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It was a dark and stormy night, yeah, just like in the great American novel written by Snoopy on the roof of his doghouse back when Charlie Brown and his friends were still in regular production. But all good things must come to an end, right? Just like the day when my good thing ended, one last lingering glance in a hallway as he walked away with my car keys, and I knew it would never again be the same. Never again drowse comfortably pillowed against sweaty skin, feeling his fingertips dance across my back. Never again hear him call me 'Alex' in that tone of almost-affection. I walked down that hallway, knowing it was over, and a part of me died that day.
That day was obscenely bright and sunny. No darkness, and no storms. No, the dark and stormy night that haunts me still occurred in bitter-cold Russian countryside, shivering under blankets in an abandoned hut as we headed for Tunguska. His body stiff and resistant, just barely tolerating the necessity of conserving body heat. Or so I thought, until I shifted position against him and heard him whimper, barest breath of a plaintive sound drifting above the howling wind. I'd thought I was dead inside, at least the part of me that had cherished him, ached for him - but one little sound brought back all the love and all the pain, and I had to touch him again. Had to hold him, had to kiss his neck from behind, just to know the taste of his skin one more time.
He didn't object as I buried myself beneath the blankets, buried my face inside his trousers, and his only response as I took him into my mouth was to arch up into me as deeply as he could. And oh, I was in heaven: cold or not, I could imagine that nothing had changed. For those few minutes, I could pretend that we were still partners, still together.
My mistake. My goddamn mistake. Because the moment he was finished, as I was swallowing and smiling up at him, he stared back down at me expressionlessly - "Cocksucker," he said, in a flat mechanical voice - and as the smile was fading from my face, his leg moved, hard and sharp, catching me right between the legs.
He probably thought that I spent the next half-hour curled into a ball on the floor because of the pain radiating from my testicles. He would have been wrong, though. The pain was elsewhere. I was hiding my tears.
And it all falls forward from there: because if he hadn't broken my heart that last time, I wouldn't have sailed out and left him in that cell, and he never would have stolen the truck and me with it, and I wouldn't have ended up flat on the cold ground being held down while some ignorant, well-meaning peasant sawed off my arm...
Oh, god, why do I drink? It never helps, it never takes the pain away; I always just end up like this, slumped over a table or a bar counter in a dark corner hating my life, hating myself.
Missing him. Even after what he's done to me. After what I've done to him. Wishing I could touch him again, no matter the price.
I sigh as I fumble a large-ish bill out of my pocket and flip it into a puddle of beer on the bar. When I start waxing nostalgic over a kick in the balls, it's time to go home.
Caroline is out by the car, waiting for me. Her long light brown hair shines like the rain-damp streets. Ponytail, snug blue jeans, chewing bubble gum, anyone who didn't know better would think she was a high school cheerleader. It's a useful attribute to have, the ability to appear young and innocent. Caroline knows this as well as I did, when I was her age.
"Home?" she asks as I fling myself into the passenger seat, and only when she reaches for the steering wheel does her hand stray more than a few inches from her concealed weapon. Cute sweet pretty little Caroline, and never mind that she's about as harmless as a cobra, it's still humiliating to have someone who looks like that as my bodyguard.
Necessity is a mother, though, and my success as a one-armed assassin will last only as long as no one realizes how goddamn defenseless I am half the time. Like when I drink, and the memories come calling - like when I'm tired, or it rains, and the legacy of the black oil returns in the form of muscle aches and chills and a raw abraded feeling in every mucous membrane. Like when I need a gun cleaned. Or a jar of peanut butter opened. Or when I'm just feeling hopeless and sorry for myself. Like now.
Caroline drives us back to the little apartment I call home, just under the speed limit so as not to attract attention, eyes flickering to all three mirrors in turn to make sure we're not being followed. As we walk into the apartment, she covers me - without drawing her gun, but the effect is the same: eyes everywhere, and ready to strike. Upstairs, she sets the alarms and helps me take off my boots as I fall into bed ...
... asleep before I hit the pillow, and awaken to bleak daylight and cottonmouth and a pounding headache, and Caroline is there still, this time with coffee and Tylenol and an icepack, just like every time I drink too much. I pay her well for the job she does: but these are the things that money cannot buy, the tasks not in her job description, the things that she does (I choose to believe) purely because she gives a damn about me, about whether I live or die, and whether I succeed or merely survive.
Caroline helps me stumble out of bed and to the shower, and after I've bathed she helps me strap on the prosthesis she removed for me last night after I passed out. Caroline takes the call that comes in while I'm eating the breakfast she cooked for me, then helps me dress so that I won't display any weakness on the assignment my employer has outlined for me. Caroline writes a few words on a slip of paper for me, so that the handwriting won't be mine; and when all is ready, she drives me across the river, to where I need to be.
For all that she looks like a fifteen-year-old, Caroline has been around the block a few times, and most of those trips have been with me. She knows the address to which we're going. Knows, without having to be told, that my stomach is clenched up into hard queasy knots at the thought of what I must do: and does me the courtesy of remaining silent throughout the journey.
Until I'm getting out of the car, at which point she says, "Good luck," in her soft, little-girl voice, and the sympathy in her eyes nearly tears me apart.
Then I turn my back on Caroline, who is the closest thing to loving concern I've known since my soul died, and head up the stairs to do a good turn for the man whose loving concern I will never again know, dying inside all over again.
Later, I sit in my bedroom in the dark, staring at my dim reflection in the window glass, wondering where he is, what he's doing, whether he's thinking about me.
His cheek was so soft beneath my lips. The glorious scent of him was so vivid, so strong. And he didn't resist, not in any way that mattered, not even when I leaned forward to kiss him ... and if I had lingered, I think he would have let me kiss him completely. Might have even turned his face into the kiss.
Oh, why the hell am I even thinking about this? It's hopeless, and it's over, all except the head games. This is Tunguska all over again, a moment's pliability followed by a sharp knee to the groin ... he'll do it to me again, if I let him.
He'll break my heart all over again, every time.
Slowly, stealthily, the door opens, and Caroline pads silently into the room. She hands me a glass of whiskey and tucks a blanket securely around my shoulders to keep me warm - and after a moment's pause, brushes her fingertips across my forehead in a gentle caress. "You should get some rest," she murmurs.
I grunt something unintelligible in response; and after another moment, Caroline squeezes my shoulder and leaves me to my solitude.
Soon I will find a new large deposit in my coded bank account from my employer, who will no doubt be pleased by my efficiency - who doesn't know that Caroline is far more to me than a bit of eye candy to occasionally drive me to a meeting or run an errand. To my employer, the efficiency is all mine. That's her gift to me, the one I can never repay, that I could never survive without.
But here I sit in the darkness, with his face dancing behind my vision, the feel of his skin an agonizingly sweet memory. Thinking of him, yearning for him. Not Caroline, whose calm steady caring keeps me alive and sane, but the man who beats me and berates me every time we meet ...
It was a dark and stormy night when I learned that there was no chance, and no hope. And it's a dark and stormy night for me every time I learn the lesson all over again, every time I dare believe for an instant or two that there might be some way for me to make things right between us again, and every time I come to know that it's my curse to keep hoping, to keep loving, even now that everything has gone to hell.
The night sky outside my window is still: but as my eyes close against the images on the glass, I can see the flashes of lightning, hear the roar of thunder, and know that unlike Charlie Brown and his comic-strip cohorts, the dark and stormy night will never end for me.
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