As I came to, I was relieved to see an orange glow.
Thank God, I thought. They let me keep my other eye. Oh fuck. Shit!
The pain was everywhere. Every muscle. Every tendon. Every bone. My skull felt like it was about to crack open. I surveyed the damage.
I’m naked! I’m naked?
My chest was covered in blue and black, with red cuts and scrapes occasionally spoiling their continuity.
A large gash on my side had been sewn up, but by whom? And where the fuck were my clothes? Where the fuck was I?
My gaze shifted around a mess of a room that was slightly bigger than my one at St. Augustine. Although Wahrmer never would have let me keep it this messy.
Papers and open books lay on top of a layer of T-shirts, sweaters, and slacks that concealed most of the hardwood floor. At a door on the other side of the room, a few pairs of sneakers and Converse clustered together beneath an unused coat rack.
On the adjacent wall, a table, made from stacked crates and a pylon, was pushed against the wall. On top of the pylon, steam from an aluminum canister with a bright blue dot of light glistened in the orange glow of a floor lamp tucked in the farthest corner. Next to the table was a refrigerator. With its bulbous shape and strange, luminous green color, it looked like something out of a sci-fi movie.
Just a few feet from me, an armchair with cotton oozing out of several tears and rips faced me.
I was lying on a mattress in the corner of the room directly across from the door. I was covered in a thin blue blanket that felt rough, nearly like felt… the least comfortable cloth a person could make a blanket out of.
As I pulled it down, I saw how far down the black-and-blue bruises went. My body looked like a space depiction of Earth.
I glanced around the floor, seeing if anything of mine was lost in the sea of apparel. I couldn’t see them anywhere in the mess. No bleach, either. Wahrmer was going to have a fit.
My eye flashed to the door.
It cracked open.
A guy in a hoodie, carrying several plastic bags, slipped in. He was young, around my age. Dark, nearly black hair stuck up and pointed every way. The unkempt state made it look like someone had taken a pair of garden shears to it. I couldn’t tell if it was styled that way, or if he’d just been too lazy to fix it. Thick sideburns dipped into a layer of prickles that wrapped around his face. It appeared to be a five o’clock shadow, but based on his age, I wondered if it’d taken a few days for him to get it to that length.
He locked the door and sealed a latch at the top. He shuffled in and set the bags on the pylon table.
I needed to say something, indicate that I was awake, but my mind was too busy trying to make sense of where I was to plan a proper attention-getting announcement.
He turned my way.
“Oh, you’re awake,” he said, hurrying over.
I wanted to say, “Where am I?” But that was obviously what I was thinking. I hoped he would just make the answer known.
“Hey, man, I’m Zack.” His eyes sparkled in the dim orange glow that illuminated the room. They were dark, like the pine trees in the woods behind St. Augustine. I wanted to lose myself in them… just like I wanted to lose myself in those woods.
Zack reached his hand out for a shake, pulling me out of the spell of his eyes.
I started to extend my hand, but there was too much pain. I pulled it back.
“Sorry,” I said.
“No, no. It’s cool.” He dropped back onto the armchair and tossed his legs over the side. “Thanks for helping my little buddy out there.”
That’s why he took me in.
I glanced at my body, hoping it would indicate my interest in knowing how I came to be in this position… nude.
“Oh yeah. Taylor… that kid, he came here to tell me that you’d helped him and that you were in serious trouble, so I went over. Found the guys that were kicking your ass and scared ’em off.”
“Scared them off?” I asked. How was this guy able to do that so easily when I’d just gotten my ass kicked? Not that he didn’t look strong. I just couldn’t imagine that I was that much weaker.
He smirked, reached into his pocket, and pulled out a handgun.
Why the fuck does he have a gun?
“Not very hard when you got one of these guys. Anyway, I carried you back here and patched you up a bit. Did a little stitching here and there. And your clothes were soaking wet… hence the whole naked thing.”
“Hey, I went and got some food if you want something.”
A polite side of me wanted to thank him and decline, but I was fucking starving. “That’d actually be nice… if you don’t mind.”
His face went scarlet. “Sorry, I just picked up some bread and peanut butter. I’m not much of a cook or anything. I mean, I have ham and cheese if you’d rather have that.”
“Peanut butter’s fine.”
He rocked onto his feet and headed to the table. He pulled bread and a jar of peanut butter out of the plastic bag and picked a knife up off the table. This table was clearly serving a dual purpose as his only counter. I didn’t imagine the knife was all that clean, but considering the kinds of things I’d eaten over the course of my life, I didn’t really care.
It was strange having someone being so considerate. I wasn’t used to it. So this guy was friends with the cursed I’d helped out… did that mean he was cursed too? Or was he just friends with that kid? I didn’t know, and I didn’t feel like it was something I could just ask.
“So… what was your name?” Zack asked.
“Well, Luke, I’m glad you were there for Taylor. Not sure what those guys would have done to him if you hadn’t stepped in. They’re kinda regulars around here. I know a guy who they nearly beat to death a few weeks ago. We’re pretty sure they’re some crappy kids from St. Augustine.”
“That doesn’t surprise me.”
“Know the place?”
“I work there. Just started a few weeks ago. But, yeah. It’s a bunch of entitled assholes.”
“I’m guessing you work for the state,” he said. He had a serious, stern look on his face, like the thought saddened him. He must’ve been a cursed. But if he was, why wasn’t he working for the state too? Was he a deviant? No. He looked too young to be a deviant. Usually they were much older. I tried to look for the tattoo on his neck, but his hood was too high.
He set the knife, laden with peanut butter, back on the table and dashed across the room to hand me the sandwich.
“Thanks,” I said.
“Not a problem.” He headed back to the table.
“Yeah. Been with them since I was eight.”
“That sounds about right,” he said as he started making another sandwich. He stopped, set the knife back down. “Oh. You want something to drink? Sorry. I’m shitty at this. I don’t usually have people over.”
“Water, milk? I put some hot water on before I left. You want some tea?”
“Tea would be good.”
“Tea it is,” he said, turning and kneeling by a box beside the table. He opened it and fished out a mug and a tea bag.
“If it’s gonna be trouble—”
“No trouble,” he insisted. He sprang back to his feet and picked up the steaming canister to pour what I assumed was hot water into the cup. He walked back across the room and handed it to me.
“Careful. It’s hot.”
I figured as much, I thought, but I was too appreciative of his kindness to snark.
“So… your eye…that’s from….”
He didn’t finish with “an infected attack,” but I knew what he was saying.
I tried to offer a quiet “Yeah.” It caught in my throat. “Yup” was the next available reply.
A sense of urgency rushed through me.
“Oh fuck!” I exclaimed. I leapt up, spilling some of the tea on my chest.
“Fuck, fuck, fuck!”
Not only was the tea scalding, every injured muscle in my body was screaming with pain.
Setting the cup on the floor, I hissed, taking in the cruel stings.
“What?” Zack asked. “Everything okay?”
“Where are my clothes? Shit!”
“What is it?”
“I had some money.”
I needed to make sure I still had my change from my errand.
Zack shook his head. “Dude, they took your money.”
Was that really true? Maybe they did. Or maybe Zack had taken it upon himself to take a reward for his helping hand. Not that he didn’t deserve it.
I felt bad for being so distrustful of the guy who’d saved me, but trust was a luxury I couldn’t afford.
“And by any chance you didn’t happen to grab any bottles of bleach, did you?”
“I’m dead.” I collapsed onto the mattress. Wahrmer was going to sand my dick off with a scrub brush.
My eye shifted back to Zack. He was staring at my junk.
I flipped the corner of the scratchy blanket over it. Picking up my cup, I inched it toward my mouth to take a sip.
His eyes jetted back to his task. As he finished the next sandwich, he glanced over himself. “Oh God… still in these shitty clothes.” He set the sandwich on the table and undid the hoodie, revealing a smooth layer of nude skin.
He started toward a door behind the armchair—one I hadn’t noticed.
He turned the knob. The door pushed open. A pile of clothes unfolded at his feet.
“Shit,” he said, digging through the clothes. “So… what exactly do you do at St. Augustine?”
I chuckled. “Toilets. Floors. Gardening. If it sounds awful, I probably do it.”
He stopped messing with his clothes. “Seriously?” he asked, disheartened by the news. But all I could see were his pine-bark eyes. What had we been talking about?
“Um…,” I said, uncomfortable with the silence. I didn’t figure we’d been looking at each other all that long, but it still seemed too long. Fortunately, I at least could use a concussion or head trauma as an excuse.
Zack shrugged and headed back to the pylon table. He picked the knife back up and cut into the sandwich he’d been making. He picked up a diagonal-shaped slice and shoved it in his mouth, chewing off the corner.
I enjoyed the view his open hoodie provided, revealing smiles under his pecs and a dozen shadows casting under his six-pack. A subtle happy trail of black strands crawled below his belly button, tucking under his jeans.
He swallowed, his neck expanding slightly as he released a cough, suggesting it wasn’t going down all that easily. He hurried to the fridge, pulled out a milk carton, opened it, and downed a few gulps.
“Hell of a day,” he said, setting the carton on the table. He pulled the hoodie off, adding it to the collection on the floor as he made his way back to the closet.
He threw on a bright red tee, an affront to my visual cortex.
As he approached, he eyed my cup. I was nearly finished. I must’ve been thirstier than I’d realized.
“Here,” he said, taking the cup. He returned to the table and filled it.
“You know,” he continued, “you don’t have to live out there… like this.”
He sprinted back and handed me my cup, offering a friendly smile, suggesting the innocence of his generosity.
It felt strange receiving this kind of kindness from someone I’d never met before.
He dropped his ass back in his cotton-oozing armchair.
“What do you mean?”
“I think you know what I mean,” he said. “I’m… a deviant.”
I suspected as much.
“How’s that working out for you?” I asked.
“Pretty good. I actually help house a few deviants. Keep ’em safe.”
“Aren’t y’all scared of getting caught?”
He chuckled and nodded. “Every fucking day.”
“What? Am I supposed to live in a place like this… waiting for the UCIS to find me? Have you seen the news? You know what happens to guys like you.”
“Not to all of us,” he said. “I’ve been doing this for five years now.”
“I don’t think I can spend the rest of my life terrified of being caught.”
“But you can spend it being their slave?”
I shrugged. “It’s what I’m used to. I don’t think I’m fit for this kind of life.”
I wasn’t judging his choice, but I knew it wasn’t for me.
“Better to end up strung up than to never get a chance to be free.”
“Is that what this is? Freedom?”
“It’s the closest we can get to it. But I’m sure it’s closer than what you’re getting.”
Glancing around Zack’s place, I saw something that looked just like my own quarters at St. Augustine. Maybe it would’ve been nice to have that freedom… that ability to say “fuck you” to all the dicks in the world who were so eager to keep curseds hidden away, but there was more to my life than that. Things someone like Zack wouldn’t understand. He didn’t know—couldn’t know—what it was like to be the visual embodiment of everything people feared. It was one thing to be disgusting to regulars. It was another thing to be disgusting to everyone. At least when I was working for the state, according to the oppressive rules and regulations, people tolerated me. They knew I had a place. A purpose. If I tried to live something like this, I doubted they’d be so accommodating.
I spotted my clothes on the floor beside the mattress. They were still drenched from the shower I’d endured earlier. I reached into the pocket in my jeans and pulled out my phone.
“What?” Zack asked, alarmed by my urgency.
“It’s already nine thirty. God, I’m gonna get written up. Damn it. I don’t even have the bleach. Fuck.”
Zack dug into his pocket and pulled out a wad of cash.
“How much you need?” he asked.
He giggled. “Money, dipshit.”
I felt like crap for considering that he’d swiped my money.
“I can’t take that,” I insisted, cowering away from it as if it were laced with the plague. I tried to bounce up but just as quickly sank back to the mattress.
“Whoa, whoa!” he said. “Hold on there, cowboy. I don’t think you’re gonna be able to get back this quick.”
“Shit. I’m gonna get written up! At least the bruises’ll make my story more believable.”
“Yes, you obviously have made the best choice,” he mocked.
“Cut me a break.”
He smirked. My eye fixated on his perfect features, buried beneath his afternoon scruff. He was so attractive, so flawless. I wondered if someone like that could ever be attracted to me.
You’re so stupid! I scolded myself. How could someone like that even think about someone like you that way?
I needed the reality check. There was no point in being unrealistic.
“Just stay the night,” he suggested.
It was a terrible idea. Wahrmer was gonna kill me. But considering my state and the intense pain I was still in, there was no way I was gonna make it back to St. Augustine.
My eye cracked open. It didn’t want to open. Didn’t want to take in the orange glow of Zack’s place.
Everything still hurt. Like tiny needles stabbing into my muscles.
Zack stood by the pylon table, holding a fork. A white, rectangular-shaped box was set where the canister had been the night before.
Zack clicked a button on the box. It opened. He stabbed the fork in it and revealed a yellow square.
No. This is not fucking happening.
It was a waffle.
He set it on a plate beside the waffle maker and stabbed at another, placing it on top of the other.
He stabbed into the box again and pulled another.
How long has he been up?
Zack threw a look over his shoulder, eyeing me. A grin raced across his face.
“Morning,” he said.
“You aren’t seriously making waffles, are you?”
“Hell yeah, I’m making waffles.”
I giggled. I hadn’t had waffles since I was a kid. Mom made them every Saturday and Sunday. It had been their little treat for having survived the week. Although, on special occasions, Dad would make waffles.
Zack snatched a bottle of syrup that was set beside the plate and brought it and the waffles over to me.
“You have orange juice?” I asked.
His eyes lit up. “Yeah. You want some?”
I shook my head. Maybe I was wrong about his life being less free. He got homemade waffles and orange juice.
He kicked the fridge open and pulled out a bottle of orange juice. He stuffed the syrup under his arm as he made me a glass and brought me my adorable breakfast.
“Thanks,” I said, taking the plate in my hand.
He started to hand me the orange juice where he thought another hand would be. It was a common problem, people’s habit of giving things to two-handed people. A serious look crawled across his face.
“I’ll just set this down here,” he said, resting it and the syrup on the floor beside the mattress. He’d placed two pills and a fork next to my waffles.
“Just pain killers,” he said. “Go ahead and take ’em, or you’re not gonna be able to make it back to St. Augustine.”
It was a shame thinking that I was gonna have to go back. It was kind of fun being there with Zack, even with the excessive pain I was experiencing. Before going to sleep, I’d turned off my cell to avoid any texts from Wahrmer. He was gonna be pissed.
Zack returned to the pylon table and poured contents from a tin bowl into the box. I took the pills and prepped my waffles, slowly, feeling as if the muscles in my wrist were shredding as I moved them even slightly.
“See what you’re missing?” Zack said.
“I know. It’d totally be worth getting executed for this.” I took a bite from my waffles.
As the delicious, sugary goodness exploded in my mouth, I couldn’t help but think, Yeah. It actually would be worth dying for this shit.
“Agreed,” Zack said, echoing my thought.
Once he finished cooking his waffles, he set them on a plate and joined me, relaxing in the armchair.
“So, you’ll be fine, right?”
I wasn’t sure what he was asking. My body? Eh… in a week or two. Wahrmer? Never.
“I mean,” he continued, “you’re not gonna get in trouble or anything, right?”
“I’ll definitely get written up.”
“But they’ll see your injuries. You’ve clearly been mugged.”
“That’ll make it less severe,” I said. “But they won’t trust them.”
“A lot of curseds steal shit and take a beating, just so it looks like they got mugged. It’s a common problem, so they won’t always believe us, but it wasn’t that much money, so I’m sure I’ll be okay. My boss’ll just be a bitch about it.”
I cut my last bit of waffle into two halves.
“Well, if anything does happen,” Zack said, “just know that this is a safe place. If you need anything… anything at all, just come here, and I’ll take care of it.”
That was nice to hear. And while I certainly appreciated his intent, I imagined too many visits with deviants would result in me being labeled one and getting executed. A guy like Zack was fine. He clearly had the luck to live like this. I would surely be captured and killed like Margerie or any other rogue cursed.
“Thanks,” I said.