All posts by Tartra

About Tartra

I'm the writer of TOKoR. Get in touch! Leave a comment, shoot an email to Tartra@theotherkindofroommate.com or follow the story on Twitter: @TOKoR_updates.

“I think I broke my toe.”

You alright down there?

“– wait –”

He heaved. His stomach groaned a morbid whine and his throat choked up another gurgle. Alex spat, then panted, then wheezed into the toilet. The silence crept back. He broke it with a flush.

Now’re you done?

“Wait.” Nothing lurched, but his gut felt full, like he’d caught it on break rather than a real end to this. The pressure in his head had faded though, and his ears finally quit buzzing. Was this… optimism? “Yeah. I’m done, I think.”

Awesome. You’re not, by the way.

He knew it. Alex collapsed for another ten minutes of sweat, snot and vomit. His nose leaked from the constant smell of acid and his eyes burned like they were on fire. He burped, triggering a new rush of phlegm, followed by a rickety hiccup parade, long pauses, bonus dry heaves, then a flush.

“Okay,” he rasped. “That’s it. That’s everything.”

You sure?

“Yeah. I’m good.” And an extra flush for good measure. He wiped a hand over his mouth. “Where’s the toothpaste?”

Toilet. So it was, swirling in the bowl. It’s fine. The cap’s still on.

“Forget it.” That’s what he got for flailing: toilet toothpaste. Alex crawled to the sink and grabbed his mouthwash instead. That small act of hand-eye coordination took a stressful thirty seconds longer than normal. “Next time, we puke in the kitchen.” Because the wreckage between here and the front door had been unbelievable. His foot throbbed with a gist of it. “I think I broke my toe.”

Probably.

“But I wouldn’t’ve if I didn’t need hiking gear to take a piss.” He never thought he owned a lot until he’d had to sprint across the remains. The process might’ve been more delicate if he wasn’t juggling his digestion, about to add it on the floor like a river to a mountain range. “You’re fixing this tomorrow. Starting with that window.”

The window’s gone. How much more fixed does it get?

So there was Xander’s logic at full force. Alex knew enough about brick walls to not run at one.

“I’ll hang a curtain or something,” he muttered.

That’ll fool ‘em.

“Eat a dick.”

His stomach sloshed in misery as he struggled to stand. He had to tense until it settled, which took a while. When he trusted it to manage the knock-off Listerine, he gargled a cheekful of the stuff and leaned his head outside the bathroom. His apartment stared back. Empty. Quiet. Dark. Unrelated to the fight, their lights’d blown two nights ago. Lucky they had a massive hole in the wall. The moon’s freezing, blueish glow really cheered this place from Hostel to a less haunted scene out of Hostel II.

Looking for someone?

Always.

“No.” Alex horked the mouthwash at the drain, staining it green where the basin wasn’t rusted orange already. “I’m trying to figure out why I’m sick.” His pseudo-Agent-sense never got this bad. Nausea, sure, but not this sudden. “What do you think?”

‘Bout what?

“The girl.” Obviously. “Did you get any vibes when you talked to her? Anything… special?”

Besides the part where she tried soaping up a disembodied voice with her voice? Xander shrugged. She’s great. Good taste in disembodied voices.

“That’s exactly what I meant.” That was sarcasm. His stomach didn’t appreciate it, or it was protesting his decision to leave and start spelunking towards the front door. He ignored the noisy sack of guts, clenched his teeth and kept moving. On top of all of this, they were not sleeping in an unlocked room. “We went downstairs – ow – to check who she is, not turn it into a sex thing.” A Pequods thing. The same thing, if he thought about it. “She’s not your new Delaney.”

Alright. She’s New Maggie.

Maggie?” Well, that hit like a brick. “Russian Maggie – the girl with the… with the thing – she was an Agent, too?”

I think the real insult behind eluding the Agency for almost a decade comes from you doing it without actually ever clicking in to who wants to murder you. The guy sounded thrilled about it. They called you a tactician, man! That’s like book snobs saying you’re the new Orwell.

Luck was a tactic. For the three years before his breakdown, Alex’d lived off of it pretty okay. What helped was how easy-going the Agents were about him back then. They’d thrown a few defenses together – like those sunglasses with mirrored lenses – but it wasn’t until his walking-rage-coma that he jumped from ‘a little slippery’ to ‘undeniable complication requiring full force containment’. But by then, he had Xander. Luck, blanket distrust and violence: the trio hadn’t failed yet.

His stomach rolled again. Cold sweat had beaded on his face. His tongue felt like soggy paper. Finally close enough to the door to chain it and set a fast barricade, he turned to the kitchen and aimed for the sink, re-crushing clumps of drywall.

“You held a full conversation without attacking her,” Alex reasoned, bringing it back to basics. “The girl’s not an Agent.”

That’s what you’re banking on? My word? Xander stopped sounding impressed. So, what – nine hours ‘til you panic and waste my night double-checking every time I could’ve lied to you?

He thought it would only take a night? Add another lie to the list.

“I’m not going to do that.”

Fuck you, ‘I’m not gonna do that’. Meanwhile Alex had reached the Promised Land and began his hunt for a glass. Clean or intact, either worked. Screw it – they both were pipe dreams. He drank from the tap. I promise, if I have to hear your sobbing about her next week, I’ll walk you into traffic.

“Then I won’t mention her.”

You will. Do the fucking date and get your own opinion, ‘cause God forbid you trust me for once that it’s fine.

Yeah, yeah.

The water helped, but he still felt shaky. And cold. It had to be because something was wrong with her. Right? Instinctively, a wise part of him refused to trust her for a good reason? His stomach gave a loud agreement – drowning Xander’s mental snort – and he swore her pros and cons looked too neat. Maybe because she lived under him or whatever, but he needed a final answer.

“Alright. I’ll go.” And leave the room to wander streets full of Agents. “But you’re only pushing it for coffee.”

Gift horse, Alex. We’ve been through this. ‘Sides, she’s kinda hot. I mean, if you squint and ignore the farm clothes.

Stomach twist. Stress-rash. As he swallowed past his mouth’s returning dryness, Alex casually tried to ask, “You think that’s how they’ll get us? With kinda hot people?” Attractive but disarming. Friendly and not a threat. “It could be like Peter –”

Hey, look! Next week came early.

Forget it. Never mind.

The pizza sat on the counter, sweating lukewarm cheese grease. Alex tossed the leftovers in his fridge. Presto: tomorrow’s breakfast.

“I’m going to bed.” He’d had enough of tonight’s adventures. “Wake me up for the ‘date’.”

What time?

“I dunno.” He yawned. “What time’s it now?”

Alex had to ask, because completely related to the fight, the clock on their oven was also smashed.

11:43.

“Okay. Six, then. Six-thirty.” His left temple pounded. The room suddenly seemed too loud. With or without his consent, Alex’s body wanted rest. “Pick one. I have to sleep.”

Party pooper. Fine, get to bed. The opposite happened. Yeah, I’m just gonna end this guy real quick.

So basically, the next fourteen seconds played out as a gagging squeal, Alex’s hand around a neck, his other fist crushing into cloaked ribs, followed by the blam of a fully visible Agent inside his apartment breaking through their now ex-table. The force sent chunks of wood tearing at his wall, gashing the spackle with craters and blinding him while he hacked on dust. Then Xander was at the Agent and digging it out of the rubble by its jaw.

Alex knew what it was, but he still screeched, coughing, “What the fuck is that?

A suit.

I can see it’s a suit, Xander!” Skinny, masked, wearing a black unitard: it wasn’t allowed to be something else. “Where did it come from?”

Oh, he’s been here the whole time.

“Wh–” For fucking fuck’s sake – “Doing what?”

Suit stuff.Suit stuff’. Xander yanked the fabric off its head. A wheeze ran from the Agent’s face as it hit the open air. He was standing there, fading. You know, the regular shit they do. “But he didn’t engage his diaphragm, which’s why the wind got knocked out his ass.” The Agent failed to reply to Xander’s out loud scolding, more than likely distracted by trying to breathe. That and I saw ‘im. Stupid suit.

Alex didn’t. Alex hadn’t seen anyone.

‘Fading’.

Fading – shit. Shit. That crap was the reason he hated suits more than the regular assholes, including the big guys. Their unitards let them turn invisible – Not invisible, ‘cause if they went invisible, they’d call it that – or near it enough to paint every encounter the same as finding a spider crawling over his mouth: probably not an immediate death, but goddammit, too close, he hated spiders.

“What’re you gonna do with it?” His breathing sped. His arms gripped like steel where Xander had control, but everywhere else – the parts Alex still managed – felt weak. “What’s – uh… What’s the plan?”

The fuck d’you think the plan is? I’m gonna kill him, Xander chirped. He almost skipped as he pulled the Agent to the kitchen, specifically across jagged clusters of plywood. Where’d I put those chains?

“You’re hanging it?”

Yes, Alex, I’m hanging him. You murder people at will, but I’m gonna burn the little energy I have and dangle him from the ceiling for giggles. He watched his hands rifle among old sprays and wilted sponges shoved under the sink. I’m tying him up, moron. I can’t waste a suit. He’s one of the goggles kind! Xander found the chains. Can’t kill him yet, anyway.

The practice they had at this showed when Xander pried the suit’s eyes open. Delirious, it glanced at him. That was all they needed. Alex’s vision warped, stinging like someone squirted onion juice, but his crystal clear line of sight needled into the Agent’s head. By the time Xander started hooking iron around it, the suit was seizing in a mess of froth.

Brain melt.

Overload.

He never picked an official name, but this was what they – Alex – did. From two inches away or across acres of field, so long as he made eye contact and sucked up the chafing pupils, he could mutely set whatever-he-called-it off. So sayeth the Agents, his powers autopsied like natural causes. Xander called this benefit a ‘nifty alibi’. The Frenchman just called dibs.

“Xander?”

Hm?

“How did it get here?”

It wasn’t leaving the same way. The metal strangled it. He watched the Agent flop against the chain links and still nothing gave. They’d had a lot practice with hostages, too.

Well, Xander began, dragging the suit back along the floor, I shooed you downstairs to let him scope the place. Considering he not only stayed but scoped the whole way to the door, and given the length of time we were downstairs chit-chatting, I’d say we trapped him halfway through his sweep, implying his most feasible entry point’s at the other end of the room.

So the gaping hole in the wall.

Alex’d spent his ‘For fuck’s sake’ too early.

“You invited it?” Why would Xander – oh cool, he answered his own question before he even finished it. “How the hell long did you know about this?”

Remember when I chucked a chair at the window? About then. Alex felt himself shrug. I saw his head pop up when you got your shirt, the creepy bastard. Alex felt a wave of discomfort. I still can’t believe he came in after I threw it, either. But he did! Hilarious. The moral is suits are stupid.

Which is why the Agents stopped sending them years ago. Their fading didn’t work since Xander could cut through the illusion, meaning the bullshit involved in seeing one here right now, despite that, brought a rare peak to his Screw Goddamn Everything meter.

“Where’re the rest of them? Are there more?” There had to be. His life was shit piled on more shit, and at that, a nerve under his cheek twitched. “Xander?”

He’s a suit. They’ve got too much ego to play on teams. If there are more, they’re not coming for him. Xander dropped the thing, gave a stretch, then added, Bed.

“No, something’s wrong.” His rash burned. Alex whipped his head towards the corners, glaring at the shadows and ignoring the pained groan from his gut. “They got brave enough to start this crap again. It can’t be a coincidence. First a girl walks over, then this?”

Hey. Pastry puff. I’m tired, Xander said. I’m tired because you’re tired. Unless you wanna fend off your own ambushes, go to bed so I’ve got shit to work with tomorrow.

“But –”

Bed. The feeling in Alex’s hands returned, shaking. Xander hadn’t lasted to wind down the adrenaline from this, and his final push of control just nudged their foot at the mattress. I used to take over for weeks. This is depressing.

“Yeah. Really sad.” Those weeks were permanently burned into his mind. Good riddance. “The Agent’s not going to be a problem, right?”

If I were you, I’d focus more on napping off that food poisoning. I’ll handle Goggles.

Alex refused to take his eyes off it. He walked backwards through the chaos until his leg hit the bed’s. When he sat, he heard a mental light bulb click.

“Uh…” No, Xander had said it. Alex wasn’t crazy. “‘Food poisoning’?”

Yeah. The word dragged. The pizza may have been definitely undercooked. Microwave it next time. Is that still broken? Stuff it down the toaster.

His exhaustion swept in again. Alex swayed and tucked himself under the blanket. Food poisoning. Well… that didn’t matter. He had the timing of this mess to stress out about now. The girl jumped three ticks in his suspicion.

Seriously screw Xander for the pizza, though.

“Good night, asshole.”

Yup.

“If that wakes up –”

I got it.

Good enough. He closed his eyes. On the third try, they even stayed closed.

Sound brave, Bethany.

It may have been the ‘Hey, bitch’ that passed so sweetly through her walls, or the palpable silence shattered by a bang from the sixth floor’s stairwell. Potentially, it was realizing she hadn’t covered her tracks before sprinting home. Or maybe – although this was a longshot – Beth’s sheer panic was owed to the half-beaten face tucked slightly near the left of her peephole, which happened to match a male’s she needed hours to work up the nerve to talk to. She wrote a will! All right, not a will exactly. It was more of a plea to check his closet if they couldn’t find her body after a week. She sort of glued it to the fridge with a tacky glob of lavender scraped off her palette, since paper and paint she owned aplenty but not a single strip of tape.

Maybe that was it. Perhaps because her note still hung there like a grim oracle, she’d simply scared herself. Sure, she bought that. On a normal day, she may not have been half as creeped out by the gentleman who knew where she lived despite never exchanging names, or that because he didn’t have hers and couldn’t scroll through the building’s directory like a regular stalker, he must’ve watched her leave to follow later and steal her hair, then wear her skin if he found time. No big deal.

Even with those comforting thoughts, for some reason Beth did not feel okay undoing the teeny, tiny chain that latched her room shut. All her ‘He needs help’ stuff? None of it applied when he popped up outside – ooh, that was a knock. He knocked. Psycho-killer was knocking.

Oh God. Oh God. Oh God.

“I can see your shadow,” she heard, as if he was amused, as if he found her amusing. “You okay in there?”

Sound brave, Bethany. Try to sound like she had a gun.

Yep.” Squeak. Great job, Beth! “Yep, yep – all good. All good here with my…” Gun! “… dog.”

She couldn’t just say ‘gun’. What if it provoked him?

“This place is pet-friendly?”

Oh God, he didn’t believe her. Think fast!

“It’s a tiny dog.” Dammit, Beth! “But it – um… bites. So, how are you good?” She started with ‘how are you doing’, slapped it to ‘are you well’ and added a light twist of hurr-durr for personal misery. This might be time to sigh ‘kill me now’, but for once, it was a legitimate possibility. “Still renovating?” And while he mulled his answer over, she would go ahead and lean her body weight against the entrance.

“I came to talk about that,” he said, his voice piercing the thin wood. “I wanted to apologize.”

“Oh, no need! It’s history. But – you know…” How about leave, like he’d been so eager for her to do upstairs? “I was being nosy. I’m sure you had it under control and I shouldn’t have butt in.” Now she heard muttering. To whom? “Ah… Are you here with someone?”

She should’ve said she had a cat. As in, a really angry one. Tired of ducking from the peephole, however, Beth stood and peered back outside. She didn’t see him. No, wait! There he was. He was leaning on the side of her doorway with his shoulders turned away, further from her view. He must have figured she wasn’t inviting him to tea. Good boy.

“I appreciated the social call,” he told her, dodging the question. “Not a lot of people bother, so I start to forget I live near anyone. I lose track of the noise I make.” Her kitchenette was close. She could have a knife in seconds. “I forget my manners too, so… sorry for being an ass. You didn’t deserve it. My roommate’s…” He trailed off. Her heart banged in the silence. “Anyway, thanks and I’m sorry. I’ll try to keep the volume down. Don’t be afraid to knock on the ceiling when you have to, either. Or don’t, ‘cause I’m betting a good sneeze’ll send this dump the rest of the way to hell.”

“I think that’s just how they built it,” her mouth replied.

Beth wanted to kick herself for failing a brain-dead-easy job – saying nothing – before she caught his chuckle. It… surprised her. She hadn’t expected him to laugh.

“Yeah, well… maybe one day, they’ll finish building it.” His voice was different. She carefully noted the change. “I’ll give them this: if I’m planning a heist, Poverty Palace is at the bottom of my list.”

‘I feel safer already,’ she thought. What she did say was, “Uh-huh.”

“Yup.” A moment fluttered between them. “Anyway.” Beth watched him push off, ready to leave. “See you around.”

Odd. Something had changed. This person seemed normal and almost nice. The cadence of his voice lacked its earlier twitchiness. He sounded polished. Sane, even. Maybe a little ear-catching.

She glanced through to the hall. He’d left. True stalkers didn’t leave, but here was the sound of footsteps strolling away…

Carpe diem?

“Hold on a minute,” Beth yelled. Did her kitchenette still have those knives? Perfect. She fiddled with the chain, pretending it helped since ‘sane’ hadn’t yet returned from being out to the jury. “Hi! Sorry – I… my dog.” He could fill in the blanks to that lie himself. “Sorry. It’s late, and you coming by after our first meeting went so…” Memorably. “Plus – and no offence – your bruises look terrifying. That’s really from fighting over renovations?”

He grinned, a gesture she softly returned, feeling better about the comfort their ten steps of distance afforded. It offered her an instant to dash inside dare anything go wrong, like him bridging their gap, but he wasn’t budging for now. She chanced a smile.

“Two parts renovations,” he said. “Three parts dickhead roommate.”

“Mr. Coffee,” Beth murmured.

“Excuse me?”

“Ah – nothing.” She suddenly felt underdressed. “So you two… um… fight a lot? I’m not in on the full story, but if it’s this bad, why put up with it?”

Sidebar: please continue putting up with this, because that was how she managed rent.

“It sounds worse than it is.” Cute eyes. Big and brown. Tanned skin; she wondered about his background. “I’m not excusing it, but if you’re worried, don’t be.”

“Oh! No – I wasn’t. I mean, I was, which is why I came over, but I’m not…” She cleared her throat. “I know bad roommates. A quirk can start a war when you’re trapped in such cramped places, especially if it rubs one person’s style the wrong way against another.” Those words seemed to resonate. Okay, she was getting somewhere. Her old, mellow vibe returned, newly dusted, and to complete the picture, she nonchalantly rested on the side of her door. Ideally, her hair would be down, but lemons and lemonade. “Before I moved to this complex, where I lived was lace. It went everywhere: pillows, windows, chairs, my stuff. She used to wrap her socks in ribbon so she’d have a present every morning, until the day she opened my sock drawer and found –” A colourful set of toys, which were completely wrong to mention, Bethany. “… these – um, statues. She tied pink lace dresses on them and made the knots so tight, it actually cut into the silicone. I had to throw all my statues out.”

“Sister?”

“Sister,” she admitted. “You too?”

“Brothers. Lots.” Ah, that other ‘joy’. Beth nodded in condolence, while he resumed with, “Can’t say we ever had a statue problem.” Her neighbour took a wise step around the term ‘vibrators’. “I had a bike once, though. Had.”

“Message received.” Siblings were trouble. She spared him from picking at that memory – and anyway, she spied with her little eye a fresher scab to scratch. “Is that who’s upstairs? Your brother?”

“Who, the closet case?” Her question didn’t faze him, and he hadn’t jumped to explain the noise the building endured from them for months. Somebody hiding trauma would have an excuse prepared, wouldn’t they? Someone in danger couldn’t act this self-assured. “He’s just a guy obsessing over privacy. He’s fine. You’d like him, unless he’s in his The Walls are Watching Me mood.”

Ooh, nice title. She took it. Only after did she hear a small alarm at its implication.

“Is he…” She tried to be delicate. “… safe?”

“Like a neutered panda.”

Oh.

“And you’re looking after him,” she ventured.

He shrugged, humble. No details, but no denials. The rest wrote itself: her neighbour was the second guy’s caretaker, and whatever he had going on, it cut the list of apartments willing to lease to them. Then… the end, in its plain and boring glory. She didn’t notice she was shaking her head in gentle disappointment until he asked, “Is that a problem?”

“No! No, it’s sweet,” she said. “I was only thinking how it’s funny you two made this big impression on everyone and nobody knows anything about you.”

“You know I like ducks.”

Shit, she snorted.

“Yes – um… Yeah. Ducks,” she said. His expression the first time that word popped from his mouth had been, while mildly frightening back then, priceless in hindsight. “But honestly. You aren’t even acting the way you were upstairs, and that happened an hour ago.”

Her neighbour shrugged again, a placid lake touched by indifference, except now he added, “I’m less stressed when I’m out.”

“I like you better when you’re less stressed.” Stupid, Beth. So dumb. She immediately felt her cheeks heat and sputtered, “I’m not judging how you were before! Or him – or either of you.”

“Don’t beat yourself up about it,” he assured her, toying with a larger smile. “It’s a rough day for everyone.”

Rough day.

Her paintings. The rush jobs for Edison. She was wasting time!

“I have to go.” Oof. That was blunt, given the puppy dog frown in his eyes. “I mean… I need to turn in for the night. I have to drop my acrylics off at an art gallery tomorrow.”

“You paint?”

Oh, did she? What a completely organic question she hadn’t hinted towards at all. Her inner freak-out clock continued ticking down the remaining hours of productivity, but her bolder side danced through unimpeded. She brightened, striking an expert pose like no big deal, she was only an award-winning artist set to win further critical acclaim.

“Yeah. Professionally. I’ve got a show in a few days, but I have to be there early in the morning for an advance sale to my collector.” And to stop anyone from ruining her exhibit. Jessica. “You should come for a viewing.”

“How’s seven?” How what now? “You’re gone tomorrow morning and now you’re headed to bed. That leaves a small window to see professional art.” She loved his genuineness. Beth changed her mind: this guy was great! “Hell, if you’re walking, I’ll help you carry it.”

Okay!

Ahem.

“Cool.” Coooool. “Seven. That fits – for me. If it’s too early for you…”

“I’ll be dozy, but nothing a latté won’t fix.” Hmm? “There’s a Pequods everywhere.” Hmmmm?! “It’s why I agreed to live in this town.”

Oh God.

You’re the coffee…” Addict? Psychopath? “… connoisseur?”

“That’s a neat word for it,” he said, ignoring that it wasn’t, it was nondescript, since based on what she heard, Mr. Coffee was who – “You, too?”

And there it came: the most unfairly, inappropriately adorable and innocent response from anyone who thrashed an apartment weekly. Her neighbour made a slight tilt of his head and awaited her fair approval. Pure puppy dog. Orphaned puppy, missing a widdle puppy paw but still excited to play. Without trying, he wiped away the worst of her slaughtered-at-a-warehouse fears.

She’d been single too long.

“Do I enjoy a latté? Sure! Coffee – I love it!” Which led to… “Will your roommate be all right?”

“Don’t care.” Oookay then. “I’ll see you at seven.”

“Seven,” she agreed, while her date parted for the stairs.

Beth stepped inside and closed the door. She had a date with Mr. Coffee: nervous, jittery, big eyed, bruise-faced, smooth voiced, softly caramel Mr. Coffee. It wasn’t so bad if she put it like that, and he seemed to be the better of the pair; he apologized and didn’t do any screaming à la his friend. More than that, she eavesdropped through a freaking ceiling. How could she be sure she didn’t have her facts backwards? Until real proof proved differently, Coffee got a pass as the dangerous one and Screamy was the half to avoid.

As for tomorrow, she could survive a trip to Pequods. Easy. Easy-peasy.

“‘Cause if she is…”

Cleaning the apartment took his mind off the girl for ten minutes before he called it quits. Well, ‘cleaning’. He’d merged that pile of trash with that other pile. Not exactly Martha Stewart Living, but Alex had a lot on his mind.

He just didn’t understand why she came here, and he had his usual stress-rash from thinking about it. That red splotch doubled up on yesterday’s, which never fully healed ‘cause he wouldn’t stop rubbing at it long enough. The last time his guard slipped, Xander had to save him by smashing a rock through their ex-friend’s face. It’d been five years since then, and Alex learned a strict fact of life: people were traps. The itchy bicep, nausea, hand tremors and restlessness were welcome to stay if it meant nobody got the drop on him. The problem now was that he had his rash but not the rest of the symptoms. It felt like a misfired signal – or a sign he’d caught on to the Agents’ new tricks. It’d been six years since his escape. The ‘girl’ might be what they learned –

More.

… Right.

Alex dragged himself to the pizza they eventually agreed on. He’d thought about cooking, but freezer-burned bacon, soggy almonds, old ketchup and eggs that Xander liked the look of but wouldn’t eat could not a good meal make. Considering he sure as hell wasn’t running to buy groceries until the Agent swarms left or been dealt with, delivery became his world again. That put half-Hawaiian, half-barbecue-pepper-onion crust on tonight’s menu. Alex hated cooked fruit so this floated a compromise. He also hated barbecue sauce, peppers, onions and pizza, but Xander liked it and mostly stayed quiet when he got what he yelled for. The system worked. He ate one bite.

So back to being paranoid, he –

More.

Alright, more. He took another bite and went back to –

Relax, Xander snapped. She’s not a damn Agent.

Rih-ree,” he chewed. “Hoh do you knoh?”

‘Cause if she is, I’ll break her neck.

It was that simple for him. It must be nice.

“Got proof for someone who cares?” Alex wasn’t a Coke fan either, but the too-sweet gulp washed his food down like any drink. “They’re planning stuff.”

Not news.

“I meant worse stuff.”

Alternatively, Xander said, she’s not an Agent, and you’re crying over some chick you’ll never see again while I starve to death.

Maybe. But he couldn’t risk ignoring this.

Xander made a pissed off noise and went to grab the food himself. Alright. Alex found another slice and numbly ate that, too. It kept the guy away from controlling him.

This girl had access to his building – lived here, let in, didn’t matter. At the most basic level of shenanigans, she could coat his door with plastic explosives or gas them from the vents during the night. Part of him was shocked they hadn’t already. The Frenchman though, the whole three times they’d met face-to-face, promised he wanted Alex alive at first. The Agents seemed convinced Alex’s powers would vanish if he died, and great, they thought his seizure rays sounded cool. It didn’t justify that Xander had killed damn near everybody on the Frenchman’s team. The signs pointed to the Agents judging whether their Alex hunt was still worth it. Building assassins from scratch felt unlikely, but…

“You really think we won’t see her again?”

Put the food in your fucking face –

Okay.” He hated pizza. “Thanff fuh thuh thupport.”

Live in the now, kid, his worse half drawled. She’s not here, she’s not your problem. Quit bitchin’ to me about it.

“You’d care if there was ten of her.”

Which could be true.

Is there ten?

Xander sounded excited. His perfect day spelled fighting strangers, sprinting into ambushes and generally not giving a metric shit that it technically wasn’t his body. Xander loved traps. He looked at them like nifty obstacle courses, so Alex pulled some assurance from the guy’s indifference towards the girl, since it meant she wasn’t fun enough to win his attention.

By that logic, it also meant the girl had non-Agently checked on him.

She…

Huh.

“You think she’ll come back?”

Alex.

“That’s not in a bad way,” he said quickly. “I just…” She’d been worried. The girl asked about his face. “I…”

Are you this out of touch with basic human interaction that the first person who doesn’t openly berate you becomes your love interest? Xander crammed pizza down his throat. I’ll brace for the obvious: ‘I hate her, Xander’, ‘now I like her’, ‘oh no, she’s stabbing me in the face with a pen’.

Agent.

Stress flared through his nerves, and Alex immediately started coughing on an onion. His hand whomped itself against his chest.

“Thanks,” he wheezed. “… So is she?”

Eh. I can name eight worse places to stick a dick. You’re caught up on your shots, right?

“I’m not asking so I can have sex with her.”

Good. Agency women are nuts. I regret fucking the last one. What last one? Delaney. Irish bitch. Big ears. Scratched the hell out’f my back. Your back, whatever.

“She was an Agent?!”

Yeah, dude. Why d’you think I kicked her out after?

“She wanted my skin!” Alex felt sick. “She brought a knife.”

A pen-knife! See? We’re both right. And she didn’t want it all, just a strip off your shoulder. About those shots…

“Stop.” His shoulder throbbed remembering that psycho. He’d burned a lot of effort repressing the night. Good to know it was still in there as vividly as ever. “You need to tell me when you notice this stuff.”

Why? So I can solve a minor inconvenience to the soundtrack of your crying? Fuck that noise.

“I’m in the dark about everything,” he spat. “Everything about my life.”

Honestly, you seem happier that way. And before Alex wholeheartedly called him an asshole, Xander drilled in, You don’t like it? Solve your own problems. But you won’t, ‘cause you can’t, so quit whining. You’ve got it good, all things considered.

What things considered?”

You’re alive? You’re welcome, prick.

Alex scowled at that.

“Don’t act like it’s charity when you do it to pass time.” Alex felt a thrill of giddy agreement from that spot in his head. Asshole. “This is why I’m out of touch. Everybody around me is either insane or too mentally stable to survive. The first thought when a girl walks to my door shouldn’t be, ‘Do I crack her nose or aim for her kneecaps?’ It isn’t healthy.” Especially when Xander’d ruled her out as a danger. “I should have been thinking…”

What did normal people think about?

Tits?

“Sure. Sort of.” He sighed. “I don’t know.”

Hers weren’t great.

“Shut up, Xander.”

His heart wasn’t in it. He flopped on his bed instead, landing with a whack on the rock-filled mattress and slowly sinking into the lumpy springs. Rest would be smart. His legs could use a break from twitchy wandering.

But what if?

Dammit. A secret third chunk of his mind spun up. There went sleep, because suddenly the scene with her replayed on a loop. After one minute of sifting through piles of too-bright features carved into memory – memory he was supposed to be using to track to people who came uncomfortably close too often – the big decision he came to, based on its hyper analysis, decreed the girl looked… okay.

She’d been wide-eyed when they met, so he did kind of recall two green circles gawking at him. Her chin was normal. Sharp, maybe. Her left nostril had a mark that might be an old piercing or acne. He guessed if he brushed down the rest and softened the freckles on her cheeks, she mostly fit ‘cute’. So… okay, then he wasn’t far off from her. Others said Alex mostly fit ‘cute’, too. Being in shape helped. His shirt had its own freckles out of various blood types, but his jeans smelled clean and that counted.

This is sad or impressively sad. I can’t decide.

“I’m gonna go change my shirt,” he muttered.

It’s eleven.

And he was still wearing yesterday’s clothes. He had a gray shirt somewhere, actually washed. After a struggle from the bed and a walk to his dead dresser, he found it in the bottom drawer.

“Laundry tomorrow.” No rips, no blood, at least not under the window’s moonlight. From his onceover, he low-balled being able to wear this three times, too. “If I say I’m a hipster, can I pretend this is style?” A few beats ticked by. “Xander?”

Hm? Sure.

Alex lowered the shirt. He felt a sting of hairs rising at the back of his neck. The rash itched.

“Everything… good?”

You still want that chair?

“What ch– what the hell, Xander,” he roared. Glass and wood burst from the room. Alex’s last intact piece of furniture, his single remaining seat, had just been ejected through a gaping hole – a hole he called until two seconds ago ‘his rotted window frame’. The crash of shrapnel when it hit the ground four storeys later hinted at how well it landed. “Why? Why?

I’m cleaning. It was clogging the place.

“We were done cleaning!” Alex stuck his head outside and looked. Yeah, he figured. The final semi-nice thing he owned – meanwhile, the wall-crater blended right the fuck in. “Where am I supposed to sit now?”

I dunno, the bed? I’m bored. Let’s go do shit.

Their deposit was gone. Just – completely, ‘cause before, there’d been a shot at scamming part of last month’s rent back. Now – the shock cracked off and his first spark of anger ignited – they were gonna stick him with the full cost of… this. This shitty apartment and spongy floor and perma-stains from a leaky ceiling.

“Tell me,” Alex said, very calm, trying to give some magic benefit of the doubt, “you know carpentry.”

It’s fine. Go outside, you hermit. Get air.

“What, and miss the fix-it gnomes you’ve got headed here to handle this?” Crap – the noise! The neighbours already knew who to blame it on. “The girl’ll come back.” Fuck every minute of his life. “If she’s an Agent, she’s got her excuse to visit twice. No one’ll blame her, and she can cover by saying I died long before she knocked.”

Then go to her first.

“That’s the worst plan!”

Nah. Move.

He lost. His body disappeared from under him. Xander had taken control. As his first act after charging their limbs through the door, the guy switched their shredded white shirt for the gray and left the freckled remains in the hall. They were headed for the stairs.

“You are not finding her,” Alex ordered. His mouth didn’t react. “You don’t even know where she lives!”

That’s a good point. Xander stopped at the pain-in-his-ass stairwell and blasted the entrance open with his foot. Glue or syrup had stuck to it once and forevermore, the bar that should’ve answered to a gentle push needed a savage beating to let anyone leave. It was that or use the elevator. Xander did not enjoy the elevator. I figured if she heard us and doesn’t live up here, the room under ours would be a good start. He led them to the fifth floor. I guess I’ll have to roam the halls and shout until she answers, though.

“Hey, bitch!”

Xander’s words in Alex’s voice, and he rang down the corridor.

Silence echoed. The fifth floor was empty.

I guess we’re knocking. Xander picked up his stroll again. That’s the one.

It looked like the room. Not her room – she could’ve been anywhere – but this was underneath theirs. Morbid curiosity didn’t mix well with Alex’s survival instinct. He saw flashes of her tongue being ripped out, and it wouldn’t take much for that to happen. Xander hadn’t attacked a wrong person before. If he picked up the scent of an Agent…

“Are you sure about this?”

Oh yeah. Trust me. Despite himself, Alex had to. Big smile for me! Deep breath for you.

He felt a little steadier inhaling air, enough to say, “Don’t make a mess if she’s… you know.”

Agent.

It’s half the fun, so yes, I will.

“Alright, but don’t –”

Shhhhhh. Shut the fuck up, Xander soothed.

And he knocked.

 

No movement, no noise…

Greaaaat. Nicely done, Bethany. Now she and the crazy-after-all guy were best friends. Some of that old blind luck had stuck around, however: he knew what she looked like, but he didn’t know Beth’s name. Fat chance finding her without it. She could be very sneaky.

“Dumb. Door. Open.” This floor had the worst stairwell. A thick pelt of goop was soaked into the push-bar, gluing it closed until she paid the greasy price and launched herself at it. Three times out of ten, the door peeled free, but unfailingly smeared its gummy mucus on her arm. Centuries ago, someone spilled a stew or something else sticky. Nobody acted surprised that management still hadn’t scraped it up. “Open!”

It did after a long slurp. Beth’s shoulder throbbed. She irritably massaged it and padded down the gray stairs. Thank you, couch, for being home to collapse on face-first. Her lungs burned, her eyes stung, her heart hammered and her stomach slowly hemmed and hawed about uncurling from a knot. She essentially spent that conversation holding her breath, but hooray, she talked to him. She checked it off the mental list. She would’ve liked to have done the same with her art, but she appreciated progress nonetheless.

All right, a tiny bit less.

Beth rolled over on her blanketed couch. She studied the tubes taped to her ceiling. No movement, no noise… She guessed it meant he was resting.

Strange person. She felt bad for him. He might’ve been crazy, but that didn’t stop his wonky relationship – the one she’d effectively ignored for as long as he’d lived here – from flecking her paintings with multi-coloured, acrylic drops of moral guilt. He needed help, probably. He didn’t want help, but that went hand-in-hand with these situations. Yet here she lay, hungry and alert for the first twitch of more, selfishly praying they picked up the pace if she planned on delivering nine finished canvasses.

It hurt. Having his bruises and stammered panic to put to the fights she heard upstairs made Beth feel dirty and exploitative. She never expected to be a creep, building her work on the backs of the less fortunate. Technically, she was the less fortunate. Her creditors thought so. Her parents said so. Jessica plainly danced around the subject but gave Beth a delicate smile and paid for lunch. Rage Against the Rooms didn’t finance gold cars or silver toilets. RAR covered bills: her food, utilities, supplies, taxes – real things. It was called ‘life’, but when someone offered their assistance in surviving it, the right answer was a grateful acceptance. Beggars couldn’t afford to slam doors.

Still… she did feel bad. He’d been so jumpy and off-guard. He didn’t know her; she shouldn’t take the rejection this personally when he had no reason to trust that she’d help. After all, why the sudden interest? Couldn’t she have called the cops months ago? Or now? Had he asked her to in his own stupid joke of a way?

Her phone rang. Perfect timing! Leave it to technology to take her mind off social responsibility.

“Hello?”

Beth? It’s Terry. Do you have a minute?

Beth sat up fast enough to pull something in her lower back.

“Terry! I – sure! Absolutely,” she sang. “Anything for my favourite curator!” But, she reminded herself, he shouldn’t want anything except her art and they’d already set an implicit deadline. Two days left. “Ah… everything okay?”

There’s been a bit of an awkward turn, actually.” If memory served, that was British for ‘brace yourself, Beth’. “The exhibition’s fine – no trouble with the venue and the plans are all on schedule.” That translated to ‘I’m about to be your second-favourite curator’. “The artists, meanwhile…” And that was ‘Somebody’s ruining everything, especially RAR’.

Beth swallowed the bile rising against her tongue. It slowed her down in asking him too readily, “Can I help?”

I’m not sure. I hate to cause an inconvenience and I wouldn’t dream of putting you out, but it’s rather pressing.” So began the long-form British for ‘I know damn well how you’re pitching in and your exhibit’s cut unless you do’. “I have to accommodate everyone to the best of what’s available and very little is.

“Terry,” she said, “spill it.”

It’s Edison.” The old man with the moustache made of money. “My great supporter, and the wallet behind the gallery’s bank account.” Terry often also mused ‘a self-stylized eccentric’ when he felt too proper to call the guy ‘a twat’. “He’s done it. He’s bloody gone and done it – that… twat brought in his submission.” Terry did not, apparently, feel too proper right now. “It’s big. Massive! I can’t fit it where I expressly said it had to fit. And I can’t chop the vile thing from the show! Edison will take offence.

“Hobbyists,” she sympathized. “They’re worse when they’re snotty and rich.”

He’s imposing. Even a saint can be a bastard when they’ve got their hands on your crap.” She heard him rub his forehead and groan a mild note of despair. “It’s like you and that neighbour of yours, isn’t it? Beautiful leaves may flow downstream, but so will a torrent of piss.

Sure! Something like that.

“What are you going to do?”

What I am forced to do is clear the area for this alleged model of sexual spirituality,” he explained. “Pop Passion’s been axed. Edison already bought the space from Devan.

Beth choked when Terry gave her the price tag. Devan’s glittery scribbles scored that much? Real estate was a serious market in this industry…

“He wants to buy my spot next,” she realized. “My centre stage.” After she’d starved for it!

No, no. I wouldn’t put the eyesore anywhere near the front. It has its place of glory in the west room. That’s as far as it’ll go.” Oh. Good. Although if Edison paid so much to steal Devan’s cramped corner… “It’s Elated Islands.” Oh God. “Jessica has to go somewhere! She’s said to ring you in case you’re willing to –” Don’t say it, you limey jerk. “– share.

“Ooh. Ah… I dunno.” Beth tsk-tsked. “I’d love to – you know, for Jessica – but I’ve got nine canvasses. They’re a tight fit.” They would be, shortly after she got past the little snag of only having almost seven. “You understand, right?”

Beth, she leapt to help you last summer when Edison trotted up then,” he wheedled. “You said you would pay her back. I heard you. And it would really save my ass, which I might have mentioned is on the line with playing host to a crippled human-half bug statue.” The rest sounded like Terry ranting to himself: “What is he thinking? Why use paper-mâché? The left tit sags!

“I don’t know…”

Bethany,” he wailed, “I’m begging you! Elated Islands is on the bloody pamphlet. I can’t reprint them on this short of notice. You’ll still have the majority wall!

“Nine paintings’ worth?”

Six. Six if the sixth is a small one. Five.

Unbelievable!

“Why,” she demanded, “can’t Edison buy her out?”

Obviously I tried arranging that.” British for ‘I totally didn’t even think of it’. “We both know Jess isn’t in this for the money.

“I am,” Beth seethed.

Yes,” Terry said, “and it’s why she’s suggested compensation for the trouble. Supposedly, I’m off to charm the old fart into buying whichever pieces this shuffle would displace. That’s the shortest end of the stick in this. You’re welcome, not that I’ve been thanked.” Speaking over her huffs, he tacked on, “It’s a fair deal from your side. I’ll add it to your placard: ‘Has already sold to inspired collectors’.

It must have been the accent, since she actually considered this.

“How much?”

From Edison’s hammy fists?” He gave a sour snort. “I didn’t lead with cash for a reason. He’s stingy. Lucky you, because his definition of a pittance is still well above ours. Interested?

She didn’t want to be. Did he ask anyone else? Terry had thirty artists coming, but naturally Beth was the first to get called. For Jessica. Of freaking course.

“I…”

Rrrrrrrrrrr.

What was that?

I don’t mean to hurry you,” her phone crackled, “and while I’d love to listen to silence all evening –

“Terry, no – shh.” Not fighting. Something new. It sounded like… “I have to put you on speaker.” … inspiration. “One second. I need my hands.”

Beth kicked the corner of a half-completed canvas, slamming it away to slap a fresh stretch of fabric into the speckled crime scene’s outline. There it was again, the low rrrrrrrrr! The tubes shuddered in concert from the ceiling. Paint! She had to refill the paint. Where was her chair? Which colours?

Cocoa! A delicately creamy frappe to pair with it. A full-flavoured tate olive because this didn’t call for the harsh shades of anger like before. That noise had to be furniture deliberately organizing. Ooh – ‘organize’! Were they cleaning? She never heard them clean. Tethered Scars? She liked it. Where was her chair?!

I’m not getting in the way, am I? Not bothering you with this trying-to-save-your-exhibit tosh?

“You want me to sell out,” she yelled back. Her phone sat lonely on the couch. “Tell Jess if she’s butting into my space, I decide what she shows. I don’t need her frilly oceans clogging up my desperate wars. I slaved for my series.”

She works hard, too.

“She sells hard,” Beth vented. “She doesn’t create, she doesn’t imagine, and she doesn’t convey. Her paintings might as well be windows for all the point they have in staring at them.”

I like windows! Lots of people do. Ever seen a house go up without them? It’s weird. You get chills.

“Terry,” she warned.

I’ll tell her,” he finally relented. “She’ll be over the moon you said yes to some degree.

Uh-huh.

“How many does she have room on the wall for?”

Nine minus five.

“Three,” Beth decided, setting the pump. It whirred to life and heartily burped its first tan droplets. Rrrrrrrrrr. A drop landed left of the middle. “Stormy, lighthouse, and the gray fog. Nothing other than them. Terry, be implicit.”

Explicit, I think.

“Well, don’t swear at her,” Beth said. “Not if you don’t have to.”

You’re such an artist, love.” That was British for something she divinely chose not to understand. “Then it’s settled. Three of her paintings, five of yours. It’s manageable. You’d like that cheque, would you? From Edison? I’ll have to ring him, too. Bring the rest of your work to the gallery tomorrow – I need this sorted soon.

She choked again.

“Tomorrow?!”

Yes, tomorrow morning. We’d all like to sleep in, but chop, chop.

Her heart threw a fit.

“Um… yeah, but… why tomorrow?”

Because he won’t buy a damn thing unless it’s in front of him,” Terry said. “I’d do it tonight, but he doesn’t know yet that he wants to buy whatever you’re around to pawn off. He’s gone until the exhibition after midday, too.

“Okay! Okay. I’ll come in.” Tomorrow. With four pieces ready for sale. “He’s not the sort of guy who displays everything for millionaire parties, is he?”

Please give her the good news that the final paintings she now had to crappily rush would be buried in the garden.

You might explain the paint fades if it’s not left in shade or a dark hall,” Terry wisely advised. “He must be near-blind anyway. Neon orange, Beth! And spots! See it before you go.

“How can I turn that down?” She returned to her seat and scooped the phone to her ear. “Thanks for the warning. Thanks for the cheque too, Ter.”

Thank him. I wouldn’t pay a dime for your drippy, manic messes. You know me.” Beth always could count on him for that. She smiled anyway, especially as Terry went on. “I’m sorry for this. Plans were unfolding too well, I suppose. Be here early and I’ll buy breakfast. We’ll chortle over the odds of a critic knocking Ashley Brendan’s sculpture to rubble again.

“You’re on,” she told him. Free breakfast! They swapped their goodbyes and hung up for the night. Back alone, Beth’s lip found itself between her teeth. She nibbled. “Damn.”

Four by tomorrow, and the rumbling had stopped. Moving her phone from couch to chair, she hiked her overalls to her knees, then gingerly sat and shook the tubes herself. These were finishing one way or the other, but other took a gamble she didn’t have a night to bet. She’d better get started.

 

“The fuck do you want?”

Alex regretted opening the door before he’d thought up an excuse about the noise. This slid under ‘spectacularly stupid’, seeing how his life depended on those lies. Neighbours were the second greatest threat he faced: crotchety, nosy, dickish, ‘I have work in the morning’, ‘I’ll get the landlord’ types who went out of their way to plan legal surprise parties. The right line got them to leave. Agents never left. It was his best trick for telling the two apart. Now he’d screwed himself, because instead of saying something convincing, he stared at her. Then he kept staring, waiting for his mouth to move.

“The fuck do you want?”

Thanks, Xander.

“Uh – hello, I mean,” Alex said. Sincere. He wanted sincere. “Can I help you?”

“… Yeah…” This was new. The girl looked more uncomfortable than he did. She stood with her hand holding her other shoulder like she was her own security blanket. Maybe it had to do with the staring. “I wanted to…”

Take your time. I could use the rest.

Alex’s hands twitched. Xander, don’t start.

“… visit.”

Oh. Uh… Okay. He waited, but she didn’t elaborate. The normal written complaints and petitions weren’t anywhere he saw, either. This fell far from his element. Alex continued Operation: Cold, Dead Eyes until he clued in to echo her nervous, “‘Visit’?”

That broke the dam: “Ah – sure! You know, because – ah… you live here, and I live here – only I don’t – like – um… live here so… don’t try to come and find me or anything! You won’t! Ha-ha!”

Alex noted the forced giggle.

D’aww, she thinks you’re a mental patient, Xander cooed.

He probably was. He’d wandered in a walking coma for a month after their big Agent-land escape. Six years really flew by since then. And where he used ‘flew’, Alex meant ‘dragged with the agony of carrying an extra voice inside his head’.

“But yes, I –” Right. Her. “I came to visit. I – ah… wanted to say ‘hi’.” She paused. “So… hi, and I will simply be leaving now so – see ya later, gator!”

“Much later,” he swore the girl muttered.

That was weird. That handled itself. Were they done? Where’s my fucking latté?

“Hey, is that it?” She’d already started leaving. Fast. “You’re not here about the fight?”

“Oh, I – oh my God,” she shrieked. Alex leapt back. “Your face!”

That’s what I always tell him!

“You – you look…”

She’d been ten steps away when she turned to reply. From there, she freaked and waved her hands at his head, talking very loudly. Sure – his face, the mirror, the bruises… He figured she was saying he looked bad. She noticed, by the way, ‘cause he’d even more stupidly stepped out there to call to her. He got behind the door and shut it to a crack. Alex didn’t need her glancing inside if that’s how she felt over a swollen cheek. With his track record in catching breaks, the girl worked as a room inspector. Paying extra on his rent only bought so much ‘understanding’, and his deposit had long gone. Thanks, Xander.

This place sucks anyway.

“I’m alright,” Alex promised. “This is nothing.”

“That was your fight?” The girl squinted at him. She didn’t move closer. Neither of those made for good signs. “That was from today?”

“Uh…” What should he tell her? “Yes?”

“Oh my God. Oh my God – I had no idea! Who were you fighting?”

“My…” If he pulled himself together, Alex could spin this to get rid of her. “… roommate?” Yes, that sounded confident.

“What is he, a bear? Is he the one who throws everything? Do you need the hospital? Is he still there?” Suddenly she shot towards him and whispered, “Should I call the cops?” And bring more people? “My phone’s right here. I already had it set to dial 9-1-1.”

“No, it’s…” Wait. “You did? Why?”

“No reason!” She whipped the phone away. “Are you dying? How badly dying? Are you dizzy? You need a doctor. Is this what’s always happening?”

Ignoring the theft of his personal space, he tried to keep track of her questions. Dizzy? Yeah. Now.

“Could you excuse me?” He took the quarter-second silence as an answer. Alex closed his door, slamming the brakes on her interrogation. He flattened his shoulders against it to hold it shut in case… well, in case. “Great. What’s the plan?” Something better than ‘Nice job, genius’, please.

Alex. We have to kill her.

The sweat along his neck turned to ice. A vice caught within his throat.

“We have to kill her,” he croaked, “because she’s an Agent?”

Nah, she’s just gabby. ‘Sides, those shoes with those overalls? Guuurl…

Thanks, Xander. I almost had a fucking heart attack.”

I know. It was funny. What do you want me to do?

“Get rid of her! Non-lethally,” he added. “I don’t want her here. She’s an Agent or she’ll get hurt by the actual Agents chasing me.”

All four of them.

“There’s been more than four,” Alex said.

Not that you’d know since I do all the damn work. And – oh look, guess who’s crawling to me again. He – Save it, Pop-Tart. Next time think before you shout ‘Is That It’. What do I say about gifts and horse mouths?

Nothing?

Yeah, but trust me, it would’ve been extremely relevant.

“Will you just –”

Sorry I can’t hear you I didn’t fucking go to Pequods.

Alex glared at the air.

“You’re the worst split-personality in the world.”

That’s uncalled for. Then from his mouth came a violent shriek of, “He’s eating me!There you go. Now I’m the worst.

This type of crap was so typical, he nearly forgot other ears heard it, too. Xander’s voice had cut past the door. The walls of this building were like paper and – shit, she was gonna call the cops. He grabbed the door and ripped it back open.

“It was a joke,” he swore. “A really, really, really bad joke.”

If I knew ventriloquism, this’d be even funnier.

Shut up, Xander.

The girl gave him a stare similar to the one he’d launched at her first. She lowered her thumb from the green ‘Send’ button and tucked the phone into her pocket. With a weight attached to her tone somewhere between disturbed and personally slighted, she told him, “You said you’re alright.”

“Yes. But,” he answered, “thank you for the visit.” Don’t ever do it again. “So… uh… I have to get back to…”

Renovating.

“Yeah. I mean – renovating. I’ve gotta get to that… fun… stuff.”

Alex tacked on a tight smile. Please go?

“I suppose.” A glint lined her eyes. So her suspicion hadn’t left, and neither had she. The nosy type, he decided. “Renovating, huh? That’s what this was about?”

“We’ve got stylistic differences. I’m more into –” He drew a blank. “…ducks.”

Hahahaha!

“He’s more of a red guy,” Alex tried to finish.

“You can’t settle on red ducks?”

Red ducks? Ha-ha! Ha-ha… Wow, uh…” Please leave. “I’ll run that by him. Thanks. Thank you.”

God, it’s like watching cows fall off a cliff with you.

“You’re welcome.” She inched farther away, teasing the intent to leave but not quite going because that would’ve been too easy. This leaned dangerously close to ‘Agent’ territory. In his mind, he felt a muted rush of excitement from Xander over the thought. “You’re alone here, aren’t you?” His fear deepened. “It’s only the two of you?” Oh. Oh man. Whew. “You should come out sometime. Things might be easier if you had nearby friends to offer support.”

Okay? She’d loaded ‘support’ with a creepy emphasis.

“Thank you.”

“I’m serious. Everyone deserves a caring place to live, no matter who you’re living with.” She seemed closer. “Friends put things into perspective or help you move on, even if you truly feel like you have to stay here for a reason.” Definitely closer. “People can be reasons. Sometimes, a certain person can be the wrong reason.”

… Agent…?

I think she thinks you’re gay. What?! You shouldn’t’ve said you were renovating. What kind of a straight guy fights over that? No, because Xander said – Forget what I said. Red dicks it is. Dicks of every shade!

Ducks.

Gay ducks, too!

Alex ran a hand through his hair, pulling on the messy strands like that was going to yank him into sanity. With a second smile, tighter than the first – you know how I like itshut the fuck up, Xander!

“Look – thanks for coming by to double-check I wasn’t dead,” Alex said. She blushed. “I’m fine. Sorry about the noise, sorry about the yelling, sorry about my roommate who I have nothing to do with past sharing this crappy apartment, but I have to finish renovating and that means I need to close the door. So for the last time I’m gonna ask: is that it?”

“Yes, but I –”

Thank you.” Slam. “For shit’s sake…”

Amazing. Xander applauded. Like watching gay cows fall off a rainbow. Alex ignored him in favour of sliding to the floor. He stabbed his butt on the morning’s shrapnel but he wanted to sit. Neighbours were awful. You know what I’d’ve done five minutes ago?

“No, but you’re going to tell –”

Not talked to her. There, problem solved. What’s for supper?

Alex tensed as the shock wore off. Who was that? Why did she jump from prepping 9-1-1 to dishing domestic battery advice? It didn’t feel normal. But she left like an Agent wouldn’t, and what did he know about basic interaction anymore? Unless this formed a new angle… Get to him by pretending to not want to? Stupid. The question was whether it seemed stupid enough.

Hey. Pay attention to me. The guy slapped him. I want food.

Alex did, too. More than that though, he wanted this place clean.

Please. Please.

Please. Please. Please. Please fight. Please scream. Do something. Bang on the walls or throw a chair. Beth had four paintings. She needed nine in two days, excluding the blank trio on her floor. For the last months, that wasn’t a problem. The howling and the crashing of tables always eventually rewarded her with art. Now, she had a deadline. For the one time since they moved upstairs, Bethany Keeler’s neighbours were quiet.

Two days. The blank trio of canvases glared across their whitespace. ‘By Sunday,’ they said. The clock ticked! Her clock didn’t actually tick, but it would have, and it would again. This could not be the night they discovered healthy communication. Please.

Nothing. Damn.

Lesson learned, she told herself: don’t bet on blind luck when she’d already kicked its limit weeks ago. How about blind promises instead? This was the last show for Rage Against the Room, for RAR – even though its passion was immense and she could taste the fury wafting from the series’ acrylics – so if only the universe could align and simply squeeze out the rest, Beth could meet her ridiculous quota. Terry’s gallery counted on it. She was counting on it.

Everything she had went into this. Beth even staged her living space around it. Her mother’s floral couch huddled under a pink blanket and against the wall, safer from errant splatters. She’d cleared her table away to lend her canvases the room. Hanging above them, hooked to the ceiling, dangled a system of tubes dripping stuttered lines of colour. It was impressive, if she said so herself. She built it with a fish tank pump and lots of tape.

When her neighbours flipped out, the machine would rattle and draw jagged streaks of flair. RAR’s intensity changed as quickly as the pointless crap they clashed over. Allusions of Crime, for instance, spread lazily due to the breaks they had taken, allowing her liquid hues to stretch across the fibres, but mostly plop at the centre in fat tears. Clearly, those two had less of a problem losing wallets than a sweatshirt. Torn Sleeves bore almost no drops on its belly since the tubes shook so constantly. It must’ve been a nice shirt! But probably not. They lived here; how expensive could something they owned be?

Still, nothing bared teeth as vicious as her Feed the Need collection. For ages, ‘coffee’ sounded to Beth like crack’s newest slang. No, one neighbour just seriously enjoyed Pequods. A hundred fights peppered the story through her depictions and reeked of agony, usually down the vein of the first neighbour screaming at the other to not destroy things, followed by things being destroyed. These creations’ paint ran to her floor in raw excess, devoid of drops anywhere but their brutal edges. Feed the Need exploded, unleashed, and rebelled, and notwithstanding oh God, please don’t let her be in a dark alley with them, the coffee fights were her neighbours’ most vivid inspirations. They won Beth her biggest award to date. Soon-to-be awards, plural, if they frigging returned to it.

Her machine coughed. The already slightly dry paint she’d scraped from a cluster of empty tins was going stale. She clicked off everything. There would be no choosing between supplies and sleeping on the street today. Besides, if the bills crammed under her table’s leg could gossip, the big problem wasn’t the rent but her phone. The forty dollars she saved stretching her paint barely covered her international texts.

Jessica never had those problems. Jessica painted for fun, and she leased a condo with a doorman and a foyer. Her building’s exercise room was a fitness centre, offering more than a broken treadmill and shady weights missing half of every pair. In fact, were Jessica to have muses that went quiet at the foot of her looming deadline, she wouldn’t need to tell Terry sorry, bad news, the neighbours weren’t feeling productively bananas, but instead skip on up there and knock on their door, and that – sounded…

Beth had two options left: a) abandon the designs painstakingly conceived for this exhibition, or b) sprint to a messy, open-and-shut, tag-team murder from above. Option A could work! Doing nothing welcomed every excuse she thought of to not go to their floor, which included selling Terry on the unfinished pieces if she retitled them: The Meek Forgiveness or Interrupted Wounds – crap like that to explain the whitespace. It could resonate! Well, it would bring the total to seven.

Dammit, Bethany… She’d laughed and promised to deliver these early. Now she was stuck for two, exactly as Jessica, with that whole year of experience, had cautioned her.

Between both those pains in Beth’s ass, at least the ones upstairs contributed sometimes. Jessica’s sole talent was shovelling fuel for Pity Petty Rival Parties. Last week, it was over furniture: Beth’s came castoff from family. Jessica ‘discovered’ stuff through feng shui hunts. Normal folk called it antiquing, and if Beth said that, maybe everyone would’ve marvelled as she too surrounded herself with rosy carpets, rosy curtains, and rosy doilies atop a faux-rosewood desk. Instead Beth earned eyes of sympathy, not applause, since rather than renting in a famous city where cheap furnishings begged stylish irony, she lived at a building that let Screamy and Coffee have a key.

She didn’t understand why they stayed. Why share a room? Her neighbours weren’t friends; she knew nothing about them except for that, and she was counting all the time spent capturing their emotions. Were they brothers, possibly? Special needs? She’d only heard the one guy talk. Beth absently paced as she weighed the notion. Yeah. Okay. Special needs. It turned her mind’s eye farther to the side of doubt. The duo probably did what they could to keep the noise down.

Of course, that let a few new implications parade in: neglect, battery, full-on abuse – no. Stop. Don’t. She’d agreed to cross this bridge when she started RAR, and today wasn’t any more the day she started morally crashing. To note, even less proof existed that they weren’t transatlantic crime lords. Whatever their deal, they’d obviously it survived this long. Except…

Oh shit. What if they had died? Oh shit! What if the cops thought she drove them to it? She had the perfect motive to push them! Shit – what if they took her series as evidence? She’d be hysterical! Her art was her life!

Don’t panic! Jam those fears in a corner, Beth! Beyond silence, nothing pointed to foul play. But she had to knock. She didn’t dare still kid herself when the stakes were this high. Fortunately, she didn’t forget to test the waters first. Beth swept the scene, listening and inching her head towards the ceiling. When this failed to provide results, she got a boost from climbing on her couch and doing the ear version of a squint.

Her broom rested on the pantry by the kitchen. She shuffled back with it, and – bracing herself – gave a committed whack to the stucco.

Freeze! Every muscle in her body seized. Oh God. She listened again. Damn, nothing. Never mind. It was probably for the best, anyway. Her first impression shouldn’t be an angry shit she knocked again why?

… Anything? No? Damn.

She moved to part two: room service. Guessing their nightly trigger seemed impossible, and since friendly-coloured clothes might not wash over well, she wanted a neutral palate. Check it off the list: she wore a white shirt and faded overalls, both stiff from paint. Her hair was in a brown ponytail. She couldn’t be more harmless if she tried, so the spattering of freckles on her untanned, easily burned face fit more like a sad bonus than a clever detail.

There. Good luck finding a reason to stab her now. So long as she spoke softly, didn’t make fast movements, left her hands in plain sight, and covered her tracks with an extra lap before home, she should theoretically survive. Unless she became a witness. ‘Loose end’, ‘narc’, ‘rat’, ‘snitch’… God, she hoped ‘coffee’ didn’t secretly mean that.

Two minutes later, she found herself a storey higher and on their free Welcome mat. No one else was around, which she didn’t blame them for. It simply meant she should’ve really left a letter. Too late; pushing forward. The near featureless, Amazon green door was watching her.

Okay. Do it.

Do it.

Knock, Bethany.

“Just shut up…”

“Just shut up…”

Definitely. Xander would definitely listen if Alex asked him for a seventh time. At least the prick quit trying to kill him, worn out with all that exhaustive ass-kicking. Xander’s voice was still going strong, though. After seven hours, fourteen minutes and thirty-six seconds – not that Alex had counted or anything – he had enough mental energy to bitch for another Three. Days. Three days of in-head screeching because Alex didn’t get him coffee.

It’s not just fucking coffee, you asshole, Xander helpfully explained. It’s Pequods. The only fucking thing I ask you for, you cheap son of a bitch.

Alex had considered handing himself in. Yes, the Agents more or less explained that getting the guy out involved hammers, chisels, a drill to his left temple and a grave, but it sounded pretty okay when the other choice was this. Besides, wherever they dragged him had to be nicer than his apartment. An asylum, maybe. Some place with lights.

I swear to God, the first chance I get, I’m grabbing a knife and stabbing you in the throat. You owe me.

Yeah, Alex owed him a coffee and a soul. They were in the mail or… something.

You think I won’t wait? I can wait, you dick. I can wait all fucking night.

Xander didn’t sleep. Yet another surprise Alex learned to live with.

I want my latté!

“Shut up,” he muttered.

The screeching started again. At least the neighbours couldn’t hear that. Everything else he guessed fell under the building’s No Questions pledge. Their room was a cramped bachelor with a bed wedged into the bathroom. Alex wasn’t paying what he paid for décor.

They did expect some furniture back though, including homey pieces like the mirror. The shards of it scattered everywhere made walking dangerous. Other chunks stuck under his skin from where Xander threw his fist against the glass. He would’ve taken them out, except with his ‘friend’ watching, if Alex dove in with tweezers, his hand could magically spasm and there’d be a field day of stitching his finger on instead of just slapping a bandage over it. Fine. The cuts barely hurt. He was more pissed he had to go dumpster diving for one again.

Their latest table had been smashed in two. Alex had landed on it with his hip. The chairs he lifted from that thrift store? Destroyed. He’d been thrown through them. He took the hit with the centre of his gut, like he did with the desk from the curb – gone – and the IKEA shelves – shattered – and the dresser, which was the closest thing this place had to an original appliance and was also now cracked. He would be picking splinters from his clothes for weeks, provided he got the privilege. Sometimes accepting this shit was better than trying to survive Xander’s stupid wrath. Too bad the Agents didn’t see it that way. On the other hand, if they did, apparently Alex would have a knife in his throat.

First chance.

Xander’s control ran off a shrinking pool of energy. He needed to pace himself when he took over, so walking and breathing – anything minor – were left to Alex. Not fights. Xander handled fights. The number of Agents after him had dropped from armies to two main people. It felt cozy enough to rent for a while instead of moving twice a month, but lately…

Alex didn’t get it. Suddenly new Agent swarms appeared every other day. Hours ago, that afternoon, he found a cluster lurking half a block from the north Pequods coffee land. The struggle to turn around and go the hell home was why Xander didn’t have the strength to leave any permanent damage. His foot hurt, though. Xander’d kicked it into a streetlight.

Was it worth that?

– won’t fucking let me kill Agents, won’t fucking go outside –

Yes. Completely. His basic sense of safety had been on the line. Xander not getting his precious drink was just a spite-bonus. Fuck you. Plus Alex didn’t need more reasons not to sleep. He hadn’t rested in days already ‘cause of the panic.

Why new Agents? Why now? How could they not have given up?

Maybe they were trying to get lattés. That’s what I’d do, which was what I was doing ‘til you ran like a little bitch. They didn’t know how many – Four. You ran because of four. I have shit with more effort than it takes to snap four Agents in half.

Yeah, well…

“Shut up.”

One thing, Xander spat. One thing is what I’m asking for.

His jaw hurt. Alex got off his bed. His feet responded. Finally, good news. Ignoring the sharp throb of pain humming from the right one, it meant Xander let go. He felt awful but the awfulness belonged to him. This was Alex’s body – it’s shared. Xander was the psycho he’d invented after a six-years-young nervous breakdown.

Alright. Time to check the damage. Shuffling, limping, he wandered to the last clump of mirror clinging to the frame. Alex had to keep turning his head if he wanted to see another part of it, but it worked. He was mostly intact. Bruises stretched from his neck to his ear, but the oval shape his face was there. So were circles under his eyes. He’d have to wait to tell if those came from the fight or being tired. Or maybe he was sick. His skin seemed pale. Normally he hovered on dark olive. Or else it was a daylight thing. Since the Agent swarms started, Alex stayed in so much that he barely remembered what sun looked like.

It’s yellow, it’s round –

“It’s a figure of speech.”

It’s bullshit, is what it is.

Black hair, brown eyes, cut short and kind of choppy. He did it himself. He didn’t trust Xander around barbers. Around anyone, frankly, but especially not people with scissors. Instead he used to not being picky. If he didn’t look deranged or like a serial killer, then great. Plus he stayed in shape. Xander kept him on a strict work-out schedule. His own face stood as proof of how hard he could hit.

I’m taking this body the second you’re gone.

Then Xander had to keep him alive. Alex knew how to run but sometimes there were pits he fell into, and he needed the little bastard to dig him out of those. Xander hadn’t failed yet. How could he? When he got sick of punching, stabbing or kicking everyone, there was always the ‘advantage’. Alex didn’t know what to call it. ‘Killing people with seizures I make with my eyes’ seemed like a mouthful.

Someone’s coming.

Agents?

No. Xander sounded bored. So…

Shit. Neighbours. Someone coming about the noise.

“Stay quiet,” Alex said quickly, “and I’ll get you coffee.”

Nah, I don’t want it now.

Liar.

“Just shut up, okay? Please? For once.”

Bitch, let’s see you make me.

His arms twitched to kick his ass again. Nothing happened. Xander was still tired. Alex felt him sink to a corner of his mind – or wherever he went – to sulk. Good. Stay. That would stop this from turning more horrible than it had to. Right now, he needed an excuse for why the apocalypse had gone off for half a day. Any chance there’d be brownie points for not stretching it to a full day this time?

“I’m serious,” he warned.

Xander didn’t say anything.

The third and last fact Alex had learned: no answer was almost always worse than getting one.

Fantastic. Just… fantastic.