The cab driver makes him pay up front but that's to be expected. So will the lack of tip. Dev curls up like a cat against him. She's had this damn flu for a week. Her skin burns fiercely in the taxi. Her face is pale, her eyes still.
The cab pulls up to the address. Through narrow, suspicious eyes, Melo scans the area. Thankfully, only the Camry is in the driveway.
"Wait here" commands Melo to the cab driver who stares at him balefully. He is not happy about the sick girl coughing in his taxi.
"Hurry" says the cab driver pretending to check at his watch.
Melo walks through the gate he has opened one thousand times. In happier times he would have leaped over the gate but now he opens it. He walks across the brick path towards the door that still has a Christmas wreath on it. By habit, he searches the shadows around him for movement, unnatural shapes or color. He is trained in the colors of the night. A curtain shifts. She was always suspicious too.
The door opens. An old woman in a bathrobe stands inside the crack. She does not bother to open it any further as she watches him. He hears the cab idling behind him as he self-consciously runs his fingers through his hair, snags a twig from the park and tosses it behind him in one movement.
"What do you want?"
"Just get it over with Michelangelo. What you want?" she asks with a sigh as she crosses her arms. "Money? Something to pawn? You ran out of bicycles and baseball mitts a long time ago. So what?"
"No mom. We need a place to stay. Dev's sick."
And for one instance, her face softens in the porch light. The mask fades. His mom looks anxiously over his shoulder towards the cab. But then she remembers. The mask returns. She pulls the robe tightly against her body and says the words she rehearsed in her mind as the cab pulled up.
"I am sorry Angelo. But no. Dev is a lovely girl but no! If Peter sees you here..."
"Peter?! Peter is a FUCKING-" and Melo catches his temper before it bursts screaming from his suddenly tense body.
"Michelangelo! Don't come here like this! Come back clean! What do you expect?"
"I don't know mom" says Melo realizing it's time to go. "I came here for Dev. Help, I guess."
"Yes. You BOTH need help. I saw the marks on that poor girl's arm Michelangelo. And remember, you punched Peter."
"He grabbed me! I have this thing inside me mom..."
"I know about your problems. But Peter has a TRO on you! He'll call the cops. Please go baby. Please take Devika to the hospital! And please-", she gasps and the mask melts off. She is not good at this. But she wipes away the tears, straightens her robe and says, "I have to go now."
His mom looks at him and for a second. He stares back willing himself not to cry. The man melts away for a moment. Gone. And there he is. Her first born child. Lugging his baseball gear up the brick path with that big, infectious smile on his face. The door is wide open. The house welcomes him. The smell of mom's sausage meatballs and sauce drifts outside.
But thoughts of Peter suck Melo straight from the Light. The vortex of reality funnels him back into the used hunting boots he wears. He looks away as his mom slips through the crack. The door shuts with a soft click. While they talked, Melo heard a window creak open. He knew she was listening. Now the window opens all the way and his sister's head peers out at him.
"Tara..." smiles Melo walking over to the window. When he gets close she lunges out and hangs halfway out the window to hug him. His dog tags still dangle from her neck.
He holds her tight. She smells like home. Tara must be 15 which would make him 33. Michelangelo is Angelo to his parents but his toddler sister could only say Gelo. Since Tara's never wrong, the name stuck.
"In the cab. Hey we gotta go sis...but fuck. How are you?"
"OK. Peter's a prick and mom's all church bitch now-"
"C'mon Tara. Mom works two jobs. She lives for you. I hate that prick too but even mom needs love."
"TARA!" barks mom's voice from inside.
"I gotta go Tara but take care ok?"
"When can I see you and Dev? Promise me next zoo day. C'mon Gelo!"
"Ok Tar, we'll meet you at the entrance. Opening time."
"Sweet! Bring weed!"
Melo is about to reply but the window shuts. Well, this didn't work but he get's to see Tara. First Wednesday of the month is free admission to the San Francisco Zoo. This will be the third time she has been skipped school to meet him there.
Family tradition, grins Melo.
He gives the address to the next stop. The driver demands another $10 to continue. Dev is curled up in a ball making sad little whimpering sounds. They drive towards Nob Hill. What if she isn't home? It will be a bitch to break in. But as they drive down the street he see's her Jetta in the driveway. The porch light is on like she's expecting them. The cab stops, he pays the rest of the fare.
Dev is sleeping so hoists the backpack over his shoulder and carries her. The backpack weighs as much as she does. As he nears the door, it opens. A short, busty Vietnamese girl still in her office clothes holds it open.
"OD?" she asks calmly.
"Flu. She just needs a bed and roof over her head for a few days."
Melo walks inside carrying Dev. Julie stares at him but he keeps his eyes on the ground. He never looks up to acknowledge his wife.
Inside is the same. Place never changes. Julie works 50 - 60 hour weeks and spends half the year in Hong Kong. Melo lays Dev down in the guest bedroom. Her deep, brown eyes study him. A moment of clarity.
"Where are we?"
"Oh. Is Julie here?"
"Yes. Look, I'm gonna get you some food and Tylenol. Just sleep sweetheart. You're safe."
"I'm always safe with you" purrs Dev as she snuggles into the bed with a sigh.
He finds soup in the cupboard and toasts bread baked from six different grains. Right up Dev's alley. He pours organic Maui Pineapple juice over ice, heats some soup and loads up a tray. Everything in the kitchen is in the same spot. Like a photograph of his past. The toast pops up and he spreads peanut butter on one and butter on the other.
"Ok. Chow" he says as Dev props up with a sleepy look.
She looks so fragile and tiny but he knows better. He knows who is the strong one in this relationship. He caresses her face and kisses her lips gently. She fiercely wraps her arms around his neck and pulls him to the bed. Her hug fills him with Light. But she still feels too warm.
"Eat Dev. Got that multigrain toast shit you like, chicken noodle soup and pineapple juice. Oh and take two Tylenol."
"I am hungry" smiles Dev after she releases him.
Once, the world was meaningless. Life was a flat image to stare at like TV. Love was a pointless thing other people talked about. And then he met her. The first thing she told him was that they had fallen in love hundreds of times in the past. Like stars in the sky, nothing will ever change them. They are, and always will be Lovers. But Dev says a lot of weird shit like that. You get used to it. Now she is the key to his world. The part that makes sense.
"Well then eat Dev. Your body needs it."
"What about you?" asks Dev as she tears up the butter toast and drops it into the soup.
"I ate while you slept."
"Mr. Melo, I do believe you are lying to me but I also think you are a very sweet man looking out for my safety."
He smiles. People say Dev is crazy. But she isn't. She knows the world for what it is. Plus she is also the kindest person you will ever meet. The only person she neglects is herself. So he helps her. This is something he can do. Watching over Dev gives life a purpose.
Melo starts the shower in the guest bathroom and peels off his shirt. Dev eats and watches. From the bathroom light, she can see the monster. The Killer. It slips and slides around him like a liquid shadow. These days Dev can barely feel it. But the stains on his skin and the wild, probing eyes remind her some monsters never die.
Inside his left forearm is the tattoo 'I am The Darkness.' On the right, 'I am Death.' Below his right nipple is a grid pattern of four, grinning skulls. Beneath them it says 'One last caress.' Covering his back is a Chinese dragon done in the solid black style of Polynesian tattoos. The neck drapes over his shoulder and stretches across his chest. The dragon's mouth gapes open where Melo's heart beats. Nestled in the teeth of the dragon is a red heart. Stains from the past. But the newest addition is inked inside the heart. DevL.
Her body greedily absorbs the nutrients after a week of stale cinnamon buns and Gatorade. Heroin and the flu are not good for appetite. The dopesick haze blends grotesquely with the flu. Dev finishes her food and takes the Tylenol. On her napkin is a Roxicodone 30 mg. She would prefer a hit of H, but knows Melo won't let that happen until she's better.
The Roxi will have to do. In the park, someone always comes by the tent. Last time was the Thief, Jason. She remembers because he always acts so hurt when she calls him by his celestial name.
"Why do you call me that?" asks Jason as he inhales tar vapor from a lightbulb he stole from the restroom.
"Because you steal. You steal time, you steal reality, you steal their perfectly laid plans. You are beautiful Thief. You are Creation, you are Chaos."
"Sure. Trip out, whatever" shrugs Jason indifferently. "But stop calling me Thief in front of people. It's embarrassing."
She thinks about railing the Roxi for the rush but ends up chewing it instead. Melo comes out in a towel and runs a bath. He knows her fondness for the tub. Dev can live in a tent, eat out of a dumpster and could care less about the stares from panhandling. She enjoys the wild, vagabond life as much as Melo. But to soak in a hot bath is truly one of the joys of civilization.
"Not too long Dev. You're still warm" says Melo as he dresses.
Her eyes are drawn to his left leg looks like melted plastic from bullets fired at close range. These holes freed Melo from his Five Day War...
Days One and Two - Hunt. Day Three - Kill. Day Four - Die. Day Five - Resurrection.
Like the four skulls on his chest. Four ghosts set free by Melo.
Dev's love is strong because it has to be. Melo is so tender and so beautiful but also broken. Melo catches her looking at his scars and dresses faster.
In the mirror she can see them. Drowned Boys. The four ghosts he released. He will never forget them. They walk beside him forever. She knows them well from their talks when Melo drinks too much...
"...dragged them out after the firefight. Carter got three. Bermer one. I got four. Supposed to search them but fuck that. Thought they were dead but it takes SO long to bleed out. We put them in the fountain. I can still hear them. The water splashing as they came alive one last time..."
Dev shakes her head to make it stop. She paints her tag into the steamed mirror. DevL. The ghosts vanish. Melo stops to admire her nude form with an appreciative smile. Dev's hair is past her waist now. Wild like a creature from the forest. Wild the way Melo likes it. She slips into the tub giggling about the thoughts of men.
After he dries his hair he goes out into the living room where Julie sits on the couch drinking wine. Waiting. He sighs, walks in and takes a seat across from her.
"Julie. We're just here for a couple days."
"It's your house Angelo. You can come home anytime you want. And not just for your VA checks" she says bravely. He can tell from her eyes she has been crying.
"Look Jules-" and he stops as her eyes light up at the sound of her nickname. Another ghost in the house. Melo corrects himself. "Julie, it's not our house. It's your house. You pay the mortgage and-"
"No! It is OUR house Angelo. When this THING you're doing runs it's course, the house and I will still be here."
"Julie" winces Melo, "please! It's over. Let's sign papers. You keep everything. It's all yours-"
"NO!" cries Julie as she slams her wine glass down. "I can't! I won't! This will change! I know it will Angelo! She's almost 15 years younger than us! How can it last?"
"I told you I love her! I need her-"
"She's a nice person! I get it! But she can't fix you! You need real help-"
"No! I ended this. You won't sign the papers but you know it's over Julie!"
And Julie changes. Puts on an old face. Smiles.
"Ok. Whatever you say Angelo. Hungry? Can I make you something? Stir fry? I'll go to Baymart and get you beer. Relax, watch TV and I will-"
"I'm sorry Julie. I really am" smiles Melo sadly as he gets up and walks out of the room.
He goes into the guest bedroom and shuts the door. Scrawled across the dressing mirror in lipstick is: DevL. Heh. Julie will love that. But seeing the tag puts his mind at rest. It means Love. He can hear Dev humming to herself as she washes.
He removes the slender bag hidden in a false liner from the backpack. Inside are their IDs, cash, a makeup bag full of drugs and his legally registered Glock 19. Dev hides the bullets but she has yet to find the not so legal,15 round magazine he concealed in the padding of shoulder strap. He takes out the drug bag and sorts through it. Tar, China White, three unused rigs, pink cocaine, cheap Mexican coke, meth, 12 hits of blotter LSD, mushrooms, two types of weed, four blunts and an assortment oxycodone, percocets and valium. He hates to break up a gram of the China but fuck it. He snorts a bump and moves it from the business side of the bag to the personal side.
And the world grows gentle again.
Dev's humming is like a tiny bird that flutters across the room and nestles into his heart. It is almost enough. Almost. He takes three Roxi's from the bag and feels around the pack for the pint of vodka. Melo sets one pill aside for Dev and downs rest with alcohol. He repacks the bags and lays on the bed drinking.
Melo wakes up like he always does in this house. Gasping for air and clawing wildly to escape the Darkness in his dreams. But she is here. Stroking his face. Watching over him.
"Shhh. It's ok. We're safe."