My mouth tasted like vomit. That wasn't unusual. The arm creeping over my middle wasn't unusual either nor the way I felt completely repulsed and sick. I worked so hard, drinking, doing any drug that I could get my hands on, sleeping with any girl that looked in my direction and didn't slap me for my foul mouth as I told her all the things I wanted to do to her. Slurred, really.
I knew it wouldn't be long until Mason was there to pick me up. The small get-togethers, he wouldn't get wind of, but the big ones, he always came and tried to save me. It had been about a month since I'd seen him. He just didn't get it. I didn't want to be saved.
At least, not at first.
I hated him. I hated him with every fiber of my being for what he did to Mom. I couldn't stand to look at him let alone live with the bastard. So I started going out all the time just to get away from him, only seeing Mom during the day when I skipped school and Mason was at work.
But she never remembered me the right way, so it was pointless to keep seeing her. I just tortured myself by staying there and I wouldn't feel guilty for leaving. Finally, I spent so much time away that it felt like I didn't live there anyway and stopped going home.
Mason texted me so much that I eventually just tossed my cell out of the window of my friend's car one night. They laughed and laughed, whooping and telling me how free I was. We smoked enough dope to chill for the next day and a half. I never went back to school after that. I never went back home either. Why would I? No one understood me, no one really cared about me. They all just wanted me to 'make something of myself'.
But how can you do that when you don't even know the parts that make you up, the parts that make you you, the parts that piece together and make you feel whole. I hadn't felt whole in a really long time. I felt older than I was. I may be a seventeen year old, but inside I felt like I was fifty.
The girl next to me groaned and dug her nails into my side just a little. "What time is it?" her raspy voice breathed against my shoulder.
I leaned over the side of the bed and lifted my phone from my pants pocket. My new cell was dead. "Don't know. Does it matter?"
"I have to work tomorrow." She yawned and stretched.
I started to get up, but she grabbed my arm. I winced at the burn on the inside of my elbow. I looked down at it, seeing the bruising from the needles under her finger tips.
"I'm outta here." I shook her hand off.
"Wait. Why so eager to get away?" She rolled over on her stomach, her naked behind peeking out from the sheet, her feet swinging back and forth in the air. "You weren't so eager to leave earlier."
I scoffed. "Passing out and wanting to stay are not the same thing."
"Sometimes they are. Sometimes it just doesn't matter." She watched as I zipped my jeans, commando. "I'll cook you breakfast," she bribed.
I paused. I couldn't even remember the last time I'd eaten. I was so thin that I had to belt my pants to keep them up. I always crashed wherever I was or with a friend, ate whatever came my way, but sometimes it didn't come very often. For all intents and purposes, I was homeless, but had yet to sleep outside.
At her mention of food, my stomach decided to throw a fit. "What do you want for it?"
"Got any blow?"
I reached into my pocket and pulled out the little baggie. "Some."
"Split it with me," she said, biting her lip and sitting to let the sheet fall away. I stared at her chest since she was offering the view. She slithered up to me, unzipping my pants as she pressed her lips to my ear and said, "Come back to bed for a while, we'll hit the blow, and after, I'll make you some eggs."
"Why do you want me to stay?" I asked, not really caring, but wondering why she was offering me more sex and breakfast.
"Because," she pushed my pants down my hips, "my parents will be gone 'til tomorrow morning and there's nothing better than sex after a hit."
I watched as she took the baggie from me with her fake nails. She leaned forward and kissed me before dipping her pinkie nail in and sniffing the little she took up her nose. She put her finger back in the bag and I took it, rubbing what was left of the powder on my gums.
Normally, I would have bolted, but I didn't have anywhere else to go anyway. The promise of food was almost as satisfying as the sex I was about to have.
She set up the lines and after we did them, one after the other, she pushed me down on the bed and straddled me. I rolled with the drugged ecstasy that crawled slowly through my veins as she groaned and moaned on top of me.
And that was how Mason found me.
The door opened and my head fuzzed over as I turned to look at him. His eyes locked on mine before he turned away, but not before I saw the disgust on his face. I gripped the girls hips to make her stop since someone coming into the room wasn't a clear enough cue for her. I pushed her off onto the bed and sat up, scooting to the edge.
I stared at his back in the door frame. "Leave. I don't need you here."
"You do, Milo," he said before turning. He looked and he saw all there was left of me. I suddenly felt like I was wide open for him to see it all, for him to see all the rot and gore inside me. He shook his head, his eyes searching my face. "God, help me. You do need me."
I scowled. "No, I-"
"Milo…when's the last time you ate something?" He rubbed his hair. I noticed how good he looked. He looked like he'd gained some weight, the good kind. His arms and torso were bigger, new tattoos peeking out from his shirt sleeves. I realized it had been weeks since I'd seen him.
I stood and yanked my jeans on, spitting my words, hating how good he looked, knowing that he was happy with that girl that I'd seen before. "None of your fu-"
"Milo!" he scolded, just as a hand crawled around his arm. The girl - his girl - looked around him, the sympathy pouring off her in droves as she looked at me. He touched her arm, his fingers caressing, smoothing. He looked back at me. "Don't use that filthy mouth with Emma here."
She gulped as she looked at me. Her eyes lingered on my stomach before she looked up at my face. She smiled, just barely. "I've got some hot coffee in the car if you like mocha," she offered.
He looked at her again as she came to his side. They barely fit in the doorframe together. He circled her waist with his arm, looking strung out and guilty. It angered me that he felt like he deserved her or anything else that would make him happy. "Trying to lure me out with hot coffee," I mused angrily. "Wow, Mason. Getting the girl to do your dirty work for you."
"Milo," he snapped.
"It's my coffee," she smoothed over, "but you're welcome to it. I haven't drank any yet."
She rubbed his chest and he sighed. He looked at me again, renewed determination in his eyes. "Let us take you to get some food at least. Anything you want."
"No." I searched for my shirt and tugged it on roughly. I realized it was inside-out too late, but left it. I didn't care.
"Come on, Milo. You can still hate me, but do it while you're eating something." I gave him a droll look. "Milo…you look like hell, bro."
"Aw, thanks," I sneered.
"I'm serious," he said quietly. "Please, Milo."
"I'm serious," he said quietly. "Please, Milo."
He begged me. He had never begged before, just ordered me around, dragging me to my room, and then I'd sneak out before he woke up. He'd never tried to feed me before.
"Come with us, Milo," his girl asked. "There's an omelet place five minutes from here that's pretty amazing."
I gritted my teeth. I didn't want his charity. As if she read my mind his girl said, "I'm buying."
She smiled and tilted her head. I sighed, sticking my dirty-socked feet inside my boots without tying them. "Whatever. I eat, then I'm out." I looked over at them and glared. "Don't try to stop me from leaving."
"We won't," she insisted. She rubbed Mason's arm and looked up at him sadly. She looked as if she were about to cry. I had no idea why. It couldn't be for me. I didn't even know this chick.
I lead the way from the room. The girl I'd left on the bed yelled something at us. I could tell she was mad, not understanding what was going on, but I just kept walking. I was pissed, really, because she had gotten my last hit and I hadn't gotten off before Mason interrupted us.
Mason's car wasn't parked on the street. I looked for it, but blondie passed me and went to a big truck in the driveway. He got a new truck? How the heck did he have money for that?
I didn't say a word as I climbed into the backseat. She handed me the coffee and I snatched it from her hands, tossing the lid off, and gulping it down. It burned my tongue and lips, but my fogged brain was past the point of caring or stopping. As I finished it, I watched as she scooted all the way over to press against his side. They whispered things back and forth that I couldn't hear. The drive was short. Blondie had been right about that. We piled into a booth in the back, them on one side and me on the other, and I didn't even pick up the menu.
It pissed me off just smelling the food. My stomach growled so loud and hard it hurt. I was cold and rubbed my neck. When the waitress came, I ordered a root beer and a western omelet with cheese and hashbrowns. Mason ordered the same and the girl got waffles.
Before an awkward silence could settle in, she started talking. "I'm Emma, by the way." She smiled. I stared at their intertwined hands on the tabletop. Mason had never had a girlfriend before, really. He wasn't the touchy-feely type either. I was oddly fascinated at the way his thumb ran over her knuckles, over and over.
"Hi, Emma," I spouted sarcastically and let my gaze settle on her face instead.
She was one of those girls who was gorgeous by design and didn't even have to try. Her eyes, her nose, her cheeks. They all seemed to fit so perfectly. Her lips - they were Mason's favorite thing, other than her legs, which I knew were his absolute favorite. He'd always been a legs man. And she had some nice twigs on her, from what I'd seen. I settled my eyes lower on the barely-there sliver of cleavage that peeked from her top.
It was the first time I'd seen a girl blush in what felt like years. The girls I kept company with didn't blush. They were beyond that point, beyond the level that allowed them to feel embarrassed about sexual things. They'd done it all.
This girl… I shook my head and smirked at Mason. "Not sampled the goods yet, brother? She's mighty skittish."
"Shut your face, Milo," he stood and growled.
I was actually taken aback a little. This was as worked up as I'd ever seen him. And over a girl of all things? Holy crap. He was in love with this chick. I felt my hatred soften a little before snapping it back in place. I rubbed my neck again on that itchy, cold spot.
"Whoa, Nelly," I joked. "Calm the eff down. It was just an observation."
I laughed. It sounded strange even to my ears. It sounded like a sick person's laugh. I glanced at Emma and actually felt a little bad at the embarrassed way she tucked her hair behind her ears. I squinted. Was there a story there that I didn't know?
"I'm Milo," I mocked. "Nice to meet you, princess."
"We've met before and you know it," she countered easily.
"Yeah," I muttered and rubbed my cold neck. "I remember. You held my hair back as I puked." I laughed condescendingly.
"Basically." She smiled, not falling for my ploys to piss her off. "You're welcome, by the way."
I didn't respond to the beauty queen. I just pointlessly stirred my root beer. She was beautiful to the point of distraction, sweet and annoying all wrapped up in one, and I could tell that she had my brother wrapped around her finger whether she knew it or not.
And it pissed me off. Mason shouldn't be so freaking happy.
And he was, I could tell. He watched her when she wasn't looking. His entire presence shifted when she did. The waitress brought our food soon thankfully, and just as I was taking a bite, I saw the ring on Emma's finger.
"You're getting married?" I heard my gravelly voice say.
Emma pulled her hands off the table into her lap, as if unsure if I was supposed to know that. Mason lifted his arm around her shoulder and pulled her close, kissing her temple. It shocked the hell out of me how much I wanted to be happy for him.
"Yeah," he said low. "I asked Emma to marry me."
I didn’t ask when or how. I didn’t care.
"And she said yes," he continued harder.
"That's great," I spouted sarcastically with a mouthful of food.
"And mom's doing fine, too, by the way."
"I didn't ask," I growled and took another bite. I could see I was going to have to get out of here so the food-shoveling kicked up a notch.
"She has a nurse that comes and helps take care of her. I work with her every day on her exercises, but she still can't walk. She and Emma get along great, too. Emma was one of my patients and lost her memory as well."
I jerked my gaze up to the beauty queen. She was watching me with parted lips, her eyes practically begging me to give in to Mason and stop the feud. I wondered if she knew what Mason had done, how Mason had-
Mason leaned forward and glared as he barked, "Don't look at her like that. And yes, I told her all about me. How I'm the devil that destroyed your life and Mamma's. How I killed my best friend." She gripped his arm, tugging on it and pleading with him to stop. "She knows it all."
They stared at each other and I believed him that they had talked about it. It looked like they had talked about it plenty, in fact, but I could also tell that she kissed his boo-boos and made him think that it was all OK.
But it wasn't.
I chugged my root beer and grabbed both pieces of toast, wrapped them in a napkin and stuck them in my pocket, scooting down the bench seat. "I'm out here."
"Will you just eat, Milo," Mason said in exasperation. "I'm not going to make you come home. Just eat."
"You couldn't make me," I spat. I stood and leaned right in his face with my palms on the table. "Always trying to run my life. Good ol' Mason." I saw him flinch slightly at that. He stood, too, licking his lips angrily in an attempt to calm himself. "I hate you so much. You killed our mother."
"Our mother is alive," he replied loudly.
People in the restaurant were now privy to our conversation, but I went even louder. "What she is isn't alive! When she doesn't even remember me?"
"She remembers you," he countered.
"Not in the right way."
"She remembers you in the most important way. In the only way that truly matters."
"What could be worse than her not remembering me as I am?"
"Not remembering you at all," Emma said, barely. She looked up, her eyes dark. "When I woke up from my coma, I didn't remember anyone. Not my parents, or my friends, even the guy I had been dating. I still don't." Mason sighed as if all of this was exhausting. "It could be worse, Milo. She could not remember you at all."
"Doesn't matter," I steamed ahead, unwilling to let them deter me. "The fact is that you ruined my mom. It's pointless to even go see her because she won't remember that I've been there."
"Doesn't matter," he spouted back at me. "Doesn't negate the fact that you should come see her."
"Ooh," I mocked. "Using big words on little high school drop-out Milo. Whatever."
I turned to go, scratching my cold neck and feeling the rawness of my skin begin to set in. He grabbed my arm and before I knew it, I was looking at Mason holding his jaw as he leaned back against the table. Emma fussed over the blood coming from his lip with insistent ministrations with a napkin. I hadn't even realized I hit him until my hand started to ache. The entire diner was watching us with these looks of disgust on their faces. Well, they were watching me.
I shook out my fingers, wincing but not regretting it. I turned to go once more and heard Mason from behind me. "I love you, bro." That stopped me in my tracks. I didn't turn around. "I love you and I know that you won't ever forgive me. It took me a long time to forgive me, too. I would still hate me if Emma hadn't come along and showed me that I couldn't blame myself forever. It was an accident, nothing but. I not only lost my best friend that day because he wouldn't listen to me and drove anyway, and my mom, the way she was, but I lost you, too. I take care of Mom; I became a physical therapist to take care of her. But you, I don't know what to do for you, Milo. I don't know how to help you. If you ever need anything or want to come home, the door's always wide open. Always. I love you, even if you can't love me back."
I hated the fact that he made me want to turn around, to make-up and forget everything that happened.
I hated him. I hated all he'd done. I hated how he tried to reconcile every time I saw him. And I hated that he was getting this great, perfect little life with a wife and kids.
I didn't look back again as I weaved through the tables on my way out. He yelled my name and something about giving me some money. I should have taken it and would have had it been anyone else. But I didn't want his money.
I walked for a long time to a friend's apartment over the Irish Mug bar. Not only would he let me crash, but more than likely he had some smoke he'd front me. After Mason's little haphazard intervention, I needed it. I crossed the street to the bar and heard the honking before seeing the bright lights. I raised my hand and saw the car screeching to a stop right in front of me. He cursed and honked. I flipped him off and kept walking across the road. I heard him peel away as I climbed the stairs on the side of the building for his apartment. The bar was hopping, the music was so loud I couldn't even hear my footsteps up the stairs.
I knocked, but knew he couldn't hear me, so I tried the handle. When it turned, I pushed it open. He had called me a few times, but I never checked my messages. My phone was just a drug ferry basically. I never used it except for making a drug buy or find a friend's how to stay at because minutes cost too much for someone who never had money. I had odd jobs sometimes, but after you don't show up on time for a few days in a row, they can you. That was the only way I could buy minutes and buy weed on a regular basis. But usually, I floated until my next paycheck, whenever that may be, and some friends would front me some things if I didn't have the money.
But I was a little behind right now and owed a few people. OK, a lot of people, and a lot of money. Even my friend I was going to see had threatened to cut me off if I didn't pay him something. I usually just avoided the ones I owed money to.
I'd gotten into the other side of the business a couple times, but didn't sell much of it when I smoked it or snorted it instead. I had my foot broken once for not paying up when they realized the drugs were all gone and it was me who had used them.
I still walked with a little limp because I couldn't go to the hospital without them calling Mason or my mom. So my friend put a makeshift cast on me and I practically dragged the thing for a few weeks.
Nikko's place was dark and I couldn't hear anything but the noise below us. I turned the corner to find him on the couch, some girl on his lap. I turned around to keep her naked behind out of my sight. I heard him curse.
"Milo! What the hell, man?"
"Sorry, uh…" I peeked back, but it was still too soon and turned back around. "I wanted to see if I could crash here."
"Damn it, Milo…" He kissed her, I heard the smacking, and told her he'd see her later, that he needed to take care of something. She walked by me and gave me a sullen look for ruining her night. I turned to find him pulling a black wife-beater on. "Dude, you can't just come in like that."
"I knocked. The music's too loud." I stuffed my hands into my pockets. "Let me crash, OK?"
"Milo." He shook his head. "You look like a heap of hell, man."
"That's because I haven't had anything all day and my nosey brother wanted to flaunt his hot girlfriend in my face."
He sighed. "There's nothing wrong with getting lit on the weekends and making a living off of selling, but you...you're not just having fun anymore. You're hooked. You're hooked, messing with deals you shouldn't, and people are looking for you." He took a step forward, but looked at me sadly. "I tried to help you. I knew you had it rough at home, but…you can't stay here, man. Go."
Oh. It wasn't sadness he had for me, it was pity.
"Just for the night," I begged.
"I can't." He gulped and leaned against the kitchen bar. "Mikey's looking for you. And…so is Roz. Go. Now."
The curses piled in my head. I knew I owed him money, but for him to start actively looking for me wasn't good for my health.
But I needed a place to stay and I needed…something, anything to make me stop shaking and scratching. It felt like ants were in my veins and he needed to give me something. "Fine," I bit out. "Just…float me a J."
"You already owe me for ten joints, not to mention all the blow and nuggets I fronted you."
He looked around, nervous as all get out. My brain was in a fog. I didn't care if I slept on a bench outside. My friends usually came through for me, but lately they seemed less eager to let me stay. So fine, he could throw me out as long as he gave me something to tie me over.
"I'm good for it. My brother said he'd give me some money until I get back on my feet. I've got a job lined up starting next week," I lied. "It's just…been bad lately. I'm under so much stress."
"Classic druggie line," he scoffed. "Get out, Milo. The longer you stay here, the worst you're making it for me." We heard a car door outside and he sucked in a breath. "Go, man, now!"
I went to the window and peeked past the dingy blue curtain that the previous tenant had left and saw one of the guys who always set up my buys from Roz. I shook my head, backing away, and looked at him to help me. "Go out the back. And don't say I never did anything for you," he growled and went to the front door. "Go!"
I ran, but as soon as I opened the back door, there was another guy there. "You got Roz's money?" he asked.
I stalled and started the typical plea. "Well, I'll have it-"
He didn't wait for anything else. His fist connected to my jaw and I heard the crunch, knowing it was hurt tomorrow, as I went down. He followed me and gripped my collar in his fist before slamming my cheek with his free fist. He beat on me for so long and hard all over that I blacked out. I came out of it a couple times, but it was so blurry and the haze of pain was thick. I could never grasp onto reality.
No time passed at all for me. I closed my eyes and the next time I opened them, I was in a hospital bed. No one was there with me. It was a regular room, not the ER. I lifted my head to survey the damage and immediately regretted that hasty decision. My head hurt so badly, I thought I might black out again. I pushed with my elbows and made myself sit up. I touched my head to find a bandage, my eye was swollen, my lips all busted up, and my jaw was so sore, it hurt to even touch it, let alone try to open my mouth.
I remembered being brought there, the cops, they asked questions…
I had to get out of there.
Right then, that was the only thing that truly mattered. I had rolled over on Roz. I owed so much money to so many people, but none of that mattered compared to the fact that I told the cops Roz's operating spots and their names and everything. He was going to kill me.
I had no idea how long I'd been in the hospital and the lack of drugs made me way more lucid than the drug-induced stages I usually resided in. There wasn't any morphine in that drip because I hurt all over so badly, I thought I might vomit. The fact that they hadn't given me any morphine made me realize that they knew I was a…drug addict. There, OK, yes, if I didn't get drugs every day, I felt like I'd crawl out of my own skin. So, yes, I was addicted. And they knew it because they hadn't given me anything to help with the pain.
And I knew I was in deep.
It hit me all at once as I yanked the needle out of my arm how bad things had gotten. I'd ran myself into the ground. It had been way too long since I hadn't had anything in my system and my hands shook as I eased off the bed onto the floor. I tried to yank the hospital band off, but I was too weak. The name on the band read John Doe. So they didn't know who I was. I pulled on my jeans from the back under the bed. My body ached so bad all over, but I knew I had to get out of there.
Once all my clothes were on, I peeked out the blinds to see an officer standing by my room. I cursed under my breath. That was probably the only reason the Roz hadn't come after me. But the cops wanted me for something, and I could guess it was for me to roll over on Roz. They didn't just guard anybody; only the people who they wanted something from.
I pushed the food cart to slam into the bed and then jumped behind the door. When he opened it, like I knew he would, I waited until he came into the room. He cursed and moved forward, bending to look under the bed. I scooted behind him around the door and acted as normal as I could as I walked down the hall. I heard him on his radio as he said that the suspect was missing. Then he argued with them that he'd been by the door the whole time. I turned into the first stairwell I saw and took them as quickly as I could. I heard them coming from the lower floor and stopped. I could hear the crackle of a radio, so I jumped through the door with a peeling number four on it.
It led to an alcove in the hall and I waited for them to go up as they passed. When it was quiet, I opened the door slowly and crept my way down the stairs, out of the hospital, and into the street.
I didn't know where I was going, but I knew I had to get away. It was then that I knew I'd never see Mason or my mother again.
I went to the highway, even though it was almost dark, stuck my thumb out and waited for someone to stop and take me away - give me a ride to anywhere but there.
Two Years Later
I sat and looked at the envelope. It had the results of my GED exam. Finally, I was going to have a piece of paper that told me I had finished high school instead of just dropping out and being a runaway.
I flipped it over and over in my fingers. It wasn't like this was an application into Harvard or anything. It was a GED, but it was my GED. It was all I had.
"If you don't open that already, I'm going to stab you with my fork."
I glared up at Joey playfully. "Shut it."
Joey had been my friend for a long time now. It felt like forever, but had actually only been a little shy of two years. Joey worked at the shelter that I crawled into a few nights after I left the hospital. I hitchhiked for two days, sometimes with a ride, sometimes walking or sitting on the side of the road. I was starving, so weak I could barely walk, dehydrated except for a bottle of water a trucker gave me. They pulled me into the shelter at the church in some town.
Joey was the one who made sure I got a bed in the shelter that night and for the next two months while I tried to straighten myself out. There were many bumps in the road. I still wasn't sure exactly how many days the hospital had kept me, because I hadn't know even what day it was when I went in, but the detox had begun then. I struggled with it, but had already gotten through some of the hard part. They made it clear that drugs would not be allowed in the shelter and anyone on drugs after the rules had been explained would be removed.
To be completely honest, I fell hard off that wagon once or twice. I couldn't believe how hard it was. That first pill or sip or hit after days and days of not having anything was like pure ecstasy, my body betraying me and making me believe it was what I needed and wanted.But Joey came and got me from wherever I was, yelled and told me how I needed to get straight, snuck me back into the shelter and made me promise never to do it again. Finally, that promise stuck. It's been over a year since that wagon had caused any problems for me.