carpet,” Archer said, going to the closet for a mop.

Phoenix Suicides I

“How can you hate Romeo and Juliet, but ask about that?” she demanded across the small table. She nearly spilled her vodka cranberry on her textbook.

“How can you hate Drumf and not know him personally?” he replied calmly. He was reading a paper.

“So, you’re a Drumf supporter now?”

“No. Are you a Shakespearean scholar?”

“Drumf is a dick.”

“So was Shakespeare.”

“So, you have something against dicks?”

“Maybe figuratively. Not my own, of course.”

“Homophobe.”

“I don’t see how.”

“I don’t see how your Drumf reference was related but did I question it?”

“You’re in Law School. You should question everything.”

“I questioned why you don’t like Romeo and Juliet but you’re obsessed with that.”

“I don’t see how that’s related either.”

“You sure your degree was in English? Not Poli-Sci?”

“I hated Shakespeare as much as I hate Drumf.”

“What about Edgar Allen Poe?” she mocked.

“You mean to tell me you’ve never thought about it?” he asked.

“No.”

“Never?”

“What normal person thinks about that?”

“I think about it,” he said quietly.

“I’m sorry. I amend my previous question to annex: constantly?”

“Why not? It’s inevitable.”

“But why?”

“I don’t know. I’m not god.”

“Gee, I hadn’t noticed.”

“I’m just saying, I think everyone thinks about it from time to time.”

“You’re romanticizing it.”

“Maybe only my version of it.”

“It’s not normal.”

“I’m not saying I’d do it. On purpose anyway.”

“Goodnight, Archie.”

“Don’t call me that, Zoe.”

“Goodnight.”

She downed the rest of her cocktail, rose from the small table they were sitting at in the living room of their one bedroom apartment. She went through the door into the bedroom, shutting the door behind her. Archer noticed that she didn’t lock it. His mouth twitched.

“My pills are in there!” he shouted just loud enough for her to hear.

The door to the bedroom slid open. Archer waited for her to toss the vials of pills out, but she did not oblige. Grinning to himself, he entered the room. He was back out and on the couch in a few moments. He opened the capsule, poured a green bar into his palm, and downed it with a swig of water from a bottle. He then laid down on the couch, curled under a blanket, and watched anime, waiting for the effects of the pill to kick in. He was entranced by the action but did not miss hearing the lock on the door click. His mouth twitched again. He fell asleep thirty minutes later.

Archer and Zoe were roommates of six months, living in a single bedroom apartment in the downtown area, just off the river. They had attended the same university, and graduated the same year, although Archer was three years her senior. They had become acquainted when a mutual friend introduced them at a party, “on a Wednesday,” as Archer constantly reminisced. When they first met, they spoke very briefly before exchanging contact information. Both had been on the tail end of bad break-ups, though they did not immediately share the details of those break-ups with the other.

Archer graduated with a degree in Psychology. However, at present, he was a bartender at one of the local nightclubs. He was cordial, and found that whether they were drunk or not, people seemed to tell him their problems as easily as they tried to rationalize them in their own heads. Archer did not mind bartending – he felt it was a type of counseling in itself – but he didn’t like working weekends, as he has a strong aversion for crowds. During the day, he mostly spent time boxing. He was an amateur boxer “as a hobby.” His grandfather, a former prize fighter, had gotten him into it. However, he and his trainer constantly discussed participating in an intercity boxing tournament, the Elite Eight, next spring.

Zoe had a degree in Criminal Justice and a minor in Political Science, though she hated politics, much like her roommate. She was currently attending law school at a small university in the intercity. In order to help pay her part of the bills and mostly her tuition, she waited tables six nights a week at a posh restaurant in the suburbs. She had a small circle of friends (more than Archer anyway) and went out for drinks with them on nights she got off work early, only to return home and have a nightcap before bed. She was a shopaholic but did all of her shopping online, as she could not stand the clutter of stores. She woke up each morning a couple hours before Archer did, to do her makeup and hair. Her hair was dyed red and fell naturally straight down her back. Like her roommate, red was her favorite color.

“You were talking in your sleep again,” Zoe announced the next morning, as a way of greeting. She picked up the Screwdriver Archer had prepared for her and downed it in one.

“You could hear me through the door?” asked Archer. He didn’t even look up from the paper.

“I went to the bathroom in the middle of the night.”

“What was I saying?”

“Same thing. Something about ‘next year.’” She was already making for the door.

“Hm,” hummed Archer. “I was dreaming about boxing.”

“Are you going to be at the gym tonight?” she asked. She already had a foot out the door.

“For a few hours. I have to be ready for the Elite Eight. I thought we could go to that little cafe up Woodward, after.”

“We always go there. Find somewhere different.”

The embers of her hair flashed and disappeared as she shut the door without waiting for a response. He smiled as he returned to the paper. He didn’t even bother to ask why she hadn’t simply gone through the bedroom door that lead straight into the bathroom.

“You always order spaghetti,” said Zoe, looking at Archer over her menu. He’d just returned from the bathroom.

“You always order a Mai Tai,” replied the other, leaning back in his chair and looking out the window.

They were in the little cafe they had agreed not to go to.

“We should have gone to the Mad Hatter,” she said.

“The Mad Hatter’s always crowded.”

“We come here all the time.”

“You drink all the time.”

“So.”

“You know what that does to your liver.”

“Gotta die of something.”

Archer grinned but before he could speak, Zoe cut him off.

“Don’t start,” she said. She downed her drink.

They decided to move in together six months after graduation. Neither could stand staying with their parents – or mother in Archer’s situation, godparents in the case of Zoe – longer than they had to. Not after they had experienced the wonderful freedom of college. Neither had found jobs in their field yet, but that was to be expected in the case of Zoe, who still had a few more years of school to do and the Bar exam to pass. Both had already been saving up and planning to move anyway, but Archer had pulled the trigger first and moved into the apartment. Zoe simply asked, “want a roommate?” She offered to help pay half the bills. Archer was opposed to this notion at first, as his mother and grandmother taught him “a man provides” but there was the matter of them being “roommates.” He agreed to let her move in.

What they had not planned or expected, was the sex that followed that night. They had drunk and ate pizza, watched a few crappy scary movies on a streaming app, and then somehow had ended up lip locked. After, they decided the sex was good. The next morning, they argued over who would get the bedroom. Zoe was stubborn to a fault, but Archer, in a fit of bullheaded chivalry, yelled “just take the damn bed! I’ll sleep on the couch!” Zoe, not used to being beat into submission, especially by Archer, relented and took the bedroom. They did not have sex again.

Archer was at the gym one night, when the first autumn winds were gusting outside. His trainer Tom, was putting him through the motions. Tom often complained about training Archer, because Archer “learned too quickly.” He also didn’t like Archer’s obsession with working on his abs. Tom had a son, Javon, who was a few years younger than Archer but was one of his regular sparring partners.

“She’s texting you,” said Javon.

Tom called for a break and Archer took his phone, reading the words “I’m about to quit!”

“You’re always about to quit,” Archer typed back.

“I’m just gonna say fuck it and dance on somebody’s pole.”

“You can’t dance.”

“I don’t NEED to be able to dance. Just sell guys a fantasy.”

“Can you buy me Jays with those fantasies?”

“Typical. I can be making thirty racks a night and instead of a bigger place, you want shoes.”

“I like our place.”

“I’m going to quit!”

“You never do.”

Archer put his phone aside and started to put back on his gloves when he got the next text.

“Thank you.”

He stared at it for a moment. “No prob.” he sent back.

He almost had his glove on when the next text came through: “We should have gone to the titty bar the other night.”

He laughed. “Next time.”

Halloween was Archer’s favorite holiday, and as always, he dressed as the Joker. They were stopping by a friend’s Halloween party, where they couldn’t stay long, because Zoe needed to study for an exam the following week and Archer didn’t want to be in a crowd too long. What Archer expected to happen, was status quo: they’d go; she’d drink a lot; he’d get drunk; she’d drive home; she’d drop him in the bed and take the couch to study for the night. She had consented to dress as Harley Quinn, only to appease him. She had originally intended to go as a stripper, but Archer argued, “no one would get it.”

Things were going as expected: Archer was drunk after his third drink, the first thirty minutes in. Zoe was on her fifth and was holding an animated conversation with her old college roommate, Gwen. She was supporting Archer, who’d just returned from the bathroom, propping him up as easily as if he were a cut out. He was no heavyweight by any stretch of the imagination, but Zoe was too used to this scenario.

“Archie and Zoe!” called a voice through the crowd!

The two turned, Zoe with an annoyed expression, Archer as bemused as you can imagine, and a camera flashed, blinding the two of them momentarily.

“Hi Earl,” said Zoe, as a guy dressed as a pimp approached, arm in arm with a rather curvy woman.

“I didn’t expect to see you two here!” said Earl. He was short, muscular, and had curly hair to go with his dark skin. The woman he was with was carrying her heels in her hands.

“We know all the same people, Earl,” replied Zoe.

“Hi Earl,” slurred Archer.

“A little punch drunk there, buddy,” said Earl, actually punching Archer on the shoulder. A tap but Archer took the message. “You gotta be able to handle more than that, champ!”

“Maybe you should lace up the gloves and we can go a few rounds,” said Archer.

Zoe turned from Earl to Archer and was staring at him with a quizzical expression.

“And hit you while you can barely stand?” asked Earl, laughing. “That’s no fair!”

“You still haven’t learned the rules of engagement,” said Archer. “That’s how you win.”

“I’ll have to get back in the gym,” said Earl, his smile a bit fainter. “It’s been a while since we sparred. Should be fun to see how good the future champ has gotten,” said Earl, grinning a bit.

“Yeah, the punching bag is getting boring,” answered Archer. “I need one with a bit more resistance.”

“So, Earl, who’s your friend,” asked Zoe, smiling a bit too wide.

“Ohhhh yeahhh,” said Earl, all smiles and laughs again. “Speaking of engagements–” he winked at Archer, “-This is Jennifer. We’re getting married next August.”

“Oh!” said Zoe. “How lovely!”

The women smiled genially at one another, which fooled Earl, but not Archer. However, Earl went on, “so when are you two gonna tie the knot?” he asked.

Neither Archer nor Zoe looked at one another. “We’re roommates,” they said in unison.

“Oh,” said Earl, and he drank from the cup he’d been neglecting for the entire conversation.

“How cute,” said Jenn.

Again, the women smiled at one another.

“Yeah, the moment, I saw Jenny Bear, I just knew she was the one for me,” said Earl, standing on his tip toes to kiss her cheek. “A real gem. We were destined to be together. And she can go more than a few rounds, I can tell you that!” exclaimed Earl, laughing and winking at Archer as if they had an inside joke between them.

Archer deigned to smile back and said, “I hope you can go the distance with her.”

“Oh yes, sex with Jenn is great!” said Earl. “Never disappointed. Neither of us. Really that’s how we maintain such a great relationship. A regular fuck buffet.”

This time, Archer and Zoe did exchange looks.

Zoe put on a smile. “So, how did you meet?”

“A party,” said Jenn. “I won a twerk-fest. Earl here was on me before any other guy could move. We talked and he personally paid me to dance for him. After that we…well, you heard him. We’ve been together since.”

“How long has that been?”

“Going on four months,” said Jenn.

Zoe nodded and began to sip her drink.

“So you and this Archie-”

“Archer.”

“Archer. You’ve been roommates for how long?”

“Almost eleven months.”

“Oh!” says Jenn dramatically. She looks at the wobbly Archer, then lowers her voice to whisper to Zoe, “He appears to be an arrogant one. Earl tells me he rarely loses a fight. How do you handle a man like that?”

Zoe’s smile fell. “You just gotta grab him by the nuts and say, ‘nigga shut up.’”

“Oh!” Jenn said. “I wouldn’t…I would never–!”

“Call Earl a ‘nigga’?” finished Zoe. “Then he’s not doing something right. If it’s as great as you two say it is, you should be calling him nigga like you own him.”

Both Jenn and Earl looked as if they’d gone twelve rounds with Zoe in a handicap match and come out lying on their backs. Zoe smiled. And Archie thinks you need hands to win fights. She downed the rest of her drink. “Excuse me, I need to grab one last round and get my roommate home. I think this party has died down a bit, don’t you?”

She turned and steered Archer over to the bar, who was smiling down at her.

The car ride back to the apartment in Archer’s Cavalier was a mostly silent one. At least for Archer who was dozing off.

“They’ve only been together four months!” said Zoe, whipping around a corner like a Nascar driver. “And they’re already engaged! And they were just throwing it in our faces! Like it was something to brag about! He’s a foot shorter than her!”

“He’s the one that introduced us,” said Archer, roused by the octaves in her voice.

“Yeah, and he was a dick back then too.”

“Something against dicks?”

“Maybe figuratively.”

Archer’s chuckled.

They entered the apartment and Zoe immediately went to the couch. “Let’s have a nightcap,” she said. Archer did not reply but mixed up her favorite drink. He only made one glass. He staggered over to the couch and set it on the table in front of her.

“You’re not having one?” she asked, staring at him nonplussed.

“I’m not feeling well,” he said.

“Oh,” she said. “I thought you might want to try…” Her voice trailed off. “Are you drunk?”

Archer seemed not to notice the awkward change in topic. “Plastered. Do you mind if I take the bed?”

Zoe considered him for a moment. “Yeah, go ahead.”

“Thanks,” said Archer. He picked up his pills off the table and down them with a swig of her drink. He then went unceremoniously to the bedroom, already taking off, his clothes. “Goodnight,” he called back to her.

“Yeah. Goodnight.”

 

DRUGS as BRAN (or Headspace 3?)

The Fear. The fear of who You were before the pills. You don’t remember that boy anymore. He’s buried beneath millions of milligrams of anti-this pills. But You see him in the eyes of Your peers from Your past. The fear of who You are now with the pills. Just a shell. And who You will be – with or without. Will You shed the mask of a stable 30-year-old finding yourself? Or will you devolve in a form of reverse Darwinism? Some days You want to empty the vials – down the toilet, or down Your throat – and see which man survives.

DRUGS as Bane (or Headspace 2)

Do you know how much I despise you? (Aizen voice). You left me long ago and I still feel you with me. You damage is complete. You castrated me, emotionally and spiritually. My pride is ashes. I cannot give you anymore of myself than what you paid in full. Just as I’m struggling to give the best (what’s left) of myself to my wife. And yet, I am a eunuch, castrated by pills, sacrificing the ability to have children to preserve my artificial sanity.

DRUGS as Headspace

My twin says L*** never changes. If so, did I always hate you? Your name is bile in my throat; I cannot bear to speak it, for fear of the projectile regurgitation that lead to the catalyst of your name being bile to begin with. It is with You that I wash down these pills. The pills that I loathe as they are synonymous with you. I played your hero and lived long enough to…no. That reference would be lost on your feeble mind. I am what I am. A monster, gorging myself on pills in my knightly regimen.

6ide Efx

Brody was sitting in his corner, listening to the calming cascade of rain outside the gym and not the tirade Allen was unleashing in his ear.

“So you just didn’t show up for Finals?” Allen demanded. “Think you’re too smart to test or are you too dumb to realize grades matter?”

“I passed all my classes anyway,” Brody said, still looking out of the gym glass doors. People were still trickling in but he paid them little mind. Cece had even shown up but the most attention he gave her was a cordial nod before continuing his vigil.

“So you’re a ‘C’s get degrees’ ass clown now,” Allen said. Brody didn’t respond. Allen went on, “maybe I should just throw in the towel for you now, since you don’t seem to care about anything.”

Brody turned away from the doors but didn’t look at Allen. He looked across the ring at Daeron, who was talking to his trainer. In another world, Brody would have been upset that they were meeting in the opening round of their bracket of the Elite Eight tournament instead of the championship.

“I want this fight,” Brody said.

“You don’t deserve it,” Allen said.

“There’s a lot I’ve gotten I probably didn’t deserve,” Brody said. “You can just add this to the list.”

Allen grabbed Brody by the shoulder and swung him around to face him, just as Brody viewed a red head girl entering the gym with a tall muscular guy.

“Brody, I don’t know what happened that made you so apathetic. But I also don’t care. I told you, I took you on as my protege to help you fight. Which fight was completely your call. You’ve seemed to have made your choice so I’m going to make mine. I’m calling the fight.”

Brody stared Allen dead in his eyes and Allen saw something flash behind them. Something flaming that would put the sun to shame.

“If you try to cancel my fight, I’ll tell the ref you’re no longer my coach,” Brody said. “That is my decision.”

Allen stood back and stared at Brody as if he’d never actually seen him before. Like an arranged marriage where the bride was always hidden or behind a veil. But he was seeing him now.

“So you want to play it like that,” Allen said.

“I’m playing to win. Didn’t you teach me that?”

Allen nodded. “Alright. Do what you want.”

He stepped through the ropes and out of the ring. Brody watched him exit with a blank expression though he felt that there was more than ropes dividing them now.

How much more can I lose?

Brody turned back to the crowd. He was looking into the small collection of observers for a specific pair but Cece had come ringside. He looked down at her.

“Hey French. Good luck!” she said.

“Yeah, thanks.”

Her expression changed to one of confusion but he smiled briefly and she seemed to accept that it was just his game face before a fight. The ref ushered her away from the ring as the fighters names and colors were announced to the crowd. There was a polite smattering of applause for both. The ref called Brody to the center. Brody didn’t immediately rise. He saw the red head girl laugh at one of the tall man’s jokes.

“Broderick Michaels.”

Brody looked around. The ref was beckoning him to the center of the ring where Daeron was waiting. Brody rose and slouched over to him, staring him in the eyes. Daeron smiled as the ref was warning them about a fair fight. Brody didn’t. For the first time in two weeks, he felt. And it was the same emotion he always felt. Suddenly, Daeron being his opponent was a disappointment. He didn’t want to hurt Daeron. He wanted to direct his emotions at someone else.

“Touch gloves,” the ref said.

Brody and Daeron tapped gloves. The ref backed up & rang the bell.

Brody immediately went on the offensive. He threw straight punches, hooks, and uppercuts with no conscience. Daeron ducked, deflected and dodged them all. Brody’s onslaught was such that he didn’t give Daeron many opportunities to swing back.

And yet Daeron did, managing to hit his mark every time. He took a few hits but dealt out more. By the time the bell rang, Daeron returned to his corner, showing little signs of a confrontation. Brody returned to his corner in a huff, an angry bruise developing on the right side of his ribs.

He spit out his mouthguard and turned to Allen…

But Allen wasn’t there.

I am alone. Brody thought. And looking like a fool. Allen always lectured me about picking my fights. Right now, I’m fighting two opponents at once and neither one is Daeron.

Brody took a deep and then exhaled.

I wanted this fight and I got it. I had a strategy specifically for Daeron. I need to use that if I’m going to win.

Brody struggled to put his mouth guard back in with his hands still gloved. When the bell rang for the second of three rounds, he and Daeron met in the center again, only this time, Brody did not go berserk. He threw light jabs here and there. He backed off when Daeron went on offense. He used the steps he’d learned in ballroom to dance around Daeron. Daeron’s mouth also had a guard in it but his eyes spoke for them: there you go.

The two danced around one another, exchanging blows here and there. Brody’s head was clear for the first time.

Now this is a fight he thought.

He smiled and unleashed a combo on Daeron that took the latter by surprise. Daeron was on the ropes and Brody went for the finish. Only for Daeron to dodge and unleash a devastating hook right on Brody’s exposed bruised ribs.

Brody’s knees buckled and he fell to one knee. A woman in the crowd screamed “no!” Who, Brody couldn’t be sure. He was struggling to get back to his feet without falling over when the bell rang.

Brody looked to the referee who signaled the end of the second round. All was not lost, though Brody was hobbled.

“Can you continue?” asked the ref.

“Yes,” Brody said. The ref nodded and started to assist him to his corner but someone much larger lead Brody to the red corner.

“Boy he almost killed you,” Allen said.

“Funny, I never knew a pain so sweet,” Brody said.

“Death looks preferable to that hit,” Allen said.

“Allen, I’m sor-”

“Shut up,” Allen said. “You’re fighting the right opponent now. That’s all I wanted for you.”

Brody said nothing but nodded, appreciating having Allen by his side again.

“You nearly had him with that combo,” Allen said. “I don’t know whether it was God or Judas that saved him but you nearly knocked him out. You can win this fight but I wouldn’t use that combo again.”

“Obviously,” Brody said.

“Keep dancing around him. That’s what got you back in this fight. Stay on your toes and look for an opening. He’s a little punch drunk too after that last exchange.”

He shoved Brody’s mouthguard back in as the bell rang.

“And guard your ribs, for fucks sake!” Allen said.

Brody nodded as he approached the center of the ring again for the final round. He locked eyes and touched gloves with Daeron again as the round started. They paced around one another in a circle before Daeron lunged and began to swing like a hell hound loosed. Brody deflected and responded in earnest.

So you wanna dance? Then let’s dance!

They each threw, dodged, deflected and received a barrage from the other. Brody was elated to be in this type of fight but also careful to guard his ribs. He then went for his combo again. This time Daeron was ready for it but Brody switched up the last hit with an uppercut that knocked Daeron back into the ropes.

Daeron used the ropes to remain standing but was obviously stunned. Brody watched for a moment, sensing how dazed Daeron was, before advancing on his prey. He went for a jab but Daeron threw all his weight behind another hook to Brody’s ribs, which Brody deflected the worst of.

Daeron immediately followed with a straight punch.

Brody took it full in the face. He stumbled back and shook his head, trying to steady himself. Then his knees buckled again. However, he threw out his hands to keep his knee from touching.

The bell rang.

Brody looked up and saw that the ref was stepping over him and waving his arms for a TKO.

Brody spit out his mouthguard.

“But I can still fight!” Brody said. “My knee didn’t touch!”

“You were dropped twice,” the ref said. “Another hit and we could be talking about CTE. I’m calling it.”

“No!” Brody said, trying to push the ref aside. Allen entered the ring and pulled Brody back but he was fuming as he did so.

“There should have been a three knockdown rule and standing 8-count!” Allen yelled at the ref. “It was all Judas.”

Brody threw his hands over his head, though immediately grimaced as pain shot through his ribs. He cradled his ribs in one arm, while Allen tried to take off his gloves. The pain he could stand. But losing. And in front of her while she sat with him. That was almost too much to bear.

The ref beckoned both fighters to the center of the ring. He grabbed Brody’s wrist. It took extreme effort for Brody not to snatch away and walk out. The ref raised Daeron’s hand and declared him the victor. Brody had not paid any attention to the crowd before but now he noticed there was a small contingent of people booing. He was sure the boos weren’t directed at Daeron, as they began chanting insults at the ref.

Brody snatched his hand away and made to go to the locker room but a hand grabbed him by the shoulder.

“Hey.”

Brody turned around and was immediately embraced by Daeron. He raised the arm on his good side and returned the hug.

“Nice combo,” Daeron said.

“Thanks.”

“For a second, I thought you had me.”

“For a second, I did have you.”

Daeron pulled away but held Brody by the shoulders. Brody saw his jaw and left eye were swollen. “I didn’t want to win like this. There was still 54 seconds on the clock. You had time to recover.”

Brody swallowed and nodded. “You probably would have won anyway. You were the better man today.”

“There 54 seconds left to decide that.”

Brody nodded again, noticing how dizzy it made him just to do so. Having nothing else to say, Brody said, “good luck in the championship.”

Daeron nodded and then detached himself from Brody and returned to his corner. Brody walked over to his corner and climb out of the ring, where Allen met him.

“Well I actually got a Judas chant started so it wasn’t a total loss,” Allen said, patting Brody on the shoulder. Brody looked up at him and smiled wanly.

“French.”

Brody turned and saw Cece at his side.

“I’m sorry you lost. It was a good fight,” she said.

Not good enough Brody thought but his retort was lost as he hugged her. She stumbled a bit under his weight; she was a full head shorter and nearly thirty pounds lighter. He seemed to sag a bit as he embraced her, but she held him up and returned the affection.

“There goes Gaylord,” called a voice from behind Cece.

Brody looked up and saw Chris smiling down at him from behind Cece. Kókkennea was standing a short distance behind him. The look on her face was indiscernible but before Brody could speak, Chris said: “a loser, creeping on young girls. How old is that girl in your arms, 16?”

Cece was 19 but that wasn’t what triggered Brody, nor was it Chris’ jab about Brody’s loss – as Chris had already won his own fight the day before, much to Brody’s annoyance -it was that one word.

At that moment, all thought of Brody’s previous fight, his injuries, his affection for Cece were thrown into oblivion. Brody swung Cece out of the way and charged Chris. Chris put up his hands in defense and prepared to strike but Brody kicked his knee out from under him. As Chris fell head first, Brody raised his knee to meet Chris in the chin, causing the latter’s head to snap back. Both of Chris’ knees went out from under him and he was falling but not faster than Brody could rain closed fisted blows on Chris’s head, hitting him with every ounce of hatred in him all the way until Chris hit the ground.

Chris was unconscious but Brody wasn’t satisfied. He was glaring down with cold fury. His head was clear but for that one word. His heart was pounding, his blood was rushing but his voice came out soft and quiet, a whisper more ominous than a death rattle.

“All of that smiling…it’s just not me. It makes me ill to have to force it everyday. But not as ill as my thoughts. Nothing makes me feel more alive than acting out my dark fantasies. I’m always on the cusp of snapping. I spend most of my day trying to check my worst impulses. But this…is what truly makes my heart beat. Did you think you’d beat me down easily because I’m smaller? I looked forward to feeling you rain down blows on me just so that I can show you that your arms are too short to box with God. Some people like to hide their demons. Me, I prefer to dance with them. Thank you…for helping me to finally just be myself.”

The people had watched as Brody picked Chris up and powerbombed him on the floor, kicked him in the face as his head bounced off of the floor and then proceeded to stomp on his face. Brody snatched a cup of soda from a horror struck woman and dumped it on Chris’ face to wake him up. Chris moaned as Brody kicked him over onto his stomach and then grabbed both of his arms like bicycle handles, foot in the small of Chris’s back, his back arched, arms torqued until their was a gutwrenching snapping noise as both arms were popped out of their socket. Chris howled in pain and couldn’t hear the last word Brody whispered before Brody put his foot on the back of Chris’ head and stomped his face into the ground for the final time.

Chris lay still on the ground and didn’t move save for a few convulsions.

Brody looked down on his work with hollow eyes. His heart was still hammering, blood rushing, vision a haze of white but his head was clear. The room was silent. Brody both reveled and revolted against it. Then slowly, it dawned on him someone was saying a name. He didn’t know who was speaking or whose name they were saying. Then he heard a small voice whisper:

“French?”

He looked around, his eyes hollow, the corners of his mouth twitched before a heavy fist crossed his face and all was black.

Brody was staring at a gray wall. He was wearing an orange jumpsuit, sitting on the top bunk of the bed he shared with his cellmate. One of his legs was bent towards him while the other was laid out straight. He was drumming the frame of his bed.

He’d been in jail a day and hadn’t slept for a moment since they placed him in his holding cell. Since they had put him in on a Friday, he wouldn’t be able to see a judge until Monday morning. He’d used his one call to contact his mother, who assured him she wouldn’t pay his bail after he embarrassed her by acting like a psycho. His eyes were bulging, his thoughts were racing and his ribs were throbbing but not nearly as much as his jaw in the place where Allen had planted his fist to lay him out.

He wished he had a pill to at least level him out but they confiscated those with all of his possessions when they locked him up. He’d spoken with his lawyer and told him that be didn’t remember much of the assault they blamed him for – which was the truth; he hardly had any recollection of assaulting Chris, save for seeing Chris’ body prone on the ground and hearing a woman call out “his” name. He felt like he had just woken up from a deep sleep before being hit over the head with a sledgehammer to slumber again. Though that’s said to have been a kindness compared to what they said he did to Chris.

The lawyer said that she would speak to his therapist and see if they could get his charges dropped with a temporary insanity plea due to his “condition” but he’d have to be evaluated by the state’s psychiatrist too. He also had to get his hands licensed but that was the least of his worries.

Brody couldn’t think of what was worse, snapping like that; losing carefully formulated control in a single instant, or seeing the look on her face after. The fear in her voice. The thought made him afraid. He really wanted a pill. Just one. Maybe three. It would take the edge off. And he’d be able to sleep. Although he wasn’t sure he wanted to be in a drug induced sleep around his cellmate. He wasn’t afraid of the man but he’d grown up hearing what happens in jail and didn’t want to have to deal with that on top of everything else. But his cellmate did nothing besides sit in his bed, in the Indian position, eyes closed, deep in thought. Or whatever it was he was doing. The man hadn’t even argued about who would get which bunk. He merely let Brody take his pick and sat on his bed, silent.

Brody hopped down from his bunk and went to the cell door, shaking the bars. It was 3 AM but he shook the bars anyway, and said, “guard! I need my pills!”

“He aint bringing ya no pills, kid.”

Brody turned around and looked at his cellmate, half astonished, half annoyed. “And how do you know that?”

“This aint the pharmacy,” said his cellmate. “Or your therapist’s office. Ya can’t just get those little magic pills just because ya ask for them. This is jail. Yer being punished for your crimes.”

“Oh, this is jail?” Brody said. “And I thought they dressed us all in orange as a fashion statement.”

“Yer jokes won’t get ya very far here either. But if that’s what you need to keep yourself alive in here.”

“I need my pills. Not your lectures.”

“Seeing as how yer in jail, I think ya could use a lecture.”

“From my cellmate? Right. Gonna teach me how to be the best bunkie possible?”

“Jails are temporary. I’d rather teach ya how to be a better man.”

“Ha. You’re full of gems. Whatcha gonna teach me old man? How to play the silent game?”

His cellmate opened his eyes and looked up. Brody noticed that his eyes were gray, much like the streaks in his hair, which was in a nappy afro. He had a two tattoos. One was on his wrist and looked like a gang sign. The other was on his inner forearm and was a set of serial numbers.

“You’re a repeat offender,” Brody said, gesturing at the numbers on his arm.

“I’m what ya’ll be if ya don’t learn to control yer temper. Violence isn’t the answer.”

Brody stared at his cellmate for a moment before asking, “what do you know about me?”

“Only what the guards told me,” the cellmate said. “Confidentiality is another perk ya don’t get in here. From what I heard, ya beat some big guy down real bad. Did it make ya feel good?”

Brody stared at him for a moment.

“It didn’t make me feel anything.”

“Yer lying. Ya had beef with the guy. He was with ya ex-”

“How do-”

“Ya beat him down and felt big doing it. But how do ya feel now?”

Brody was silent. His mind was buzzing, wondering how this stranger knew his crimes and secrets. But also with vague flashes of the beat down in question. He shook his head, which caused him a twinge of pain. He looked back at his cellmate.

“Hollow.”

“Yer a boxer. Ya fight to blow off some steam. But yer also a nutty buddy huh?”

“What did you call me-”

“Some doctor gives ya a label and some pills and ya think ya got all the answers. But what good did those pills do ya when the guy ya beat down trashed talked ya? Pushed ya buttons? Embarrassed ya?”

Brody remained silent.

“I got in the plant when I was old enough. Didn’t finish school. Family needed money. Living paycheck ta paycheck was hard so I joined a gang. Started selling weight. Got caught after a turf war with a rival gang. Did 20 solid in Jackson. Got out. Thought I’d do thing honest this time. Got my GED while I was locked up. Came out to a different world. All these computers and smartphones. The world had just got dumber ta me. And scarier. But I went ta Community College and got one of those papers that really aint good for shit. Got history, don’t I? So I had an old friend fix my resume. I didn’t snitch so I still had a few friends. The ones that stayed out or were still alive. Got a corporate job. Met a lady. We got on like white on rice. But she was half my age and liked things. Pretty soon corporate money wasn’t enough. She had to have more. So when a drug lord asked me to fix his books for some extra cash, ya thought I was gonna say no? Nah. I loved her. Anyway, I’m getting sent on jets across the country. Set up accounts here. Fix books there. It got really easy once I figured out that technology. I was always good at math. But one day, I have to meet a man from Japan. I’m supposed to set up an account with his company. So we have lunch. I give em my spill. He listens. Doesn’t say a word. After I finish, he closes his eyes and just sits there. Silent. For five minutes. Finally, I got irritated and told him if he was gonna waste my time, he could have just made a phone call. He opens his eyes and says ta me, ‘a phone call wouldn’t have told me who you were. Not like sitting and having lunch with you. You’re a dark man. You have anger in your heart. Hate. It speaks from your eyes. But your spirit is empty. You have no fight in you except with your fists. I listened to you speak. Then meditated on what I heard. I will not do business with you or your company. Thank you.’ And like dat he left. When I flew back home, found out I was fired. Got caught fixin books. Didn’t snitch on the spic, even though he cut me off. Told my wife. And ya know what? She threatens ta leave me. Ta leave me. After all I’d done for her. Well, I lost it. Beat her senseless. She fell and hit her head. She was dead right then and there. Tried to run for it but the neighbors heard us arguing. Uppity people are always minding other folks business, aint they? So cops come and hear I am. Back in jail. This time I got murder on my hands. They say I’ll get life. But ya know what, it’s not my wife, or the spic, or the cops I think about in here. It’s that Japanese man. I thought about how he sat in that chair and meditated. I figured he was meditating the whole time. Thought about how he said my spirit was empty. Well, it has to be to end up in a place like this. Again. So when I got here, I started meditating. At first it was scarier than when I first got out of prison. Empty spirit and dark thoughts don’t mix well. But after a while, things became clearer. Saw through the haze. Confronted my demons. Spoke to myself and heard a voice speak back. I know I’ll die in Jackson. But it aint a scary thought anymore. That’s just life. We all gotta choice. Ya aint always gotta fight with yer fists ta beat somebody. Sometimes all ya need is ya mind.”

Brody stared at his cellmate for a long time. He’d listened to everything he’d said. Somehow, his head seemed clearer. He knew he didn’t need to respond to the man.

He climbed back up onto his bunk, placed his back against the wall, crossed his legs and meditated. He saw things, both horrifying and wonderful, but he saw.

He didn’t know how much time had passed but he yawned. Without much conscious thought, he curled up in a ball and fell asleep. He didn’t dream of hotels, or forests, or flying, or falling or flames. He was on a beach, alone, the ocean breeze and waves singing to him. He sat and watched the sunset on the horizon with the feeling that if he reached for the sun, he could touch it. But he knew that would burn him. Sometimes it was better to just appreciate things from a distance.

And so Brody slept.

6ide Efx V

Brody would have liked to blame the sun rays piercing through his blinds as the reason he awoke at dawn but a decade of insomnia taught him better. Nevertheless, he awoke with a start after dreaming of being at back at camp in middle school, chasing after a silhouette with flames for hair through the trees in the woods at twilight.

It took Brody only a few seconds to register that several things were wrong: the first was that he hadn’t taken his medicine last night and thus had only slept for three hours max; the second was that he was not handcuffed to the bed like he would be at home; the third immediately followed and coincided with the second – he was alone on his futon.

Brody jumped up and looked around his small studio apartment. There was no sign of Cece, save for the lingering scent of vanilla and cocoa. Had he hurt in his few brief hours of slumber? Brody looked around his room again and spotted his phone on the desk where he sat his television and game system. Underneath his phone was a neatly folded letter. Brody stared at it for a moment before taking it from under his phone and reading it.

French, you mean the world to me but I honestly think you’re too good for me. At the same time, I see a lot of myself in you. I wanted to give yous closure and start a new chapter with you but I think I would be too toxic for you. I hope we can still be friends. You’re my guardian angel and help me get through so much. I just don’t want to clip your wings.

Cece XO.

Brody only had to read through the letter once to understand what it meant – another failure.

He fell back on his futon, arms spread wide. He had never realized what an ugly off white color his ceiling was until now. He’d also never realized how ugly he felt until reading this letter. His heart beat a dull drum but his thoughts were burning like a corrosive substance at his own stupidity and presumptions.

You fool. There’s no happy ending for you.

Brody lied on his back until a numbness overtook him. He then sat up and looked at his phone. He checked Graphix again and his numb feelings were momentarily jolted as the first image on his timeline was a woman with red hair. He stared at the photo for a long time. He wanted to like it, but he withstood the impulse. He scrunched the letter in his other hand into a ball. Then another jolt hit him.

A LETTER!

He would write her a letter. He would be able to put all of his feelings for the past two years on to paper and she would understand; they were both English majors after all.

He rushed over to his desk, popped open his pill vial and took three pills. He then pulled out his pack of loose-leaf paper and his favorite pen and began to write. Freely, uninhibited: He wrote about the first time they met – how she said she was a sister with a lot of sisters, throwing up a triangle with both hands; how he asked how she spelled her name and she said it starts with a K; how they spent all night together drinking and how they watched the sun come up to their favorite song; how she had kissed him when she said good bye, so briefly, yet ever so passionately.

He wrote all of these things before passing out for several hours from his high and sleep deprivation. When he awoke, reality hit him. He had just lost Cece and he was grasping at straws for a woman who left him years ago. He looked at the letter he wrote and the letter Cece left him. In truth, he and Cece had known each other for nearly a year but they’d only just gotten really close over this past semester. Yet she thought of him as her guardian angel but herself too toxic…

Kill her!

He shook his head and blinked a few times.

What am I doing? Brody asked himself. He placed his face in his palms. It was finals week. Next week, the Elite Eight tournament started back home. He should be studying but he never studied; he didn’t really feel a need to. He elected to go to the gym and practice instead. He took a shower, got dressed, placed both letters in his pocket, then jogged to the gym.

Brody started with the punching bag, then moved to weights, then went back to the punching bag. It was during his cool down that he saw her. As the flash of fire passed by his peripheral, he looked around like a dog that had smell it’s quarry. What was she doing here? He asked himself. He’d never seen her in the gym before.

He bounced on the balls of his feet. Should he give it to her here? Too many eyes. He made a note of what entrance she came in, made his way over to it and jogged laps outside for an hour, waiting for her to come out. Finally, she emerged from the facility in the at dusk.

“Kokkennea!”

Her head snapped around as he approached. He slowed his jog to a trot and stopped right in front of her.

“Broderick,” she said.

“What are you doing here?” he asked.

“It’s a gym.”

“Yeah, that’s for people that work out.”

“Do you have a patent on workouts? Last I checked, it was a free country.”

“You must not have watched the news lately.”

“Is there something you want?”

“Yeah, uh…”

He teetered on the balls of his feet for a moment and licked his lips. She raised an eyebrow.

“I…uh…wanted to give you something…” he said.

Koko eyebrows arched even higher.

“You want to give me something,” she repeated.

“Yeah,” Brody said. The bottom of his stomach felt like water under frozen ice but he was sweating. But as Allen always told him, that’s the best moment to strike.

“I just wrote it today and then I saw you and I thought…”

His voice faded as he looked into her eyes. Can her eyebrows go any higher?

Trying to avoid the awkward silence, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a letter.

“Here.”

He handed it to her. She took it, unfolded it, and began to read. It was only after half a minute that Brody noticed there weren’t any words on the back.

“Wait – wrong one!”

He snatched it back. Koko’s looked bemused.

“I don’t know whether to call that cute or tragic. Sorry you got friendzoned. I have to go-”

“Wait! Here!”

Brody held out the letter he wrote in front of her.

“Read it. Please.”

His hand trembled. There were people walking out of the gym and watching as they walked by but he ignored them. He only had eyes for her.

She didn’t take the letter.

“No, Broderick. I don’t have to read it,” she said. “I already know what it says. You don’t get it do you? The reason I didn’t answer all the texts you sent me. Or your dm’s. Or your calls. I don’t feel the same way about you. Honestly, this is just like how you couldn’t get over your ex that slept with your best friend. And now you even have this new girl that you’re clinging to. You need to let it go. It’s unhealthy. And I don’t mean to sound rude but you creep me out.”

Brody stood there staring at her. His shirt was twitching where his heart was. His hands had fallen to his side, a tingling sensation in his fingers.

“Good-bye, Broderick.”

Koko side stepped him and walked past him to the parking lot. He didn’t even turn to watch. He stood there. Just stood there. It was as if his toes had turned to roots and dug deep beneath the concrete, lodging in the mantle of the Earth.

He could have been standing there for days. Maybe a millenia. Maybe a few long minutes. When he finally moved, he walked, not in the direction of his apartment on east campus but in no particular direction at all. He just walked.

Do you love…Fool. There’s no happy ending for you.

6ide E4x

Kill her!

“You fell?” repeated Dr. Vogel.

“Yes,” Brody said.

Do you truly love me?

Dr. Vogel made a note on her pad. Brody watched apathetically.

Kill her!

Dr. Vogel looked up as Brody stuck his tongue out at the thought. Like a snake. He licked his lips to try to play off the reflex.

“Are you sure you’re okay, Brody?”

“Isn’t our hour up, Dr. Vogel?” Brody asked.

Dr. Vogel looked over at her clock.

“Yes, it would appear so,” she said. “Would you like to schedule another appointment?”

“No need,” Brody said. “I’ll be back at school tomorrow. I won’t be home for another month or so.”

Dr. Vogel surveyed him with her brown eyes. She quickly made another note in her pad. Brody’s tongue flicked again. Dr. Vogel then rose to let him out. He stood as well.

“Do call if you need me,” Dr. Vogel said, patting him on the back.

Brody placed a hand on her shoulder and squeezed.

“I will,” he said.

Dr. Vogel’s eyes darted to his hand on her shoulder. It was near her collar bone. But before she could say anything, Brody withdrew his hand.

“See ya, doc,” he said, smiling.

“Yes, Dr. Vogel said slightly breathless. “Until next time.”

Brody continued to smile but as he turned away his tongue flicked again. He quickly made his way out of the office and to his car.

Do you truly love me?

He shook his head vigorously. He reached into his pocket, opened his capsule of pills and popped another one. Between the first high and the hypnosis, he felt his high elevate.

“It’s a straight shot home, I’ll be fine,” he told himself.

He looked in his rearview mirror and was momentarily stunned; he didn’t recognize himself for the briefest of instants. His tongue flicked and he shook his head again.

“I’ll sleep it off.”

He pulled out of the parking lot and sped up the road to home.

Sleep didn’t come easy that night. He saw flashes of a hotel, fire in the sky, the shadow of a smile, felt a hand on his chest, falling and the ever present thought Kill her! invaded his mind. He awoke several times though the night. Eventually, the predawn light cracked through his blinds and he was keenly aware he’d only gotten a few hours of sleep.

“Mother! Mother!” he called.

“What?” came a voice from the next room.

“Uncuff me!”

There was a pause. “It’s 6 a.m.”

“I need to go to the gym!”

“Go back to sleep!”

“I can’t sleep! Just fucking uncuff me!”

There was another pause. Then his door burst open!

“What did you say?” demanded his mother.

“Un. Cuff. Me! I need to get out of here!”

“No,” said his mother. “You will respect me under my roof.”

She slammed the door shut. Brody let out a howl & banged his free hand against the bedside table, fighting the cuff that bound his wrist to his bed post. After a mini-tantrum. He laid back in bed, breathing heavy.

Kill her.

He blinked and then closed his eyes.

“French, what happened to your wrist?” asked a short girl with brown skin and a soft voice. She sounded like an angel singing to Brody.

“House arrest,” he said. He had angry, red welts and scars around his left wrist that not even his watch could hide. They were visible in under the moonlight peeking through the sunroof of his car.

“You were on house arrest?” the girl asked.

“Sort of,” Brody said. “Long story, Cece. Can you hook up my other phone to the aux and play my Interlude playlist?”

“Our playlist,” Cece giggled. “What’s your password?”

“Pass the phone here,” Brody said.

“You’re driving,” Cece said.

They were on the highway back to Western Michigan University. Brody thought for a moment, then said, “1321.”

Cece giggled excitedly and unlocked his phone.

“Just play the music,” Brody said.

“What is it you don’t want me to see in your phone?” Cece asked.

“Business,” Brody said.

Cece played the playlist.

“Do you have those pills?” she asked. “Our playlist always sounds better when I’m zooted.”

“In the armrest.”

Cece opened the armrest. She found the pills and poured three into her palm.

“Only take one,” Brody said. “You have drink in your cup too.”

“Relax, French,” Cece said. “I’ve done this plenty of times.”

She took a pill and downed it with the alcohol from her souvenir cup. She turned and relaxed on her side, staring at Brody.

“I like this song,” she said. It was a slow song, with a woozy beat and crooning vocals.

“Me too.”

“It reminds me of all the times we got high and laid on your futon together.”

Brody smiled, keeping his eyes on the road. He wanted to turn and stare at her. Cece, short for Latriece, had round expressive eyes, shoulder length black hair she propped in a ponytail more often than not, and a mischievous smile, much like Brody. She was also very open and liked to get high, which made Brody feel happy there was a woman that shared his “hobby.”

Cece watched him for a moment, then turned back forward and unlocked his phone. She went into the favorites section of his photos.

“Who is she?” she asked.

“Who?” Brody’s eyes were still on the road.

“This girl with red hair.”

Brody’s eyes darted from the road to the phone in Cece’s hand.

“What are you doing going through my phone?”

“The only photos you have in your favorites are of you and her,” Cece said.

“Cece, put my phone down,” Brody said.

“Who is she?”

“Put my phone down!”

He reached over to grab the phone but Cece pulled it away.

“Who is she?!” Cece demanded.

“Give me my phone!”

They wrestled over the phone. Brody’s eyes were off the road. He finally managed to snatch the phone away from Cece when he looked back and saw he was closing in on the back of a semi.

“Shit!”

Cece screamed. He slammed on the brakes & veered over onto the shoulder. He brought the car to a complete stop.

They sat there in silence for a few minutes, both breathing heavy. Cece was sobbing a bit. After a moment, Brody asked, “are you okay?”

Cece simply sat there in silence. A tear rolled down her cheek.

“She means enough to you that you almost killed us to hide her?” she asked.

Brody sat in silence for a moment.

Do you truly love me?

Brody’s tongue flicked. He licked his lips. Then he took another pill.

“She’s a girl I dated for a summer two years ago,” he said.

“Two years ago,” repeated Cece.

Brody nodded.

“What are we French?” Cece asked.

Brody bit his tongue. “We’re talking because I like you, Cece.”

“So why is she so important to you that you only have pictures of her in your phone, French?” Cece demanded.

Again, the only sound was the music in the speakers.

“I…never got closure from her.”

Cece looked at Brody with dilated pupils.

“I can give you closure right now,” she said.

She leaned over and kissed him. Then lifted her legs over and sat in his lap. She kissed him again. Brody kissed her back, then pulled back.

“Cece, you’re high,” he said.

She giggled at that. “So are you.”

“The police might…”

Cece kissed him again and he engaged her more passionately. He shut off the car and the hazards as Cece began to take off her clothes. The road was dark where they were.

Do you truly love me?

Hours later, as Cece laid curled beside him on his futon, asleep, Brody laid awake.

Do you truly love me, Broderick?

Brodie licked his lips.

Kill her!

“No,” Brody whispered to the darkness.

6ide 3fx – Veil of Hypnosis

Brody was standing just outside with the rose gold sunset at his back and the gym door to his right. A gym door that exploded open.

“Look, it’s fag-boy!”

Brody turned to find six men emerging from the gym. They began to surround him.

“Where’s your little bodyguard, homo?” said Chris.

“He wasn’t so little when you were in the locker room with him,” Brody said. His eyes were darting back and forth between them and he made sure he was out of arm’s reach of the two behind him.

“Yeah but you are,” Chris said, smirking.

“And you’re so big that you need five other guys to deal with little me, huh,” Brody said.

“Nah, we just like to stomp out faggots like you together.”

“How touching,” Brody said. “While I admire your bromance, I’m taking all six of you down. How embarrassing would it be for you, a super middleweight, to lose to a welterweight with five of your entourage helping you? Or worse, you actually winning because your buddies had to hold back a 5’9, 147 pounder.”

“I don’t need them to beat your ass!” Chris said.

“Yeah, Chrissy, I think you actually do.”

Brody’s high was kicking in. He was about to swing and draw first blood but the door to the gym opened behind Chris at that moment. Daeron emerged.

“I hope there’s not a problem out here,” Daeron said.

“Another one of your butt buddies,” Chris said.

Daeron glared with his green eyes. “The gym owner said anybody who fights on the property outside the gym is banned.”

“That’s bullshit!” Chris said.

Daeron shrugged. “Handle it in the ring.”

Chris grunted and bumped past Brody as he and his entourage went to their cars in the parking lot. Daeron stood by Brody’s side as they tore off up the road.

“You all right?” Daeron asked.

“Fine,” Brody said. His eyes were narrow and his adrenaline was wearing off.

“Were you really going to fight all six of them by yourself?” Daeron asked.

Brody smirked. “Well you know I love a challenge.”

“What would have been the point?” Daeron asked. “Chris is pretty good. He smashed David.”

“And only beat Wesley on a split decision,” Brody said.

“He’s three weight classes above you.”

“Makes him a heavy bag that can hit back.”

Daeron shook his head. “We can spar if you’re really in the mood for a fight.”

Brody stared into his eyes for a moment. Then looked away. “Another time. I want to fight you in the championship and I don’t want you to know my new moveset just yet.”

Daeron nodded grinning. “An evasion. It’s fine. You need a ride home?”

“Nah,” Brody said. “I’ll bike back home. I…have somewhere to be.”

Daeron’s brow creased. “You sure you’re all right?”

Brody put on a smile. “Yeah. Just gotta date tonight.”

“Is it her?”

Brody’s smile faltered for a moment. “Yeah.”

He turned and unchained his bike from the bus stop sign.

“I’ll see ya later,” Brody said. With that he took off, Daeron watching keenly.

“Brody,” said Kristine Vogel. “It’s not often that I see you twice in one week. And this visit unannounced!”

“Hypnotize me,” Brody said.

“I thought you didn’t want to forget?”

“I don’t! Just…just hypnotize me. Please.”

Kristine looked at Brody with her keen brown eyes, but there was a hint of concern in them.

“What’s happened?”

“Do you have to question everything? Can you just do this for me? I…I need to mellow out. The Viibryd’s had me on edge the past couple of days.”

“So you’re trying to rely on hypnotism instead of pills,” Kristine said.

“Isn’t that a healthier approach.”

Kristine considered Brody for a moment. He was keenly aware of the clock ticking in the background.

“Are you sure it’s the Viibryd that has you in this mood or something else?”

Brody’s eyes narrowed. “Kristine. I just came from the gym where I nearly fought six guys. All middleweights. I can’t sleep. My thoughts and dreams are on jumping off the top of a building to see if I can fly or not. Or sleeping in a bed of fire. I’m not in the mood to answer questions right now. I just want some peace and sleep.”

“Six guys? Were you trying to have them hurt you?”

“I’m more concerned about what I might do to myself versus what they’d do to me,” Brody said. “I can’t shake these thoughts. Fall or burn.”

Kristine’s brow was creased as she stared at Brody. “You do realize this isn’t a solution,” she said. “Only a temporary remedy. You’ll have to face your problems sooner or later.”

“Cross that bridge when we get there,” Brody said. “If I don’t jump off of it.”

Kristine sighed. “Okay. Close your eyes.”

Brody exhaled, sat back, reclined his chair, and folded his arms across his chest before closing his eyes.

Kristine played a classical instrumental.

“Relax as you listen to the sound of my voice,” she said.

Brody listened keenly. He knew this routine. What he was waiting for was the dance.

“You feel tensions leaving you from your forehead down to your neck, as if someone is massaging your scalp.”

Brody felt a tingling sensation in his spine.

“So relaxed as you feel stress leave your shoulders…chest…”

Brody could hear her, though it felt like from a distance, as if they were at opposite ends of a tunnel.

“So relaxed…”

And then Brody could see an orange light from his end of the tunnel. He walked towards it. He knew this light didn’t mean death, but life.

He emerged on the other side to find himself back on the beach.

Hey, Broderick.”

Brody looked around. Even against the red of the setting sun, there was no mistaking that fiery red head nor who it belonged to. And it was indeed fiery, silhouetting her face in a shadow.

“Koko,” Brody said.

He rushed towards her and they embraced.

“I’ve wanted to see you for so long,” Brody said.

You can always come see me,” Koko said. “I’m just in the hotel past the pharmacy. See.

She pointed with a copper skin toned hand towards a tall, black building that towered over the landscape.

Brody looked up at it, from the sea shore, although his eyes fell back down to the pharmacy-bar, where Doctor Cuddy generally served him his pills. At the sight of the empty bar, he became filled with shame.

He turned back to Koko.

“I-I owe you an apology,” he said.

For what?” Koko asked.

Brody found himself staring at his feet in the sand.

“I…I shouldn’t have spoke to that girl. I don’t know why I did it. I knew who she was…I don’t know what came over me. Even now, I still question why I approached her. Maybe subconsciously I was trying to sabotage us -myself. Maybe I was trying to ruin a good thing before it even got started or fell apart on it’s own. I don’t know. I go over it in my head all the time but I just don’t know.”

He looked up into that face framed by flames.

“But I am sorry.”

Despite not being able to make out her features, he could tell she was staring into his eyes. Then the black that was the shadow of her face cracked and he could see pearly white teeth.

You always overthink things, looking at the negative instead of the positive, Broderick” Koko said. “Remember our first date? How I kidnapped you, we drank a fifth, sat at the park, and just got to know one another. Remember?

And as she said it, a cascade of memories flooded Brody’s mind. Scenes of a park. And her tiny dog. Of sneaking her into the house at 3 a.m. to watch cartoons & both sighing over pizza commercials. Of sitting on her bed & watching her pack her bags to go back to school. Of when she grabbed his face before she left and kissed him. Truly kissed him. The kiss that forever seared her memory into his mind.

The next thing Brody knew, they were both standing atop the hotel, side by side, holding hands. The wind howled at this height. Brody looked down and could see nothing but the green garrison of trees, hundreds of feet below.

We could jump you know,” Koko said, the whites of her teeth showing. “We would fly over the trees, away from this island and into the horizon.

Brody looked down. He felt a weight in his stomach.

~”As I count backwards from five, you’ll slowly awaken,” said a voice from the sky.

Brody looked up. Koko did too. Her teeth were bared at the heavens.

Ignore her!” Koko said. “She’s trying to separate us again!

~”Five…”

Brody looked from the sky, to Koko, to the drop.

~”Four…”

Stay with me, Broderick! Don’t leave me again!”

~”Slowly awakening at three…”

Brody’s eyes darted from the sky to Koko again.

“I have to go…” he said.

So you’re just going to abandon me again!”

“No! I mean, I don’t want to…I’ll be back!”

~”Eyes opening at two…”~

“Kiss me!” Brody said.

Koko remained where she was.

Do you truly love me, Broderick?

Brody stared at her, numb.

“I…”

“~Fully awake at-”

KILL HER!”

“…One~”

Brody threw his hands into the fire and pulled Koko towards him but he felt his feet leave the ground as he began to fall. Whether into the trees or the sky, he had no clue…

“Broderick! Broderick!”

“No…no, not again…”

“Broderick!”

Brody’s eyes, which had been scrunched closed over the last sixty seconds, suddenly snapped open. He was back in Kristine’s small office.

Kristine breathed a sigh of relief. “I was worried,” she said. “You wouldn’t open your eyes.”

Brody didn’t answer. His face was completely blank as he stared back into Dr. Vogel’s eyes. She stared back warily.

“Are you okay, Brody?” she asked.

“I’m fine.”

Dr. Vogel still looked worried. “What was it you saw?”

The blank affectation remained on Brody’s face as he stared into her eyes.

“I fell.”