Pandemic Files

Jaded

James throws the pen down and curses under his breath, dropping his forehead into his palms. He stays in that position for a solid ten seconds before looking back up, squinting through the light coming from his desk lamp. It’s been about a week since he swapped the bulb out for one with a lower wattage, the dimness making for a better writing environment. Though, if he’s truthful with himself, it was really Jade that demanded the increased darkness, her body needing the sheath of shadows like a shark needs the sea.

What Jade wants, Jade gets.

A gleam from the main window in his second floor bedroom catches James’ eye, a final flash as the sun dials down below the Manhattan skyline. Ten stories below, the lights in central park flicker on. James focuses on the line of glowing yellow balls reflected in his window. He used to relish this view, day in and day out, waking in the morning to open the blinds and let the sun’s rays warm his bare chest. Now, though.

Now.

The blinds are open, but it’s as if James is staring through stained glass; not a window looking out on the city he loves but a distorted depiction of the city he used to enjoy.

James’ cell phone rattles against the base of his file drawer, the unnerving generic ring tone pulling him out of his head. He grabs the contraption, presses talk and shoves it against his ear. The voice on the other end springs through the receiver before he even has a chance to say hello, and he can’t help cringing at Frank’s scratchy tone, like somebody’s been continuously punching him in the throat ever since he was born.

“Jim,” Frank barks, then chuckles for absolutely no discernible reason.

“Frank,” James says, quietly.

“Jimmy, buddy,” Frank says. “My man, my main man. How’s it going?”

“Good, Frank,” James says, closing his eyes and leaning back in his desk chair. He tries to keep the exasperation from entering his voice, but he knows what this call’s about. And though eknows Frank’s a good guy, loyal—a colleague—he also happens to be James’ agent. And it’s deadline time. Which brings money into the equation. Which is sort of like dropping raw meat between two tigers who’ve always typically been civil with each other.

James thought he had at least a couple of days before he received this call, though he isn’t surprised it’s happening now. He’s known Frank for the better part of a decade. If Frank died tomorrow, there’d be a clause in his will that instructed his remaining family members to CALL JAMES AND GET THAT FUCKING MANUSCRIPT!

“We’re waiting, Jim,” Frank says. James can picture Frank perfectly right then, sitting behind his desk in his office near Union Square, tie loosened, sleeves rolled up. There’s a fine mist on his forehead, the accompanying stains under his armpit, his belly just starting that middle age bulge over his belt. “The world’s waiting. You done yet?”

James squints down at his desk. “Another day or two Frank.”

“James, buddy, c’mon already.”

“Another couple of days.”

“Buddy, I mean, come—what am I supposed to tell Milton?”

“Two days,” James says, then before he can really think about it too much he ends the call, puts the phone on silent and tosses the thing across the room. It lands on the lumpy futon set up in the back corner of his bedroom, in between his queen size bed and the 60-inch Samsung flat-screen mounted on the wall.

Turning back to his desk, James snatches the bottle of whiskey from the corner and downs a mouthful, willing himself to avoid looking at the papers stacked in front of him, covered in his scribbled handwriting. Begging his mind to just let it go, move on. But the moment the words are in view his eyes are drawn in, deep into her figure, her essence. His mind reels with memories of their time together, the past few short months elongating and stretching like a breached cocoon, becoming a physical presence with life-altering weight.

Jim didn’t set out to find Jade. He didn’t even known that he craved something this—dysfunctional until it appeared, until she appeared. But even then, it wasn’t like it was love-at-first-sight. When Jade walked into Snappy’s liquor store that first day—back on page thirty-two, James had the entire passage memorized—she announced her presence with a pop of the gum tucked in her jaw and a jingle of the bell above the front door.

The moment James saw her, his mood went south. Jade stood there in the doorway for way longer than necessary, smiling, surveying, wearing those dingy low-riders, that plain red tank top, sporting that scorpion tattoo on the back of her left shoulder. He remembers that morning vividly how she stood tall in that doorway for the entirety of his breakfast, just fawning herself. James bristled at the distraction.

The style was to be expected in Gutterville though, the city James had created and placed in Central Florida long before Jade ever showed up. Back then, Nick Maverick had been barely a newborn, an inkling of an idea in James’ head.

Growing up in Gainesville, James had stayed in The Swamp until college allowed him to escape his sweaty, bug-ridden hometown for the compacted, exhilarating streets of New York City. Back home though, James had met his fair share of beautiful double-wide-dwellers, and at first he figured Jade to be of the same kin: another hot, white trash floozy looking to make her own luck, by any means necessary.

In that manner, James first impression was set. By time Jade bumped into Nick Maverick in the whiskey aisle, near the shelves of Maker’s Mark, James had to use every ounce of self control to stop himself from intervening, turning Jade around and throwing her out of the store ass-first.

The Maverick, however—always allowing time for banter—just grinned and chuckled.

“Well, dang,” he said, staring Jade up and down. “You’re ‘bout alright, ain’t you?”

Jade giggled—literally giggled like a schoolgirl—tossing her hair around and popping her gum.

“You ain’t no slouch yourself,” she said.

The line made James’ eye twitch.

James kept on trying to ignore her for a little while, to get on with things. But after half a page of The Maverick and Jade just standing there staring at each other, James grunted and tossed his pen aside, done for the day.

That was the first week of February, and he remembers thinking then that if the book didn’t get finished by deadline—or, God forbid, didn’t get finished at all—it would be all that bitch’s fault.

So James was surprised the next day when he awoke with the familiar itch in his hand, that urge that spreads like blood poisoning up the arm to the brain, demanding a cure in the form of words, sentences, paragraphs, plot. The itch forced him back to his desk early, red-eyed and dry-mouthed, a pain in his right temple that only dulled when the tip of his pen scratched across paper.

Yet even at that point he was still trying to get rid of her; he had still not yet realized the effort was futile.

Looking back now, James knows he initially despised Jade out of envy. He wanted her gone simply to get The Maverick’s attention back where he wanted it, on himself and the plot that he—James, the architect—had created. The Maverick had things to do, places to be, people to kill.

James considers The Maverick to be his magnum opus; the hero every man wants to be, the lover every woman wishes she had. Six foot four, lean, muscled, shaggy-haired with a five o’clock shadow that screams adventure, The Maverick is indomitable. Jade—full name Jade Mourne, as she would later reveal—didn’t deserve his attention. Didn’t deserve The Maverick’s or any other character’s attention in the desolate world of Gutterville, especially not the autistic prodigy from chapter eight who hated everybody but somehow latched on to Jade at first sight. She didn’t deserve it, James repeated over and over as his hand cramped and convulsed through page after page.

Yet there she was. Every day, the moment he sat down.

Or…almost every day.

She disappeared for a while around chapter twelve, and James took the opportunity to toy with various ideas; a truck accident on the highway, maybe, that split her car—and her—in two. But James was already enthralled by that time, though he hadn’t known it yet.

Things would became doubly so later in that same chapter, when Jade pulled up next to The Maverick in her self-refurbished ‘79 Mustang. She did so just as Nick was recovering from a daring leap out the window of an exploding meth lab masquerading as a pharmacy, pieces of metal and wooden shrapnel flying around him an arc of fire. Getting to his feet and dusting off his torn shirt, Nick looked up at the flames shooting out of the third story window then turned to find Jade sitting on the car door with her feet up on the dashboard. The Maverick eyed Jade and Jade flashed her bright, white smile, twitching her button nose just a little.

“Need a ride, Sugar?” she asked.

The Maverick shrugged and hopped into the passenger seat, a break from his characteristic solitude. Jade took off trailing dust, screeching around a corner and off into the distance.

God, how James had hated that smile. So…smug.

As time progressed though, Jade started to intrigue him.

Gutterville was a shithole. James knew it; he had created it, had lived in it. How this mysterious, versatile woman could exist within the city was a question that haunted him more and more each time he saw her. So he let her stick around (or at least he convinced himself he had made the choice). She roamed in the background for a little while, at first, traveling the streets of Gutterville with a resolve that he wouldn’t recognize until later, in chapter twenty, when she appeared once again to divert The Maverick’s—and James’—attention after a nice little run-in with the FBI.

A stream of smashed cars lay behind them as she stood with her legs slightly apart, leather jacket slung over her shoulder. James stared into her blue eyes, captured in detail on page 154; the pupils so deep it was like falling into the ocean from space. Sweat glistened on her ample cleavage, the exposed skin beneath her curve-gripping wardrobe tinted a golden brown from the southern sun. That was the first moment James felt an inkling of something other than disdain for her, something more akin to awe.

“Like Ma always used to say,” Jade said, winking at Nick with a smoking cannon of a gun clutched at her side. “Keep ‘em wanting more.”

James stared at that line of dialogue for an hour that day before throwing down his pen and turning off his desk lamp. And even then, those same lines stared up at him, taunting him in the fading daylight.

James spent the rest of that evening and all of the next day out in the streets, avoiding his desk. He roamed through the park, coming out at the south exit and passing Midtown down to the Flatiron district. He stared up at the buildings as he crossed one intersection after another, eventually stopping in at a coffee shop buried between a Duane Reade and a bookstore. It was here that James met Carol.

James first noticed Carol because of her eyes, blue with long lashes. Her eyes were familiar, deep, like a pool with no bottom. She sat alone at a table with an open laptop and a cup of coffee without a lid, steam wafting near her face as she typed away. She gave a slight grin that seemed almost mischievous. James ordered his coffee—black—and sat at a table close by, waiting a moment before turning to face her.

“Seems to me,” he said, flashing a quick, hopefully disarming smile. “Like whatever you’re writing is seriously amusing.”

“Huh?” she said, absently. She glanced at him and squinted curiously.

“I couldn’t help but notice you grinning over here,” James said.

The woman smiled wider, her cheeks flushing as she gave James a quick head-to-toe scan.

“Have I?” she said, touching her chest daintily. “I didn’t even notice, how embarrassing.”

“Embarrassing, no,” James said, shaking his head. “You look happy. If anything we need more vibes like that in this godforsaken city.”

She laughed, nodding. James held his hand out and introduced himself. She took his hand and her skin was soft. James watched her tongue touch the roof of her mouth as she formed the “L” in Carol, and he was about to ask if he could join her when she looked away quickly, towards her laptop screen, frowning.

“Everything okay?” he asked.

“Sure,” she said, her hand stroking the side of her computer. She gently closed the computer screen and turned back to him. “Is everything okay with you, James?” she asked.

The way she said his name made his stomach tingle.

“I’m fine,” James said, feeling a strange sense of accomplishment for just a moment before he noticed the wedding ring on Carol’s right finger. His face dropped suddenly. He looked up at Carol’s, at the faint scatter of freckles on her cheeks, hair pulled back in a bouncy ponytail.

“You look really familiar,” she said, squinting. Suddenly her eyes shot open. She dropped James hand and reached into her purse and—to James’ dismay—pulled out a book.

On the front cover, a twenty-two-year-old male model stood bare-chested and slightly-bloodied in all the right places, holding a machine gun in one hand, a beautiful brunette in the other. The model—a man James had never met or cared to meet—had been commissioned to do all the cover art for the Nick Maverick series. Carol flipped the book over to show the back cover, where a decade-old portrait of twenty-five year old James smiled up at them. Carol grinned, her eyes glazing over for a moment.

“It is you, isn’t it?” she said.

James pursed his lips and held his hands up. “In the flesh.”

“You think you could sign this for me?” she asked.

James reluctantly took the book and opened it to the inside cover. Carol handed him a pen and he was about to start writing when she cleared her throat. James looked up.

“I love your work,” she whispered, leaning forward and touching James’ knee. She gave him a shy stare, glancing at her computer then back at him. “We should hang out some time. I’d love to, you know…pick your brain.”

James frowned, his mind instantly turning back to the papers on his desk. Back to Jade. He left the store a few minutes later, promptly returning home to sit in his office with a pen in hand. And that had been pretty much the end of all discussions.

Which was exactly when the block set in.

Up until that point—even with all this new attention directed at Jade—James had found it surprisingly easy to move forward with the story. The Maverick had been James’ pride and joy, the closest thing he had to a best friend, and there was still enough of that sentiment there to see what came next.

The next gunfight, the next mystery, the next moment of comic relief.

James held no misconceptions though; if he were any normal resident of Gutterville, with the same middle-aged physical attributes he possessed every morning—waking up in his Manhattan condo to trudge into the bathroom and take a piss and brush his teeth and stare at his increasingly-wrinkled face in the mirror—stepping in Nick Maverick’s way would probably yield a boot to the skull, or him using James’ spinal column as floss, or ripping his leg off and beating him to death with it, or eating cereal out of a bowl made from his skull, etc. But as creator relating with created? James and The Maverick had always had a healthy, non-violent relationship.

Of course, Jade changed all of that.

James realized right away that Jade’s advances towards Nick were warranted: The Maverick was a powerful man, and Jade—like most women James had come in contact with throughout the years—was attracted to said power. James understood this about her. In fact, he took solace in it because—in all reality—who was more powerful than him? He had created her and Nick Maverick, dammit, had given them both the most precious of all commodities:

Life.

There’s nothing greater than that.

And yet still, Jade stayed focused on Nick Maverick, this man with—when you got down to the nuts and bolts of it all—nothing to really offer more than a few cheap thrills. This man who had captured Jade’s interest was nothing more than a mediocre stunt artist posing as a bad boy. James looked at The Maverick then—really looked at him: the straggly blond hair, the piercing green eyes, the hawk tattoo blazing up the right side of his neck. He studied the toned muscles and gruff voice and sly over-confidence. James looked at The Maverick fully for the first time since he’d created him, and realized how shallow this man had turned out to be. The Maverick and his one liners—dialogue James had once thought witty and clever—now felt like broken glass grinding against his nerves, even more so after he realized Jade was falling in love with the man.

And it was true, he knew it the moment the thought entered his mind. She was in love.

James first saw it that day in the alley behind the hardware store on the main street of Downtown Gutterville. Jade and Nick were waiting on Devin Will, The Maverick’s childhood friend—only friend in Gutterville, to tell the truth—who also happened to be his weapons supplier. James was just beginning to wonder how Jade had suddenly become The Maverick’s sidekick when she faced Nick, placing one hand on his chest, the other in the palm of his right hand.

“I don’t know what’s happening here, Sugar. I just—” Her voice faltered a bit and she stared into The Maverick’s eyes, reaching up to caress his cheek before looking away. She looked out at the dusty alley ahead of them, shook her head once then turned to him again, staring at him longingly. “Just take care of yourself out there.”

James glared at The Maverick as the man flicked his spent cigarette onto a parked car, dropped Jade’s hand and turned away.

“I’m always careful, babe,” he said, broodingly flicking his curly hair out of his face. “Don’t worry about me.”

James tried tossing a rabid dog in the mix just to shut him the hell up, but it didn’t work.

It was around that time that Jade’s dialogue started to change and elongate, expanding from brief quotes to long-winded exposés. Revealing prose that managed to be both emotionally impactful and seductive in its delivery. James learned things about her in these moments that transformed the last bit of contempt he held for her into something much greater, a feeling that even the words admiration and love couldn’t describe.

“Nick?” she said to The Maverick one evening, in the tiny kitchen at her apartment in West Gutterville. Covered in grime, she and The Maverick stood side by side, cleaning their pistols and the M-16 he’d taken off that Colombian drug lord’s chubby sidekick. Stacking packages of C-4 in the duffel bag at their feet, Jade glanced at Nick.

“You ever read any Chaucer?” she asked.

At the question, James burst out laughing at his desk, hysterics so all-consuming he had to drop his pen for a moment, shaking his head and swiping at his eyes and hacking until spit dripped from his lips to the carpet. He laughed for two straight minutes before he finally got a hold of himself, long enough to grab his pen and reread the lines.

The Maverick. Chaucer.

James fell out laughing again.

“No, ma’am,” The Maverick eventually responded with a smirk. “Can’t say I ever even heard of this Choicer.”

Chaucer,” Jade said, glancing up at Nick and smiling, the set of her lips displaying both shyness and cunning. “And he’s a great poet. Was a great poet, in the 14th century.”

“Uh huh,” The Maverick said, scrubbing the inside of the M-16’s barrel with a toothbrush.

Jade dropped her pistol and turned to The Maverick, leaning against the counter and sizing him up.

“He wrote this one poem I love, ‘The Wife of Bath’s Tale.’”

“That’s nice, Babe,” The Maverick said, jamming a bullet into a clip.

“There’s this line,” Jade said, stepping closer to Nick. “My favorite. It goes: ‘Filth and old age, I’m sure you will agree, are powerful wardens upon chastity.’” She paused, watching The Maverick put the clip down and raise his eyes towards the ceiling, cranking that particular syntax through his caveman brain processors.

“That rhymes,” he said finally.

“Yes,” Jade said, nodding. “It’s a poem.”

“Poems don’t always rhyme, babe,” The Maverick said, almost gloatingly.

“Also true,” she said quietly, touching his arm.

“Alright,” he said. “You got me. What’s this Chancer guy talking about?”

“Chaucer,” she corrected again, taking another step forward so they were standing face-to-face, lust in her eyes as she brushed a finger across The Maverick’s mud-stained cheek. She rubbed the residue between her fingers. “And he’s saying that being old and dirty is a turn-off.”

“That right?” The Maverick said slyly. “That what you think?”

“I mean, I understand the being old part,” she started, wrapping her arms around his waist and looking up at him, biting her bottom lip. “But I think he was a little off about the dirt.”

James’ smile disappeared right then, and if it wasn’t for the explosion that rocked Jade’s apartment just seconds later, he doesn’t think he’d have been able to make it through the next few pages.

It was that day James realized two profound truths about his relationship with this woman  The Maverick didn’t deserve her.

Sure, Nick Maverick was the ultimate sex symbol. The one man every woman in Gutterville would gladly cheat on their husbands and boyfriends with oh yes, The Maverick gladly accepted his role. In the process though, the man ended up flirting with the outer reaches of infidelity on a near-daily basis, proving himself anything but true to Jade. Like Chapter 32, when Jade went off in search for disguises in the Downtown Gutterville Mall—disguises that The Maverick should have been looking for himself. Jade was gone for all of five minutes when a sexy young blonde in a mini-skirt and mid-riff tank top walked into Nick’s line of sight. The Maverick was on her in a second, cornering her by a hot dog stand, mouth an inch from her ear, whispering utter nonsense while Jade walked past display after display, frantic with worry. James ground his teeth so much that day his head started pounding.

One evening, James couldn’t take it anymore and summoned enough courage to sit at his desk and try to turn Jade’s eyes skyward towards James’, hoping maybe his face would be present somewhere in the stars shining above Gutterville. She smiled as she looked up, like a woman tilting her head back at the touch of her lover’s finger under her chin. James’ softened for a moment, rubbing the paper between his fingers lovingly. Jade reached over and touched The Maverick’s hands, and James watched painfully as Nick wrapped his fingers around hers, engulfing them in his massive palms, the first sign of genuine affection he’d shown her throughout the entire story.

James jumped up, knocking his chair back, storming away from the papers. He spent an hour standing at his window with his fists clenched, staring down at Central Park and all the tiny people strolling and laughing and pissing him off. He didn’t return to his desk until late that evening, after he’d calmed down, had a couple sips of scotch and eaten a bowl of peanuts. But by then his simmering resentment was cemented.

Because, really, who is Nick Maverick?

A freeloader, James answered himself. He is a freeloader.

Showing absolutely no gratitude, no sense of appreciation for the good will he had been born into, Nick Maverick traveled self-righteously through a world that literally bent its very laws of physics around his will. If it wasn’t for James, Nick Maverick would have died five books ago. His help was well-documented and not simply occasional. It was readily apparent in the discarded knife he’d placed in the warehouse while Nick was tied up by the Haitian warlord, awaiting a rusty machete to the throat. The overlooked pistol left in his ankle holster while Nick glared into the fiery eyes of the sadistic KKK member tweaking on bad rocks. If it wasn’t for James, Nick Maverick would have been buried in five different places out in the Everglades before anybody even knew who the fuck The Maverick was!

End of story! Goodbye! Do not pass go, do not collect your two hundred measly fucking dollars!

And what then?

Nevertheless, to James’ dismay, The Maverick—instead of recognizing his mortality and approaching his circumstances with humble gratitude towards the man who had fashioned his survival—continued smiling his sly smile, brandishing his knife or happened-upon nine millimeter or spontaneously-materialized coil of razor wire as if they had all been right there next to his leg the entire time. All with Jade always standing nearby, grinning and wide-eyed with sickening admiration.

All of this to say it was inevitable that the thought would eventually enter James’ head, the seed that developed into a festering sore of an idea. He played around with it in his mind for weeks before it finally settled into a believable scenario.

The crux of the problem came down to this: James was not a murderer. And even if he was, he couldn’t get rid of the only hero he’d ever truly known. Nick was a part of him, whether James liked it or not. And Jade was The Maverick’s girl. Whether James accepted it or not.

James told himself these things, which kept the urge at bay for a little while. Then one evening he sat staring at the paper, throat clenched as Jade and The Maverick stumbled through the front door of Nick’s apartment, into his sparsely furnished bedroom. A single dresser stood in the corner, a bare mattress in the middle of the floor which Jade fell back on happily, squirming with desire. Pulling The Maverick on top of her, Jade wrapped her arms and legs around him, swarming The Maverick with every inch of her body, biting, sucking, teasing, ripping. Flipping him over, Jade climbed The Maverick as if she meant to conquer him, and screamed with an ecstasy that instantly shattered James’ resolve.

When they were done, Jade looked up at Nick Maverick, the white blankets falling just below her breasts. As if sensing her gaze, The Maverick turned from the sliding glass door leading out to his balcony, overlooking all of Gutterville. He stood before Jade completely nude, the moon illuminating him in a milky glow.

“I love you,” Jade said.

The words were like a gunshot to James midsection. He dropped his pen and bent over, holding his stomach and chest and biting down on his tongue, stifling the moan that threatened to tear his throat apart. Jumping away from his desk, his eyes stinging with tears, James ran to the living room and grabbed the bottle of whiskey from the top shelf of his liquor cabinet. Bringing it back to the room with him, he yanked off the cap and downed a quarter before he was able to look back at the jagged lines of script. And there she rested, sweat dripping on The Maverick’s sheets, her taut thighs glowing in the moonlight.

Frank called a few minutes later. James glances back at the phone lying on the futon and sighs as the light flickers, the phone buzzing against the fabric.

James clenches his jaw and squeezes the whiskey bottle in his fist nearly to the point of shattering it, then slowly relaxes, taking a deep breath and nodding.

Accepting the task ahead of him.

His free hand hovers over the papers on his desk as he stares menacingly at The Maverick. Picking up the pen, he rolls it between his fingers, cracking his neck and plopping back down on his chair. James closes his eyes and feels a tear slip down his cheek as he touches pen to paper.

The Maverick takes a tentative step towards Jade, opens his mouth, closes it again, turns his head to the side a little, thoughtful, scratching his stomach.

“I-” he says, unsteadily, then clears his throat. “I love you too.” The way he says it, it’s almost as if he’s surprised.

James’ hand goes to work then, possessed, stabbing the pen into the next few words. Running on instinct now, James is surprised at the fury that flares up in him, as if a fire has been set in his very soul. Jade coaxes The Maverick back to bed, sliding across the sheets and tucking herself beneath Nick’s arms. Then, thankfully, James is able to move away from the couple, into the muggy, night-time air of Gutterville, right outside The Maverick’s apartment. James takes a moment to glance around, savor the serenity of the scene, before a van screeches to a halt right outside The Maverick’s building.

The van’s side door opens and three men sporting jet-black ski masks jump out, followed by a fourth man, blurry for a moment in the haze of streetlight. He takes a few steps forward and his face clears, revealing a slightly distraught Devin Will, The Maverick’s best friend and weapons supplier. Devin looks like he’s been knocked around a little, a fresh cut beneath his right eye, his left just starting to swell. But there’s also a gleam of elation in his stare as he walks around the van and approaches the passenger door, opening it. A sandaled foot drops to the ground, then another, and the Colombian drug lord from Chapter 20 emerges, surveying the area with a measured glare before settling on The Maverick’s apartment building.

“You are sure,” he says, turning back to Devin Will, who manages to meet the drug lord’s eyes without too much fear in his own. “He is here?”

“Positive,” Devin says. “Now, about my payment. I think—”

“You will get your money, puta,” the drug lord says, turning back to the van and pulling out a four foot long rusty machete. He studies in the moonlight, turning it over, then glances at Devin. “When The Maŕicon’s head is nailed to my wall, you will get your money.”

“The Mary-what?” Devin says, looking confused for a moment before nodding with recognition. “Oh, you mean The Maverick, right?”

The drug lord gives Devin a wary look then turns away, nodding at the three masked men as they each pull sleek black M-16s out of the van. The men immediately hop into action, whispering commands in Spanish. As soon as they’re clear of the van, another three men emerge from the back, wearing the same black masks and holding identical black M-16s. The six of them approach the front door of the apartment building with the drug lord close behind, strutting with his machete hanging loosely at his side. James can’t help smiling at the fluidity of the scene as the group moves with soldier-like precision through each floor up to the fourth, where Nick Maverick’s apartment door stands at the very end of the hall.

And yes, James also feels a slight amount of guilt, he’s not a monster. The guilt is almost undetectable, but it’s there. He tries to dispel it by telling himself there’s nothing he could do to stop the Colombians now, even if he wanted to. They’re on a mission, set in motion the moment Nick decided to throw this particular drug lord’s younger brother off the roof of a five-story Bank of America building.

Creeping up the stairs, the group of men move in silence, the only sound the faint rattle of the chain straps on their M-16s, the steady scratch of James’ pen as it flies over the paper. Seconds later The Maverick’s door explodes inward, slamming into the small refrigerator in his tiny kitchen. Six angry South Americans storm the entrance with guns blazing, taking out the sink and the stove. It takes them all of three seconds to reach The Maverick’s bedroom.

But The Maverick, he’s a quick one. Too quick.

James realizes his error almost immediately, an error born from his own ability to construct the perfect killing specimen. Kicking himself for not bringing more men, James watches helplessly as Nick dives off the mattress towards his dresser, reaching up into the top drawer and pulling out his most prized possessions: two gold-plated Desert Eagles. The Maverick kisses each one, clicks the barrels together and grins.

“Thanks for invitin’ me to the party, hombres,” he says, his voice low. “Was startin’ to get a little quiet ‘round here.”

Somersaulting across the floor, Nick rushes the bedroom doorway with his guns held out in front of him, barrels flashing. The reports are so loud that James can almost hear them from right behind him, tearing through his own apartment. He spins around for a moment, fully expecting his bedroom to be a disaster scene: torn blinds, broken window, brains on walls, his own body slumped in the corner, bloated with bullets, a single stream of blood trailing from the corner of his mouth.

The room is totally in order though. James turns back to the paper just in time to catch the back end of the extravagant gun fight, The Maverick’s apartment glowing so bright it looks radioactive from the outside.

The last shell casing clatters to the floor, followed by a piercing, heavy silence, For a moment, James finds it difficult to breathe as he searches through the rubble of the aftermath, the torn up couch cushions, shattered shelves, bullet-filled walls. Eventually James finds The Maverick crouched in a corner, eyes closed, breathing evenly. Beside him, his guns lay smoking, the barrels sizzling as a drop of sweat falls off Nick’s forehead. James studies Nick, shaking his head in disbelief when he realizes The Maverick is practically unscathed; aside from a small nick on his cheek from an errant wood chip, there’s barely a blemish on his entire, unclothed body.

“Motherfucker,” James whispers as Nick suddenly stands, studying the debris that used to be his apartment. Bodies strewn across the floor, a hole in his wall the size of a car giving him a clear view into the living room, Devin Will and the Colombian drug lord lay with blank eyes just inside the front door, the drug lord’s machete draped across both their chests. The Maverick gives the scene the same unfazed stare he reserves for all acts of carnage, until he turns to face his bed and both he and James’ let out screams of horror.

Even in death, Jade’s eyes hold that deep, bottomless-ocean blue, her body wrapped in bed sheets no longer white but almost black, soaked in blood. James wonders for a second if there’s maybe a mistake, if maybe she’s not actually dead. Blood shouldn’t be that dark. Then James sees her leg, just one lying exposed and spotted with crimson dots, like deathly freckles.

James drops the pen, sinking his head into his hands and trying in vain to steady breaths that shoot like cannon blasts from his lungs. After a moment he forces himself to take another look at the paper, hoping to see something different, something that can redeem this situation.

But Jade remains motionless, eyes open, still, her lips slightly parted and colorless.

Jumping up from his seat, James knocks the lamp off his desk and slaps both hands down on the back of his chair. Before he can stop himself, he picks up the chair and tosses it across the room, the legs slamming into the wall below his mounted TV with a tremendous clatter. A piece of plaster drops onto the carpet, the base of the chair splitting in half as James falls to his knees sobbing, holding his shaking, pale hands in front of his face.

“What have I done?” he whispers.

Outside his window, the steady hum of Manhattan screams at him. He tastes bile in the back of his throat at the thought of everybody out there functioning as usual, sick at the notion of having to rejoin the masses of roaming zombies, constantly seeking happiness and truth that isn’t really there.

James stays in that position for a while, head bowed to the ground with his hands rubbing the sides of his face. When he finally raises his eyes, bloodshot with anger, he grabs his pen off the floor and slowly stands, stumbling over to his desk. He grabs the stack of papers and sits cross-legged on the floor, digging his pen into the top page. He gets Nick up off the spot where he lies crumpled on the floor and forces The Maverick to look at Jade, to look at what he’s done, wishing for just a moment that he could bring Jade back just so Nick could see the blame in her eyes, so he could know that this was all his fault. Force this imbecile of a man to feel everything, every crevice of emotion, all the sadness, remorse, and self-hatred that James himself is feeling in this moment.

But Nick is The Maverick. And The Maverick didn’t get his name by dwelling on the past.

In perfect Maverick fashion, Nick stands over Jade, takes in her entire profile with one sweeping gaze. He touches his fingers to his lips, holding them there for a few seconds before pressing them to hers. Then Nick Maverick gets dressed and walks out of the apartment. He steps over many bodies on the way, and the entire time James wishes The Maverick was lying with them.

Ten minutes later, Nick Maverick and Jade’s self-refurbished Mustang disappear into the rising sun, and James is left with a single blank sheet of paper. He glares at it, sniffling and wiping his nose with the back of his hand, holding the edge of his desk to steady his convulsing body. The front door to The Maverick’s shattered residence closes with a faint click and, in that instant, the apartment becomes a relic, a tomb of dead potential.

James knows then that he will never see The Maverick again.

Placing the stack of papers on the ground, James grabs the knocked-over whiskey bottle and opens the bottom drawer on his desk, pulling out an old, crumpled pack of cigarettes. There’s one left, which he takes and places tentatively between his chapped lips before rummaging through the desk to find a matchbook with a single match sitting crooked. He pulls it out, strikes it and watches the flare up, touching it to the tip of the cigarette and shaking it out. He drags in deep, lets the smoke sit at the bottom of his lungs for a moment, savoring the burn, before he exhales and glances at the single blank sheet of paper.

James contemplates writing something else—anything to assuage the nightmare. But when he touches the tip of his pen to the paper, the only thing that comes out is “The End.”

James drops the pen on the ground, scooting backward towards his futon with the cigarette between his lips, burning bright in the darkness. He gives himself some time to focus solely on the nicotine rush, smoking the thing down to the filter before licking his palm and sticking the lit end of the butt against it with a faint sizzle and a quick, sudden burn. Then James picks up his discarded cell phone and dials Frank. The phone barely rings before a hyper voice answers.

“Jim-my,” Frank yells. “Buddy, I lost you earlier. Sorry about that, didn’t get to fin—”

“It’s done,” James says quietly, glancing at the stack of papers on the floor beside his desk. Seeing the finished product sitting there like that, a feeling overtakes him, sudden but familiar: a wash of nonchalance, both calming and freeing in its totality

“Done?” Frank says, sounding so hopeful it’s sickening.

“Yeah,” James says, swiping at his eyes and chuckling softly. “I’m done.”

Frank laughs and James can hear him clap in the background. The window ahead of him looks out on the Manhattan skyline, blazing above the high-reaching Central Park trees.

“Where is it?” Frank asks.

“Should be on your desk by tomorrow,” James says.

“Jimmy, always my main man,” Franks says. “That’s great news. Great, great news. Gotta get Milton on the horn right now, but this should light a fire under their asses. Got ‘em on the ropes, Jimmy. On the ropes.”

James stares into the darkness of his office, the destruction. He realizes he’ll have to get that wall fixed, buy a new lamp, get somebody in here to clean the cigarette ash and spilled whiskey and puke out of the carpet.

“Everything okay, Jim?” Frank asks suddenly. There’s a sincerity in his tone that catches James off guard. He considers Frank’s question seriously for a moment.

“Yeah,” James says finally. “Just a little writing hangover.”

“A side effect of genius, my man,” Frank says with a barking laugh.

James nods, even though he knows Frank can’t see him doing it.

Standard
Pandemic Files

Stew

The front door swings open slowly, her heels clicking against the tile as she steps inside. I face her and the smile on her face turns my blood cold. Behind her head the dark night sky is suddenly lit up by a crack of lightning, casting a shadow across her face so that—for just a moment—all I can see are her eyes and teeth. Thunder booms loudly, rattling the living room window in its frame.

She closes the front door, and I’m almost sure that she knows.

Water drips from her fingers and her tight-but-conservative black dress (her description, not mine), settling in a puddle on the foyer. Robby gurgles from his crib in the bedroom then settles back to the deathlike sleep only toddlers and old people can manage.

“Honey,” she says, dropping her keys on a side table. “I’m home.”

I watch her face, my sweat pants suddenly constricting my waist and thighs as if I’m standing in the sun wearing trash bags. I swallow thickly, glance behind me at the pot on the stove, faint plumes of steam wafting from beneath the lid. When I turn back to the foyer, she’s loosened her hair, shaking it out with an expression of nonchalance that brings my paranoia down a few notches.

“How’s my baby?” she says.

“Which one?” I say, chuckling.

“Both of them.” She winks. I hold back a shiver.

“I’m fine. Robby’s been sleeping for almost an hour now.”

“That’s nice.”  She drops her purse and umbrella in the corner. “You know, I was thinking…”

I sigh and relax, air seeping back into my pores.

“That’s your problem,” I say, turning back to the stew. “You think too much.”

She mumbles something inaudible as I reach for the pot, the lid making this clinking sound like champagne glasses touching during a toast.

“Smells good,” she says.

“It is good.  Started it at like six and got this—”

“I really was thinking,” she repeats.

I turn to face her, clenching my jaw. “Thinking about what, babe?”

“About these travel plans we had.”

“Our travel plans?”

“Yes,” she says with a nod, removing her coat and tossing it over a dining room chair.

“The plans we made six months ago?”

“Yes, Steve,” she snaps. “I don’t think they’re practical.”

I turn back to the stove, remove the lid, stir the stew.

“Why not?” I say, nonchalantly.

“Because I have to go to Boston the week after that.”

I stay quiet, continuing to stir the stew. A bubble forms at the top of the thick concoction, growing an inch wide before popping.

“You hungry?” I ask finally.

“Actually, yeah,” she says. I face her again, and she’s smiling, eager. I try and fail to hide my surprise. She’s never hungry, and she’s eager even less. I’m instantly indecisive, watching her nod and smile sweetly like a goddamn Cheshire cat.

“Good,” I say curtly.

“Yeah, I ate a little something not too long ago, but”—she glances at the pot—“that smells so good.”

“It is good.” I put  the lid back on and grab a bowl from the cupboard to my left. “You’ll love it.”

“I love you.”

Holding the ceramic bowl, my hand freezes in midair. I turn slowly to face her, and find she’s moved a few steps closer, right up under me. A sudden rush of fear quickens my heart rate and I swallow thickly, leaning away from her.

“Excuse me?” I say.

“I love you, Steve,” she repeats, softer.

“I—” I close my mouth, raise my eyebrows high.

“We don’t say that to each other enough.” She looks down and starts picking at her nails, a nervous habit she used to have back in college, one I haven’t seen since we got married. She seems almost timid right then, which I find more disturbing than anything.

“We’re always so… standoffish with each other,” she adds.

“I know,” I say, still holding the bowl in the air.

“We need to fix this,” she says, then pauses. “I want to fix this. It’s mostly my fault, I know. With work and all, I don’t pay enough attention to you.”

I feel a sudden stinging in my eyes and quickly look away, to the pot of stew.

“I want you to come with me to Boston,” she says. She steps even closer, so her arm is brushing against my leg. I feel myself shying away, a chuckle rising in the back of my throat. I stifle it, swallow thickly.

“You want me to come to Boston with you?” I ask.

“Yes.”

My forehead flashes with heat.

“What’s wrong?” she asks.

I open my mouth and nothing comes out, so I just shrug and shake my head simultaneously. She smiles, and for the first time in years, I remember how beautiful she is. We stare at each other and I’ll be goddamned if tears don’t start forming in her eyes. The image of her gets blurry for a moment and I realize I’m tearing up too. I turn away, sniffle, swipe at my face. When I look back at her, she opens her arms and wraps them around my midsection, placing her face against my chest. It’s such an unexpected move that my entire body tenses for a moment. I slowly relax and wrap my arms around her and she tightens her grip, pressing her face into me. We stand there like that for a moment until she finally lets me go.

We stare at each other, and when I look down at my hand I’m stirring the stew again, don’t even remember taking the lid off the pot. The stew bubbles and pops and a spot of brown splashes up onto my hand, and I think about what I’m doing. The bitter taste of bile fills the back of my throat and I wonder if I’ve gone insane.

“I really do love you,” she says, smiling.

I smile back, painfully. “I love you too, babe.”

“I know you do.” She steps close again and puts her lips softly against mine. Pulling the bowl out of my hand, she places it on the counter and lays a palm gently on my chest. Her lips are soft, and after a moment she leans back a little, reaches up and rubs my cheek. “Let’s eat.”

“No,” I say quickly. Too quickly. I flinch. The word just shoots out of my mouth. I don’t have time to consider what it means, that single word uttered in that moment. There’s so much riding on these next few seconds.

She tilts her head, raising her eyebrows curiously. “No?”

“I mean…” I glance at the pot of stew again, frantic, my heart pounding in my temples. Glancing around the kitchen, I notice a tray sitting on the windowsill above the stove, a half-dead pair of daisies in a pile of dirt. Lightning flashes outside, illuminating the plants and their brown leaves.

I hate those flowers anyway.

Before I can even think about what I’m doing my arm jerks up and the tray falls off the sill and suddenly there’s soil and petals everywhere, on the floor, the counter, the stove, and in the pot of boiling brown stew.

“Shit,” I say, then louder, more convincing, “Goddammit!”

“Steve,” she says, looking at me with a smirk on her face. “You have got to be the clumsiest person I’ve ever met.”

“I know.” I say, into it now, standing with my hands on my hips and a genuine look of disappointment on my face.  “Shit, man. I spent a long time on that.”

I study her face sheepishly, looking for any sign of suspicion. She stares at the stove for a moment, then shakes her head.

“It’s okay,” she says. “I wanted to go out anyways. We can make a date of it. Drop Robby at my mom’s for a couple of hours and get some Chinese.” She touches my arm. “Like we used to.”

I sigh and nod.

“I’ll wear this,” she says, holding her arms out and turning in a circle. “Go get ready, I’ll clean up here.”

“Okay,” I say. I move to walk past her and she touches my arm. I look down at her fingers, then up at her face.

“Wear those pants I like,” she says, winking.

In the bedroom, I stare at myself in the mirror until my face looks like a stranger’s, then take off my shirt and study my hairy chest, my slight paunch, my receding hairline. I don’t want to think about what I almost just did, and as a result I’m not really thinking about anything at all. So it’s a good ten minutes before I remember I’m supposed to be getting ready. I glance at the bedroom door and walk over, closing it quietly. At my dresser, I grab my discarded pants and pull out my cell phone, redialing the last number on my caller ID. Shirley answers immediately, no hello just:

“Is it done?”

I’m quiet for a moment.

“Steve?” she says with a weird tone in her voice, almost fearful yet at the same time a little excited. The sound of it gives me strength and I clear my throat, glancing at myself in the mirror.

“No,” I say, pausing. “I couldn’t do it. I can’t do it.”

“What?” she hisses. “What the fuck do you mean you can’t do it, Steve?”

“I just can’t.”

“Do you know how long we’ve been planning this?” she yells. “What about the insurance, Steve? You can’t back out now!”

“I don’t care about the money,” I say, and it feels good to say, feels like truth the moment it’s out.

“You don’t care about the money,” she says, chuckling scornfully. “Okay then, what about the life? The marriage? Your son? All the things you hate about her?”

I close my eyes. “I don’t hate everything,” I say. “And Robby needs his mother. Plus, Shirley—” I look up at the ceiling, shake my head and laugh. “This was insane, what we were trying to do.”

“Steve,” she says, a pleading tone entering her voice. “You can’t stand her, remember? You love me and you hate her and she brought this on herself with her attitude and the screwing around and her controlling bullshit and—and the threats!” She yells this last word, laughing almost hysterically. “The threats, Steve, do you remember the threats? This was the plan, your plan.”

“I know,” I whisper.

“You’re messing everything up.”

“I was,” I say.

“What?”

“I was messing everything up.” I pull the phone away from my ear so I can’t hear her anymore. “I’m fixing it though. Goodbye Shirley.”

I end the call and throw my phone on the bed, facing the mirror again. I stare at myself for a long time, then walk over to the closet and pull out the blue dress shirt and black slacks she bought me last Christmas. . I have the pants on and my right arm in the shirt when I smell the gas. My body’s on autopilot by then though, so I’m already putting my left arm in the other sleeve when the house explodes around me.

I get about a split second to realize what’s happened, and in that second—the moment I’m guessing most people refer to when they say “my life flashed before my eyes,” I experience something much different than a film reel of major life events. What I see in that brief moment is a series of images illustrating all the ways I could have possibly survived: if I’d still been standing in the closet, maybe, where a piece of the ceiling could have shielded me from the brunt of the blast, giving me some serious injuries but nothing fatal; or maybe if I’d taken a quick shower before I got dressed, I could have avoided the giant ball of flame that hurtled into the bedroom; or maybe if I’d even taken a dump, seated on the toilet where the pieces of tile that blew out of the walls in the bathroom would have given me a few cuts and bruises on my arms and legs but, again, totally survivable.

But I’m not in any of those places. Instead, I’m standing in front of my dresser, a few feet from the bedroom door, which is a few feet from the kitchen. I’m getting ready, staring at myself with an awkward, loving smile on my face, moments away from buttoning her favorite shirt, fixing her favorite tie around my neck, pulling the zipper up on her favorite pants. I’m doing this when the bedroom door explodes off its hinges and slams into me with the force of a hurricane, sending me flying into the wall where I experience a small burst of excruciating pain, and then everything goes dark.

* * *

She drops the lighter in her purse and watches the proceedings. The living room windows shatter and flames shoot out like tentacles, smoke filling the moist air above the house. Robby rests his head against her collar, seemingly undisturbed by the commotion. She holds the umbrella over his head and shrugs her purse up her shoulder. The frown on her face is painted, disconnected from the rest of her expression. The smoke rises and rises, the flames reflecting hollow in her pupils, as if colliding with a black stone wall. A portion of the roof caves in and she slowly turns away from the house, shifting Robby to her other shoulder and pulling her cell phone from her purse. She dials 911 and as the phone rings, the corners of her mouth slowly start to twitch. She clears her throat as the line clicks.

“Emergency,” the operator says.

“Yes,” she says, then lets out a loud, wet sob. The noise shatters Robby’s peace, and her son lets out a voluminous, siren-like wail. “There’s been a terrible accident. Please, come quick!”

She gives another painful sob then presses the END CALL button and slips the phone back in her purse. Stepping off the sidewalk back toward the house, she stares up at the smoke, wind from the rainstorm blowing it in her and Robby’s direction.  It smells like barbecue.

She closes her eyes and raises her chin, sucking in a deep breath.

Standard
Pandemic Files

From Ash

Setting the blunt down on the coffee table, Jerome moves his guitar to the side and opens the short cabinet next to the living room couch, the one he’s barely looked at over the past year. He doesn’t know why he gets the inclination right then, he just does, a curiosity overtaking him like the urge to pee. Peering in at the collection of random items, Jerome pulls out the small glass pipe sitting on the top shelf, tucked off in a corner next to a black Cards Against Humanity box and a Star Wars jigsaw puzzle. Returning to the couch, Jerome wipes dust off the piece and studies the striped Rastafarian flag running along its side.

The pipe was part of a birthday gift from Sheila last year, back when they’d still been a thing. Seeing it again leads to an oddly vivid recollection of a moment that took place a couple of nights after Sheila gave him the gift. Jerome had been hanging with his best friend and roommate Ruddy (short for Rodney), the two thirty-year-olds sitting in front of the same couch Jerome sits on now, drinking and playing 2K. Jerome paused the game to pack some bud into the brand new bowl, lighting up and taking a hit before passing it. Ruddy took the pipe and held it close to his face.

“This new?” he asked.

“Sheila got it for me,” Jerome said, grinning. “With some Chucks. And some lingerie.”

“She got you lingerie?” Ruddy said, placing his palm against his chest daintily. “How naugh-ty. How’d your ass look? Did it fit?”

Jerome’s smile disappeared, replaced by a glare. Ruddy ignored him, peering closer at the pipe.

“Ain’t these Rasta colors?” he asked.

“Yeah,” Jerome said. “She said they were playing ‘Natural Mystic’ at the smoke shop when she bought it.”

Ruddy let out a sharp bark of laughter. “That’s racist, bruh,” he said, shaking his head sadly.

“Racist?” Jerome said, screwing up his face with derision. “The hell are you talking about?”

“Just ‘cause you a yardie she think it’s cool to get you this shit,” he said, flicking his lighter over the bowl. “Like all of y’all are pothead Rastas.”

“I am a pothead,” Jerome said. “So are you, and so is she.”

“I ain’t no pothead,” Ruddy said, his voice choked around the smoke. “Just ‘cause I love weed don’t make me a pothead nigga, you stereotyping.”

“Nigga, everything’s stereotyping to you,” Jerome said, snatching the bowl out of Ruddy’s hands. He took a hit and handed it back to Ruddy, smoke pouring from his mouth. “And ain’t like I’m the only Jamaican who partakes, come on now.”

“So that’s all you is then, huh?” Ruddy said. “That how you define yo’ self, Rome?”

Jerome gave his friend a squinty stare. Ruddy widened his naturally bug-like eyes back at him, the whites bulging in their sockets comically around his light brown pupils. His wide nostrils flared and Jerome suppressed a laugh.

“Rud,” he said, pointing at the pipe. “It’s just a bowl.”

“And you just a nigga with a Masters degree and a real goddamn job,” Ruddy said, sucking his teeth. “It’s like she don’t even acknowledge that shit. Hate that you done more in life than she done.”

Jerome looked back over at the TV then, the video game on pause, screen frozen on a digital LeBron driving to the rim against a digital Durant.

“Aight, Pops,” Jerome grumbled, picking up his controller.

“Yo’ Pops would say the same shit,” Ruddy said.

“You sound like yo’ Pops,” Jerome said with a smirk. “That time he cussed us out for trying to get jobs at that car wash.”

Ruddy laughed hard at that, his shoulders shaking as he fell over to his right elbow. He looked up at Jerome with watery eyes. “Old man was kinda right though,” he said. “Fuck we look like washing a bunch of white people’s Volvos?”

“Some brothas with paychecks,” Jerome said. “Straight flossin’, in high school.”

“Nigga, who flossin’ on minimum wage?” Ruddy cackled and waved Jerome off. “You’d have spent all that shit on one of them heifers you was messin’ with anyways.”

“I ain’t never date no heifer,” Jerome said, mock-serious.

“Wit’ yo’ double-XL-black-tee-wearing ass,” Ruddy continued. “Pants all sagging and shit.”

“Muhfucka, you dressed the same way!” Jerome yelled, laughing and shoving his friend.

“Whatever, bruh,” Ruddy said, leaning back against the couch. “You know Sheila be saying some fucked up shit sometimes.”

“No, I don’t know that, Rud,” Jerome said, stiffly. “Like what? When? Where?”

Ruddy pointed at the glass pipe. “That‘s racist.”

“You already made that argument, counsel,” Jerome said, shaking his head and placing the pipe behind his back. “I strongly disagree. What else?”

Ruddy opened his mouth but nothing came out. Jerome stared at him expectantly then nodded, leaning back against the couch with his PS4 controller held between his knees.

“Exactly,” he said.

“Fuck you, ‘exactly,’” Ruddy said. “Putting me on the spot, high as fuck, can’t just pull some shit off the top of my head.”

“‘Cause there ain’t shit to pull.”

“You told me she done said some racist ass shit to you before.”

“Joking around, yeah,” Jerome said. “The way we all joke around about that shit, bruh, we live in Miami.”

“Whatever, nigga,” Ruddy grumbled. “I don’t like that shit. Not from her boujee ass.”

“You just mad ‘cause she Cuban and you think they hate all black people,” Jerome said, clapping his hands together and adopting a horrible fake British accent. ”My apologies, sir—good sir—but I must inform you that it is you, sirwho sounds like a racist at this juncture. Good sir.”

“Fuck you,” Ruddy said, trying and failing to suppress a laugh. “I ain’t mad she Cuban, just can’t stand her ass.”

“Get over it,” Jerome said, half-playfully.

“Fine,” Ruddy grumbled, nodding at the pipe behind Jerome’s back. “I hope that shit breaks.”

“Goddamn bro, fine,” Jerome said, standing and snatching the pipe up. “Obviously the sight of it is too offensive for your soft ass liberal sensibilities, so—” Jerome opened the cabinet next to the couch and theatrically placed the pipe on the top shelf, closing the door and facing Ruddy with his hands held out at his side. “Happy now, fucking Bernie Sanders?”

Ruddy threw him a middle finger. Jerome returned the gesture. The two resumed playing video games and a month later Jerome was single. The pipe’s remained in the cabinet collecting dust since that day, Jerome not giving it so much as a thought. Until now.

The friendly but real tension between him and Ruddy that evening still feels fresh in Jerome’s mind as he places the glass pipe on the coffee table next to the rest of his joint, a blue Bic lighter and his cellphone. He picks up his black plastic weed grinder and gives it a couple of twists then pulls the top off and sprinkles a small mound of green flakes into the bowl. Putting the bowl to his mouth, he strikes the lighter and a flame leaps from the Bic, connecting with the mound like a fiery tornado, the weed first blackening then turning bright red.

Jerome sucks in a deep breath, leans back against the couch and exhales.

***

Parking his Corolla at the gas pump closest to the exit, Rodney hops out and walks towards the convenience store whistling the tune to Kanye’s “Runaway.” He pulls the front door and his arm jerks as it sticks, un-moving. Frowning, Rodney tries the door again a couple of pulls, the steel-bolt lock clanking loudly inside the metal frame. He glances up at the neon sign above the door, the word Open flashing red. Two of the fluorescent lights inside are flickering, the rest of the place lit up bright.

Rodney peers through the front door towards the cashier counter, hidden behind bulletproof glass. A short middle-aged Hispanic man with black large-frame glasses sits in the enclosure on a patio chair watching the news on a tiny television set mounted high on the wall, next to rows of cigarettes. A paper Cuban flag is pasted to the wall next to the TV, the word libre written in cursive just below the bottom blue stripe. Behind the man, more bulletproof glass with small nicks and cracks in it overlooks the gas pumps and the parking lot. A window is set at chest level in this external glass, with a small built-in tray for passing money and credit cards sitting just above a larger metal bin for receiving purchased items.

Rodney walks over to the window and stares at the cashier’s back. The man doesn’t acknowledge him, just keeps staring at the TV. On the screen a news broadcaster’s talking, the volume too low behind the glass for Rodney to hear. The broadcaster’s face floats above a headline that Rodney’s just starting to read—Breaking News: Authorities Unable to Identify Source of Mysterious—when the image disappears and is replaced by a commercial for Tide pods.

Rodney clears his throat and raps his knuckles against the window. The cashier’s neck bunches up around the collar of his work shirt as he turns, pulling  his glasses down his nose and looking Rodney up and down. Rodney widens his eyes at the man and motions towards the locked entrance.

“Why you closed up already?” he says, pulling his phone out of his pocket and glancing at the time. He holds the display up to the window. “It ain’t even nine yet.”

“We lock di doors at eight,” the man says, his slightly high-pitched, heavily-accented voice faint on the other side of the thick glass. “Company policies.”

“Bruh, the sun’s barely even down,” Rodney says, motioning towards the pink sky. “You really think somebody ‘bout to rob you right now?”

The man shrugs. “Company policies,” he repeats.

“You mean ‘hood policy,” Rodney mutters, shaking his head and pulling out his wallet. He takes out a twenty dollar bill and slaps it into the window’s exchange tray. “Fifteen on six.”

The man reaches in the tray and takes the twenty, turning to the register. Rodney looks past him inside the store, past the rows of snacks and toiletries and automotive accessories to the line of coolers against the back wall, on the other side of the store from the register. He glances at the short Hispanic man, who’s barely risen out of his seat, one leg still tucked on top of the patio chair as he fiddles with the cash drawer.

“And lemme get one of them blue Gatorades,” Rodney says, smirking. “All the way in the back over there.”

The man looks to where Rodney’s pointing and his expression instantly sours. He shoots Rodney a glare, drops the twenty dollar bill next to the register and stands slowly, shuffling out of the area.

“Lazy fuck,” Rodney mutters, glancing back at his Corolla next to the gas pump. One other vehicle occupies the Mobil gas station just off 152nd in Richmond Heights, though there’s nobody behind the wheel. The street is uncharacteristically devoid of cars, only one taillight to the east and a few flashing emergency lights to the west. At the NE corner of the intersection, a man with a cardboard sign that reads Anything Helps, God Bless, stands waiting for the lights to turn red and some traffic to appear so he can get to work. A small rolling cart sits near him, next to the light pole, filled with ratty clothing and half a loaf of bread wrapped in plastic.

A knock on the window brings Rodney’s attention back to the cashier, who holds up the Gatorade to show him then drops it in the metal bin beneath the exchange tray. The man presses a few buttons on the register, the drawer slides open and he places the twenty in, scooping out a couple of bills and coins and dropping them in the tray. He waves a dismissive hand in Rodney’s direction then plops back down on his chair and turns his attention back to the TV. Rodney takes the Gatorade and his change and glares at the back of the man’s head for a moment before looking up at a GEICO commercial, one of the ones with the green talking gecko. He waits until it finishes to see if the news returns but there’s just another commercial for some detective TV show.

Two minutes later Rodney sits in the driver’s seat and cracks the Gatorade open, taking a huge swig. It’s lukewarm, and the flavor is one he hasn’t had before, tastes almost metallic. He makes a face and twists the cap back on, tossing the bottle in the foot well of the passenger seat where it bounces hollowly among the other dozen or so half-empty bottles stashed there.

Rodney starts the engine and presses play on the Bluetooth app. Jay-Z’s “The Story of OJ” starts and Rodney nods to the beat as he pulls out of the gas station and heads home.

***

Jerome takes another hit and the weed burns bright red in the bowl, looking not so much like a ground-up plant anymore but a hot red coal of some mysterious source; a mystical coal giving off magical mist, sucked from the graying ashes into his lungs.

Jerome’s eyes light up and he starts nodding vigorously, chest puffed out, face flushed.

“Write it down,” he wheezes to himself, his voice choked around the smoke.

A cough catches him and Jerome starts hacking, his eyes and nose watering as he pounds his chest. He swipes at his runny nose with the back of his hand then puts the bowl down and snatches up his cell phone excitedly, unlocking it with his thumbprint and navigating to the Notepad app.

“Mystical coal,” he says out loud as he types. “Mystical coal…rising from the ashes…familiar glow…rides slow like passion.”

Jerome sits back and stares at the words on his phone screen, nodding slowly, skeptically, his broad forehead furrowed in concentration.

“Rides slow,” he mutters, shaking his head. “Naw.”

Jerome deletes the last couple of words from the line, mumbling under his breath. He stares at the phone with his fingers hovering over the keyboard, then drops it back on the coffee table and looks over at the fairly-used Fender acoustic lying next to him on the couch.

Jerome picks the guitar up by the neck and swings it onto his knee in a practiced swoop, a surge of warmth spreading through his chest up to his head as the weed takes effect. He places a hand flat against the guitar, just below the bridge, as if feeling for a heartbeat, studying the nicks and scratches running up the fretboard, the cracked nut on the D string that messes with the tuning sometimes. He’s been meaning to get that fixed but last time he gave it out to his guy Martin, Martin kept the thing for almost two weeks and charged him a damn bill for what amounted to simply lowering the bridge (simply, Jerome says, though he doesn’t know the first damn thing about lowering a guitar bridge himself).

Jerome bought the guitar in grad school, about a year before academia finally chewed him up and spit him out mercifully short of death. It was a frivolous purchase during a break in the summer semester between his final M.Arch courses, the rare and serendipitous moment where he had both some free time and a couple hundred in leftover grant money to burn.

Jerome thought picking up an instrument would impress his girlfriend, a petite brown-haired pre-med undergrad named Sheila who he’d met in the FIU library during spring semester finals a year earlier. The day he showed Sheila the guitar though, she balked. They were sitting in his room at his and Ruddy’s old apartment—near the college, they wouldn’t move to West Kendall until after Jerome graduated—when he pulled the brand new guitar bag out of his closet and hefted it onto the bed. He took the guitar out and pushed the bag onto the floor, sitting on the bed with the instrument placed awkwardly on his lap. Sheila stared at him curiously from her perch on the other side of the bed, leaning against the wall with her phone in her lap and a half-smoked bowl of Kush in her hand.

“Whose is that?” she asked.

“It’s mi—”Jerome clipped himself with a snap of his jaw, squinting at her. “Why the hell would I have someone else’s guitar in my closet?”

“That’s yours?” she asked, skeptically.

“Yes, Babe,” Jerome said. He looked down at the Fender with gleaming eyes. “Got her yesterday.”

“But you don’t know how to—” she started, cutting herself off. “—Why is it a she?”

“All guitars are girls,” he said matter-of-factly, throwing the black strap attached to the Fender over his head. “And I can learn. It’s called a hobby.”

Sheila laughed, a slightly manic sound that had the ability to make Jerome either giddy with lust or unnerved to no end, depending on the mood. Something about her laugh that day sent him into the realm of unnerved, and Jerome found himself clenching his teeth, hands stiffly positioned over the guitar. Sheila lit the bowl, took a hit then leaned forward, placing it near Jerome’s legs and blowing smoke in his direction. She planted her elbows on her knees and looked up at him with a wide grin, her green eyes sparkling in the ceiling light.

“I don’t know which one of those sounds more ridiculous,” she said.

“What do you mean?” Jerome asked.

“You really think you have the time and patience to learn the guitar?” she asked. “Right now? You haven’t even finished your thesis.”

“Yeah but, I mean—” Jerome eyed her suspiciously. “Why’re you shitting on this?”

“I’m not,” she said, her wide grin dropping down to a slight smile.

“I thought you’d think this was cool,” he said. “You love the guitar.”

“I do,” Sheila said, pushing herself back up against the wall. She reached for a strand of her wavy brown hair and began absently twisting it over her shoulder. “I am, I’m sorry. I’m just—I don’t know, I’m surprised.” She shrugged. “Just didn’t know you liked the guitar so much.”

“I love the guitar,” Jerome said, frowning hard.

Sheila shrugged again, offering another smile.

“You know I love the guitar,” Jerome said. “All the music we listen to all the damn time, there’s like…the guitar solos are always my favorite part.”

Sheila nodded, the tone of her smile starting to piss him off, a certain smugness to it.

“You don’t think I can learn,” he said.

“I didn’t say that.”

“You’re insinuating it.”

Sheila sighed, shaking her head. “I’m not.”

“You definitely are.”

“Rome, please,” Sheila snapped. “Don’t start with this shit.”

Jerome studied her freckled face, her lips parted to reveal straight white teeth. Part of him knew that this—this—was the moment to drop what was essentially a non-issue.  But that same part of him was not in the majority.

Jerome pulled the guitar strap back over his head and picked up the bag off the floor, tossing it on the bed next to the bowl and shoving the guitar back in. Sheila’s expression switched to concern and she reached a hand over, palm down next to the guitar bag, about halfway between herself and Jerome.

“‘Rome,” she said. “Babe, stop. I’m not trying to—”

“No, it’s good,” Jerome said curtly. He picked the bag up and turned to the closet. Sheila put her phone aside and quickly crawled across the bed, grabbing one of the bag’s shoulder straps.

“Stop,” she said.

“Let go,” Jerome said. “You said you were hungry anyways, let’s go eat.”

“This is childish,” she said. “You’re being childish right now.”

“Childish?” Jerome scoffed. “Really?”

“Right now,” she said, hand still gripping the bag’s strap. “I’m not saying you are childish, I’m just say—”

“And it’s not childish for you to be grabbing my shit like this?” Jerome asked, pointing at her hand on the bag strap.

Sheila glared at him, slowly unclenching her fist, letting the bag go and settling back on her knees. “You know I didn’t mean that the way you’re taking it right now.”

“Do I?” he asked.

“Yes, Rome, shit.” Her faint Cuban accent became more pronounced as her voice rose. “I’m always playing, pero coño you take things so damn seriously, man. And now you’re going to put this away and huff and puff and get all heated about it which is going to lead to, what, a three-hour fight tonight? Or tomorrow? All day?” She shook her head incredulously, holding him with a blazing stare. “Come on bro. This is fucking dumb.”

Jerome hefted the bag up his shoulder. “It’s always dumb when I’m the one who has the issue, huh?”

“Most of the time yes, Rome. It is.”

The moment the words were out, Sheila closed her eyes, cursing softly to herself. Jerome shook his head.

“You know,” he said. “It’ll be really cool the day I see what the supportive version of you looks like. If you’re even capable of it.”

“Really?” Sheila said, looking at him with more than a little disdain. “You’re going to say I don’t support you now? Because, what, I think wasting money on a guitar when you’re always complaining about being broke is a stupid fucking idea?”

Jerome turned his back to her then, walking over to put the guitar away. She called out to him as he did, and he stood there, staring in at the shadowy closet, listening to her voice fall flat against his shoulders. Finally, after another moment of hesitation, Jerome faced her again.

Eventually they would go out to eat, and the situation would be relegated to the past; a past that would build and build and congeal and thicken all around them, until it was all either of them could see. Jerome chuckles at the memory. It’s funny, how naïveté always seems both pointed and compounded in retrospect.

“Fuck Sheila,” he says out loud to his empty apartment. The words echo faintly for a second before the air around him settles back into the silence of solitude. Jerome picks up the bowl and takes another long hit, filling the room with more smoke.

***

Rodney doesn’t notice the car tailgating him right away, so he doesn’t know how long it’s actually been there. He’s on the highway and distracted, listening to Mobb Deep’s “Shook Ones Part II” and reciting the lyrics emphatically:

Cause ain’t no such things as halfway crooks

Scared to death, scared to look, they shook

On the Florida Turnpike, traveling upwards of seventy with no real reason to slow down, Rodney finds the urge to check his rearview mirror is less nagging than when he’s out on US-1, where traffic and red lights and just the general incompetence of Miami drivers forces him to ride the brake with his head on a swivel. As such, he’s halfway home before he looks up in the rearview mirror and sees only the windshield of the car behind him. The glare of the overhead streetlights makes it nearly impossible to see inside the car, nothing visible to Rodney but a pair of tanned white hands gripping the steering wheel. The car is so close to his bumper that Rodney can’t see its headlights. Rodney glances at his speedometer and sees he’s driving 75 mph. He glances up at the tailgating car again; it can’t be more than two feet away from him.

“What the fuck,” Rodney says under his breath.

Rodney turns the radio volume down and lets his foot off the gas, his Corolla slowing to 72

70

68

The tailgating vehicle remains close, headlights hidden, and Rodney feels his curiosity shift to annoyance.

“Motherfucker,” he yells. “Get off my ass, bruh!”

Rodney’s driving in the middle lane of a three lane stretch of the highway, the lanes to his left and right empty (also uncharacteristic for this time on a Tuesday in Miami, Rodney thinks). He lets the car slow down some more—sixty miles per hour, fifty—hoping the impatient driver will swing around him and speed off, go ride somebody else’s bumper. But the car stays on him, those same tanned hands continuing to grip the steering wheel at 10 and 2:00. Rodney switches tactics and slams on the gas, bringing the car back up to 75mph, then 80. The tailgater’s headlights momentarily appear and Rodney gets a chance to see that it’s a Volvo right before the car speeds up too, back under Rodney’s ass.

“Oh, this nigga wanna play,” Rodney whispers, clenching his jaw.

Rodney’s so concerned with the tailgating vehicle that he doesn’t notice the scene unfolding ahead of him until he’s roughly a mile away, barreling towards it. When he does finally return his focus to the road, his eyes go wide, his heart rate skyrocketing as his hands instinctively tighten around the steering wheel and he lets his foot up off the gas pedal.

Directly in front of him in the center lane of the highway sits a black Chevy Impala, turned sideways so its passenger-side tires face Rodney, the obvious result of the vehicle spinning out and coming to a complete stop directly in the middle of the road. The car has black metal rims that gleam in the streetlights. On the right side of the road, in the breakdown lane, a man in a white shirt and jeans stands frantically waving his arms towards Rodney and the tailgater, screaming inaudibly.

At his speed, Rodney has all of five seconds to react and does so without thought, tapping the brake and edging the steering wheel to the right. The brake barely slows the car as it shudders to the right lane, and for a second it feels like Rodney might lose control and send his Corolla spinning right into the side of the broken-down Impala. He imagines how loud it will sound, how destructive it will be. He wonders for a second if this will be his last thoughts, his last sights, his last memories before he dies.

At the last moment, Rodney’s car steadies, barely skirting around the front bumper of the Impala—so close Rodney could touch the hood if his window were open—before blowing past the screaming/waving man on the other side of the road.

Rodney swerves his car back into the center lane and hits the gas, glancing up at his rearview. His eyes focus just in time to see the Volvo that had been tailgating him slam into the side of the Impala. The tailgater hits the Impala so hard at such a high speed that the rear of his car immediately flies up over the hood and—for a moment—the car seems to be suspended like that, as if hanging by its trunk from a long rope attached to a pulley high up in the air. Then the car flips once, twice, finishing with a crushing landing on its roof. It slides across the concrete towards the grassy median separating northbound traffic from southbound, an explosion of sparks spitting out from beneath it in every direction. When it hits the grass, it hops once more, rolling twice and coming to a stop on its four blown tires, the entire roof crushed down to the seats.

The broken-down Impala doesn’t fare much better, Rodney getting a glimpse of its crumpled passenger side as it spins twice, flying past the screaming/waving man into the ditch next to the breakdown lane where it flips onto its roof and stays.

Rodney watches this all happen with horror, his mouth hanging open, eyes fixed on the mirror. A rumbling rattle beneath his car brings his attention back to the road just in time to stop himself from driving into a ditch. Rodney swings the car back into the center lane, tapping the brakes. He considers stopping to run back and help at the accident scene just as the curve of the turnpike takes the two destroyed vehicles out of his rearview.

And then, just as suddenly as it all went down, it’s like nothing’s happened at all. Like he just imagined everything.

Rodney drives the rest of the way in silence, barely registering his movements as he navigates the car back to his apartment.

***

Jerome picks up his phone again and stares at the few lines of lyric written on the digital note.

“Mystical coal rising from the ashes,” he reads. “Familiar glow…”

Jerome thinks for a moment.

“…burns slow like passion,” he says, quickly typing the correction and continuing to mutter to himself. “She lies through deceit…I buy it…‘cause I’m weak.” He pauses, then sings, “And she’s a freak.

The echo of his words fade quickly in the dim living room. A faint rat-tat-tat of something that sounds almost like applause patters off in the distance outside the corner apartment. Jerome chuckles to himself and grabs his capo from the coffee table, squeezing it onto the fourth fret of the guitar. He picks up the bowl and hits it again, holding the smoke in for as long as he can. When he finally exhales, small white dots float in front of his eyes. He squeezes them shut and, for a moment, sees Sheila’s face as clear as day in the swirling darkness behind his eyelids. She’s shrouded in bed sheets, her face partially turned away. Jerome keeps his eyes closed and puts his fingertips on the guitar strings, shifting them to the C-chord formation. He strums, lingering on the chord for a bar before switching to F, then A, alternating between the three. Sheila’s face starts to fade and Jerome pauses, the guitar echoing faintly. Her image returns, clearer than before. In his mind, she turns to face him; her expression is angry, bitter, hateful, her eyes tearful. The same face she had the day it all ended for good.

To be honest, Jerome had hoped for something civil, non-confrontational. And—as is common—the breakup began that way, for a time at least. Until the afternoon she called him and asked if they could talk at his place. He still doesn’t know why he said okay, but he did. Sheila arrived a half hour later, and it would be another half hour before either of them said an actual intelligible word to each other, their movements coordinated the moment she walked through the door: clothes off, lips locked, hands roaming.

After, Jerome sat in a chair in his underwear next to his bed with his guitar on his lap, Sheila staring at him from the opposite side. Jerome held a small bowl of weed, blowing smoke out his open bedroom window. Sheila lay wrapped like a burrito, her head and naked legs poking out from each end of the twisted bed sheets. Ironically, the sex had been the best Jerome could remember having with her in months, as if they’d both wanted to leave a lasting impression.

Jerome looked at his now ex-girlfriend, her hair twisted into a messy ponytail. He thought then that she looked as beautiful as she’d ever looked, her face flushed, forehead sweaty, freckles just barely visible on her tanned skin. Part of him wanted to tell her that then, tell her that the sight of her face and the sound of her voice still made the back of his neck hot and prickly. He couldn’t though. Far as he saw it, the time for those pleasantries had long past.

“So that’s it?” Sheila said.

Jerome took another hit of the bowl and held it out to her. Sheila stared at it for a moment before looking back up at him.

“Where’s the one I got you?”

Jerome hesitated then shrugged. Sheila looked away, waving off the bowl.

“I‘m cutting down,” she said.

“You said that the other day,” he said, placing the bowl on his nightstand. “Thought you were joking.”

“I wasn’t.”

Jerome shrugged, scratching his chin thoughtfully. He studied her some more, felt himself getting aroused again and looked down at his guitar. He touched the strings, then opened his mouth and spoke without thinking.

“Maybe this doesn’t have to be it,” he said. “Maybe we should just not talk for a little while. Pick a date and meet up for coffee and see what’s up then.” He paused. “Maybe we just need a break.”

Sheila turned to look at him long and hard. As she stared, her eyes slowly filled with tears. She glanced at his guitar with an unmistakable look of disgust then looked away and blinked rapidly, sitting up against the wall with the sheets clutched just below her armpits.

“I don’t want to do that,” she said, sternly.

“Okay,” Jerome said. “What do you want to do then?”

“If this is it,” she said, pausing. She looked up at him again, her jaw clenched. “If this is it, then this is it. We don’t need a break. We don’t need to meet up in a month.” She swiped roughly at her cheeks. “We don’t need to meet up ever.”

Jerome stared back at her for a while, that faint desire to tell her something—anything—still nibbling at the back of his mind. Eventually he looked away and nodded.

“Alright then,” he said. “No contact.”

The silence settled heavily between them. After a moment, Sheila reached across the bed and grabbed her underwear, clutching them in her fist.

“Look, I’m not telling you what to do,” she said. “You can do what you want, obviously, you’re a grown ass man. But I would appreciate it if you didn’t show up to like, any—” She paused, thinking over her words. “—you know, birthdays or anything like that. With our friends.” She squeezed her eyes shut, shaking her head. “My friends. Like, the ones I had before—“

“Sheila,” Jerome said, with just a hint of contempt. She looked up at him and he shook his head. “Don’t worry, you won’t see me again.”

Sheila glared. Jerome stared back blankly. Finally, she chuckled softly to herself, turning her back to him. She put on her underwear with the bed sheets still wrapped around her body.

“You have got to be one of the most selfish people I’ve ever met,” she said, almost too low for him to hear.

“Excuse me?” Jerome said.

Sheila stood and grabbed her t-shirt and bra off the floor, dropping the bed sheets to give Jerome one last glimpse of her amazing ass. Thin bikini tan lines laced her hips and upper back, two dimples standing out just above her butt crack.

“You know I didn’t want to be in a relationship when I met you,” she said, snapping her bra into place and turning to face him.

“Really?” Jerome said, unable to hide his smirk.

“This has all been a colossal waste of time,” she said, jerking her shorts up her legs and fumbling with the waist. “Three and a half goddamn years, lost. All because you can’t get over yourself.”

“Because I can’t get over myself?” Jerome balked. “Are you fucking serious?”

“You need help, Jerome,” she said. “I mean that sincerely, as your friend and not your ex-girlfriend, you need some serious help.”

“Holy shit,” Jerome said, laughing. “It’s like listening to myself talk about you.”

“You swear I’m the problem,” she said, glowering at him as she pulled her shirt on. “But I promise you this shit is going to come back and bite you in the ass. I am as good a partner as you’ll ever have and I can guarantee—guarantee—you’ll never be happy with anybody if you don’t deal with—”

“Sheila,” Jerome interrupted, placing his guitar on the bed and standing slowly, the tendons in his neck tense, standing out. “Shut the fuck up, and get the fuck out of my apartment.”

Sheila stared at him for a long time, her face flushed. Then she slipped on her sandals and stormed out of the room.

Jerome played the entire scenario over in his head repeatedly, daily over the next few months, until the memory adopted an almost movie-like quality, complete with a tightened script and various other small embellishments. His perspective of the memory started to shift and change as well, until it seemed he was watching himself and Sheila’s final fight from an opera box. He started thinking about it less and less eventually, until the thought dropped completely from his daily routine.

In fact, today, sitting here with his guitar and the forgotten birthday pipe from Sheila, it occurs to Jerome that this is the first time he’s thought about her and their breakup in weeks, if not months. He smiles at that. The smile fades slowly. When it’s gone he hits the bowl one last time.

***

Rodney pulls into the apartment complex with his hands still shaking, the car silent save for the sound of the revving engine. He waits absently for a line of ducks to cross the lot in front of him before parking in his spot, #46, two buildings away from his and Jerome’s apartment.

Turning the car off, Rodney sits still and just breathes for a moment, staring down at the half-empty bottles in the passenger foot well. He closes his eyes and sees the tailgating Volvo smashing into the Impala and flipping into the highway median. Rodney shudders, trying to shake the image away.

Reaching for the car stereo, Rodney turns the volume up, Notorious B.I.G.’s “Warning” playing through the speakers. He switches from Bluetooth mode to the radio and presses the scan button, listening out for news reports. He thinks about the man waving and screaming on the side of the road, trying to warn them about the car in front of them. He wonders if anybody’s even responded to the accident yet, much less reported it.

The radio scans through the dial and Rodney listens, pausing on one station with a broadcaster whose voice sounds newsy.

continue to investigate a mysterious gas cloud that originated near the Turkey Point nuclear station an hour ago and has spread out in a five mile radius around the facility. Homestead police officers have cordoned off a large portion of the area and are urging residents and workers—

Before the broadcaster can finish, a bright flash of lightning streaks across the sky, lighting up the entire parking lot so bright it looks almost like a negative image of itself, as if God has just taken a flash photograph of the city. The broadcaster’s voice is drowned out a second later by a crack of thunder that rattles the car windows, static raining in loudly through the radio.

“Shit,” Rodney says, grabbing his gym bag. He opens the car door and climbs out, walking briskly to the apartment as another crack of lightning sparks through the sky, followed closely by more loud, rolling thunder.

Ruddy stares up at the dark, thick clouds approaching from the south, quickening his pace to the front door.

***

Jerome exhales a cloud of smoke and turns his attention back to the guitar, finger-picking out a pattern. The notes ring clear and strong, his fingers speeding up until they blur together into a slightly haunting melody. Jerome closes his eyes and rocks a bit, nodding to a faint, imaginary drum beat, his foot starting up an autonomous tap against the tiled floor of his apartment. The tap echoes, surrounding him, keeping him in rhythm as he runs the fresh lyrics through his mind and out his mouth.

“Like a mystical coal, rising from the ashes.

Familiar glow, burns slow like passion.

She lies through deceit,

I buy it ‘cause I’m weak’n she’s a freak,

But ain’t’ no point to this, B.

Jerome’s voice fades but he keeps the finger-picking going, switching from C to F to A, C to F to A. Finally he strums one final C chord, the ring of the note fading out nicely.

A moment later, a resounding round of clapping comes from the kitchen, as if a single person is giving a lively standing ovation directly behind him.

Jerome jumps up, nearly slamming the guitar into the coffee table as he spins around to face the applauding intruder. He expects to see Ruddy home from work, leaning against the kitchen sink laughing his ass off.

Instead, Jerome is met with nothing but the empty apartment.

Across the living room, diagonally, sits their small dining table. Behind it stretches the hallway to the bathroom and bedrooms. A counter separates the kitchen from the living room area, a small stove, refrigerator and sink attached to another four feet of counter space beneath a window overlooking the apartment complex’s parking lot. The window blinds are drawn, adding to the darkness of the living room. Jerome studies the apartment from his stance next to the couch, eyes wide with surprise and fright.

“What the fuck?” he says out loud. “Hello?”

Nobody responds.

Jerome looks down at the guitar in his hands, as if it produced the clapping sound. He places the guitar on the couch, stepping around it and walking past the kitchen to the front door. He opens it and looks out at the pock-marked lot. A large, beat-up green dumpster is shoved lazily in a corner. To the south, the pink late-afternoon sky is bloated with dark, low-hanging clouds, the fading sun hazy and blotted out by the large streetlight in the center of the lot. Nobody else is outside.

Jerome closes the door and locks it, turning back to look around the apartment again curiously. He walks over to his guitar and picks it up, sitting back on the edge of the couch.

After a moment, Jerome pulls the strap over his head and settles the guitar back on his knee. He stares at the blank TV and the white wall behind it, waiting; for what he doesn’t know. When nothing happens, he refocuses on his guitar.

Jerome strums a G chord, then switches and starts moving up and down the G major scale, fingers flicking across the frets. Eventually he begins to relax, his mind doing what many minds do when presented with something inexplicable: ignore it and pretend it never happened. Jerome tosses a couple of blues scale twangs into the solo, closing his eyes and grooving to the pulse in his head. He riffs for a full minute before landing squarely back on the G root, wiggling his finger to give it some vibrato.

The room is barely silent when another round of clapping goes off, this time from right behind Jerome’s head. Loud, like the sound of a factory conveyor belt slamming pieces of metal into flattened pancakes.

Jerome spins around, his neck cracking painfully as he looks over his couch past the kitchen counter. The apartment is still empty, nothing but his reflection shining brightly in the dark window above the kitchen sink. Jerome feels his heartbeat in his forehead, and thinks seriously for a moment that he must be going crazy. Or maybe having a seizure. He sniffs the air, wondering if that’s the faint smell of burnt toast in his nose or just his imagination (simultaneously wondering if the whole notion of smelling-burnt-toast-being-a-sign-of-a-seizure is true or some urban legend b.s.).

Jerome faces forward again and stares skeptically at the bowl of weed still sitting on the coffee table. He glances back behind him, the hairs on the back of his neck standing up, then looks down and studies his guitar. He positions his fingers over the fret again, then stops to turn and study the apartment once more, the typical familiarity of it all seeming a bit off now, skewed, as if he’s suddenly woken up in a different dimension where everything is both the same as it was before and yet, somehow, not the same at all. The room is still, only the faint hum of the refrigerator accompanying the sound of his movements.

“Hello?” he says out loud.

No response.

Suddenly, Jerome bursts out laughing. He laughs hard, until his eyes water, shaking his head as if trying to shake away the sudden throat-constricting fear. He thinks, once again, that it is all in his head. Then he wonders what the fuck is wrong with his head. His laughing subsides and he picks up the glass bowl from the coffee table, studying it.

“i don’t know what you gave me, Rud,” he says. “But this shit got me trippin’.”

Jerome puts the bowl down and stares at the guitar strings. His fingers find the frets automatically, and he slowly starts strumming the opening chords to “No Woman, No Cry”—his go-to karaoke number. Eventually he opens his mouth and starts singing.

Said, I rememberwhen we used to sit…

Jerome hasn’t gotten halfway through the line when an ear-shattering clap sounds off seemingly—impossibly—right inside his ears.

Jerome drops the guitar on the tiled floor with a loud twang and jumps up off the couch, his hands shooting to the sides of his head.

What the fuck?” he yells. His voice sounds muffled, hollow. He slowly lowers his hands, something on his palms catching his attention. Duel streaks of blood run across both, blending into the creases of his palm like stigmata. Jerome slowly reaches up and touches his right ear, poking inside the canal. When he brings his hands back down, thick red blood drips down his fingertips, glistening in the ceiling light.

Jerome runs past the dining table, down the hallway to the bathroom. He turns on the light and walks over to the mirror cautiously, staring at his now haggard-looking face, his eyes wide with fear. Leaning on the sink, he turns his head to each side, staring at the lines of blood running down the side of his neck from each ear.

Something behind him in his reflection catches his attention, his eyes shifting over to a blurry figure with a wide stance standing in the bathroom doorway. The figure is barely perceptible at first, just a bit of haze obscuring the wall behind it, like heat shimmering in the distance off a paved road in the middle of a Miami summer. As he stares though, the haze begins to shift, congeal, until Jerome can see the shadowy form of a faceless man.

Jerome spins quickly, facing a now empty doorway.

“What the fuck is happening right now?” he yells.

It’s then Jerome notices how faint his voice sounds. Frantically, Jerome touches the side of his head, then smacks his face lightly. He raps his knuckles on the wall next to the bathroom sink, waiting for the sound to register. He feels the smack, feels the knocks, but all that comes through his ears are a faint blip, like a drop of rain water falling into a pond.

“No, no,” he says with horror. “I can’t—no, what the—”

Then, suddenly, Jerome does hear something.

A knocking that seems to both originate in his head and come from behind him.

A second knock comes, then a third.

Jerome turns slowly, facing the mirror again.

What stares back at him is a reflection of himself. And, at the same time, it is not.

The man in the mirror is Jerome, but he is not dressed as Jerome is dressed right then, in a black tank top and gray cargo shorts. No, Jerome’s reflection wears a black hoodie and a du-rag on his head, his baggy jeans mostly hidden below the reflected sink. Jerome’s reflection has its hands in the pockets of those baggy jeans, and—as Jerome stares at this errant version of himself with his mouth wide open in horror—his reflection’s mouth slowly starts to twist into a terribly wide, leering grin.

Jerome tries to speak but when he opens his mouth, nothing comes out.

Jerome’s counterfeit reflection focuses its gaze past him, behind him, and Jerome feels the same prickly feeling in the back of his neck. He spins back around to face the bathroom door and a scream nearly escapes his mouth, cut off by his throat suddenly closing up as he falls back and nearly scrambles up onto the sink. A figure stands in the doorway now, shrouded in shadows from the hallway outside the bathroom.

As Jerome stares, the figure steps forward. It takes Jerome a moment to recognize the version of himself from his reflection, the man who looks just like him and—just seconds ago—resided solely in the bathroom mirror. Jerome quickly glances back at the mirror and his throat tightens even more when he sees nothing in the reflection but the empty bathroom doorway.

Not the figure. Not himself.

Jerome whips his head back around to find that his reflection has moved closer now, standing just two feet away.

Instinctively, Jerome rushes the man. Lowers his shoulder and pushes off the sink, letting out a guttural, primal yell that sounds to him like a wild animal wailing behind a closed steel door. The movement is so quick that it’s over before Jerome even really gets started. He’s barely reached the figure when his doppelganger steps to the side and jabs something into Jerome’s stomach. Immediately, a hot, searing pain spreads across Jerome’s belly. The figure moves his hands rapidly a few more times, each jerk producing a new slice of heat in Jerome’s midsection.

There are five jabs total. Jerome grunts grow louder and more distinct with each one.

On the fifth jab Jerome falls to his knees, looking up at the man with the same face as his. A line of blood trickles from the corner of Jerome’s mouth as he parts his lips to speak. Nothing comes out. He grimaces and reaches for his stomach, something slimy slipping into his palm. It’s slick and cylindrical, like raw sausage. He doesn’t look down, doesn’t want to see what it is. Instead, he stares up at his attacker as the man looks down at him, one of his bloody hands holding what looks like a steel blade attached to the sharpened end of a red toothbrush. The same red toothbrush Jerome had used to brush his teeth that morning.

The figure’s grin somehow widens more, almost cutting his head in half. Then he reaches over slowly to the light switch, and flicks it down.

With his busted eardrums, Jerome can’t hear his own screams.

They don’t last that long anyways.

***

Rodney reaches the front door just as the sky opens up, releasing a torrential downpour right on his head. He curses to himself, fumbling to get his keys out of his pocket and into the door lock as water quickly soaks through his shirt. Finally, he gets the door open and falls inside, slamming it closed behind him.

“Goddammi,” he says. “Fucking Miami, bro.”

Rodney turns, expecting a response from Jerome. Instead, he’s met with Bob Marley’s “Natural Mystic” playing from the sound bar in the living room, the volume turned up so loud he wonders how he didn’t hear it from outside, the bass buzzing in his ears. Rodney’s eyes take a moment to adjust to the darkness of the apartment. Jerome has one lamp on in the living room, off in the corner near where he keeps his guitar gear. Otherwise, the apartment is dark.

“Nigga, you taking a nap?” Rodney yells over the music, walking into the kitchen. “You gotta hear the shit just happened to me.”

Still no response. The music blares, the sound peaking in the speaker with a bit of distortion. Rodney glances over the kitchen counter at the couch. Jerome’s sitting there, wearing a hoodie, hunched over the coffee table. Rodney peers closer and sees that Jerome’s fingers are working to break up some weed.

“You like that shit?” Rodney yells, grinning. “Told you it was fire.”

One of Jerome’s hands come away from the weed, throwing Rodney a single thumb up without looking his way. The beat in the background rides through an instrumental break, Bob’s voice coming back in after a moment.

Though I try to find the answer.

To all the questions they ask.

“Shit must be good,” Rodney mutters. “If it can keep yo’ ass quiet.”

Jerome continues breaking up the weed, silently. Rodney drops his gym bag on the ground and opens the refrigerator, staring curiously at the back of Jerome’s head. Pulling a bottle of water out of the fridge, he closes the door then walks around the counter and grabs a stool from near the dining table, setting it near Jerome and sitting down heavily.

“Bruh,” he says loudly, glancing at the soundbar speakers. “You ain’t goin’ believe this shit. I think—” Rodney pauses, staring at the floor thoughtfully. “—I think I just saw somebody die.”

Jerome says nothing, his face remaining hidden beneath his hoodie. He continues breaking the weed up.

With his hands.

Rodney stares at Jerome’s hands, the fingers moving rhythmically, methodically.

“Where’s your grinder?” he asks.

Instead of responding, Jerome picks up a small bowl off the coffee table and holds it out to Rodney. The bowl’s packed with weed and looks fairly familiar, Rastafarian flag colors running down the side. Rodney takes it, holding it up to his face.

“Ain’t this the one Sheila got you?” he yells, his eye twitching a bit as the subwoofer rattles the TV screen. “Where the fuck’s this been?”

Jerome’s hand shoots up, holding out a lighter, his other hand continuing to break up the weed. Rodney feels a shift in the mood of the room suddenly, goosebumps coursing up his arms to his neck. The song fades to an end and Rodney’s just about to ask Jerome why he’s acting so weird when the fade-in of the intro to the same song begins, on repeat. At the same volume.

“Yo, you good?” Rodney yells. “Why’s this shit so loud?”

Jerome waves the lighter side to side. Rodney reaches over and takes it, holding the bowl in one hand and the lighter in the other, studying his friend. Jerome stays shrouded in shadows beneath the hoodie, though Rodney can see the faint outline of his pursed lips. Rodney shakes his head and sighs, putting the bowl to his mouth and lighting up. He inhales deeply and the smoke hits his lungs like a sledgehammer, sending him immediately into a coughing fit that lasts fifteen straight seconds, leaving him lightheaded and bleary-eyed when he’s done.

“Holy shit,” he wheezes, placing the bowl on the coffee table and dropping the lighter next to it.

The moment the bowl touches the table, Jerome’s hands stop moving. Rodney watches as his friend slowly reaches up and lowers his hoodie, removing the shadows from his face. He faces Rodney and Rodney lets out a short yell, falling off the stool and scooting backwards across the floor with a look of pure horror on his face.

Both of Jerome’s pupils glow a neon-green, the space around them no longer white but blood red.

Rodney’s back hits the wall as Jerome stands. He seems taller, much taller than usual, and even skinnier. He takes a step towards Rodney, and as he does a smile starts to spread across his face, one that doesn’t stop where smiles normally stop but keeps on going, until the corners of his mouth are near his ears. His lips part to reveal teeth that are long and jagged and disheveled, seemingly sitting one on top of another, like a shark. His lips peel back even further to reveal blackened gums, and something comes from the back of his throat that sounds almost like somebody crying out for help, from some distant place.

Rodney tries to move but can’t, his body suddenly paralyzed.

Jerome takes another step in his direction, the music getting louder. The volume keeps rising with each step. Seconds later, the walls shake with the sound, then abruptly cuts off altogether, leaving the apartment in a heavy silence.

***

Sheila sits on the edge of the couch staring at the television with wide eyes, the fiery image on the screen reflecting off her wet pupils. Sitting next to her, Nicky hasn’t stopped talking for ten straight minutes.

“This can’t be actually happening,” she says. “This can’t—there’s some sort of mistake, there’s no way that this is something that—this is a spoof, right?”

“You’re watching the same thing I’m watching Nic,” Sheila says quietly, motioning towards the TV and looking over at her friend. “It’s right there on the screen.”

The fiery image switches back to a somber-looking broadcaster in a newsroom bustling with activity in the background, his face drawn and his eyes a bit sunken as he pretends to organize papers on his desk.

authorities have advised residents in Homestead to evacuate the area immediately. Repeat, a critical situation has developed at the Turkey Point nuclear station and residents of Homestead and many parts of Miami-Dade County are being advised to evacuate the area immediate—

“We have to go,” Sheila says. “Now.”

“They didn’t say we have to leave,” Nicky says quickly, in an almost childlike tone. “They said—I’m not leaving. My—all my shit is here. My job, our apartment, all my—.”

“Nicky,” Sheila says. “I think we should go.”

Instead of responding, Nicky just sits staring at the TV. Sheila jumps up from the couch and hurries to her room, opening the closet and grabbing her carry-on suitcase from the top shelf. She tosses it on the bed and starts opening drawers, pulling out underwear and bras and shorts and some t-shirts and tossing them all in. She’s about to go for her shoes when her cellphone buzzes against her leg, in her pocket. Sheila pulls it out and freezes when she sees the name on the screen:

Rome
iMessage

Sheila’s pulse quickens in her temples, her face heating up and her palms getting sweaty. She stares at the notification for a few long breaths before clicking it, then stares at the message thread, empty except for one word:

sup

“Sup?” she whispers, shaking her head. “Is he serious right now?”

Sheila stares at the message for a while, slowly sitting down on the bed. A sound from the living room catches her attention. She stands and pokes her head out of the room, finding Nicky sitting staring at the TV with her chest heaving, tears streaming down her cheeks. She looks up at Sheila, shaking her head.

“What’re we gonna do?” she says meekly.

Instead of answering, Sheila ducks back into the room, staring down at the text message on her phone. She thinks for a moment, then types:

Hey. What's up?

Sheila presses send then sits back on the bed, staring at the phone. Three busy dots pop up on the screen and Sheila feels the hairs on the back of her neck prickle. Her phone emits a tone as the return message comes in:

chillin u at da crib

Sheila frowns at the message, the structure of it. One of her many laments throughout their relationship had been the way Jerome texted, like he was writing an essay with every message he sent. She’d told him the tone made his messages sound so much harsher, formal, impersonal.

“Why do you have to put a period at the end of every sentence?” she’d asked him once.

“Because it’s grammatically correct,” Jerome said, smirking. “Are you seriously asking me to dumb down my texts?”

“Not dumb them down,” Sheila said. “Just stop making them so serious. You sound like a sociopath.”

“Because I use periods?” he asked.

“Yes,” she said, shaking her head. “And other things. Just the way you type, it’s—it’s not the way you talk. So everything gets lost in translation.”

The memory of the conversation is there and gone in a second, leaving her staring at his message skeptically. She types a quick response:

Packing at home, think we're going to evacuate

She presses send then waits as the three dots pop up again and a new text comes in:

need 2 talk 2 u

Sheila bites her lip, pressing her teeth down until a sharp prick of pain runs through her mouth. She touches a hand to her forehead, then types:

Talk about what?

Three dots, then one reply:

just talk

Followed quickly by another:

please

Sheila drops the phone on the bed and stares in at her open suitcase. Nicky’s sobs have gotten louder, the sound grating to Sheila’s ears. Her jaw starts to hurt and she realizes that she’s clenching it tightly. She forces herself to relax her mouth, then picks up the phone and types:

Fine, when?

Sheila presses send just as a crack of lightning illuminates the entire room, followed closely by thunder that rattles her bedroom windows. Sheila’s stomach sinks and her phone buzzes:

Now

The word’s barely register in her mind when there’s suddenly a loud bang at the front door. Sheila startles, standing up quickly. She looks back down at the phone, at the single word reply, then puts it down and heads to the living room to let him in.

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