The neon city bustled softly that evening, treading the water of the torrential downpour on Her tip toes. Some nights the city was restless and deafening, and others were so quiet and still it was frankly unnerving. As children splashed their rain boots into puddles, and people rushed out of taxis toward storefront awnings for shelter, two miscreants met in the shadows. And She watched. They looked as unsuspecting as any other person. You wouldn’t have picked them out in a crowd. Yet, they held the city in their hands, and had for longer than anybody truly realized. All of that responsibility is a lot for two people. It gets under your skin, puts an itch you can’t scratch on the skin of your brain. It makes you look over your shoulder, double, no—triple check every move you make. Most of all, it brings out the worst in you. She makes sure of it. The person you were before, gets lost somewhere in the shuffle. All that remains are the bones. You aren’t a shell of a person, but a mere impression. A fossil. At that point, things start to break down. You begin to lose what little of yourself you have left. And the worst part … you don’t realize what you’ve lost until you’ve lost it.
Ah, there they are.
“Do you have any idea how close we are to being caught? Look at this!” Leon growled, slamming his fist against the alleyway wall, where there were so many wanted posters of the two of them, they were beginning to overlap. Aika wasn’t sure what the big deal was. They looked completely different in each of the illustrations, thanks to their abundance of disguises. Thunder crashed to emphasize Leon's frustration, lightning flickering in the sky a few seconds later.
“Swings and roundabouts, no?” Aika said back calmly, shrugging her shoulders as she peeled off her pink wig and stuffed it into her messenger bag. She shook out her shoulder length brown hair, which had gotten soaked despite the wig, and looked back at the boy. She could see he got the reference by the sentimental glint in his eyes. They’d discussed this phrase in tenth grade lit, when the two had sat all the way across the room from each other and had to pass notes to communicate under Mr. Goodman's nose. Still, he didn’t seem amused by the memory and Aika’s attempt at lightening the mood fell flat.
“What are you talking about?” Leon sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose as he leaned back against the brick wall they were surrounded by. He had always been the more up-tight of the two. They seemed to have one of these arguments at least once a month now, but obviously it didn’t keep them from continuing on. Nothing had ever gotten in their way. Not yet.
“We might have a target on our back,” Aika began, taking one of the wanted posters off the wall, the paper nearly disintegrating in her hands from all the rain water, “but we’re also kinda famous.”
Leon sucked in a sharp breath and then lunged, balling up the wet page Aika held out to him.
“I don’t want to be famous, Aika,” he grumbled, speaking through his teeth, “I want to get what we came for and go home.”
Aika sighed, staring up at the sky as another rumble of thunder sounded overhead. It was getting darker by the minute, they would need to find shelter for the night soon. Cars hummed by on the mainroad, splishing through the flooded streets, each one of them a reminder that they were still out in the open.
“We both know that’s not true anymore. Home doesn’t exist for us.”
Leon turned his head to look at Aika as she stared up into the rain clouds. His expression twisted from angry to resigned. He knew damn well she was right.
Down the road the sound of police sirens wailed, and the two immediately snapped their heads in the direction of the noise. They watched carefully as the cruiser bounded down the street, the flashing red and blue lights passing them where they stood deep in the alleyway. As the sound retreated, Aika heard the pitter patter of footsteps coming toward her, just over her shoulder. When she looked, though, she saw nothing. Then, shifting her weight as a perturbing feeling washed over her, she turned her attention back to Leon.
“We could have stopped a year ago,” Aika went on, wiping her red lipstick off on the cuff of her sweatshirt, the makeup leaving behind a pink stain on her lips. Leon stepped forward and carressed the residue off with his thumb, dabbing at her running mascara with his own sleeve while he was at it. For a moment they just stood and stared at one another. Sometimes when they did this, Leon swore he could see Aika the way she used to be. Small and innocent, with her hair tied up in pigtails. He could see her sharing her crackers with him on the first day of elementary school, or later saving him a seat in the cafeteria after band practice. He could see her in her prom dress, or holding her diploma. He often wondered how they’d gotten to this point. His mother had told him growing up that everying happens for a reason. He wondered if she still thought that, living on thinking her only son was dead.
“We’re in too deep now,” Leon admitted softly, tucking a strand of the girl’s wet hair behind her ear. She reached up and placed her hand onto the boy’s, letting it rest against her cheek for a moment. By then, it was getting difficult to see, the light retreating from the alleyway faster than expected. Usually they had enough time to find somewhere to eat before finding shelter, but the cloud cover was too heavy that night.
“We should get going,” the girl said next, both of them dropping their hands as the sentiment washed off of them with the rain. Only for brief, fleeting moments could they allow themselves to let their guards down. Their time had arrived and left, once again, as quickly as it came.
“Right,” Leon agreed, and the two of them started walking. The city at night was usually fairly quiet, and that night was no different. Thanks to the rain, most people were inside fast asleep. This made their search for temporary shelter, a little less nervewracking. They painted themselves as typical homeless people, dressed in torn-up layers of clothing, not bothering to shield themselves from the rain. Their walk around the city was rather silent that night, Aika noticed. Leon was known to stew in his own thoughts, and seeemd to be doing just that the whole time. Aika thought about asking him what was on his mind, but she felt that was probably a stupid question. What was on his mind was on hers too, and it never went away or got any easier to digest.
An hour or so later, they found an abandoned Chevy Cobalt on the outskirts of a junk yard. One of the doors was ripped off, and they had to shoo a pack of raccoons out the backseat, but it would do for the night.
The rain showed no signs of slowing as they got comfortable in the car, listening to the pitter patter of the water droplets against the metal. When Aika closed her eyes she could imagine herself back in her bedroom at home, listening to the metal gutters guiding the water down the side of her home. She could hear the hum of her father’s car coming in from his late shift at the hospital, and the sound of her ceiling fan squeaking each time the blades made a full turn. For a second, she relaxed.
“You okay?” Leon whispered, bringing the girl back to reality. He laid in the passenger’s seat and allowed Aika the whole back to herself. She was grateful, but would have loved to sleep next to someone for a change. The two of them had been apart for weeks at that point. They’d decided that if they wanted to keep things up safetly they would have to split off every now and again to avoid suspicion. She was happy to be back with Leon, but part of her felt more sorrowful than ever. Being away from him, somehow, was growing easier than being with him. She hated to think such a thing, and kicked herself for even allowing the thought to enter her mind.
“I’m alright,” Aika said back halfheartedly, staring up at the rusting interior of the car, then watching out of one of the back windows as the rain continued to steadily fall. The night was dark, and streetlamps lit up their surroundings only so much. Each time lightning struck, the lamps would flicker for just a moment and then right themselves again.
Leon stared out of the windsheild and felt comforted by the view, remembering the rundown car he drove throughout high school. Sitting in the passenger’s seat was odd, though, usually Aika would have been there and he would have occupied the driver’s side. They’d had their first kiss in that car, during a storm just like this one. They’d run to the shelter of the beater from the carnival that summer, holding half melted ice cream cones. Aika had the prettiest flushing of sunburn across her nose and cheeks, and he remembered feeling the warmth of her skin so vividly when their lips finally met. Then the brightness of her laugh, embarrassed and shocked when he’d finally pulled away. Leon fell asleep with tears in his eyes that night, listening to the even tempo of Aika’s breathing while the girl slept.
The next morning, the raccoons were back scratching the underside of the car, and the sun was beating down on the city for the first time in about a week. The weather had been consistently cloudy, and rain had become commonplace for the last seven days. Although the sunshine was a nice change of pace, the beams were extremely hot, and the overall temperature had risen significantly. By the time Aika woke up, the inside of the car was opressively humid. She sat up, rubbing at her eyes, kicked the side door open, and hopped out onto the gravel. The racoons, startled at the sudden movement, scattered toward a pile of garbage a little ways away.
Sunshine quickly blinded Aika and she held up a hand against the light, taking a moment to allow her eyes to adjust. As she stood surveying her surroundings, letting out a small yawn, she knocked her knuckle against the passenger’s side window.
“Leon,” Aika called, tapping the glass a few times consecutively. When there was no response she turned and looked inside.
Leon was … gone.
Aika’s heart jumped into her throat as she threw open the car door and tucked her head inside. Her eyes searched the space, and she quickly pulled out not only her own bag, but Leon’s as well. He never left his bag behind, or left Aika without telling her first. The girl was suddenly spinning around, her eyes scanning the junk yard as quickly as she could. No Leon in sight.
She called out to him, carrying both of their bags on her shoulders. Still no reply. The panic was beginning to set in. All of the worst possible scenarios clouded her mind, and she fought back tears at the idea that something terrible had happened to the boy.
As she followed the alleyways back to the main street, she checked every avenue, not leaving any stone unturned. She went as far as to question the homeless people she passed along the way. But most of them gave her nonscensical replies, or just asked her for money rather than answer her questions. By the time she made it out to the main road she was running, choking on her own breaths, sweating profusely. Her eyes watered. Her calves burned. Her head spun. She was beginning to assume the worst, her heart fluttering in her chest as her stomach churned with each step.
“Leon?” Aika yelled, her voice cracking with fear as she let out one last desperate holler. Her head whipped around as she heard his familair voice from across the street.
“That’s her,” Leon yelled coldly as he pointed at the girl, standing amongst a group of four or five police officers. As their eyes met, Aika could have sworn she felt her soul shatter within her. She’d been stabbed before, even shot. But the devistation she felt throughout her entire body at that moment trumped every pain she had ever felt. She didn’t even give her brain the chance to react, because if she had she would have collapsed in the middle of the street and let them take her. Still she felt the aching need to cry flare up within her chest but, luckily, her body was on autopilot. And she ran.
Funny how things happen, huh? How bonds are broken; How easily we betray those around us. This city will take every bit of humility you have and drain it out of you, no matter how important you think you are to it. She doesn’t need you, not at all. You need Her. And when She’s had Her way with you, you’ll know it. I promise, you’ll know it. That day She’ll be louder than you’ve ever heard Her before. And so eerily familiar you might even question if it’s all real. The road, long and seemingly infinite. The buildings, too high to comprehend. The man who you always see in the elevator, always on his way to the tenth floor. The woman always holding the crying child. That same cadence in it’s screaming. The rain, falling sharp like needles against your skin. The sun trying to cook you slowly under it’s rays. I assure you, She’s real. As real as you believe Her to be. And She’ll swallow you up for what you’ve done. She doesn’t take well to black hats like you. So … run. Run while you still can.