I tore through the night, the bike growling against the wind. I revved the engine, accelerated, watched the street hurtle past me in long streaks of colour and shadow.
I knew what I wanted. I knew what I was goin' to get.
I didn't like it, but that wasn't stoppin' me.
A turn, so sharp it about tore through the pavement, into Redfern Street, one long stretch of sin. Hookers and dealers, drug runners, con artists and petty crooks mill beneath the awnings and neon of strip clubs and porn shops, pubs and clubs. They banter with each other, laugh and share a cigarette or a drink. This is their home.
I slow down though I don't want to. I want to just keep on drivin' and drivin', roaring through the evenin' until dawn, leavin' this need behind me in the dirt.
But I know by now it won't work that way.
Finally, I pull up altogether, motor still runnin'. She's there, thank Christ.
Amber, smokin', swayin', chatting to another girl. John Lennon, Cold Turkey, is playin' outta Vintage Vinyl and I flinch to hear it. She's a little warped through the glass of the visor, still coated in a thin sheet of grime from the puddle I pealed through a while back. It's summer, and the suit is hot, tight against my flesh, only adding to the awful pressure that constricts my throat, suffocates me. She's wearing nothing but a little skirt and a shirt, a My Little Pony shirt, of all things, that stops just above her ribcage, owing to the fact it's a kid's size. She's got on long, red cotton gauntlets to hide the track marks and scars that pattern both her arms.
The motor hums as I sit there, waiting, gripping the handlebars so tight I feel like they'll rip through my gloves. Finally, she notices me. She stares at me for a long moment and I stare back though I know she can't see me through the helmet, waiting. Then she throws a goodbye over her shoulder to the other girl, darts quickly across the pavement and hops up behind me, wrapping her arms about my waist. We're off again.
I been doin' this a while now. Few months, I guess. I never meant to start but now that I have I can't seem to stop.
Leo's been gone twelve months now. Twelve months of jetting around the world, bein' out there, seeing things and goin' places I can only dream about. Leavin' us here alone, makin' it work by ourselves.
We're not by ourselves, are we though? I mean, we got each other – and who needs Leonardo anyway? He sure don't seem to need us.
The thought makes me speed up, my teeth gritting against each other as I go off the main streets and into the back ones, where there's darkness to dampen my fury.
First time it happened wasn't planned. I knew I'd been gettin' worse. More moody – hey, even more short-tempered, if you can believe it. It don't take a lot to make me lash out but then all of a sudden it only took a look. I resented Donnie bein' leader instead of me and hated myself for feelin' that way. Mikey's neverending teasin' and jokin' just fired me up more. I stayed away from the den and my family as much as I could, stickin' to the streets and bustin' criminal heads. Nightwatcher they called me, and I swelled beneath their fear, becoming the avenging angel they imagined me to be, furious and merciless exactly as they wanted.
But it didn't help.
I was even shorter with Amber, saw her less, spent less time when I did see her. Safer to lash out at her than my family. More than once I tried to pick a fight with her, wanting to vent everythin' that consumed me against her in harsh words and spite, but she never took the bait. Simply leaned against a wall regarding me with lidded eyes, smoking. I'd be diffused and feelin' guilty then, turning away from her savagely.
Then one night, after I'd taken some cheap shot about when she was goin' to start charging me for the time we spent together that she'd levelled her gaze at me and spoke:
"I know what you need." She said and I'd started, then laughed harshly.
"How can you know when I don't even know?" And until I said those words, I hadn't even realised I didn't know. She'd only smiled.
"I know. I know exactly what you need, baby. And you know I can give it to you."
My heart had lurched into my throat, my gut into my chest. I'd turned to look at her where she stood on the rooftop, a New York City skyline her backdrop, the endless expanse of glitterin' lights softening her, playin' dimly in her hair. She was smiling still, calm and knowing.
I'd wanted to say no. I knew I should say no.
But I said yes.
We were all eighteen by then and the den just kept gettin' smaller. Sometimes I'd lie in my hammock and feel like the roof was bearin' down on me, a crushing weight I couldn't push back, couldn't deflect with kicks and punches. Or that every time I breathed in I sucked a little more oxygen out of the room, little by little until I was suffocatin', chokin' and gaggin' on the thin air.
That first time she'd smuggled me into her dealer's place, into the small room with the mattress and the heavy doona, the boxes of fits and gloves and sharps disposal bins. Her dealer had some sense of responsibility. I'd watched Amber shoot junk into her veins enough times through the window for none of it to shock me. But I never thought I'd be so damn nervous to be alone with her, like that, suddenly the vulnerable one when it should always have been her.
Then she'd taken my hand and led me.
It wasn't at all what I thought it would be. A prickle, a tingling, then a rush; glowing and hot, flooding through my body and leaving me gasping. Euphoria leaving me limp and giddy, emptied entirely. No pain.
She knew what she was doing – she showed me how. Only the slightest fumbling at first but then I moved surely and with focus, intent only on the outcome, that moment that was ultimately all about self-gratification and nothin' else.
I couldn't look at her while I was doing it. I'd wanted to, wanted to see what emotions played across her face as she watched me, but I couldn't.
It was wrong, I knew it was wrong. But afterwards, with my stomach sinking and my body shaking, I realised it was the answer.
As I slumped, drained and hollow, she'd leant over, taken my face in both hands and kissed me, soft and sweetly.
I puttered to a stop in a small, cramped laneway, killed the motor. I climbed off, grasped her around the waist and lifted her clear. She let me. Then it was upwards, moving up the fire escape, reaching down to pull her up, continuing until we reached the rooftop where the warm summer night brushed our shoulders and faces like a rug.
It was always like this. We exchanged no words, not before or after. She knew now, knew when I came to her for this. Knew by the look on my face or in my eyes if I came upon her in the backstreets; by the set of my shoulders and my grip on the bike, when I was in the suit. I could feel I looked different – a hungry keenness that drove me forward.
It was always the same. We moved in silence, barely touching. It was done quickly, straight to the point, no ceremony or preamble. I never looked at her. I still couldn't. Afterwards, she always kissed me, just one, long, tender kiss.
I think she understood what drove me to it. I guess if anyone would, it'd be her.
I felt sick about it. Sick with myself, sick with what I was doing. I couldn't believe I was doing it, so selfishly, so thoughtlessly. If my brothers knew – if Splinter knew – they could never know. Never know what I'd succumbed to. Never know how easily, once my first brief reluctance was over. How much I wanted it, and pursued it, sought it out and took it, greedily and without thanks, how self-focused it was, driven by base need and nothing more. How it was always such a blessed relief, afterwards, even as I burned with shame and fury.
Eighteen. I wanted to move. I wanted to go out, to be in the world, to be seen. I wanted to be free to move as I wanted to. Leo was. Leo was so free he didn't have time to write no more, letters gettin' fewer and fewer until they were replaced by postcards, weeks and months stretchin' between them. And us, trapped underground, doing nothin' – not a damn thing. And not seemin' to mind. Up here, the world kept on turnin', mugs and thugs, crooks, crims and hoods kept on doin' what they did best, tearin' the city up beneath their heels. But below we seemed to have ground to a stop, frozen in motion, unawares and uncarin'.
I couldn't stop thinkin' about it and my frustration joined up with other feelings – restlessness, anger, sorrow, then the most aching need and desire, so overwhelming it choked me. And they churned and built until finally I was led here, against my will but without a single whimper of protest.
I wanted to stop, had to stop. Yet I couldn't – and didn't want to, either. It was intoxicating, numbing, blissful. For days afterwards I would be calm, centred, even almost patient. My brothers would comment and I would cringe, keeping my shameful secret held close and tight inside of me.
I made sure I would go to Amber for our usual chats, sharing booze under the night sky, a laugh and a bike ride through the park or down old tunnels. The old camaraderie. She was never awkward with me and it made it easier to pretend these other times never happened. I couldn't stand for her to think I only came to her now for this. I didn't. There was so much more to it than that. Even if I lacked the words to tell her so. But already it was happening more and more. Already it loomed larger and heavier in my mind. Already it was hard to turn my thoughts away from it.
Creeping up on me, taking me over unawares. Just like they say. Ill with self-disgust I'd stay away from her for as long as I could, nights upon end, weeks sometimes. Doing whatever it took to keep far from her, her whole street, anywhere she might be, to push her from my mind – how many limbs did I break during those times, bent and crooked with frustration and need?
In the end I would cave and go to her and she'd be there, calm and patient, accepting me in whatever wretched state I was in.
Like she was doing now, a gentle regard in her eyes, the ghost of a smile on her mouth. I lifted the helmet off, taking a deep grateful breath to be free of the humidity of it. My eyes flickered over her, and away. We stood in silence. Guilt overwhelmed me.
I was using her, now I'd become hooked. I knew it and I'm sure she knew it too. That's what I hated most. That was why I was so ashamed. She was so generous with me and I couldn't figure out why. Shared it so willingly and easily, never asking for anything in return, least of all money. And I knew how hard she worked, knew the long hours she spent getting into cars with strange men and giving them their ten minutes of covert, fumblin' pleasure, all just so she could buy the right amount of heroin she needed to get her through the next day. If my habit affected hers, she hadn't said anything yet.
It was easier just not to look at her. Even though I wanted to.
She waited patiently as I unzipped the suit. She never tried to help – she seemed to know I didn't want it. She fumbled through her knapsack, searching for the equipment we needed, her long red hair tumbling over her shoulder. I paused as I pulled the suit off, struck by the beauty of it. At first I hadn't dared to, had to swallow around the compulsion. But lately I had begun touching it, just softly and lightly, skimming my fingers down the length of it while I got my fix. She didn't seem to mind.
It was weakness, the whole rotten thing. My weakness. That was why I was so angry. That I couldn't control myself, that I needed to give into this, that the need for it was like a burning hot ball in the pit of my stomach, consuming all my thoughts until I went to her, not knowing anyone else who could give it to me, not knowing anyone else who would. That I would use a friend, like this.
She stubbed out the last of her cigarette, pushed herself up onto the brick ledge surrounding the skylight, waited for me.
My gaze was fixed somewhere beyond her right shoulder, over the dark shapes that dotted the skyline, the hum of the city rising above my ragged breath. I moved towards her, lifting my eyes to where the moon punched a hole in the sky.
She pushed her face into my neck, her hands gripping my shoulders. Her legs bent at the knees, went around my waist. Not all the way. My shell prevented that.
I moved quickly and hard, squeezing my eyes shut tight. She gasped, just a little at the force I used and I eased back. Don't hurt her, at least. One of her hands moved, running around the back of my neck and upwards to cup my skull. My hands rested either side of her on the ledge. I clenched my jaw, fought against the desire to touch her.
Once I had slipped a hand inside the gaping neckline of the dress she'd been wearing, cupped it over her tiny breast, almost non-existent against the hardness of her ribcage. It had been icy cold against my palm.
A breeze drifted past us, lifting her hair so it tickled my face. I kept my eyes shut and kept going. Almost there… almost done. As much as the knot of disgust inside of me wanted it over, the warm, rushing feeling deep within wanted it to never end. Christ, Amber… Alex… forgive me. I never meant it to get like this.
Then it was over. I stiffened, shuddered, bit back the groan that rose in my throat. For one brief moment the bliss clouded all other thoughts, all awareness and I trembled against her as it ebbed away.
She was still against me, the fingertips of one hand stroking my skull just barely. She breathed out against my neck and her breath was warm and made me shiver.
I pulled back, moved to disentangle myself from her, turn my back as quickly as I could. She caught hold of my shoulders before I could and I stopped, eyes fixed resolutely downwards, where the ruffle of her skirt tumbled over her thighs, white and thin in the pale moonlight. As always, she would kiss me.
But she didn't. She waited. Her hands moved from my shoulders to my face, cupping it. I could feel her eyes boring into me, steady and patient. My insides were coiling around furiously, my heart still hammering hard and fast. Don't speak, please Alex, it's too damn hard. I'm sorry. I'm not that strong.
Finally, I couldn't stand it anymore. I dragged my gaze upwards, such an effort it burned, and finally met her eyes with my own.
I wondered what she saw as she looked at me then, her sunken shadowy blue eyes unwavering and fixed straight into mine. She held my gaze for a long, heavy moment then leaned forward, bridging the gap between us, and kissed me. Long, soft and sweet.