The Twilight Twenty-Five
thetwilight25 dot com
A/N: Hi everyone! This story was originally written for the Twilight Twenty-Five challenge (which I didn't actually finish...) and is being re-posted under it's own title. I'll be posting a few of these, so anytime you see the above boilerplate directing you to the challenge site, that's why. Anybody who's interested in participating in the next round should definitely check out the blog or twitter feed thetwilight25.
"Huh," Leah says, "I never noticed that before."
She nods at the dashboard of the bus where there's a photo of a pretty young woman with dark hair and red lips. It's tucked into the edge of a faded metal plaque that reads: Any Unnecessary Conversation with this Driver is Forbidden by Law. A misty rain is spraying the windshield and the wipers are squeaking loudly on the glass. The seats are cold, the engine is loud and everything smells like gasoline.
It's Paul's bus. Not really, of course, it belongs to the city, but she thinks of it as Paul's bus. He's driven it for about three years, first part-time to make ends meet, and now full-time. He says he wants to do something different, and that he's going to get a better job with a brighter future. Leah thinks he's too hot-tempered to ever find something different. Every time he gets an interview, he goes into the place like they should be begging him to work there.
"The picture of Rebecca?" His voice is happy and soft. It's always like that when he talks about his girlfriend.
"No. That little sign. All this time, I could have been going to prison."
Leah rides the line into work every Monday to Friday. Paul's bus in the morning, somebody else's bus in the evening. Paul likes to talk, so they talk.
"Oh that old thing," He chuckles, "See how it says unnecessary? I need lots of conversation to keep me going. I'm a safety hazard if I can't talk. Get so bored, I fall asleep. Everybody dies in a fiery wreck."
Leah cracks a smile. Old friends and morbid jokes.
"Gotta watch it, though," She nods, "Rules are rules."
"You break rules…" Paul scoffs like he can't imagine her being any kind of upstanding citizen.
She thinks about telling him how her whole life is governed by rules. How honour is the core of her virtues, and sometimes it seems like the only virtue she has. She thinks about reminding him that Sam broke her heart because of rules, and she let him do it because of rules. But all she says is:
"Not at work."
"You'll get around to it," Paul nods, pulling up to a stop so somebody can hop out, "Some guy'll show up, and that's gonna be that."
"Some guy?" She raises an eyebrow, "Bullshit."
"Okay, Leah. But it's not about your being a girl, just so you know. It's about your being a certain type of girl."
"What the hell does that mean?" She says too loudly, and a few other passengers give her sharp looks, "What type of girl am I?"
"The trustworthy the bitchy type."
They don't talk the rest of the way. Sometimes - old friend or not - she wants to punch Paul's lights out. This is one of those times.
She's been throwing herself into work lately, dealing with the underprivileged on behalf of the state. Half of the time she's a marriage counsellor, the other half she's a first aid responder. Mostly she's there for the kids. Making sure they have something to eat and are keeping away from the darkest parts of poverty. She remembers hard winters and hard choices from when she was a kid, and she remembers the scramble and the bitterness that went along with it. It's hard to think about, like how Sam is hard to think about.
Her heart's still locked up in iron.
The houses start to look different as they go along the route. Less expensive building materials, fewer ornaments and accessories, patchier lawns. The fences go from wood to chain link. The roofs have no gables, the houses have no second level and are wedged between three floor apartment buildings from the seventies. The bus stops don't have benches anymore, just narrow blue signs and a dip in the curb.
"Here you go." Paul pulls up to the stop, smiles big and bright because he's worried he might have really pissed her off. He shouldn't worry. She doesn't bruise easily.
"See you tomorrow, dumbass."
Some women come to places like these in high heels and black pencil skirts, with their hair in severe buns and a clipboard in one hand. They think they're dressing to look professional, but they're really dressing to let everybody know that they're Authority. People in places like this don't trust Authority, and Leah needs people to trust her so she can help them. She always wears jeans or khakis, a button up shirt over something tomboyish, and a pair of forest green Keds. It's cold - winter still hasn't ended yet, even though it's supposed to be spring - so she has a padded jacket on. The suede kind that was really popular with outdoorsmen before all the synthetic fabrics came along. It belonged to her grandfather.
Stepping off the bus is like stepping into a battlefield or landing on the moon. It's strange that one city can have so many other little cities inside of it. Places with their own languages, cultures, skirmishes and blood feuds. Leah's always ready for it. She's a warrior.
The morning gets itself going quick enough. There's a baby in one of the apartments with pertussis. Leah told the mother to get her vaccines months ago, and weeks ago, and she never did. Now the baby needs a proper prescription picked up from the pharmacy, and the mother needs another note in her file. The mother's only nineteen and trying as hard as she can, but it's not good enough.
Then there's another fight with another slumlord's apartment manager. The Board of Health has rules about the kind of condition buildings can be kept in. There are laws about fire safety, too. He calls her all kinds of names, and she doesn't even flinch. If he doesn't make the changes by the next official inspection, he'll get shut down. She doesn't really want that. There are families living in that building, and they can't afford anything better. What she wants is for the manager to tell his boss to get off his ass and bring everything up to code. She knows it's not going to happen.
The last stop is one of the shoebox houses across the street from the motel. This one has some flowers growing by the front steps. It belongs to a single mother with three kids and no job. Leah's not there to give her any grief, just to see if there's anything she can do to help out.
The middle kid, a boy in a Spider-Man shirt, opens the door.
"Oh hey," He says, like he's fourteen instead of nine, "Mom's at a job interview."
"Cool," Leah shrugs, "You guys okay while she's gone?"
"Yeah. We're good," The kid says, "Kind of creepy about the guy across the street, but we got a baseball bat and he's probably dead by now. Mom said it wasn't anything anyway."
"What guy across the street?" Leah asks, trying to seem more curious than concerned.
"Last night he almost crashed into the front office. I saw from the window because all the automatic lights went on, and he was making a hell of a lot of noise. Kyle said to go back to sleep, but I didn't. The dude had blood on his hands!"
Her eyes narrow and she looks over her shoulder at the motel. It isn't one of the creepy ones, it's one of the sleazy ones. Rooms by the hour and no questions about the names on the register. There isn't a car in any of the parking spaces in the front, but there are spaces in the back. For discrete clientele.
"How do you know it was blood?"
"It looked like blood."
It's the end of the day and she wants to go home, but she doesn't. She checks that the kids have something in the fridge in case their mom is late, then she checks her phone for urgent messages. There aren't any, so she crosses the street and heads to the detached office building.
It smells like tobacco and miserable people. The carpet is orange and all the furniture is dark-stained plywood. The walls are panelled with something that's probably meant to look like maple. It doesn't. There's a desk and a bell. She rings the bell and the old man shows up. He's got big watery eyes and a thin mouth, and he seems to know exactly what she wants to talk about.
"I don't want the cops here." He says in a croaky voice.
"So you'll tell me about this guy who showed up last night."
"There's nothing much to tell. Checked in at one-thirty, quarter-to-two. That's all."
The old man considers, and he knows he shouldn't be considering so obviously. But there are lots of ways to find trouble, and one of them might be talking too late instead of talking too early. Besides, he knows Leah isn't really the law or the cops. She doesn't have all the same obligations, and people say she's alright.
"Not dangerous," He explains, "But I think he's sick. I dunno. I almost called a doctor, but a doctor has to report suspicious things. You only have to report what you think is important, right?"
"What kind of sick?"
"Hard to 205. Don't make a habit of checking out the customers here, or I won't be this friendly again."
205 is around the back and up the stairs. She still can't see a car, but maybe the old man took care of it. Or maybe the kid's memory is a little dramatic. The curtains in the window are drawn, but that's not unusual. It'd look stranger if they were open. Nobody opens motel curtains on purpose.
She knocks loudly.
There's no answer.
She knocks loudly again.
"Go away! I don't need anything!" A strained voice groans from behind the door. Almost sounds British, but different. Like somebody who'd learned to speak English from a British person.
Leah is an old hand at the language of door knocks. For her third performance, she chooses the tone and styling that best suggests she won't be leaving until the goddamn door is opened.
It's the kind of knock that the Secret Police use in Cold War movies. It wouldn't be difficult to imagine the angry barks of a rottweiler going along with a sound like that.
The door is wrenched opened in annoyance and frustration. A man looks at her with an expression of pure scorn. He's tall and lithe, with a strong wiry build. He's soaked with sweat, in a thin t-shirt and drawstring pants that he must have only just pulled on. His eyes are bright and the pupils are the wrong size. He looks unwell. Really, really unwell.
"What do you want?" He asks, and his voice is still a groan. One hand is holding the door, the other is hanging limply by his side. Both are wrapped up in white pharmacy bandages.
"My name's Leah Clearwater," She tells him, "I'm with the city outreach program. I heard you were sick, and I wanted to make sure you didn't need a doctor or medicine…"
"I'm not sick," He shakes his head sluggishly, "Go away."
He goes to shut the door, but she lunges her body forward a few inches and - just by moving - forces him to step backward into the room. It's a little dramatic, but it gets the job done. She's in charge of the door now, and she's in charge of the conversation.
"Lie down," She says, "You look like you're going to fall over."
He sways a little, but he still stands. Defiant. He's trembling a little, like he's shivering. It doesn't look like drugs or withdrawal symptoms, it looks like a bad fever. The kind that comes with an infection. Leah's seen it before. She knows it can get dangerous.
"Get out of here," He shakes his head, "Leave me alone. I don't want any help, I just have a cold."
She walks over and pushes him on his shoulder, just gently, and he falls backward into the little armchair behind him. It's like knocking down a piece of cardboard. He slumps and gives up some of the fight, like he's been hungry for rest. Like he's exhausted.
"You want to just stay in the chair and die?" Leah scoffs and grabs a small square pillow off of the rumpled bed. She pulls him forward just enough to prop him up properly with it, and puts her first aid bag down on the carpet beside him.
"Oh god, you're not the melodramatic type, are you? You don't want to die alone in a motel. You know it and I know it, so cut the shit. Do you have HIV or hepatitis?"
He shakes his head.
"Do you have any other diseases communicable through bodily fluids like blood or saliva?"
Another shake of the head.
"Do you know exactly what's wrong with you?"
"My hands, I think."
She takes the hand nearest to her, a strong hand with jagged knuckles and short nails, and beginsunwrapping the bandages. The tops of the fingers are scraped raw and the skin is purple and yellow. It looks unpleasant and painful.
"They're infected," Leah tells him, "How did you rough them up so bad?"
"I fell off my bicycle," He chuckles weakly, "So do I just pour alcohol on them?"
"It's a bad infection. Blood poisoning. Looks like a serious infection got into the wound, and that's why you have the fever. You need some antibiotics. You probably need a doctor. It could be sepsis."
"It's not sepsis," He shakes his head, "That's when it gets clots higher up in the veins. You can see sepsis a mile off, if you know what you're looking for."
Leah pulls a few things out of her bag. A disinfectant to try and stop things from getting to help the skin start to 's almost out of that, she'll have to get more soon. Fresh bandages.
"Are you a paramedic or something?" She asks, getting to work on the first hand.
"No. I just know something about blood poisoning. I have a few medical tidbits rattling around in my brain. Most of them courtesy of Stephen King…" His voice is softer, like he's drifting into sleep. It might be that he's delirious, or it might be that the fever has worn him down. He probably hasn't been eating very much.
He sits still and quiet while she treats him. Eventually his breathing gets deeper, and he really is asleep. He wears all of his troubles on his face. His mouth is frowning, his forehead is wrinkled. He looks tired and scared. People are supposed to look more at peace when they're resting.
Leah sighs and goes to see if he's got anything in the mini-fridge. It's empty. There are a couple of candy bar wrappers in the trash bag, but that's all. The bathroom cupboards are bare, too. Just the usual free soaps and shampoos that come with the room, and he's running low on those. Over the shower rail are hung a few damp towels, and there aren't any new ones on the linen shelf. It looks like he's been refusing to let the housekeeper inside.
Quietly, she opens the nightstand drawers, but they're all empty except for the obligatory bible and pamphlet on how the motel is not responsible for any lost or stolen items. There's a sports bag peeking out from under the bed. A black Nike one.
Leah glances over at the chair, just to make sure her patient's still asleep. He seems to be. She quietly pulls the bag out. The zipper is already open. It's got a few folded clothes and a handgun inside. The gun is resting on top of a red t-shirt. Black and shiny, and almost like a toy gun. She has to stop herself from gasping. Slowly, she pushes the bag back to where she found it.
"Huh?" The man in the chair murmurs sharply, and for a second she thinks it might be trouble of some kind, but he doesn't do anything else after that. He just drifts back into sleep.
The room key is sitting on top of the TV stand, right next to the remote. It's attached to one of those red plastic diamonds, with 205 on it in fading black ink. Leah nods to herself and picks it up. She heads out towards the Safeway a few streets away. It has a large, well-lit parking lot without any cars in it. Everybody says it's going to close. They built it too far away from the middle class neighbourhoods for people to feel comfortable shopping there. But it's still open for now, which is good news. There aren't many other customers, and there don't seem to be any employees either. It's one of those big box ghost towns.
She gets some groceries that are easy to deal with. Pre-packages sandwiches, things that can be heated up in the microwave. A few bottles of water - nothing too heavy to carry back - paper cups and plates, plastic forks. The cashier seems surprised to see her. He's leaning against the counter behind him, reading a newspaper from the nearest magazine rack. It's towards the end of the month, so he's probably already gone through the current issues of Maxim and GQ. Slim pickings until the new shipment. The front page has a headline about a double homicide and robbery, though. So he's managing to keep entertained.
"Hello." He mumbles, and starts scanning Leah's purchases.
"You wouldn't happen to know where the nearest pet store is, would you?"
"Uh, probably the one on Nineteenth Street," He shrugs, "I think they're open until nine."
It's too far to walk, so she hops a bus to Nineteenth. At the pet store she tells the clerk she's got some sick fish and needs medicine for them. Veterinary medicines are usually a bad idea, but the antibiotics given to fish are exactly the same as the ones given to humans. And most pet stores aren't as good as they should be about asking questions. While she's paying for the medicine, she thinks about all the times she's warned people off of doing things like this. Tried to get them to see ways to do things on the level.
But the man in room 205 isn't going to talk to a doctor, that much is obvious. And every hour counts with something like an infected bloodstream. It doesn't seem bad now, but if it worsens and gets to his internal organs, he'll die. She doesn't want that.
When she finally gets back, the sky is as dark as it's going to get. There are a few stars shining through the clouds, but not many. The rain is starting up again. A light mist.
She opens the door quietly, hoping he's still asleep and won't even notice that she's gone and come back. The door creaks a little and lets in a rectangle of orange street light. He hasn't turned any lamps on. He hasn't gotten up from the chair. She can hear him breathing.
She puts the key back on the TV stand and takes the bags into the kitchen. The light she switches on is bright and clinical. The kind of light you'd expect to see in a morgue or a liquor store. There's a dead moth trapped inside the plastic, right under the light bulb.
The fridge hums loudly as she stocks it full of the food she bought.
"What are you doing?" He asks, sitting forward.
"You need to eat something. Now you can," She shrugs without looking at him, "Do you have any money?"
"You owe me fifty-three dollars."
"Fifty-three? What the hell did you buy?"
"Don't I need antibiotics?" His voice is less angry than it was in the afternoon. He still sounds defiant and maybe a little petulant, but much easier to get along with.
"That's what I got you."
She pours a small cup of water and opens the bottle of fish medication. She read the dosage levels in the store, and takes out two pills.
He looks at her skeptically, but he takes the medicine. When he's finished gulping down the water, he hands the cup back to her and slowly stands up. There's a suit hanging in the open closet by the door. It's a nice suit. Too nice to be in the same neighbourhood as the motel it's hanging in. He pulls a wallet out of the inside breast pocket and fishes out some money.
"Can you break a twenty?" He asks, handing her sixty dollars. They exchange cash until all debts are evenly paid, and he collapses back into the chair.
"You have to sleep in the bed." Leah says.
"Leah… Clearwater?" He says, reminding himself.
"That's right. Do you have a name?"
"Just the one name?" She crosses her arms over her chest and raises an eyebrow at him.
"Sure. Why not?"
She tells herself she's not breaking any rules. There's no need to fill out any forms, this was a matter unrelated to work. Somebody she lent money for groceries. He paid her back. He's not really a resident of the neighbourhood, and he's not on her list.
When she leaves for the night, she's managed to talk herself into thinking her integrity is still intact. Then, while she's waiting for the last bus of the night, she gets to wondering about the gun in his bag.
"Are you mad at me or something?" Paul asks a couple of days later, while he's driving her into work. She's slumping back in her seat a little, looking at the newspaper. Somebody left it on one of the front seats.
"No, I'm not mad at you," She shrugs, "I've just got more work than I know what to do with this week. I'm tired."
"Yeah. Bill, the night driver, says you've been heading home at almost midnight most of this week. I don't know about that. I know you've built up a good reputation in that neighbourhood, and I'm sure you've got a good reason, but you'd better be careful. A girl alone late at night isn't always the best thing to be."
"Don't talk about me with the night drivers. It makes me feel like the bus schedule is stalking me."
The headline on the paper is about the double murder again. The police still don't have the killer in custody. He shot his victims execution style then stole several items from their safe, but all clues indicate that this was to muddy the waters and make it look like the murders were the result of the robbery, and not the opposite.
"What do you think about chemistry?" Leah asks.
"Like mixing baking soda and vinegar?" Paul says, pulling to a stop at a red light, "I'm not an expert."
"I mean romantic chemistry. Everybody always says you and Rebecca have great chemistry. Is it just like a really strong attraction? Or is there something else to it?"
"Uh…" He thinks for a minute, completely unprepared for the question, "I think it's like having good matches down the line. Like when a computer does a dating profile, you know what I mean? You check off the box where you both turn each other on in the looks department, and then you check the boxwhere you have good… tempers for one another. You know, your moods match up. Not the same but the right type. Like pokemon. It's a lot like pokemon."
"That was really unhelpful."
"Well, all I can tell you is that the first time I saw Rebecca it was like the Angel of Love slapped me in the face and told me that if I wasn't with her forever, I would be miserable."
"Remind me never to ask you about this stuff ever again."
"Why do you want to know? Finally getting over the Sam Incident?" Paul smiles.
Leah doesn't smile. She doesn't talk anymore. She just looks out the window at the places they pass by.
Demetri answers the door almost before she knocks. The red has gone out of his face and his eyes are clearer. He looks much stronger, and he's even managed to shave.
"You look good." Leah says.
"I think I'm going to live." He shrugs, "In fact, I think I'm almost well."
"You don't seem to care about it too much."
"I never did, remember? You were the one who insisted I not die." He stands aside so that she can come into the room. Things are neat and well arranged. He has his watch and wallet on the nightstand by the alarm clock, most of his clothes are hanging in the closet. It looks like he's even been letting somebody come in to change the bed linens.
"I told you, I don't have any patience for that kind of bullshit," Leah reminds him, going straight to the fridge to make sure it's full, "Either you're saying you don't care about dying because you're trying to get attention - which doesn't fit very well with the rest of your personality - or you're overreacting to something. Life isn't a tragic poem. We don't die by our own swords when things get difficult."
"Why do you always do that?" He asks.
"What? Shoot down your morbid tendencies?"
"No. Open the refrigerator."
"I don't want you to starve."
"Because I don't want anyone to starve."
He almost smiles.
"You're kind to me. But it's not worth the effort. Trust me. I don't want to see you wasting your time on a lost cause."
"I don't quit."
"Sometimes you have to quit."
She thinks about asking him why he has the gun, where he comes from. She thinks about going through the pockets of all his clothes, opening up the wallet he has on the nightstand and finding out who he is. What he's running away from, what he's trying to hide.
But she doesn't do that.
She's afraid to know the answer. Not because she's afraid of who that means he is, but because she's afraid of who it mean she's saved. She tries not to care about that kind of thing when she can. Mostly, she succeeds.
"I guess you'll be leaving soon," She says, "Once you're back in shape, which won't be too long now."
"Leaving?" Demetri smirks, "I don't have anywhere to leave to. I…"
He stops. Looks away from her.
"I'm just a coward, that's all."
"Are you really?" Leah shakes her head, like it's a silly idea.
"Clearwater," He smiles, really smiles at her, "I do like that name. It matches who it belongs to."
They stay silent for a little while. She sits up on top of the writing desk, one leg swinging back and forth. He's in the armchair. They don't look directly at one another, but they don't need to. They've already noticed all the little things, memorized one another during the times they thought the other wasn't paying attention. She knows the lines of his face the same way an artist might know them if they were trying to paint his portrait. He knows the way her neck curves and the way her mouth softens when she's in spite of themselves.
"Why do you come here?" He asks, "Why bother?"
"Why do you keep asking?"
"Because it's no good for you. You've made something out of your life, and you could make even more if you wanted to. I'm at the end of a short line. You're watching all the fireworks burn out."
"I don't really listen to you when you talk like this, just so you know."
"Maybe you should. I've known myself longer than you've known me," He tells her, "You've got courage. Real courage. It's wrapped up in whatever baggage you've been carrying around, but it's there."
"Hmm," she replies vaguely, supporting her claim.
"I'm trying to be noble. I'm trying to make sure this doesn't go any further for your sake. You don't want to get to know me. Not really. It'd be good for me and nothing but bad for you-"
"Will you shut up?" Her eyes snap to his, "I know you're in a bad place. I know you've done something. It's obvious. But don't tell me what's good for me. The last man I thought I was in love with decided what was best for everybody and left me hanging by my fingernails off a cliff. I've only just managed to climb back onto that cliff, and I'm a lot smarter for it. I'm willing to put up with you, because I want to put up with you."
"You don't know the whole story."
"So tell me."
"I'm a murderer."
Leah's mind races to the gun in the sports bag, to the newspaper story about the double homicide and the killer still at large. She doesn't want to think about those things, but she does. Her heart nearly stops in her chest.
"You can leave if you want," Demetri sighs, "Slam the door as hard as you'd like."
She sucks in a breath and folds her arms across her chest.
"Tell me what happened first. Why."
"I hit him. He went down and he didn't get back up. That's how it happened, but I couldn't for the life of me tell you why it happened. That's probably what I've been having the hardest time with, I guess. Figuring out how it feels to be a killer, knowing there was no real reason for it," He swallows hard, "I trained my whole life to win a fight like that, you know? It got me from one step on the ladder to another. Bare-knuckle boxing for the amusement of the wealthy and sadistic. I used to feel invincible…"
"Underground stuff. Mostly illegal because of the gambling. I made good money, and I'm the reigning champion now. Now that I've beaten somebody to death. God, I can still see the way his neck was twisted while he lay there, and everyone was cheering. They were all cheering for me. I couldn't stand it. I knew him, of course, we'd sparred a few times. Never fought each other before. He had two children."
They're quiet again. Part of Leah is relieved, and part of her is heartbroken.
"I ran after that," Demetri shrugs, "Brought a gun along. I stole it from a friend of mine. I don't knowwhat it was for, I think I might have killed myself with it, but then I didn't clean up my hands… I went a little crazy. A lot crazy. Then you showed up."
"Can you go back?" She asks, "Finish everything right? Give the gun back. Face what happened."
"Maybe," He shakes his head, "I don't know."
"How about one step at a time?"
He gives her a long look, and they both now the deal that's being put out on the table. It's tentative. Unlikely. A long shot for the both of them, depending on the who's and how's and if's that fall through for most people.
"Maybe," he says again.
Leah nods, long and slow, and thinks about kissing him.
But, it's good enough for now.