The first time he tried to kill himself, he was nine. After being beaten up and had his lunch money taken for the third time that week. He figured he could eventually swing high enough to reach the necessary velocity needed for him to simply jump off and fall to his death right there under the monkey bars. It wasn't very successful. He ended up with scraped knees and elbows, and a pronounced fear of heights that haunted him well into his adult years.
The second time, he was twelve. After his father told him that he would be happier elsewhere, in a little country across the sea called America. He and his brother stole a lighter from the pantry, and he proceeded to command his brother to set him on fire. The younger boy went crying off to their father. After that, he lost interest in his younger sibling entirely, and the lighter episode was incidentally known as the last time the two of them ever played together.
The closest he ever came to succeeding was when he was seventeen, after everything had gone wrong. The thought of death by amphetamines seemed a much more pleasant alternative to death by fire or death by swing.
He was in and out of rehab for the remaining years of his teenage youth. It was ultimately a pointless and completely non-life-altering experience, but it did give him a lot of time to write. And by the time he was clean, he had finished the manuscript for his first novel.
Writing had been his salvation. His talent, his outlet, his whatever the fuck they liked to call it. Artistic expression. All he knew was that it made him feel better. None of his writings were purely works of fiction. And certainly not romantic fiction, the shit genre in which he allegedly claimed his fame. They were the autobiographical monologues of his inner demons, and the only way to shut them up was to drown them out with the obnoxious clacking of fingernails hitting the keyboard. He developed the fixation at a very young age, and clung to it instead of toy trucks and Lego blocks. They had predicted early on that he was an odd child, and would probably grow up to become an odd man. He hated it when other people pointed out truths about him, and after twenty years of listening to people point out the truths about his faults and his failures, he finally stopped going to therapy altogether. It made him realize that not only had he wasted half his life savings on shitty advice, he also managed to become needlessly dependant on prescription narcotics. Having lost his dealer, he was going through the first bouts of nausea, cold sweat, late night vomiting and the general ugliness that was cold turkey. He never imagined there'd be a day when the first thought that came to mind upon waking up would be 'goddamn I could really use some Vicodin with my coffee.'
Addicted, alone, middle-aged, and just a little bit suicidal. The curse of the artistic soul and the destiny of one who chose to write and be resentful for a living.
It was a challenge and a thrill, writing. A cathartic ritual that desensitized through over exposure. It forced him to confront all the things that made him want to sleep with the lights on at night. It gave form to his phobias and structure to his fears. A private haunted house paved with letters, framed with syllables, and furnished with evocative metaphors. Great writers wrote to wield the emotions of others. He wrote to control his own. So he would never have to be scared again. Truly scared. Cornered in a dark, piss and mold smelling room scared. Held down by putrid meaty hands while the god of his universe watched on with a smile scared. Rape scared. Inside his office, his little pet shop of horrors, he would dissect and analyze and work back until even he realized the irony of it all. He was his own sickness and his own cure. A self-healing and self-destructive catch twenty two from which he could neither escape nor demolish. To let himself forget would mean not to write. And what would Yuki Eiri be if he did not write?
So he wrote himself into the same pitiful characters in the same pitiful situations again and again. The opposite of déjà vu – jamais vu. The same people, the same encounters, the same stories over and over, just packaged in a different book jacket, and somehow it all becomes brand new. That's how best seller romance novels are written. That's also what happens to old people trapped in Alzheimer loops who meet their husbands and wives and sons and daughters for the first time every month.
He finally cracked a while back. Nobody saw it coming, except for him. He had read about it in Writer's Digest and always had suspicions that it would happen to him. He hit a dry spell that lasted nearly two years, during which time not a single word was written. His publishing contract was not renewed, and his latest half-finished jamais vu was dropped. When it was over, he was unable to crap out anything save for some freelance editorials for magazine titles he'd never even heard of. They said he had a mental breakdown. But he knew what it really was. It was the beginning of the fucking end. Writing simply couldn't save him anymore.
Afterwards, he became even more of a hopelessly angry person. All he had was the boiling inside of him, day in and day out. Until everything boiled dry and the only thing left was the hate. Hate for people, hate for life, hate for all the things that should have happened for him, but didn't. But most of all, hate for him. Hate for his empty vows and broken promises and how he had moved on years ago, yet he himself was still stuck here, right here, where he had always been. Like the old people. Like his novels. Stuck. Yesterday, today, and all of the tomorrows to come.
What he really hated, was himself.
He tried to kill himself for the fourth time two days ago, on his birthday. He went to the bakery and bought a single slice of cake and for god knows why, a candle. He dumped the colorful cut of pastry onto a plate, stuck the candle in it, shut off all the lights in his apartment and listened to the birthday greetings on his answering machine. All three of them. As he watched the tiny flame dance and flicker, he decided that thirty-five years was long enough. He paid his dues. Besides, he knew he had hit the bottom when he found himself celebrating his own birthday. It was a personal memo written to him from above. The memo said: give up, you sad sack of shit.
He went into the bathroom, flung open the medicine cabinet and emptied every bottle he had into the sink, until the basin was filled with pills and capsules all colors of the rainbow. He reached in and grabbed a hefty handful. And then he stood there, one hand gripping the edge of the counter, the other out in front of him, a determined fistful of chalky pharmaceutical deliverance. He stared down at his closed fist. Do it. He swallowed once, and stared harder. Do it. He could feel the tiny beads of sweat starting to gather at the junction of his brows. Do it. Put it in your mouth. Do it. Do it.
He cursed, and let the tablets sift through his fingers.
He couldn't do it.
Too weak to live, and too scared to die. He could see the great artistic geniuses laughing down at him. Hemingway was shaking his head. "You pussy, you fucking pussy." he said. "I blew my head off and you can't even swallow a couple of goddamn pills." More laughing. "And to think you've tried your whole life to become a Code Hero..."
A Code Hero. The quintessence of masculinity. A man who cannot be stopped. He does not wilt, he does not gripe, and he does not ever compromise.
A Code Hero endured with resistance and dignity. A Code Hero bore through the hardships of a world that was chaotic, perilous, and painful.
He knew he shouldn't have gotten that stupid candle. Fire, throughout history, had always made man feel invincible enough to attempt the impossible. Pills. What the hell was he thinking? He went to bed that night stomach full of beer and cake, and fell asleep wondering whether or not it was hard to get a gun in this neighborhood.
A Code Hero must act acceptably in the face of death.
Another eventless week came and went. Another night of driving around the same dimly lit streets, ripping through gears and barreling through stop signs. The concept of a weekend holds no real meaning anymore when you're unemployed. Every day's a fucking holiday. Another chance to get drunk and accumulate more outstanding tickets. He shifted up to fourth, the car gaining air as it charged off and crashed down along the rise and dips in the asphalt. He weaved blindly through the backstreets between sleazy love motels and dirty pachinko arcades, just waiting for the night's first cowboy cop to come at him from around the corner, lights going sirens blaring. And he would gladly report, yes officer, I knew exactly how fast I was going, because you see the only thing that makes me feel alive nowadays is doing eighty in a forty-five.
A Code Hero lived by his own ideals of honor and justice.
Across the railway tracks, under the overpass. The world flew past in a murky haze of neon. The road signs blurred into one another, the buildings spilled backwards in the rearview mirror. The speed was as anesthetic as it was energizing, and sometimes it could almost make him forget where he was in a city that he was able to navigate through with his eyes shut. In the windshield, the words 'happy hour' shone at him in a glowing seductive red. The sign stood in front of a pub he had no recollection of ever seeing. He watched the bar and the sign slip past him. Then, abruptly, before entering the next intersection, he downshifted and turned sharply across four lanes. He pulled into the front lot.
He shut off the engine, and waited for the adrenaline high to recede. When he felt his heart rate slow down to a reasonable pace, he straightened his collar, left the car, and walked across the parking lot towards the muted hum of music and the line of purple light seeping through the cracked front door.
The pub was unexpectedly quaint inside. Its location was far enough removed from downtown to remain relatively un-crowded on a Friday night. Scattered beneath the dim lighting were pockets of insipid looking patrons hunched over small tables. Three men sat at the bar nursing bottles of beer. On the lounge sofa, a couple was heatedly engaged in a messy swapping of tongues and groping hands. A pianist sat at the piano churning out a soft blues backdrop.
He situated himself at the furthest end of the bar, against the wall. When the bar tender asked for his drink he pulled out all of the cash from his wallet, slid the bills across the counter, and told the bar tender to surprise him.
A Code Hero should drink excessively, but not sloppily.
A minute later the bar tender sat a glass down in front of him; its contents looked to have the consistency of vaseline. Fortunately the taste did not reflect its appearance. He sipped the drink and eyed the moaning drunks on the sofa, grinding to the rhythm of the music. "Oh yes," the girl whispered, "yes, just like that." The soothing piano notes slid between each other, smooth and silky, like buttered cream. He took another sip from his glass. Then, the pianist adjusted the microphone, and started to sing.
He looked up. Away from his drink, and away from the bar.
The rest of the pub disappeared. Everything disappeared, until there was only him, and that voice. The voice that shadowed behind his every footstep. The voice that lurked in the hallways of his empty apartment. The voice that sang to him every day, keeping him from writing, from sleep, from thought, from sanity. He rose to his feet, and took a step forward. Two steps. That voice.
There was no mistaking that voice.
He took another step. Then another. And before he knew it, he was standing in front of the piano. The pianist had his head down, and his eyes closed. He clenched his hands to stop them from shaking. A Code Hero must always possess grace under pressure. He opened his mouth.
"What's a big shot celeb like you doing at a bar like this?"
Shindou Shuichi lifted his head.
Those eyes were still the same ones he saw every night in his dreams. The singing stopped. Fingers froze stiffly in place, poised mid-play on the black and white keys. The silence echoed loudly against the walls. "Oh god," the girl on the couch moaned, "Oh god, yes."
Infinity passed in a second.
"…A friend called in a favor. I generally don't do gigs anymore." He looked down, and began hastily shuffling his music sheets into a pile, "I'm a producer now."
"Really. What was the last thing you produced? A couple of tweens who flailed around lip syncing cover songs?"
He shut the top of the piano and stood. "It's good to see you. Take care." He picked up his case, stuffed the sheets inside, then turned swiftly and walked off the stage.
"Rushing to another important show?" He followed him, talking into his back, "Let me guess. Bachelorette party?"
He wasn't certain exactly why he was being so scathing. He supposed he was feeling too many things at once, but anger had always been the only emotion he was able to successfully express.
"I'm sorry, I forgot I had a prior engagement…" Shuichi leaned over the bar and told the bar tender, "You can cut the pay in half." The bar tender gave him a nod, and he hurried his way across the floor.
"You're not leaving because of me, are you?"
Shuichi kept walking. He followed him through the kitchen, and out the back door.
"Oh, come on. How bout' I buy you a drink, Mr. Producer."
Shuichi walked faster, pulling out car keys from his pocket.
"For old times sake?"
When it became obvious that Shuichi was not going to turn around, he became irrational. He had to say something, anything to get a response, anything to stop Shuichi from walking to his car, getting in, and driving away.
"How's your wife?"
The singer stopped in his tracks.
"She enjoying her sexless marriage? Or is the fucking actually amazing now that you finally get to pitch instead of catch?"
At that, he whirled around. "…How dare you." There was more venom in Shuichi's voice than he cared for, but it didn't matter. He got what he wanted.
"Where do you get off talking about her like that? How dare you." He spat through his teeth. "She loves me. Real, consuming, self-sacrificing, jump in front of a goddamn train love. Not like you. You just wanted someone to be miserably with. You, you were complete bullshit. Just like the bullshit love you wrote in your bullshit books."
It was too obvious, and too easy. He laughed a rude and ugly laugh. "Who are you trying to convince? Me, or you?" He shot him a pitying look. "Divorce the poor girl already. She might still have a chance at finding a prince instead of settling for a fairy. You were born a faggot, and you're going to die a faggot."
Shuichi swung his arm back, and cracked his fist into the blonde's face.
The blow came much faster and much harder than he anticipated. His head snapped back, his footing faltered, and he tasted blood. But it didn't stop at that. The smaller man launched himself at him with all the violent malice and pent up aggression of a caged beast. He threw out punch after punch until the taller man finally found his foothold, and landed a solid left hook in retaliation. And right there, in the back parking lot of Lavender Lust Blues Pub, two thirty year old men broke into an all out bar brawl in a flurry of fists. Being the larger of the two, he eventually gained the upper hand and tackled Shuichi to the ground, pinning his thin arms firmly against the gravel. Beneath him, the smaller man thrashed for all he was worth, like a live fish dropped in a deep fryer.
"Get off of me!"
"Only if you agree to back the fuck off."
"Good. We'll just stay like this all night. I have all the time in the world."
Another rough round of struggling, another futile attempt.
"You know, you pack a pretty mean punch for someone of such little substance."
"I dunno, something about you," He snapped, "just really makes me want to break your face in."
Two more minutes of bucking and squirming later, Shuichi finally gave in.
"Fine. You win. …Now GET OFF."
He released his hold on Shuichi's arms, and climbed shakily back to his feet, out of breath and feeling like he had just been driven over by an eighteen-wheeler. The disgustingly loud cracking of joints snapping back into place could not be a good thing. He was most definitely too old for this shit. He offered a hand to help the other up, and had it roughly slapped away. Shuichi pushed himself off the ground, dusted off his pants, and stood to face him. After a few silent seconds of seething, his seemingly unyielding front finally gave way to a familiar crooked grin, as the ex pop star took a step back to examine his handy work.
"God. I totally fucked you up."
The world stopped spinning. For a minute, he couldn't breath, and forgot how to blink. He never thought he would see that smile again.
"…I went easy on you."
"Sure you did."
He felt the crushing weight being lifted from his chest, and for the first time in a long time, he drew in a deep cleansing breath.
"You should take a look at yourself…" Shuichi was chuckling now, shoulders shaking. "I mean I really, really fucked you up."
He couldn't recall the last time he was even inclined to smile. But everything about Shuichi had always been so wildly infectious. He felt his lips twitch awkwardly into what was possibly the beginnings of an upward rise. They agreed on a temporary truce.
Proper social skills were vital to a Code Hero.
Ten years ago, they couldn't walk about in public without being stopped for autographs every ten feet, or attract an entourage of stunt photographers who repelled down the side of buildings and popped out of sewer drains. Ten years later, they could walk bloody nosed and black eyed into a convenient store together, and nobody asked any questions. The girl working the register rang the pack of band-aids up without so much as a sideways glance, and then went back to filing her nails.
They ended up back at his apartment.
Shuichi shuffled around and commented that he liked what was done with the space. He replied that it was just the same old shit he always had hung on his walls. Shuichi pretended he didn't remember. When he asked if he could get him anything to drink, Shuichi didn't respond. He asked if Shuichi was hungry. There was still no response. He sat down on the couch, and raked his fingers through his hair.
"… I apologize for what I said. It was out of line."
He could see the stubborn flex of his jaw, but the younger man eventually realized the pettiness in not apologizing in turn. Shuichi looked down, avoiding eye contact.
"…Me too. Your books weren't bullshit."
"Have you ever read any?"
"Only one." He said, sitting down and reaching for the box of band-aids to keep his hands from fidgeting. "Then I stopped."
"Couldn't handle the truth, I guess." He ripped open the box and pulled out the string of packages. "That you were just messed up and there was nothing I could do about it." He finished the statement with a resounding slap as he fixed the bandage onto his shin.
"They're just stories."
"Liar." Shuichi mumbled, examining his other various scratches.
He leaned into the couch, and watched as Shuichi struggled to place a band-aid over an awkward cut on the outer edge of his elbow. He closed his eyes, and in an instant they were back in their old apartment, and Shuichi was crying at him, telling him how he had tripped on the long flight of stairs in the NG lobby. He would ask him what breed of idiot could trip walking up the stairs, and Shuichi would cry some more, and pound him a couple times for good measure. He would ignore the ploys for sympathy, and continue making dinner. When he opened his eyes again, they were back in the dark room, sitting in silence, listening to the clock tick on the wall.
"Some days…" He started slowly, "I feel like I'm being pulled in a million directions. Some days, I feel like I'm hovering in nothingness. I don't know what I'm doing anymore."
"Why are you telling me this?" Shuichi questioned defensively. "Call your therapist."
"I stopped going to therapy a long time ago."
"They can't fix me."
"Well neither can I," He said sourly. "I was never meant to be anybody's hero. You told me that, remember?"
"I didn't mean it, you know." His throat felt dry, the air clawing its way up to form words. "I never meant any of it."
"It's a little too late to start clarifying yourself now."
"Better late than never."
"Better never than late."
"…You said you'd never leave me. What ever happened to that?"
The impulsive accusation wasn't taken lightly. Shuichi narrowed his eyes, an indigo-blue thunderstorm rapidly brewing inside.
"It's always about you, isn't it? We're all just here to come and go at your beck and call. You get tired of me, and you throw me out on the streets. You feel smothered, and you up and disappear for weeks. You can't let go of the goddamn past, so you went ahead and ended it. Just like that. And you ask me why I didn't stay with you? Because you left me, Yuki. You left me!"
He voice rose higher and higher
"Haven't heard a single word from you all these years, and we just happened to run into each other… you're feeling lonely after a couple drink and you expect me to all of a sudden hold and comfort you, and then bend over and give you that quick fuck you want? I have a family. And some fucking decency!"
He knew Shuichi was right. There was no use arguing. He was right about everything. About him, about them. Shuichi wasn't the one battling night terrors and suffocating loneliness. Shuichi wasn't the one at the end of his rope. He had his wife, and their sugar coated fairytale love sealed with the divine stamp of matrimony. Shuichi wasn't the one who wanted to die.
He was tired. So tired. He had been dragging himself around on broken crutches for years and all he wanted to do now was to sit down and never have to get back up. He was too tired for pride, too tired for shame, too tired to pretend that he didn't miss Shuichi every goddamn second of every goddamn day.
"Help me, Shuichi. Help me."
The younger man shook his head. "I couldn't help you then. I can't help you now."
He allowed that to sink in. Deeper and deeper, until it hit the core of his being, and he finally understood. Really, truly understood that there was nothing more he could expect from the boy. Shuichi wasn't a boy anymore. He had grown into a man with a lifetime's worth of resentment. Just like him.
"I was just a habit. A distraction. Something to take your mind off the fact that you had closed yourself off years ago. I was…"
Shuichi stopped, and stubbornly tried to swallow the lump in his throat. He failed, and a fat tear sprung out the corner of one eye. Losing control only made him more upset, and he wiped a hand furiously against his face. "I was just… convenient."
He shook his head.
"No? No?" Shuichi leapt to his feet, and spread his arms out. "Look at us!" He forgot about the tears, as they rolled down his face, one after the other, dripping off his cheeks and into the edges of his mouth. "If you loved me, even just a little bit, how could we have ended up like this?" His face was covered now, hot and sticky with moisture. "How, Yuki? Tell me!" He cried out between short, breathy sobs. "Tell me!"
A Code Hero must never show emotions, for they were the signs of weakness. A Code Hero could only be brought down by his own tragic flaw. Nothing else. Nothing else…
He reached out, and pulled Shuichi into his arms. Shuichi collapsed forward into him, sending them both to their knees and onto the floor. He buried his face into Shuichi's shoulder.
A Code Hero was something he could never be.
He didn't even notice the tears until he saw the wetness slowly spreading a dark stain on Shuichi's shirt. He ran his fingers through Shuichi's hair, and whispered into the crook of his neck. "...Stay with me."
He felt Shuichi trying to shake his head, and he tightened his hold, gathering his tiny form closer.
"Just for tonight. Please."
After a while, Shuichi slowly nodded against his chest
And they stayed like that, on their knees, on the floor. Eiri closed his eyes, and breathed him in. In his mind, he saw Shuichi smiling at him, and for a moment, he could feel all the broken pieces fall back into place again.
He woke up in Yuki's arms, to the soft thump-thumping of heartbeat in his ear. His head bobbed slowly with the steady rise and fall of the other's chest. Bits of sunlight escaped from behind the thick curtains, and danced intricate patterns on the floor tiles. He closed his eyes, and selfishly wished that time would cease to exist, and he would never have to leave this embrace ever again.
Reality set in about five minutes later. He carefully tried to detangle himself from Yuki's hold. It was more difficult than he thought. Yuki seemed intent on not letting go. He stretched and winced at the uncomfortable kinks in his back that had formed as a result of sleeping on the floor.
He sat back and watched Yuki sleep, the way he used to do in the mornings, until he was late for work and his manager was pounding down the door. He traced his fingers across Yuki's face, over his eyes and nose, cheeks and mouth, and brushed light strands of hair from his brow.
Why did such a beautiful person have to be born into such a hideous world?
He leaned in, and pressed his lips to Yuki's. Dry and chaste, the way a five year old boy would kiss his little girl playmate in the sand box.
Into his ear, he quietly told him, "…Don't give up. I'd never forgive you if you did."
A week later, Yuki Eiri was found in his apartment, overdosed on sleeping pills. He stopped breathing inside the ambulance, two minutes before arriving at the hospital.
There were five people at his funeral. His brother, his sister and her family, and his old editor. Tears were shed in moderation. They knew he hadn't been well for years.
Shuichi didn't cry when he heard the news. What tears he had left for Yuki, they shed together that night on his apartment floor. It was a full three months before he drove out to the graveyard. He had always thought the people talking to gravesites were silly. It wasn't as if the dead could hear them. But when he came up on the little patch of land and stared down at the name carved on the marble slab in the grass, he started to talk and he couldn't stop himself.
"…I'm sorry I missed your funeral."
He bent forward and laid down a dull, modest bouquet.
"So this is how it ends. I'm married, and you're dead. Couldn't have written it better yourself, huh? How many of your books ended exactly like this? How many times did you envision this scene in your head? Me, standing over your grave. Grieving, crying, regretting…"
He grit his teeth, his molars grinding heavily into each other.
"Just couldn't stop playing the victim, could you? So you could wax poetic all day about how hard your life was. So hard that you just couldn't take it anymore. A poignant, artistic end to your sad, tragic tale. You're such a cliché, Yuki Eiri. Such a fucking cliché."
His fingers gathered, nails cutting into the inside of his palms.
"All you did was run away. All you ever do is run away."
His whole body shook from sheer effort as he tried to contain himself.
"Fuck you. Fuck you. You're no tragic hero. You're just a goddamn coward. And I hate you. I hate you…"
He felt soft hands on his shoulders, and he turned. The woman behind him wore a dark dress and a strained smile. She lifted her handkerchief and dabbed away the streaks of tears with a maternal kind of compassion only she could provide.
"You might not have been able to help him…" She said, gently patting the pink edges of his swollen eyes, "But there are people who need you now."
He turned his face away from her, but she reached her hands up and cupped his wet cheeks. "Please, Shuichi. Look at me…"
There was an uncertainty in her eyes that he knew never truly went away, but there was also that unwavering conviction that had always, always been there for him.
"Our son needs you. …I need you."
He closed his eyes and leaned his forehead against hers. She smelled of hope and strength and things too good for him to deserve. "You're my rock, you know that." He whispered to her. She nodded, her bangs brushing against his eyelids. He took in a deep breath, and pulled away. "I'm fine now. Let's go home." She asked him if he was sure. He laced his fingers through hers, and squeezed once. "…I'm sure."
Hand in hand, they turned and walked away, without a lingering glance back.
He didn't know if Yuki was in a better place now. Maybe he was, maybe he wasn't. But wherever he was, the heights of heaven or the depths of hell, there was not a doubt in his mind that that was where he was going too. Not a doubt in his mind that they were going to see each other again. And when they did, he would tell Yuki that he had been right. Shindou Shuichi was never meant to be anyone's hero. In the end, he just wasn't strong enough. Yuki hadn't killed himself. He simply wasn't strong enough to fight death away from Yuki.
He would tell Yuki that he's sorry. For everything he said he would do, but wasn't able to. And for everything he wanted to do, but felt too defeated to try. For everything they had, everything they lost, and every everything that ever was. He was sorry. Theirs was a story that couldn't possibly be summarized through a series of events or defined by a pinwheel of emotions. The only thing he could do was apologize. For meeting Yuki, for letting Yuki down, and for the fact that he was going to love Yuki forever.
That would be what he'd say.
And then he would plant his fist so hard into Yuki's face that the man was going to be seeing stars for the rest of eternity.
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