I was sitting in my cell, door knocked askew like a pair of bifocals after a hard fall, when my heart finally gave up completely.
It’s amazing what details you can remember for the huge moments in your life, when you stop hard to think about them. I had a half-empty bottle of bourbon next to me, two shot glasses laid out on either side of my thighs, so when I breathed the leather of my pants brushed against the crystalline edges of the glass. One was chock full of alcohol, while the other – the one on my right side – had been filled and drained more times than my brain dared to count.
Who was the second one for? Ssssh. It’s a secret.
“Want to explain to me how you managed to get out of your cell to find some bourbon?”
Deputy “Dynamo” Drigton – or, as I’ve begun eloquently referring to her in my inner monologues, Triple D – was leaning against the doorway of the cell doing the Dorian Shaddix Disinterested Glare Slouch Combo™, her eyes ready to roll upwards in disbelief or irritation at a moment’s notice. I grinned and pulled away both shot glasses, setting them on the foot of the bed away from Tuara, so if she wanted to grab my bourbon she had to go through me.
“I managed to seduce a gang of expert pickpocket cockroaches into busting into the cafeteria and carrying me a bottle and some glasses,” I drawled, setting my head playfully against the hard metal of the cell wall and cooling my forehead on the emotionless cage. “It’ll be a sad day for the island’s drunk prisoners when the Guard exterminator finally whacks them.”
Not my full name. Not Shaddix. Not even “you poor, chauvinistic, fickle little narcissistic crazypants.”
I groaned and rolled my eyes before standing up with a lot more grace and control of my movements than most people who downed a half a bottle of straight whiskey would. From the way Tuara was positioned, I could catch a clean look over her shoulder: Tank was sound asleep, which meant we could talk without me being hammered by the self-righteous Wündertwins.
“Fine. I took my sunglasses, slid them through the bars, and used the reflection of the keyhole I saw in the lens to create a key that matched up with the door and then snuck into the cafeteria to get my fix.”
"You came to me wanting reconciliation right?"
My gaze fell from Tank to Tuara, then back to the bourbon, then to Tuara. Something thudded inside my chest as my gaze then jogged straight to my left hand, where the key was still clenched in my left hand. The little trinket slipped from between my grip, like sand through my fingers, and clattered to the ground; the sound was plainly audible thanks to the sudden stop in breath.
“I…well, yeah, I mean, I came to help me. And you. I wanted—“
"To get drunk in a prison cell?"
My lungs were rioting from all the breath they were holding in; Tuara’s eyes blazed with some sort of weird fire. I couldn’t…
“What happened, between you and Angelus?”
Water doused the fire in the crimson orbs set in her face; her very posture tensed up, made her seem like a sculpture. For the briefest of seconds, she was perfect: a word of art. Then it disappeared again, like a buoy bobbing in and out of the current, sucked under the waves, and she was just nearly-perfect again.
“That’s none of your business.”
“It is if I’m going to help you.”
“I don’t need your help.”
“There’s not much of an argument to back that up.”
I took a step towards Tuara, then another, and stopped about a foot in front of her, leaning against the wall and perfectly mimicking her posture (which, by the way, she totally stole from me…) with a knowing smirk. The ex-cop’s eyes steeled over for a second before going back to normal, and I reached out one hand to brush her cheek, much like she’d done to me before she yanked my mask off the previous day.
She had me beat; I knew it. There was no way Tuara would let herself lose in a game like this. I knew, for a fact, that she couldn’t stand it. That’s why she’d come galloping as soon as I sent word that I was interested in giving myself up: until she had the Mark Bearers that had wronged her locked up to drive themselves insane for all of time, she would focus on winning. So, the only thing for me to do was keep playing as though I were going to win, anyway.
The problem is, I hadn’t really wronged Tuara. The occasional sadistic threat here and there, me aiding and abetting Utu, okay, I was guilty of that. But I hadn’t done anything to hurt her. I’d made sure of it. And she knew it.
She not only needed my help, she craved it. That was the only reason she was so against me doing something like stealing a little bit of bourbon and cigarettes – something she knew I was going to end up doing almost immediately. Because if I could grab party materials, what was to stop me from going out and just grabbing my freedom?
Me grabbing my freedom meant me snatching Tuara’s. She couldn’t have that.
My hand lingered on her cheek for a few seconds before it started to heat up with warmth from her face. For a second, my smirk widened, because I thought she was blushing; I then realized she was actually superheating her body, because my hand was getting hotter and hotter and—
I hissed and drew my hand back, mouthing more curses in between silent bouts of laughter as I shook it and tried to suck away the heat from the burn. Tuara’s smirk was vindictive, where mine was still playful; she was now, more than ever, playing my game.
“Tell me the truth, Dorian, or I leave, right now. And then you’ll never see me again, whether you stick around in this cell or not. Do you want this? Or am I wasting my time on you?”
That depends on what you’re spending your time on me for.
What was I gaining, being here? Self-reflection? I could get that by locking myself in a hut deep on a Ko-Wahi mountain. Peace of mind? Drink more bourbon. Companionship? Adopt a puppy. There was a cure for everything I wanted to get out of this little self-help experiment. For every reason I could churn out of my head, a new solution popped up alongside it like kettle corn.
Everything I wanted could be cured with a snap of my fingers.
Except Tuara. She was terminal.
I not only needed her help, I craved it.
“It was just some bourbon…”
“No. It was more than that.”
Now I recognized the look in her eyes. It was disappointment, for me thinking that the cocktail of emotions she had blended up was all about some whiskey and smokes. It was a brewing disquiet that had been bubbling up inside her like stomach acid for months at the fact that she had continually failed at everything she had attempted: her relationship, her job, her vendettas, keeping herself together.
It was also fear. Fear of loss.
If she lost me, she had nothing to keep her going. Nothing to leave her mark on, nothing to work towards improving, no testament that she had ever been at all if she were to disappear tonight, after leaving this cell.
“Dorian, I’m gonna be honest. I don’t know why I’m doing this. I could be doing more with my life than coming to visit you every day and piece you together. I could try and fix my relationship, I could start up my own private detective business, I could do more than shackle myself to you. Can you change? This isn’t rhetorical; this is me, asking you a question that will change your life any way you answer it. Are you worth it?”
Is…that how she sees this whole thing? Her shackling herself to me?
She couldn’t hate me, because she was me. But that didn’t mean she could stand me.
I was wrong, and the realization was crashing down on me all at once that I had always been wrong. Tuara and I were birds of a feather, in a way, because we wanted to care a lot, and then, when we had the opportunity – like right now – we ran away scared.
Except I hadn’t run. For once, I’d dared myself to stick around, to try my hand at giving a ######, and then I had watched stock still as Tuara turned and sprinted away like a jogger, carrying herself as far away from me as possible on those amazing legs of hers. And now I was really up the creek, because I was still stuck here, alone, and I’d already given so much ###### that there was none left not to give. It was actually, physically impossible not to care about her at this point, and then all at once it became excruciating.
And here I was, thinking I was worth it.
“No, I’m not,” I said, the playfulness gone, the slight hold the bourbon had over me vanishing like actors behind a curtain. “The fact is, even if you could save me, I wouldn’t let you, because it would only lead to you getting hurt down the road. Without me, tantalizing you all the time, you would inevitably get so fed up with the inactive mess that has become your life that you would end offing yourself by either your own hand or getting someone else to do it for you.”
As I spoke, I turned my gaze back towards the bourbon I had stolen and saw Mini-Grokk, swimming laps in the still-full shot of whiskey. My conscience, drowning itself in alcohol. What lovely poetry.
The Skakdi, I registered deep in the recess of my mind, had a lovely backstroke.
“The truth is, I’m fine with my niche. I will do whatever it takes, whenever I need to, if it means keeping the people I care about safe. I always have. Even if you hate me for it, even if you despise me and burn the pictures of me and erase my name from the annals of history, you will do so because I kept you safe. And that dedication – the dedication you used to have – is what makes me me. Not the vanity, or the clothes, or the weird aversion to letting people I hook up with live. The dedication.”
Tuara’s eyes were widening as I spoke, and her slouch metamorphosed into a soldier’s ramrod posture. I could see the tension in her body as I advanced even closer towards her, now leaving us with a phalange’s worth of space between each other. My eyes were brimming with power, and grit, and maybe even a bit of lucidity.
My conscience in manifest was standing on my shoulder, now, drying himself off with my scarf like a towel and bemoaning how he could feel the effeminacy scalding his soul. In a way, he was comforting. My bean-sized best friend.
“Have I ever told you that you have the taste of a Rahi without a tongue?” the megalomaniacal midget asked from his perch on my collarbone, staring up at Tuara.
Shut up, Mini-Grokk.
“Sorry, not sorry.”
I didn’t bother with a reply, because my gaze was still fixed on Tuara. Her eyes were unreadable fog, whereas mine were violent storms of emotion; her entire being was logical, based on rational thought, where the throne that claimed control of my actions was nestled firmly in my heart, gilded and decadent.
“If you want to come by tomorrow anyway, awesome. But don’t pretend that you’re doing me any favors, and I’ll give you the same courtesy.”
I reached out my left hand and moved up to Tuara’s neck, dropping the key into the inside of her jacket; the Toa of Fire turned on her heel, indignant, and went to leave before I stopped her with a single question.
“So, if you really came just to scold me, why couldn’t it wait until the regular viewing hours instead of the middle of the night?”
That one didn’t get a reply: Triple D turned again after a minute and began marching left. She was out of sight in seconds, and I hooked the door with one foot behind her and slammed it shut with a rattling BANG! Mini-Grokk slid down my chest and landed in the glass of bourbon again as I sat down, snorkeling and making a variety of fish-like shapes in the alcohol.
Finally, he surfaced again, and his face was curious; he was hanging onto the glass with the undersides of his arms, keeping himself supported as though he were doing a pull up.
“So…where DID you get this bourbon?”
Two hours ago…
The bartender was pretty enough: she was tall and slight, a Toa of Lightning, with friendly, sparkling blue eyes like freshly squeezed Bula juice and a smile that could light up a cave. She was bright and charming, sharp as nails when she wanted to be, but her eyes had the timid look of an animal that had escaped from a zoo and was scared of returning.
“So, what’s your story?” she asked, sitting down across from me as she slid me the bottle of bourbon and two shot glasses I had ordered. I had chuckled to myself, pouring two shots.
Love, there’s not enough bourbon in the world for my story.
I shrugged, downed a shot, set the glass on the table; the bourbon marinated in my throat for a second before washing down the hatch, and I sighed, looking up at her.
“I’ve killed…a lot of people.”
Suddenly, her eyes couldn’t light much of anything. They were darker, more fearful, and I could see her reminiscing about something – something tragic – in her eyes. I didn’t comment, though, I just let her do her thing. Bam. Another shot of bourbon down. Then another. Then another. Then another. I wanted to get drunk, at long last. I’ve worked eighteen months to get drunk.
Please, someone up there. Take pity. Let me get blitzed.
“Like, I’ve killed…so many people. I get it, I get it, I know, it was wrong, but it wasn’t my fault! It’s just circumstance. It’s just that I can’t be what they want to turn me into – what she wants to turn me into!”
The bartender stood up and began to powerwalk – bordering on a run – away from her perch, towards the backdoor.
“No, please!” I called back, standing up and making an attempt to intersect her on her path. “Don’t go. I’m lost.”
“You’re in…the Lavapool Inn…” she whispered, choked, bordering on panting, as I caught the sides of her pretty, pretty, oh so pretty young head. “And I’m gonna call the Guard…”
Her eyes dimmed like the ghosts of stars coming off a supernova.
“No, not physically lost. Metaphorically. Existentially. I am So. Far. Gone.”
Mine fed off whatever light they gave, thrashing about like the whips of a lion tamer, weeping and moaning and gnashing their teeth in a choked, excited anguish.
Tonight, my year and a half long quest to end the curse for sobriety would come to a crashing, screaming halt.
“What’s your name?”
“Emarosa…can I tell you a secret? One I’ve never told anyone before, and might never tell again? It’s big. I need…I need to get it off my chest.”
The poor girl couldn’t shake her head, so I massaged her cheeks, brushed away the first instances of tears, and gently helped her nod.
“I care about people. I care…a lot about them. But I can’t care enough to change myself. I just can’t. It won’t let me.”
I was still carrying the bourbon: lifting the bottle to my chest like a traveler in the desert would a gourd as he slowly died of thirst. Bourbon washed down my throat and massaged away at the eye of the hurricane that I was slowly becoming before the bartender’s eyes. With eyes that were tearing up partially from alcohol consumption and partially from sheer internal agony, I regarded Emarosa as I would a goddess come to life.
Someone to listen. At last.
“Please…I don’t want any trouble,” Emarosa gasped between sobbing breaths; no tears fell, because I had my thumbs positioned in a way that I could effectively neutralize her tear ducts. That was good, because if we both cried, that would defeat the purpose of her listening to me. Being stronger than me.
“Sweetie, baby…love…I don’t, either,” I gasped, moving my hands down to her shoulders. “But all they’ve left me with – all I got – is trouble, trouble, cha-rubble.”
More bourbon. God, I was doing it, it was happening. I was getting drunk. I should have never talked to Tank.
I could feel my grip, already tenuous at best, starting to slip.
“I can be so many things. I can be a doctor, an actor, a writer, a psychologist, a detective, a lover, but you know what I can’t be? I can’t be good, Emarosa. I can’t be a good guy, because it’s the one thing I never sat down and learned how to be. And it turns out that people don’t want doctors, actors, writers, psychologists, detectives, lovers, they want good guys. They want a world full…of good guys. And it turns out that I’m not qualified. I mean, how would I be? What would I have to do to make her accept me? Open a soup kitchen? Make friends with an orphan?”
More bourbon and a bitter laugh. I could feel a weight lifting off my chest.
“And it took me a while to realize this…but there’s always a need for a bad guy. Someone who can even the scale, someone who gives the good guys and the people who love them a reason to exist. That’s why I do what I do, Emarosa. That’s why so many people have died – because I care enough about them to make them hate me, to give them purpose. And now she wants to change that – but I can’t tell her no, because that would hurt her, Emarosa. And I can’t hurt her, because I love her. That’s my secret. There it is.”
More bourbon. C’mon, c’mon, c’monnnn.
“I love someone. A lot. Because she knows everything about me, knows my mind, knows my feelings, knows what I do, and she still cares. So I can’t help but to love her, and now…I can either hurt her, or I can hurt everyone else. Do you understand where that leaves me, Emarosa?”
The tears were starting to well up in her eyes, so I moved my thumbs back up and crushed her tear ducts again. My vision blurred, both from bourbon and from tears, tears which started to stream down my face as my voice began to crack and it became more and more difficult to swallow.
“All I know how to be is a bad guy with purpose, Emarosa. All I can be is what I have to be, and that’s hurting them. So I’m stuck between a rock and a hard place: I can either hurt the people that I care about, or I can strip them of their purpose. I don’t want to have to make that choice, love. I can’t make it…but it’s making me. It’s got a hold on me, and it won’t let go, not anymore…and now it’s telling me that you have to die, or what I’ve just told you will come back to hurt you over, and over, and over. And I don’t want to hurt you, but there’s only so much that the average gal can take....”
Her voice caught, and somehow, tears escaped even though the ducts were crushed. This only served to break my heart more; more tears ran down my face in unison with hers, and I could feel us bond.
“Please…please, no, don’t…”
“But I have to, Emarosa,” I wept, my voice cracking like an adolescent’s. “Because by not hurting you…I’m hurting you even more. Do you understand why this is so hard for me? It’s hard because you have become a very existential problem for me. A crisis, some would call it.”
“Just…just please, no, please…just let me go…”
My tears began streaming even more, illuminating my bright azure eyes as I shook my head through quiet sobs.
“Al…alright,” I croaked quietly, look down and closing my eyes as I released her face. “Go. Thank…thank you for listening, Emarosa. I’m sorry.”
The Toa of Lightning began to run right past me, towards the front door. My knees shook with pain and sorrow as I took a second to support myself and readjust my posture—
And then I turned and activated my Calix, coming up from behind her with speed that she couldn’t possibly outmatch and grabbing onto her jawbone, ripping it to the left with a sickening crunch. Emarosa dropped like a sack of bricks, me coming down right after her; I sat and stared for a second at her body, frozen forever in a moment of gradually-dawning hope, before I took a sip of bourbon and leaned my head back against the barstool…drunk.
I took a final shot of bourbon, took off my blazer, and crumpled it up like a pillow on the foot of the cot, resting my head against it and closing my eyes. When the guards came by the next morning and checked my cell, they’d find a less-than-half full bottle of whiskey underneath the bunk, an empty glass next to it, and, still nestled against the wall, a full shot of bourbon. My conscience was doing a dead man's float on the crests of the waves created by the alcohol as dust settled onto its surface.
Who was the shot for? Ssssh.
It’s a secret.