“Jeez, you sure know how to have a good time,” Squirrel said.
“Sorry about that,” Ash said for the fifth time. He leaned against the dirty white wall of the staircase. Both the alcohol and pavement had gone to his head, so he was a little woozy.
Squirrel fished for his apartment keys. “Don’t be sorry, man. That was awesome. I’ve never been kicked out of a strip club.”
“Technically, it was just me.”
“Yeah, but we were there with you. We were the rough riders. Don’t take shit from nobody.”
Ash rolled his eyes, but kept silent. Only Squirrel had offered to help him after the scuffle, to take him home. When he said he didn’t have a place in the city, Squirrel offered his apartment.
While Squirrel fiddled with the key–apparently having trouble fitting it through the lock–Ash rubbed his head. The thin walls rattled with a baby’s crying, animating his headache.
“Thanks for letting me stay here,” Ash said.
“Hey, no prob. Happy to help out a fellow knight. That’s what we do, man. Grr,” There was a snapping sound. “Ugh, finally.” Squirrel opened the door a crack, then turned back sheepishly. “Oh, it’s kind of a mess. Sorry.”
Expecting scattered clothes or a bunch of dirty dishes, Ash said, “Well, can’t be worse than an alley.”
The apartment was cold, like a house basement. No couches or coffee tables or lamps or carpet or even a poster. The garbage layering the floor kept the apartment from appearing empty–a rainbow of fast food wrappers, paper plates, wadded up towels, clothes, half-eaten candy bars with bits of chocolate clinging to the carpet, paper bags, cigarette packs, stains left to fester.
The only two real household elements in this mini-wasteland were a TV set on the floor, and a gray mattress in front of it that looked like it had been in a dumpster.
“This place is crap,” Ash said.
“Yeah, I know, but it’s cheap. It’s not like I’m Lionel Starkweather or anything. It’s got a separate bedroom and bathroom, though. And you don’t need heat if you find enough blankets.”
“Find enough? How do you live like this?” He brushed the gray wall with his fingertips. They turned black.
“It’s okay. Better than living with my parents.”
“I’d hate to meet your parents,” Ash said. “I’ve seen better cardboard boxes.”
Squirrel giggled. “I’m lucky to have an apartment at all. I mean, housing’s at an all-time premium. You can barely find a place available. If you do, you have to have roommates to afford it. Hey.” He turned back to Ash. “We could be roommates. What do you think of that?”
“Uh…” Ash liked Squirrel, but had zero desire to live with him, and definitely not like this. “Give me some time. I’m still… exploring options.”
“Well, think about it. We could go to patrol together. Save money.”
“How are you affording this place now?”
“Well, I used to have a night job. But that… fell through. Do you want something to eat?” Squirrel said.
“Oh, god, yes,” Ash said.
Ash followed Squirrel into the kitchen, kicking aside garbage to make a path. There was a vicious burn scar on the wall above the oven. Two cabinet doors were opened, two were falling off their hinges. The rest were missing.
“Let’s see… we got some Coke,” he pulled out a two-liter bottle and set it on the counter. “And some Chinese food.” Over his shoulder, Ash saw that he had listed the entire contents of the fridge.
“That’s fine,” Ash said.
Squirrel gave him one of the two white cardboard boxes with forks sticking out. “Um, I hope you don’t mind it cold. The microwave doesn’t work. Or the oven. Or the stove.”
“Will it kill me?”
“I’ve been eating it for five days, so it should be okay. If it hasn’t gone bad so far, it won’t go bad now. Right?”
Ash chiseled into the cold, slimy vegetables with a plastic fork. Disgusting.
“Yeah, I’m planning to move out soon anyway. Once I save some money up,” Squirrel said.
“Uh-huh,” Ash said between bites. “And how long have you had this delusion?”
“Dude, you’re never gonna get out of here unless you get a better job. A real job.”
“The White Knights is a real job.”
“Heh. No, look, I’m all for you being on the team, but I think they’re expecting you to already have a stable job before you join up. The money is just an incentive since you’re, quote-unquote, putting your life on the line.”
“But I love the White Knights. It gives me a chance to strike back, you know? You see all this crime on TV and the news, and you think, ‘Man, I wish I could be one of those guys who could go out there and save the world’. Right? To get back at all those people. Did you know that crime has done nothing but rise since 2000? And that in fifty years, one out of four people will have committed some kind of criminal offense?”
“Where’d you hear that from?”
“Ivan. So, that means people are getting worse, not better. That’s what we’re here for. It’s our destiny.”
“You read too many comic books.”
“No, I’m serious. I feel like the White Knights is what I was meant to do. It’s my responsibility to help others, to stop criminals. Like someone used to say, when life gives you lemons, chuck ’em right back and add some lemons of your own.”
Squirrel wasn’t the best decision-maker, but Ash understood where he was coming from. “Can’t disagree. Ivan would do good to listen to you.”
“No, I’m no leader. I’m no good on my own.” He gestured to the apartment.
“Then do something about it. Why put up with shit like ‘post up’ and the constant searches for a few dollars? You could earn more serving hamburgers instead of serving the public.”
“Well, I used to have a night job. But that… fell through.”
“Fell asleep on the job too much?”
“How did you know?”
“Dude, I can already see the bags under your eyes. This can’t be working for you. Why don’t you get a better day job?”
“Well, let’s see,” Squirrel said in an antagonistic tone. “I didn’t graduate high school, I’ve got no technical skills, I’ve got no money for school. What are you, my mom?”
Ash drew back. “Whoa, calm down. Didn’t mean anything by it.”
“Sorry, sorry. My fault. That reminds me.”
He put down his empty box and went into the bathroom. Ash glanced in and saw an assortment of orange bottles and foilpacked drugs stacked on the sink and toilet top.
Ash followed him in. “What’s all this?”
“Oh, these are Neurivex, they’re mood stabilizers,” he said, shaking the bottle in his hand. “This is Athelify for shyness, Droxinil for when I can’t sleep. Then fiber, vitamins, the typical stuff.”
“Jeez, you’re a walking chemistry lab.”
Squirrel smiled, “And this is the piece de resistance.” He yanked a container with a cool blue marketing logo. “Blindside. You’ve heard of it, right?”
“What’s it do?”
“It’s like a mind filter for bad memories. It recognizes when a long-term memory is forming, and removes the bad association with it.”
“And that works?”
“Works great. I use it all the time.”
“How do you afford all these?” Ash asked. “You have all these drugs, but can’t fill your fridge?”
“Ah,” Squirrel raised a finger. “I get them at a ‘special’ pharmacy.”
“You steal them?”
“No, no. I wouldn’t steal. That’s not a White Knight. Please,” Squirrel said. “It’s sort of a black market… thing. It’s cool. I use it all the time. Drugs are so expensive these days. Do you need anything? I’ve got plenty.”
“Do you have anything for a headache?” Ash said as he rubbed the back of his head.
“Light, medium, or hard?”
“Uh, medium. No, wait, hard.” Might as well get the best.
“Here you go.” Squirrel handed him a bottle. Ash took two pills out and swallowed. “That fall on the pavement must have been rough. Too bad you got kicked out before you could get your lap dance.”
“Yeah,” Ash said and smiled. He wouldn’t get rid of her memory any time soon.
“What was her name?”
“Yeah, she sure was sweet on you.” Squirrel elbowed him in the ribs. “What was she was saying to you in the corner there?”
“Oh.” Ash gave him a brief rundown–saving money for school, the ‘boyfriend’, asking when she got off work.
“Dude, she totally digs you,” Squirrel said. “You have to go back there. She said she wanted to see you.”
Ash shook his head. “That’s ridiculous. It was a business ploy, to get more money. That place is a fantasy. It’s where guys can go to not feel pressured to compete for someone’s affection. The girls don’t want to go out with any of them.”
“Nah-uh,” Squirrel said, “First of all, I’ve never seen a girl talk to someone so much before. Second, I ask strippers out all the time. They come up with excuses like ‘my boss won’t let me leave’, or ‘we’re not allowed to date customers’. I never had one say to come back tomorrow. She’s probably making sure you’re a good guy. You gotta go back. Maybe bring her a gift.”
“The only gift a stripper is interested in is money. Of which I have none. What should I do? Print some dollar bills?”
“Hey, that’s not a bad idea. It’s not like the girls check for counterfeiting.”
“I thought you said you were on the good side of the law.”
“No, no,” Squirrel said. “I would never do it. I don’t even own a computer. I just think it’s interesting. You’re definitely the idea man of the group.” Squirrel checked his watch. “Gee, it’s late. I’d better get to bed.”
Ash nodded, thinking the same thing.
Squirrel went into the bathroom. “Are you going to be okay on that mattress there? Do you need a blanket?”
“No, I’ll be able to stay warm,” he said, smiling.
Squirrel came out with a palmful of capsules. “There’s some sleeping pills in here if you need some,” he said as he tipped some back. “And the cold water works if you want something to drink.”
“Okay, good night.”
“Good night.” Squirrel closed the bedroom door, leaving Ash alone.
Ash went into the bathroom and took out a small handful of painkillers. His headaches seemed to keep showing up. Squirrel wouldn’t notice they were gone, there were so many. And if he used something like Blindside, why would he care?
Kicking aside cups and wrappers, he approached the mattress, looking for a stainless area to sleep on. He threw off his jumpsuit and sash in a corner.
He thought about watching some news, to see if anyone was looking for him, but he wasn’t interested. Too many other thoughts floated in his head–Ivy, the White Knights, Ivan, how to find and fight real crimes, Ivy, his powers, Ivy.
Despite all that had happened, he couldn’t stop thinking about her. Strange how women worked like that. Her hair, her eyes, her smile, her natural smell that had permeated through the cloud of body odor and flowers.
Squirrel was right. He had to see her again. After their next patrol, he would have to walk there. Maybe he could be some sort of bodyguard for her, if she did have a stalker. Then they could spend all kinds of time together.
“God,” he said to himself, “Here I am, pyrokinetic, and I’m in puppy love.”
He idly grabbed a piece of garbage off the floor and sloughed off his frustration into setting it on fire, certain that neither the sprinklers or smoke alarm worked in this godforsaken building.
He could feel the heat, but his hand didn’t burn. Watching the flames soothed him, like tapping his fingers. It crumbled down to nothing, leaving a handful of soot in his palm. Maybe he was fireproof too.
He looked down at the pearl-sheened skin on his chest. Did he evolve some sort of fireproof skin? Were these gifts from his former life?
God, what the hell happened to me, he thought. He picked up another piece of trash and ignited it, just for practice. There was something about the act that gave him pleasure. The gluttonous snapping into flame. The bright yellow and red glow. It was art. It was natural. What else could he practice on?
Ash caught sight of his uniform, shiny nylon glistening in the moonlight.
It is a pleasure to burn, Ash thought.