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Maslow

He pushed the needle in her arm, glancing up at her scrunched up face as he shot the clear aqua liquid through her veins. He laughed a little, a burble of a brook in the silence.

"What?" she snapped. She raked her hand through her dirty blond hair as she swiveled her head to look at him.

He flashed his lopsided smile, the one that made him look like he had wonderful secrets, the one that made her fall for him in the first place. "Nothing. It's just cute how you live on this stuff, but you can't stand watching me give it to you." Noting her blank stare, he continued. "See, your nose gets all scrunched up and your eyes get all squinty, like a little kid trying not to open their eyes and ruin the magic of Santa."

Rubbing the residual sting of the needle, she said, "That's because Angel is bad for you!"

He just rolled his eyes and leaned over to kiss her gently on the forehead. Past experience had taught him that her system got used to drugs violently at first, and then after the initial rush, she was all languidness and sex and bliss. That's all their relationship seemed to be now: drugs, frantic touches, and bittersweet kisses. "I'll let you be for a bit," he said as he turned to leave.

Right before he got to the tattered curtain that shielded them from the rest of the world, he heard a strained, "Maslow?"

Automatically, he said, "I love you; you're my Angel." Then he ducked underneath the doorway and stepped out onto the street.

As he walked down the cracked streets, concrete numbing bare feet, he choked on a rueful laugh and ran his hands through his hair. God, they had thought they were so clever when they came up with that joke. He had been so high that he felt like he had reached enlightenment that day, that he had finally figured out how to survive the life that tried to suffocate him every day. He had been sprawled across their bed, and she had been in her customary place in the crook of his arm. "You know what's funny?" he had said, running a hand across her freckled cheek.

"Hmmmm?" she had mumbled. She had gazed at him with her half-open eyes, the brilliant peridot of her irises almost swallowed by the black holes of her pupils.

"Your name," he had annunciated, as if talking to a child, "is Angel. And I can't get enough of you. This," he gestured at the empty needles strewn across the table, "is also Angel. And I can't get enough of that either. It's like you're one and the same."

She had let that soak in for a minute, tracing circles on his hand with her finger. Then she had laughed and rolled over to face him, their noses almost touching. "I'm your Angel," she said.

That was last year. As he walked along the grimy, metal-lined streets, he whistled a melancholy tune that wove its way through the tin roof tops and smoke columns. No birds echoed it, all of them chased away by the factories. He reached the end of the block and pivoted on his heel, heading west to the river. Everything else was smoke and steel in the city except the river.

Out of all the things the Planning Committee had f*ed up, they left the river alone. They didn't have to change it to keep people away. To the city people, the river held broken promises of a man who left and never came back. The soft sound of the water lapping against the sides echoed his whispered encouragements and the sparkle of the sun on its surface reminded them of his radiant smile as he vowed to bring them out of their depression. Most days, city people stayed away from the skeletons of the past, preferring to bury themselves in their factory work. He didn't mind a few bones here or there, though. To him, the river held memories, too, but unlike the city people, he couldn't will himself to forget them; they were a part of him.

He eased himself down on the edge of the concrete. Wind bit into his skin and reminded him how much he needed a coat. With a sigh, he dipped his calloused feet into the water, the grime melting into mud and disappearing into the current. In the water, out of the water, everything around him felt the same now: a sharp, piercing cold that faded into nothingness. Angel made him warm; Angel made him feel happy, if only for awhile. That was why he stayed with her. It. Both.

Searching around in his pocket, he clasped the smooth curved surface of a dose of Angel. He ran his hands over all of the puncture wounds that his past encounters with Angel had left him with. The oldest almost looked like freckles. If only. Unlike his lover, he couldn't look away as he plunged the needle into his taut skin. He knew damn well what he was doing to himself, so if nothing else, he wasn't denying his vices. But what else was he supposed to do in this hell hole? He couldn't go home, and he couldn't go back to the factories.

Impatient for the tightness to dissolve from his chest, he waited until Angel unfurled itself, stretching its comforting tendrils across his rib cage, unhitching his breath. The calming sensation spread through his body, first tensing his muscles and then leaving them limp and tranquil. He exhaled to the sky and felt as if he were floating. Now he was protected. Now he could think about the past without feeling like he was drowning in loss.

His mind adrift, he stared at the ripples across the water as the images came, unbidden, to him, like ghosts coming out to play. Flashes of black boots splashing through muddy puddles on the way to the square flitted through his vision. He could remember who was in the market place, recall every crease on their concerned faces. The mothers had hushed their children to be quiet. The paper, that damned piece of parchment that controlled them was held by an equally vile man, the smug look on the soldier's face showing no regret as he read off the list of names, spittle flying. At least he hadn't had any parents to cry out for him as some of the boys did. Listening to the screams of the others' had been bad enough.

Then they had dragged them to the city, penned up in the back of a truck, and forced them to work in the factories. Those were days of endless hours and air that seared the inside of his lungs. He and the rest of the boys had created ruthless weapons of unfeeling metal and lived unfeeling lives as the factory tore their soul from them, limb from limb. The factory guards did not let them talk, punching them in the face whenever they uttered a word, passed each other a look–they took away their communication, changing them from human beings to machines. The guards were never satisfied, executing horrible punishments, threatening worse ones. He had run from it all one night, his feet slapping against the street and echoing down the alley. He had made his way to the city's black heart, finding his way to survive in the underground dens of addicts and cast offs.

Staring at his reflection in the river, his mouth twisted down into a frown. His brown hair was just on the verge of needing a hair cut, the fringes dusting the tops of hazel eyes, and summer sun still clung to his skin. He could outrun anyone in the streets, climb any building, destroy any obstacle, yet he felt powerless. With all his strength, the best he could do in life was live in a hovel drugged out of his mind. He hadn't always been like this. Before Angel, before the Committee, before everything, all he had been was a sea boy. And he would give anything to leave his metal cage and go back.

He closed his eyes, hot tears dripping down his face. Angel pulsed inside of him, creating more pressure and expanding his contracting lungs, forcing him to breathe. He could remember the freedom of being out at sea with nowhere and everywhere to go. The wind ruffling his hair, the sun's beams matching the smile radiating from his face... He had built a boat, the Salina, a flying bird across the waters. Every day, he had caught a few fish to sell in the market and a few fish for himself, and then he had lain on the lower deck, one hand trailing in the water as the current took Salina where it wanted. Then, as the sun would set, he would anchor her and dive off the back and swim. The water would envelop him as it always did, and he would feel safe. Sometimes he would find sea shells to bring for the children when he returned to the village at the end of the week, but for those perfect moments when the passionate, blushing, fiery sky faded into the tranquil shades of twilight, and then into the mirror fragments of starlight against a midnight fabric, all that existed were the cresting waves as they caressed his skin.

He had loved the harmony between him and the sea.

Now the Committee imprisoned him in a city he cared nothing about. It had nothing for him except poverty and sunken eyes. Every day he had to face himself in the cracked mirror, thinking about who he had been and who he was now. Now, he was nothing except a lost boy, strung out, wasting away, with no hope, no life, nothing except a handful of memories and–

Cutting off his darkening thoughts, he stood up and slipped off his shirt. The burning core of Angel kept him impervious to the scything cold, and for that he was grateful. Reaching high, he stretched his muscles and felt the sparks of Angel race up his arm. The drug had almost reached its peak; the liquid coursed through his veins and he felt heavy and light and warm and alive as it pricked and ignited his body. He looked down one more time at the river, and his skin glowed gold from the superhuman effects of Angel. If he wanted it enough, he could do anything; he could go back to his old life with Salina and the waves and the endless sky. All he had to do was find it in the eddies and whirlpools of his life, and now that Angel opened his eyes, he knew how.

He looked down at the water, his face unflinching. And he dove, a beautiful line of muscles and sinews, and the water accepted him without a splash. Blinking furiously, he opened his eyes and saw vibrant colors of the sunset refracted in the water. The rainbow had turned liquid and was surrounding him in a close embrace, and he felt at home again. He could see his old dock, half falling apart, and the sketchbook he used to bring when he went fishing. Then he saw Salina, not as a boat, but as the spirit he knew always existed in it, a vision of ivory skin and ebony hair, long limbs and large eyes, moving through the water like a dream. Her eyes glimmered as she reached his side and took his hand. She whispered, "Rest easy, Maslow." Lips ghosted over lips, and he kissed her with his whole being. This was where he belonged. Here, free at last. With one last sigh, he let the water take him under.

Angel laid alone in her bed, watching the shadows grow longer across the covers. She didn't know where her lover had gone, but he always came back when he went for one of his walks. Before he left, he would always get a faraway look in his eyes that made her wonder what he was thinking about. She never asked, instinctively knowing that his thoughts would be unfathomable to her. He would become restless, fiddling with an old sailor's bracelet made of rope around his wrist, faded white from years in the sun and the sea. She had asked him about that once, and he had told her a marvelous story of mermaids and wishes and morning stars that had kept them content for the night, feeling the comfort of old fairy tales. Today he had that same look, but it had an undertone of resignation that she had not seen before. Which was why she had to remind him that she was here, that she was his Angel. She had known that he did not love her, but in their lives, love did not come easily to begin with. The two of them had created a way to survive their destitution, and that was enough for her. She shivered, drawing the quilt up closer to her face, and glanced again at the doorway.

A homeless man leered down at the figure drifting past him. He had seen the young man dive off of the wall into the river. Puffing on his cigarette, he wondered, "What is that youngster thinking?" The Committee had placed lethal toxins in the water to prevent plants and animals from living in the water.

Maslow, his face pale in the moonlight, was smiling as the water brought him home.




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