“Basically, there are three rules,” Richard was saying as he poured some milk into a bowl filled to the brim with Cookie Crisp. I’d awoken to find both Jared and Dread gone; I hadn’t dared to ask Richard where. But he’d asked if I was hungry, and only then did I realize that yes, I was starving actually, because I hadn’t eaten since the day before. It was nearly impossible for me to fathom that I’d only been gone for a single day. I felt as though it had been years since I’d stepped foot out my front door.
He brought the pink plastic bowl over to where I was perched on the counter. I smiled as I took it, met his eyes and waited for him to lay the law. “Well,” he began. “No sex anywhere except in your own room. That one was the first, because one time Dread came all over my pillow and didn’t do shit about it, so when I went to lay down it was right in a massive pile of his sperm.” I laughed a little even though it was hard to imagine Dread having sex at all. He didn’t exactly seem like the intimate type. I supposed sex didn’t always have to be intimate, though. Not like I would know anyway. The closest thing to sex I’d ever done was get felt up at one of the parties she was forever dragging me to.
“Go on,” I said through a mouthful of the sugary cereal. I hadn’t had Cookie Crisp in years. My parents were big into saving money, and at some point they had decided that food was no longer a necessity. I’d learned quickly how to curb my appetite, how to fill up on cigarette smoke and the thought of myself tangled up in Brielle. Stop it, Ruth, I screamed. Stop letting her in.
Thankfully, Richard spoke again, pulling me from the dark confines of my own mind. There was something almost enchanting about him. Not attractive, but mesmerizing. Perhaps it was just the green streaks that broke through the solidity of his black hair, or the way his dark brown eyes studied me. Almost like they were searching for something, though I hadn’t the slightest idea what it might be. I wanted to tell him there was nothing in me worth finding, but he was opening his mouth to speak again, so I kept mine closed except to shovel in another bite of cereal.
“Everyone is pretty protective of their shit around here, so rule number two is always ask before using something.” I thought this seemed like common sense to me. Of course you wouldn’t just take something without asking permission. I had to remind myself that this was Los Angeles, things were done differently here. Maybe it was a good thing I didn’t have anything to be stolen. The only thing that had ever been mine was already long gone.
“What the third rule?” I asked then. I was sick of thinking. I was sick of remembering. I wanted to be here and now, not there in my memories where she still was.
Richard’s face grew very serious. “This is the most important rule,” he warned. “Never, ever, under any circumstances, go into Dread’s room.”
I nodded once, hard, so that he would know I’d gotten the point. Richard held my gaze for a long time. I was sure he could see straight through me, read my every thought and know my every secret. When his stare became too much, I knew I had to speak, and so I said the first thing that came out. “Why do you call him Dread?”
Richard’s expression became solemn; it was the wrong question to ask. He hesitated. “It’s not really my story,” he told me. “But let me put it this way: if he was alone with someone in a dark alley, anyone at all, he’d be the only one coming back out.”
“Oh,” was what I said, because what else was there to say to something like that?
“Yeah,” Richard replied. “Now, let’s go smoke a bowl, and then I’ll teach you all the tricks to Call of Duty.” Smirking, I set my emptied bowl into the sink, taking the time to rinse it out. I’d never have done that at home. Then I followed Richard down the hall to his room, where he was sitting on his bed filling a pipe with some weed. I could definitely get used to this.
By the time the door swung open three hours later, I was stoned out of my mind and starting to really get into this Call of Duty thing. Back in Wintersburg, the shining girls were forever complaining that their boyfriends were more concerned with CoD than with them. In my marijuana-induced haze, I contemplated sending them all a letter telling them to shut the fuck up and play with them. If anything, it was an amazing distraction. Maybe the weed had something to do with that.
I heard Jared’s easy laugh, felt his presence in the room. I tore my gaze off the screen long enough to throw him a smile. “Turning into one of us already,” he said offhandedly. Then, to Richard, he added, “We got the shit. Dread’ll take some out tonight.” Never mind that we were right in the middle, Richard set down his controller and was on his feet faster than I realized what was going on.
“Let me see it,” he murmured. I placed my own controller on the couch beside me, rose to my feet with hesitation. I wanted to know what was going on but didn’t want to intrude. I was new; I wasn’t really one of them. That was only a meaningless thing Jared had told me because he felt like he had some responsibility towards me. I wondered why that was. Why he felt like he had an obligation to help me.
Jared pulled out a bag from the pocket of his sweatshirt. It might have been any Ziploc bag. But no, this one was special. This one was filled to the max with a smooth white powder, one that had Richard’s eyes wide and Jared grinning like a madman. “There’s five grams there,” the blonde boy said. “And it was fucking expensive, so we have to make it last. Dread is selling a gram of it tonight for twice as much as we paid.”
Richard laughed a little. “Teenagers are idiots.”
It was as if someone had flipped a switch then, and they remembered that I was there, that I’d been standing there the whole time. Jared’s expression melted to that warm and inviting one he wore whenever he looked at me. Not the lusty grin he’d had on mere moments ago, when he’s been marveling at the plastic bag. Filled with cocaine. They were selling cocaine. “Don’t worry, Ruthless.” Words like the smoothest chocolate. Reassuring. “It’s okay, I promise.”
Dread came into the room, snatched the bag out from Jared’s hands. “I’ll put this away,” he said, making no attempt to hide the scowl he directed at me. He hadn’t bothered to do his hair, and then way it framed his empty grey eyes. Cold as stone, that stare. I noticed something I hadn’t before, a silver chain around his neck, with something dangling from it. I couldn’t make out what it was from across the room. Catching me staring, Dread turned away and went off down the hall to his room without another word.
“Don’t mind him,” Jared told me. “He’s been though more shit than anyone I know.” I blinked hard, too long to really be considered a blink. Thought back to Wintersburg. Thought back to her. Wondered if he’d been through more shit than I had.
When Richard went back to the couch, I did the same, moving closer to the black haired boy to make room for Jared on the other side. Pressed between them, I felt safe. Like coming to LA had been the best decision I could have made. Like it wouldn’t be long until I figured out a way to erase the past altogether.
“Do you ever think about doing it?” Brielle asked me from where she stood across the room, gazing at her reflection in the full length mirror. She was looking a little more like a ghost every day, skinnier, paler than I’d ever seen her before. Her white blonde hair and the way she darkened her eyes added to the corpse like appearance. She was still beautiful, still everything I wanted and wanted to hate.
“What do you mean?” I was on my bed, amidst the light blue sheets and the navy comforter. Why was my room done in blue? Why was anything the way it was? Lately Wintersburg had been growing colder than usual. It was nearing the start of summer; we should have been excited. We should have been making plans for elaborate parties where we would all get stoned and shitfaced and tell ourselves this was the way life was meant to be. Instead we were here in my hideous blue room.
“I mean, do you ever think about pressing a little harder, until there was enough blood to make you pass out?” Well, that was blunt. Absently I glanced down at the black butterfly on my right wrist. Spread wings, twisting antennae. A perfect mask for the scars below. Brielle had done a wonderful job on it, once we were sobered up enough for her to concentrate on keeping her hand steady and toning out my cries of pain. She’d made me promise not to do it anymore. She couldn’t lose me, she said.
Two days later, I’d found the first cut on her own forearm. She pulled away from me, told me it had been an accident. Told me that she’d only wanted to understand what I was doing. I knew the truth, knew that I had given her my sickness.
“Yeah.” I couldn’t lie, not to Brielle. We’d been through everything together. Now we were even fading together. Every day I felt a little farther from reality. I smoked a little more, cut a little deeper. Always on the left arm. I didn’t want to ruin the flawless creature she’d inked into my skin. It was a constant reminder of her, of how free she made me feel. “But I wouldn’t do it. I don’t think I could leave you here.”
Brielle left herself in the mirror, came to sit down beside me. Not even close enough to touch. Maybe she’d finally realized how my heart picked up tempo whenever she came near. It was doing that now, speeding up at the way her hair hung about her face, over her shoulder. Her shirt was low enough that I could see a bit of her bra peeking out. I swallowed hard.
“We could do it together.” She spoke with such nonchalance. Like it was normal to be having this conversation with your best friend who was stealing glances at all the wrong places. Imagining how it might feel to have her bare skin brush against yours. “I couldn’t leave you either, Ruth.”
My forehead creased as I considered her words. You want out, don’t you? That would be the easiest way. Just Brielle and I. Disappearing into the ether.
Brielle stood back up, then, pushing back her hair. “I’m sorry,” she muttered. “I shouldn’t have said anything.” And then she was gone, scurrying out the door. She used to carry herself with such arrogance, because she knew everybody either wanted her or wanted to be her. Nowadays she was always keeping her head down, always holding herself in. I doubted I was the only one to notice it.
With her gone, there was nothing to do but go to bed. I got up to flick the lights off, daring to glance in the mirror. Auburn hair with an annoying habit of falling into my hair. Pale green eyes that held a thousand secrets. One day my cracked lips would find a way to release them. Maybe if I just told her, Brielle would realize that I was the only person who knew her, who would never hurt her. Or maybe she would freak, and my precarious world would collapse.
I turned off the lights ad got back into bed.