Prologue

"You're disgusting."

I flick ash off the tip of my cigarette, cancerous toxins expelled in his general directions, and the filter is placed back between raw-bitten lips.

"Are you fucking listening to me, faggot?"

No, I'm not listening.

"You fucking - " He slurs the words, trying to stand. He's drunk right now, bloodshot eyes are watery as he glares, and he can't figure out where the arm of his la-z-boy is to shove himself up. I suppose it's better for me this way; if he managed to lurch his fat ass over here, he'd probably get a few hits in before I could scurry my way into the bathroom. Only room that locks in this shithole.

"You fucking - fucking slut - get over - here!" Still with the thick-tongued slush, unable to pronounce his words properly.

I roll my eyes and grind the butt of my cigarette out on the kitchen table. Mum's going to have kittens when she finds it, but I won't be home by then. She works nights at the hospital, so by the time she gets in, I'm at school. And Robert, Robert's passed out cold on the couch most mornings.

"What do you think - where are you - fucking - going!?" Robert, the fat pig, finally manages to find the arm of his recliner and push himself to a wobbly standing position, eyes still narrowed at me.

How glad I am that he's not my father.

"Little faggot! Get your scrawny ass over here!" He's not drunk enough to shout, yet, because he knows that the neighbors are going to call the police - the fuzz, as he refers to them so often - if they find him beating me again.

Of course, last time he was sober, and he had a baseball bat. He's not an angry drunk, he's an angry person. I don't understand, really, how my mother could have 'fallen in love' with him. By the time she realized that he was a waste of space, Jenna was two years old.

Mum couldn't divorce him. Couldn't deprive poor, beautiful, precious Jenna of her daddy, could she?

My father's dead. I don't remember him at all; I was about three when he finally gave out. He had brain cancer. Malignant, obviously.

"Faggot!"

The word is punctuated by his fist hitting my collarbone with an ominous creak, and the crack of my chair hitting the floor. I should lie here and take it - "Take it like a man, faggot!" - but it hurts too bad to see his fat body come down again and again, to have his fists, anything but gentle, pressing into my flesh.

He can't stand me. I wonder why - maybe it's my face. He likes hitting me there, bruising me, making me bleed. Because I'm as pretty as my mum was when he married her? Because after years of working nights in the ER and waiting on him during the day, she became haggard and old? Because I'm seventeen and I have sex more regularly than he does? Because his beautiful, precious Jenna is twelve and she's finally realized that Daddy's a drunken pig?

It doesn't really matter. All that matters is that I can run, run faster than he could drive in this state, and I can go anywhere I want to.

~~~

"Brea!"

The joy in his voice is sickening, but less so than my stepfather's inebriated calling of "Faggot!" and "Slut!"

"Brea, are you all right?" he asks with a quiet frown, moving closer to examine my flesh with his fingers.

My neck is bleeding. Robert's rings left angry scratches in my skin, his knuckles raising welts across my collarbone. James - always James, never Jamie - manages to look concerned and still rub up against me in a way that makes my skin crawl.

After having Robert so close, I need a shower before anything else.

"I'm fine, James. Can I use your shower?" My voice is tired and almost ragged. Mrs. K, the choir director, is going to kill me. I wasn't even the one screaming obscenities, and my throat still hurts.

James knows when to shut up and leave me alone; that's the reason I came here first. That, and the cool empty feeling his apartment gives me. He lives alone, graduated last year, and spends the time and money he should be using for college in this apartment, painting the most amazing pictures.

Some of them are of me.

Still, he lets me inside without asking why I need his shower. He knows about Robert, just the bare bones, but he knows. The air conditioner is buzzing, relief from the sticky heat that I hadn't even noticed while walking over here, chain smoking and lost in thought. Surprising that I didn't get run over. But I stand in the middle of the largest room, shoes left by the door, and let icy air wash over me, the smooth cement floor cold against my bare feet. Paint thinner wafts through the air, the sound of a refrigerator opening somewhere to my left, and I just let everything sink into my mind.

I open my eyes, remarkably calm, to find James holding out a diet coke… with lime. He knows me far too well; I should probably stop coming here.

He can't get attached. Neither can I.

"Thank you." Quietly spoken as I accept the can, sipping slowly, and hand it back.

"Give me ten minutes."

He nods silently, reaching up to touch my cheek - but his hand stops a scant inch away, and he backs off into the shadows. Perhaps he read the distress, the warning in my typically cool blue eyes. He's left me alone to take my shower.

Crimson. I should have known; James has never been one to follow social bounds. The tile and shower curtain, even the porcelain of the toilet, the walls… all either crimson or black. Almost bloody, and so unlike that young man's persona. He's bubbly, flamboyant - very much the homosexual artist. If my stepfather met him, James would probably get shot.

Robert, as one gathers right away, is hugely homophobic.

Still, I take my time in James' shower, enjoying the faintly fruity soap and shampoo, cleaning everything that Robert even looked at and more. I do not, on one note, relieve myself while using his shower. I may be a very sexual person, but it's not nice to masturbate in someone else's shower - especially when said someone is expecting certain things from you.

And as Robert so quaintly put it, I'm a 'faggot' and a 'slut'. So James will get what he wants; fair deal for an escape from my abusive stepfather.

A bitter laugh echoes around the chamber, and I wash the last of the soap from my body, and the last of my thoughts of the fat pig from my mind. I've put up with him for thirteen years, gotten through all the curses and the… the other things.

Finished, and with a dark, fluffy towel snugged about my waist, I move back into the makeshift studio and stare around for a moment, searching for James. He's not hard to find, though, stretched out on the floor - excuse me, on his bed, which is a futon. On the floor. Head pillowed on arms, upper torso bare, lower half wrapped in cotton sweatpants. James is very attractive. Muscular and tan, like a model, while I am more lithe and fair skinned. For some reason, though, likely the contrary nature of the human psyche, he would draw and paint someone like me rather than a physique more similar to his own.

It doesn't matter. He's got my soda, and he's staring at me with those fluid jade eyes, and the towel's already on the floor.

I have school in the morning, and it's two AM, and I don't care. Losing myself in this ancient rhythm is as relaxing as sleep, as calming as three packs of clove cigarettes and a good massage.

Thirty minutes of care paid to my own body and James', and we're both tired enough to fall asleep in the other's arms.

In the morning, we wake up on separate sides of the bed.

Neither of us is hurt. He knows, I know. I'm a faggot and a slut.

I get around.