The Exile I: 4 East

Kill her! Kill her! Kill…

No. Heal her…

Broderick…Broderick…”

Brody opened his eyes. “Oh. Sorry doc. I was meditating.”

“‘Meditating,'” repeated Dr. Vagner. “I see. Are you sure you were meditating? Or was he in control?”

Brody rolled his eyes. “I don’t know. You’re the doctor.”

“You’re being a bit defensive, Broderick.”

“Is that your professional opinion?”

Dr. Vagner scribbled a few notes in his notepad. Brody was seized with the urge to snatch it and whack him over the head with it. Brody would have preferred to be treated with Dr. Vogel, or even Lip, the therapist he’d seen while at school. But per the terms of his release into house arrest, he must be deemed fit to leave the psych ward by a state appointed official. So Dr. Vagner, an old pale man with a wreathe of white hair around his head, was who he had to out up with to leave this place.

“…I apologize, Doctor Vagner,” Brody said. “I haven’t been sleeping well on the new meds and these early morning appointments can be a bit draining after a sleepless nite.”

Vagner made more notes before nodding and looking up. “Understandable. We can look into a med change, perhaps. But if you want to leave this place, you must learn perseverance. That is what separates the weak from the strong. Not our fists.”

Brody wanted to bury his fist into that liver spotted face and see how strong his brittle bones were. “Understood, doc.”

“I understand that you and your longterm therapist, Dr. Vogel, would finish sessions with hypnotism.”

“Yes,” Brody said, as he had a hundred times before.

“Yes. Well, today, I’d like to finish this session with some word associations. For instance, when I say day, you say-”

“Wasted,” Brody said, smiling at the quote from one of his favorite movies.

Dr. Vagner looked at Brody sternly. Over his bald head. Brody thought.

“Let’s begin, Broderick,” Dr. Vagner said.

“Sure.”

“Four?”

“Death.”

“East?”

“West.”

“Red?”

“Blo-love.”

A note. Then: “gloves?”

“Boxing,” Brody said with a pang.

“Therapy?”

“Necessary.”

“Pills?”

Very necessary.”

“Klonopin?”

“Necessito.”

“Meditation?”

“Earlier.”

“Dissociation?”

“Diagnosis.”

“Asylum?”

“White hell.”

“French?”

Brody paused. He had expected it, but it was still a body shot nonetheless. Yet he knew worse was coming.

“Language,” Brody said.

Another note. “Koko?” Dr. Vagner said.

Brody’s eyes narrowed. He quickly recomposed his face but the words Kill her! did pop in his mind.

“A cup of that would be lovely.”

Dr. Vagner nodded, then made some more notes.

“Okay, Broderick. That will be all for today,” Vagner said. “I will take your results to your case worker. You should know something by tomorrow morning.”

Brody made himself smile. “Lovely.”

Brody was returned to his room which he shared with a jewish young man named Mordakhi. Mordy didn’t make eye contact with Brody when he walked in, instead shifting his body to face out of the barred window. This was fine with Brody. Brody knew he suffered from severe social anxiety and Brody’s reputation did nothing to alleviate that feeling. Brody did not engage with him as often as he did with others in group-therapy.

Brody would have liked to go back to sleep but he knew that was near-impossible at this point. He hated the stupid new pill they put him on, because it only worsened his insomnia. So instead, he picked up a book that was on top of a stack of letters he’d received during his five weeks here, opened it up at the book mark, and began reading where he left off.

“Are you leaving soon?”

Brody looked up, his usual placid eyes as wide as quarters.

“Was that you Mordy?” he asked, looking towards the window.

Mordy nodded at the clouds.

“I, uh, don’t know,” Brody said. “Hopefully, I’ll find out in the morning.”

Mordy nodded again. There was a long pause. Brody began to turn back to his book when Mordy spoke again.

“It must be hard,” Mordy said.

“What?” Brody asked, confused.

Mordy swallowed. “Being two souls in one body.”

Brody simply stared at Mordy’s back.

“I…I leave today,” Mordy said.

“Well, I can see why. You’ve become a regular social butterfly,” Brody said.

Mordy looked around at him. Or at Brody’s lap rather. There were tears in his eyes and his pimpled face was red.

“Sorry if I offended you-” Brody began.

“I’m scared.”

“Scared of what?”

Mordy swallowed and wiped his tears away. “Of going back outside. I’ll probably just freak out and end up back here.”

Brody stared at him for a moment. He felt uncomfortable, watching a grown man cry, but he was taught to always look a man in the eyes. That is how you see him and learn how he sees you.

“It’s a scary thing,” Brody said. “The world. It has no guide, no definitive rule book. No god. Or at least not one who cares. But sometimes I think the world is just in our head. Everything we see, big and little, are just things we’ve imagined or seen in another life. We see these things with our eyes, whether we’re awake or dreaming, and shape them with our hands. Everything we want out of life is in the palm of our hands. We just have to have the courage to shape our own fates. Just like you had the courage to talk to me today. That was very brave of you.”

Mordy said nothing. He simply swallowed again, wiped his eyes dry, and nodded a few times. Then he looked up into Brody’s eyes.

“You read a lot,” Mordy said.

“I like reading,” Brody said. “It takes me away from my world and places me in a world someone else created. I like to write too.”

“You haven’t responded to any of your letters.”

Brody felt his face grow hot. “I will.”

Mordy nodded. It was strange now, having him make eye contact too. “I was never a good jew.”

“I was never a good anything.”

Mordy cracked a small smile. “Heard you’re a good fighter.”

“Yeah…you can see the home it’s afforded me.”

“I didn’t believe in God,” Mordy said. “The world is so dark and cruel. Why are we cursed so? What god would do that to his people.”

“Every god, if you read enough about them,” Brody said. “But mental illness isn’t a curse, Mordy. We’re gifte-”

“That’s not what I meant.”

“Oh.” Brody was a bit taken back. “What do you mean?”

“Have you ever read the story of how Zeus separated our Others from us? Mordy asked.

“No.”

Brody knew quite a bit about Greek Mythology, but that was admittedly a story he had never heard before.

Mordy turned to his own nightstand and passed Brody a book. It wasn’t very long.

“Page 109,” Mordy said.

Brody turned to the page and read. The story was only a page long. Brody read it once. Then twice. Then a third time. His mind froze as he read the words. His thoughts went to a beach where a hotel stood behind a forest and a woman was screaming “Kill her” at him.

“Broderick?”

Brody blinked. He looked back up at Mordy, then passed the book back to him.

“It’s just a story Mordakhi,” Brody said, a languid expression on his face.

Mordy pushed the book back towards him. “Keep it. Maybe it’ll help you find your Other.”

Brody smiled. “And you. You seem to have learned to speak well enough. Perhaps you’ll find your Other too.”

Mordy looked back down at Brody’s lap. “Which of you do you think will bond with your other, Broderick?”

Brody smirked. “The real one.”

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The Sins

My brother said that I am a “truly good person.”

But am I?

I question that everyday.

I work for money to be well off and self-sufficient.

But I see power in it.

I’m brilliant, but can’t put out my work unless the muse is with me.

A woman once spoke to me about the light of God and rebirth.

But all I could think of was my body corrupting hers in the Garden of Eden.

I am emotionally detached.

Only because my anger has taken residence in my soul and eviscerated all other emotions.

I eat and drink but I never belch.

I hate no man for any worldly possession,

Save for the right to hold a woman’s hand in happiness.

And I tell you all this as if you care, because I think you should know me and my vices.

The last I am proud of.

Proud.

Pride is not a double edged blade. It is the only blade.

But even in my vanity, I cannot take solace in the idea that I am a “good person.”

It keeps me up at nite. Along with my other crimes and shades of my pasts.

I meditate to confront my demons.

And medicate to pacify them.

But sleep never comes easy.

The thought of overdosing on these pills just to sleep always haunts me like my favorite Ghost.

Will I be at peace when people wish me to rest in peace?

Or will I burn for eternity for a guilty pleasure?

I am broken into pieces but do not wish to die.

Only to close my eyes and dream that I am good.

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.”

6iide Efx

Brody was dripping sweat. He was peddling up hill, his bike on level 6 resistance, and he was really feeling the burn in his calves and thighs. Yet he kept peddling. Harder. Faster. Stronger. He could not say why he was peddling so hard. Perhaps it was the fact that biking gave him the illusion that he was actually going somewhere; well he was actually on his way to some place but he thought more in the sense of going somewhere in life. Perhaps it was because riding his bike distracted him from the thoughts that invaded his mind uninvited: Thoughts of his ex and betrayal; of enemies and false friends; and thoughts of his bare fist being buried into someone’s face, caving their skull in, his hands dripping crimson. And then there was the flaming bed.

He peddled harder.

Brody always biked a minimum of 6 miles and a maximum of 15. Today he biked 11, from his apartment, around the neighborhood, and finally arriving at the gym, which incidentally, was just a few blocks from his home. He shifted a leg over the side of the bike so that both were on one side, braked, and then hopped off while it was still in motion, jogging alongside it until it came to a halt. He locked his bike to a bus stop sign and walked into the gym.

Allen was already there, waiting for him.

“You’re late!” Allen said.

“Well you know being fashionably late has always been my favorite aesthetic,” Brody said.

“Damn, if you’re gonna come to workouts already worked out, at least wear some deodorant!” Allen said.

Brody scowled. “You know I shower before and after all workouts.”

“That’s ass backwards. You’re just gonna get dirty again.”

Brody shrugged.

“Well hurry up and hop in the shower, Pretty Boy. We’re working on speed today,” Allen said.

Brody nodded and headed for the locker room. He went to his usual locker and found

Daeron, a fellow gym rat, right beside it.

“Done for the day?” asked Brody.

“For now,” Daeron answered. “Ya about to get started?”

“Yeah.”

“I might stick around for a while, then. Maybe we can close out with a spar,” Daeron said, his green eyes locked into Brody’s mahogany.

Brody smirked. “That’s a big money fight. When you’re good at something, you don’t do it for free.”

Daeron smiled.  “Sure. Not like you to turn down a challenge. I guess you’re getting a little more confident if you want to fight me for money.”

Brody held his smirk. “I can beat you.”

Daeron continued to smile as well. “We’ll see.”

With that, he took his bag and left the room.

Brody showered with his music playing and then hopped out, got dressed and made his way to Allen by the speed bag.

“What were you doing? Trying to drown yourself?” asked Allen.

“Just making sure I smell as clean as a dove for you, sensei,” Brody said.

“I’m more concerned with whether you can strike as fast as a snake and as hard as an ox. Glove up.”

Yet you made a fuss about my hygiene when I walked in thought Brody to himself, but he did as he was told. He wrapped his hands with a methodical dedication to routine, then gloved up, a calm befalling him as he did so. He raised his fists and got in stance. “Ready.”

After two hours of punching, pushups, pull ups, and general pounding, Brody showered again. His arms felt like noodles in boiling water, his breathing was heavy, and his abs were ablaze but his head was clear. The hot water was cooling to the mind. He stared at a blank space on the wall of the shower, not seeing it, his mind just as blank as the white tile. It was the greatest feeling in the world.

Outside of the shower, he could hear some guys in the locker room talking.

“…So, he caught us. We were in his bed, on round two, when he walked in. I’d already bust on her ass and she asked me to keep going. I wasn’t going to stop. Anyway, bro walks in and he’s like ‘what the fuck?’ Well, I still wasn’t going to stop so I told him to get out and close the door. I’d talk to him in fifteen minutes.”

There was an uproar of laughter outside Brody’s shower. Inside, Brody’s body went numb.

The guy that was telling the story was trying to finish through his own laughter: “yeah, so after that, dawg rushes in and grabs me while I’m still fucking his bitch. I’m like ‘you fucking fag!’ I only had my socks on. His little ass tries to put me in a chokehold and pull me off, I turned around and decked him. Knocked his little ass to the ground. He went down like a bitch and was even clingier than his girl, trying to wrap himself around my waist trying to take me down while I was still naked. I kicked him off and stomped him into the ground. Then I went back and finished with his girl. At first she was scared to get back into it but she came around after I put that dick back on her. Bust in her mouth and told her to kiss dawg goodnight for me, since he was so attached to my dick.”

There’s even more laughter, more raucous than before.

“Bro, you’re a savage,” said one of his friends.

“Shit, his girl was the savage. She knew I was cool with mans and she still wanted me to fuck her. In his own bed. These hoes really for everybody, bro.”

The water at Brody’s back was hot but he was cold, numb and shaking.  And he’d heard enough. Unbidden, old memories of his ex came to mind again; the last text he received from her – the end of their relationship. He turned off the shower, climbed out, wrapped a towel around his waist and went out into the locker room. His locker wasn’t far away from the gang of guys that were talking. They all seemed to get a little quieter at the sight of Brody. Brody pretended that he was paying them no mind. He opened his locker, pulled out his bag of clothes and things and then took off his towel.

The silence in the locker room was audible at that point. Brody used the towel to dry himself, then began to lotion up.

Someone coughed but Brody distinctly heard the word “fag” underneath. Brody turned to the gang as if he’d only just noticed them. “Sorry. Did you say something?”

The guys all turned away, their ring leader saying, “putting on some clothes, you faggot.”

“Why?” asked Brody. “Isn’t this how you like to fight other men?”

“Quit being gay,” said the leader. “Put on some clothes.”

“How is it gay to be naked in a locker room where men come to shower and change clothes?” Brody asked. “Am I touching you? Making you uncomfortable?”

“This is gay,” said the leader, as he stood up. all 6’5″ feet of him. “You’re gay.”

“No, I’m not. And I’m not afraid of bums like you, who hang around and act tough in a group but are so insecure in your own skin that you have to label everyone else as gay to make yourselves feel better. You’re all standing behind him like a bunch of skirts while he tells you he’s a disloyal bastard who sleeps with his friends’ girlfriends. What makes you think you can trust him around your girlfriends, huh?”

“What’s wrong with you dawg?” asked the leader.

“Did I fuck your bitch too or something?”

“I don’t have a bitch. But if you did, you wouldn’t be able to brag about it with a wired jaw.”

“So that’s it? You wanna fight, lil dawg?”

A shadow of anger and elation flashed across Brody’s face. “Why, yes I do.”

“Put on some clothes. I’ll beat your ass right her-”

“Brody!”

Brody turned to the door to find Allen standing there. “This isn’t the time or place! Put on some clothes and let’s go!”

“Yeah, Brody. Do what daddy says and run home,” said the ring leader.

“Did you just call another man daddy?” quipped Brody.

The ring leader grew red in the face. “Not like that, you-”

But Brody had already turned away and was putting on his clothes. He would have took his time dressing, to agitate the ring leader, whose name he knew to be Chris, but he didn’t want to anger Allen any further. He was dressed in sixty seconds and heading out of the door. “Later, Chrissy,” said Brody, waving his fingers at Chris in an effeminate manner. Brody walked out with Allen, who was silent and seething beside him. And Brody’s own confidence and righteous anger had faded, being replaced by the same memories he sought to escape so desperately every time he entered the gym. Brody reached in his bag and pulled out a vial of pills.

“What do you need those for?” demanded Allen.

“You know why,” answered Brody, pouring two bars in his hand.

“What, is it too hard for you to act hard without pills?”

“I wasn’t acting hard. Those bastards needed to know that in the gym, you have to back up what you say. Not just talk that shit-”

“And you can’t without taking pills after?”

Brody remained silent for a moment. The sun was low in the sky painting the heavens rose golden. A tranquil image but Brody’s mind was on the conversation he’d overheard in the locker room. The injustice and betrayal of people that call you bro but turn on you for fifteen minutes with a girl. Then there was the silhouette with flames for hair. Brody wanted to check his phone but became more conscious of the pills in his hand again.

“I train you because you told me it helps you,” Allen said. “I understand you have to take pills when you’re anxious and to sleep but if you have to take them right after leaving the gym with me, what are we fighting for?”

Brody had no answer. He stood clutching the pills tight in his fist, palms sweaty.

“Things might not be fair but you need to decided which fight is the most important for you to win: the fight against them-” Allen pointed at the gym, “-or the fight against the demons in your head. Have that answer for me the next time I see you here.”

And with that, Allen left him. Brody watched him walk to his car, pull out of the parking light and drive off into the distance. Brody looked at the pills in his palm. He felt his pocket vibrate. Reaching in with his free hand, he saw a text that read “hey” on his phone. Brody felt a fire blaze in his stomach.

He took the pills.