Bruises

How can I be so good at something I hate? That's their rationality, the reason they give for forcing me back to this place week after week no matter how many times I tell them it's bullshit. I'm not crazy and I don't have whatever disorder my scrawny, balding therapist, who's always listening to bad show tunes and inhaling cheese curls whenever I show up for my appointment, claims I have. Well, he doesn't so much claim this as suggest, but everyone else seems to believe him. I guess they want me to be one of those whackos from the movies. Or maybe they just want me crazy like them.
"You should consider sending these in to a magazine or something, Laurie. They're actually pretty good."
It always sounds weird when Keith says my name. He makes it sound so stiff, just like my real name. It reminds me of when I lived at the foster home, exactly the memory I want to get away from. That's why I go by Laurie in the first place. Therapists.
Keith straightens the set of papers in his hands and hands them back. My eyes linger on the orange stains near the neck of his pressed shirt. How can he manage to keep that weight off when he eats more junk than me?
"Doesn't prove your theory." The pen tapping against my leg moves in beat with the musical montage from "Les Miserables." I should have never said anything about me and Broadway. Nikki's the one who likes that shit. God, I can't stand Marius.
"We're not trying to prove anything right now. We're just analyzing the facts. It may take some time to develop a full diagnosis." Keith's voice is smooth and trained, a voice used to dealing with those less than stable.
"I don't need a diagnosis. I just need a way to stop freaking out."
"Your anger is a defensive reaction to violence."
Wow, I had to come all the way here to learn that. I knew I should have just gotten a book. Why did I let Nikki talk me into this? Nikki's the one with the real issues. Last time I checked I'm the one who ends up in the doctor's office whenever there's a tiny dispute. Why should I be subjected to all this prodding as if I'm the one with the problem?
I think he is waiting for a response because my silence pushes him into another question. "Do you remember what caused this reaction during your last fight? Two months ago, was it?"
"I remember what Nikki told me."
"Yes, but do you remember what happened?"
Keith leans back into the chair, folding his arms. I hate the condescending look in his eyes. Don't they learn how to hide that in psyche school? I mean, he's had about twenty patients before me. Was he this transparent with them?
"I remember what Nikki told me." My voice is sharper this time. Hey, I'm not the one who's supposed to be neutral.
"I see." He clears his throat and lifts his eyes to some place away from me. "What were you fighting about?"
"I didn't pick up Taylor when I was supposed to. The car broke down and I had to call for a tow truck. I should have called someone."
"What happened when you didn't pick him up?"
"He went to some club and shot up with some girl. They both ODed. She died. But someone found them and got him to the hospital in time.I should have told someone I'd be late." My voice catches near the end and I quickly look down, afraid my eyes might be getting watery. "Nikki was terrified. We promised to help Taylor after Eve died. I was supposed to be his best friend. But.it was an accident! I didn't know the traffic was jammed all the way to the beltway. I didn't know it would take that long. I would have called. I would have!"
Keith is staring at me, trained not to react. I don't even remember lifting my head again. My choppy breaths startle me and I bite my lip, turning away. It wasn't my fault; it was an accident just like I told Nikki. I would never abandon Taylor, not during what he's going through. It was an accident.
"Nikki blamed you."
I nod. "He was really upset. They're both so close and Taylor almost died. He wouldn't listen to me and he kept screaming and hitting things and.."
"You screamed back?"
"No shit! I mean, we always fight, tease each other you know, but that time.His eyes.I didn't know how to calm him down."
"Did he hit you?"
I glare at him. He knows the answer. I hate these fucking mind games!
"I. Don't. Remember." Each word falls with the impact of a fatal blow to the head. I move one hand up my arm, recalling where the trail of bruises once was.

I've always had bruises; I'm a sucker for fights. Something about them just makes me feel so alive. That's part of the reason I can be such an ass around Nikki. Watching him totally kirk out over the littlest shit has to be one of the funniest things in this world.
The first time I noticed this was during our initial introduction in tenth grade. We were in different years but he stopped me in the library one day to tell me how much my poetry impressed him, said he heard me read some at the week's coffee house session. Now, I can't stand poetry, pretentious nonsense where people bitch about unrequited love, their suicidal fascination, and other teenage angst bullshit, and was quite annoyed at this stocky jock-reject for suggesting I wrote anything of the kind. I told Nikki that he had me confused with someone else.
Apparently questioning his memory was a bad idea. A second later he was shoving a copy of the school paper into my face while casually explaining he was sure he had heard me. I should add that he was speaking as plainly as if we were having a normal conversation and as though he wasn't trying to blind me with the newspaper. Well, after seeing my own face, the length of thick, red hair and the focused, mahogany eyes turned black from the press, gazing back at me, I didn't exactly have much of a case to argue. Of course, Nikki called me a liar when I said I didn't remember any of it and spent the better part of the month trying to figure out what happened to his great poet.
I found it terribly amusing someone would get so bent out of shape over poetry so I made it a point to seek him out in the lunchroom, the gym, or the library just to harass him about my poetry, asking him about why he enjoyed it and then proceeding to dismiss every single aspect as corny or clich├ęd. Nikki fought me tooth and nail at each point, gradually introducing me to new subtleties about the art that actually made it interesting. His passion amazed me and I began to wish I could reproduce the work he claimed was mine. In the end the debates won me over. I told you I'm a sucker for fighting and damn could we fight. The viciousness in our arguments faded, giving way to more playful disputes.
We hit it off great after that. Problem was that Nikki had a few small issues I wouldn't learn about until later; one of them was his inability to see the gray in life. To Nikki, it was always black or white. You were either the blessed symbol of good or you were worthy of sharing a smoke with Satan. I usually stayed on his good side, despite my pranks and mischievous nature, but there was no way I could rival Nikki's epitome of good: Taylor.

"I think our time is up, don't you, Laurie?"
Keith's scribbling something into his notebook. It sure looks like a lot. I haven't given him that much to work with unless he was busy diagnosing me again. I look over my shoulder, hoping I am somewhat discreet, and try to read his cursive scratchings. Do all doctors write so crappily? I can't make out anything except for a shitload of cuss words. Did I cuss that much? I don't think I did.
"Laurie?"
He glances up at me and I hastily shift my eyes to the wall behind him. Keith smiles and closes the notebook in his desk drawer.
"Surely you don't want to waste your Friday night with an old fart like me." He chuckles and walks me to the door. "See you next week at four."
I leave without a response. I should have asked to see those notes. Isn't there some law saying he has to show me if I request them? I think there is. I should call Kris. She's all about law.
Walking outside, I start dialing on my cell. My finger remains on the second to last key. I forgot Nikki was staying with Kris. What if he answers? I haven't talked to him since we were last in the hospital, him with a broken arm and one hell of a black eye and me with bruised ribs and head trauma.

I remembered him coming into the room, face white and eyes wet.
"I'm not doing this anymore," he whispered, "I'm not going home."
He didn't have to add the "with you;" I got that one my own. I was pretty high on painkillers at the time so I wasn't sure he was being serious. Nikki's always ultra-repentant after one of our fights and I'm used to hearing him say he's through. I always talk him out of it, assuring him he's getting better at the anger management thing, and he relents, saying he'll just try harder to keep things in check. This was just another act in that ongoing drama.
"Don't say that. Stuff just got out of hand," I told him drowsily.
"I threw you against a fucking bookshelf! You're lucky it didn't fall over. Do you know what would have happened then?! It would have."
"But it didn't, so why worry about that?"
"You're not taking this seriously!" He gripped at the doorframe with his good arm. "I know I was angry at you about Taylor, but you're not the one who stuck that junk into his arm. You didn't sell him that poison. I had no right to do this."
"You care about Taylor."
I tried to sit up so my voice would be a little louder. It wasn't reaching Nikki before. Pain burst in my side. I hissed.
Nikki's eyes became even wilder. "That doesn't justify anything!"
"Stop yelling. You'll sic the nurse on us."
Okay, so maybe that wasn't the real reason I wanted him quiet. His tone was also quickly nearing that dangerous edge. I wasn't looking forward to fighting in the middle of a hospital.
He stopped shouting and lowered his eyes. His fingernails scratched at the doorframe, a stilted clicking echo in the room. Nikki fell against the frame, pressing his forehead into his hand, pinning it.
"We need help, Laurie." His voice barely registered, his shoulders trembling with the words.

The phone jumps in my hand as its techno ring tone does its best to blast out my eardrums. I jab at a button.
"Well, genius, you left the basement door open again. Guess who now has a multi-colored feline running around the house?"
Shit! I've been letting Taylor use that room as a studio; it's bigger than his room back home. That fool cat got into his pastels last week too. It's going to take forever to clean that carpet again and I'm supposed to host Taylor's party tonight! The big one eight. This is not what I need now.
I sigh into the phone. "Did you get the cake, Kris?"
"Of course. I can handle a little thing called responsibility. Now would it be stupid to ask if you've bought the refreshments yet?"
"I'm working on it!"
"And the answer is yes."
I can just imagine her cocky smirk about now. Damn bitch. If she didn't spend so much time at the shooting range, I'd let her have it.
"I had an appointment. With Keith. Kinda important you know."
"Oh yes, your shrink." I don't think there's any way Kris could possibly sound more mocking. "Why you go for that nonsense is beyond me? It's all about extorting money."
"Think I don't know that? But Nikki seems to think it's best we come at this thing from two angles."
"And his advice is always so golden."
"You should know; you live with him." I pause. "How is he?"
Kris makes a humming sound in her throat. "Moodier than usual. I think he hates discussing personal things with someone he doesn't know that well. Plus, college is riding his ass. He has a test everyday in one of his classes. And Eden's been under the weather. I took her to the vet yesterday. She's just got a bit of upset stomach. Has these wretched yellow pills we have to force down her throat every night. That's definitely pleasant, just the way I want to spend my time. Oh yes." She's silent for a long moment before finally adding, "Oh and I'm sure he misses you too."
"Yeah."
I check my watch. There's still stuff to buy, as Kris so tactfully reminded me, but I should have enough time left to get something to eat. Leaving Keith's always makes me hungry. It's the smell of those stupid cheese curls.
"Hey Kris, can you try to straighten the place up a little? I'll be there to clean the paint and stuff, but I'm really starving."
"Actually, I was going to pick up Taylor, but I think your cat needs the swifter attention."
"Hope you have life insurance. Pom despises baths."
"He claws me, I claw him back."
I can't help but laugh at that. "Okay. See you in a bit."
"Don't forget those refreshments."
*Click*
Always has to get in the last word. I'm surprised she and Nikki haven't tried to kill each other; they did meet on a firing range.
I head to the closest fast food joint and order the largest burger they have. None of this health food for me. My metabolism does all the work. I'm still working at the burger when I pull up to the driveway.
The house belongs to one of Taylor's friends. They have some sort of garage band going on and they get together a couple days each week, when he's not working on his art, to practice. They're not bad; sometimes they even get gigs. Eve was their designer before she died, three months ago. Car crash. Taylor was there. You have to hand it to the boy; he's sure got the fates on his side when it comes to survival. Although since Eve's death, he's needed a lot more than that to get him through.
He's strumming out a few chords when he notices me. Saying something to the band, he grabs the neck of his guitar and rushes over. That guitar is nice, separated into shades of sleek white and electric blue, strong strings too. I should know; I helped buy it.
"What are you doing here? Kris said she was coming over." I can't tell if he's really bothered to see me or just annoyed that Kris ditched him.
Looking down at him with his boyish appearance, soft brown locks, and gentle green eyes, you would never suspect him of being a relentless drug addict. Crack, speed, acid, ecstasy, heroin, pot, booze; he's done it all. Acid is his drug of choice. I think it helps him hallucinate about Eve. Yeah, it's ugly.
"Kris got caught up in something. So I figured I'd stop by." I smile at him, checking his eyes. I'm fairly sure he's been with the band since classes let out, but it never hurts to check. "You take anything today?"
"I went to the clinic if that's what you mean."
Ah, methadone. That should hold him for a while. He's lucky to afford that shit. At his age, most kids can't. It's nice to have a family of lawyers. At least this means he's trying to stay on the program.
"Ask for anything special for today?" I want to change the subject before he gets too defensive, like usual.
"No." He peers down at his guitar. "I don't want anything."
"But you do want to spend time with your pals, right?" I tap a finger upon his head.
Taylor attempts a smile. "If it makes you guys happy."
"Whoa, T. This isn't about us. It's your big day. Eighteen years. Now you can vote."
"And I'm almost old enough to drink legally."
I frown at him.
His eyes darken. "It was just a joke."
"Then let's try for something funnier next time, k?"
Taylor picks at his strings. "So did they find out what's wrong with you yet?"
I snort. "There's nothing wrong with me. I'm just there to humor Nikki. Everyone knows that."
"I bet he told you you were schizo."
"Knock it off. I'm not schizo." Don't push me today, Taylor.
Man, he used to be such a sweet kid. That's why Nikki loved him so much. He was the first person Nikki ever befriended.
If you haven't already guessed, Nikki has some emotional issues. His dad beat him until he was about twelve (when he got taken into foster care) so he's not exactly the most sociable of people. I was kinda a fluke. He just really liked my poetry. Poetry I can't remember writing. Anyway, Taylor and Nikki met through a tutoring program, one of our community service jags. Taylor was the only one who tried to keep in touch with Nikki after the tutoring period was over. I guess he basically became Nikki's little brother.
Nikki's the only person he'll ever talk to about Eve. Around the rest of us, he's either docile or agitated, like he's acting now.
"So the doctor didn't say you had multiple personalities? How else do you explain the stuff you write every once in a while? Or the anger episodes? Or your memory issues? I'm sure you're schizo."
"Damn it, Taylor. One, he's not my doctor; he's my therapist. Two, it's not schizophrenia you're describing; it's Dissociative Identity Disorder. Three, that shit isn't real! And four, everyone has problems like mine from time to time."
"But simultaneously?"
"This isn't fiction, Taylor! It's real life. I'm just trying to keep me and Nikki from beating the shit out of each other, alright?!"
Taylor looks away. "I still think you have multiple personalities."
"God!"
I throw myself back in the seat and press the heels of my hands against my eyes, drumming my fingertips over my forehead. Calming thoughts. Calming thoughts. It's his birthday.
"What time is my party?"
"P-Party?" I jerk upright, blinking.
"Yes." His smile is a bit more genuine now. "The surprise one. You guys know I'm too old for that stuff."
"Who said anything about a party?" Kris is going to kill me.
"Laurie, it's been almost fifteen minutes since you pulled up. You haven't gotten out of the car and you're obviously here to get me. I still have some of my brain cells left."
"About enough to count?"
"Jerk." But he still laughs as he goes to the other side of the car and tosses his guitar in the back. "So who's coming?"
"You ask such strange questions, T. I'd just thought I'd give you a ride home and we'd hang."
"Un huh."
He spots the pack of cigarettes in the side compartment and has one lit and placed between his lips before I can tell him otherwise. I let it go. They're his; he left them last time I gave him a ride and nicotine is the least of his worries when it comes to his addictions. He's considerate enough to roll down the window as the car begins to move.
"Will Nikki be there?" Taylor blows grayish wisps out the window.
"I plead the fifth."
"Think that's a good idea? Your worst fight was because of me. He told me." He inhales again at his cigarette.
"It's not your fault."
Somehow the words don't sound true to me. This better not be jealousy. I'm having a hellacious day as is.

The pretzels taste dry in my mouth. It's already ten. All the other guests are doing karaoke in the den. They should be drunk, but I know they aren't. We all decided it wouldn't be a good idea to give Taylor access to any mind-altering substances for the evening. But it sure makes a party dull, especially one plagued with college frat boys wannabes. Rushers. Next year, we'll have a screening process.
Kris comes into the kitchen, her short golden hair cutting a straight edge across the back of her neck. I gaze at the ice cream cake. Blood red tendrils of border melt down the edges as the crunchy cookie center starts to erode from the bottom. Taylor won't touch it so we decided to wait on Nikki. Maybe he can persuade Taylor into enjoying his birthday.
"You said you were going to put that in the fridge." Kris' voice is full of reproach. She likes calling me on my mistakes.
"It's fine. Nikki can't be much longer, right?"
"Laurie, if that cake melts, I'm going to kick your ass. It was expensive and we had to pay rent this week."
"I'm keeping an eye on it. Chill."
The doorbell rings and Kris exits. I hear someone running up from the basement. It has to be Taylor but what the hell was he doing down there? Kris better not have let him ditch the party and hide downstairs amongst his art. And she has the nerve to yell at me about the stupid cake?
I recognize Nikki's voice from the distance, blaming a talkaholic professor for his lateness. Taylor eagerly dismisses the apology, a little too eagerly, giddy even. Could he.Nah, Kris and I checked the place right before. One hundred percent clean.
"Let's have a look at this cake you're passing up." Nikki walks into the kitchen, hair a mess and feet dragging against the floor. That class must do a number on him.
"Yo."
He sees me make a short wave in his direction. "Laurie? I thought you were missing from that crack-fest."
"Watch it. Kris's plotting to drag you up to the mic." I snicker to the side and then kick at a chair beside me, pushing it a little ways from the table. "So, Kris tells me you're not digging the counseling thing."
Nikki moves over to the head of the table, ignoring my offer. "I'm trying. The guy just asks too many questions. He says we're using a supportive counseling approach, meaning we talk about what upsets me and then he barrages me with a thousand questions on why this is."
"Sucks."
"In a word. He says he thinks I have this Borderline Personality Disorder. Not pretty."
"Sounds fun. Can they treat it?"
"Yeah." Nikki pushes his hand through his dark hair and examines the table. "Just takes a while. But he says the success rate is fairly high." He closes his eyes and stretches his arms over the surface, inadvertently showing off the muscles responsible for most of my doctor visits. "Well, how's therapy going for you, Laurie?"
"It's.interesting. My guy likes musicals."
"Ah. He's helping you then?"
"Would be if Laurie would ever accept a diagnosis."
I spin to the side and catch Taylor lounging by the doorway. His shoulder is slowly sliding down the frame and he has to keep adjusting his position. Shit.
"Diagnosis?" Nikki turns to me, not yet catching the slur in Taylor's voice. Thank god he's too out of it tonight.
"Yeah." I'm cut off before I can defend myself. Taylor's vision wanders about the room. "He's already blowing off the doctor's suggestion."

"Shut up, Taylor!"
"Found more of your lovely poems today, Laurie. Under some books in the car. You were getting the food. You sure write a lot about pain. Don't sound like you at all. Not this you."
"Taylor." I can hardly get the name through my clenched teeth. I'm moments from grabbing a handful of this cake and chucking it directly at his bemused face.
"Taylor, are you drunk?" Nikki's tone slices through us both. His eyes look murderous.
Taylor gives us a small smile. "Only a little."
My hand smacks over my eyes and my elbow collides with the table. Why do you hate me, God?
I hear rapid footsteps and feel my collar wrenched to the side. "Why the hell is he drunk?!"
"How should I know? Kris and me checked all through the house. And he couldn't have brought it with him because all he had was his guitar."
"What are you dumbasses doing in here? Everyone can hear you." Kris storms into the room. "Taylor, you are supposed to be opening gifts."
"Whatever." He leans back and misses the wall, stumbling onto the floor.
"Perfect." Kris rolls her eyes and grabs Taylor's hair. He screeches in pain and snatches at her hand. "Come here, you stupid lush." She starts dragging him out the room. Nikki pushes his way past her. I follow him downstairs.
A good hour later, we uncover an open portion in the walling, fairly well hidden behind my old dresser. I can't believe I never thought to check behind that thing. After all, that crummy piece is where I store all of my console games and also where Taylor puts his art supplies. Must be the hole Pom goes inside whenever I can't find him. It also happens to be the place Taylor's been stashing a fair collection of bottles, among other things.
Nikki clenches one bottle in his hand. "Are you stupid?"
"Excuse me, how was I supposed to think he'd hide shit in the wall? I mean come on, that's pretty damn clever for Taylor."
"You don't think!" The bottle shatters against the floor. "You can't manage one simple party, you reject whatever your therapist's telling you, and you can't even take any of this seriously."
"Oh boo fucking hoo. I'm not God. I can't watch the kid twenty-four- seven. And as for the therapy, it's one big joke. The only one who really needs it is you. I was just being considerate."
"You're so damn selfish!"
My back cries out as he shoves me against the wall. Something about the action seems so familiar but my mind draws a blank. I can't concentrate on anything but the agony spiking along my spine.

When I was a child, I used to dream a lot. I rarely dream anymore. Can't remember the last dream I had in fact. But the old ones were all the same. There was this young kid standing outside the foster home. Not sure anymore what he looked like but he was always covered in fresh cuts and bruises and his clothes were a step up from ruined. The other kids passed by like shadows, only their laughter indicating their presence.
A few times I tried talking to him; we were the same age then. But he never had much interest in me; he was always zoning out and talking about something weird like dead flowers in a window or an unseen blood red sky. He also frequently studied his injuries, eyes tearing up whenever he pressed a finger against a patch of darkened skin. The kid seemed oddly fascinated with them.
I only heard his voice once, the last time I saw him. We were sitting on the concrete fencing that surrounded the foster home and he was watching the children play flashlight tag in the dark yard. I wanted to play too but none of the others asked us so we just stayed there, connecting the stars into animals or cartoon characters. After a bit, the kid got bored and dug at a scab on his knee. Blood bubbled up from the wound, coating his fingertips. He leaned down to examine the wound.
"You're weird." I swatted at his hand. "It won't stop hurting if you keep messing with it."
His eyes snapped back to me, facial features crumpled in confusion. "It doesn't hurt you."
"So. It's still stupid." I kicked my heels against the fence.
"It's none of your business." He placed a hand against my shoulder and shoved me off.
I didn't dream about him after that.

Something warm drips down my face. It smells like blood. There's more of it coming from my nose. I try to get up but something holds me down.
"I said stay down!" Kris?
My vision is foggy all of the sudden. I can sorta make out hands wrapped around my wrists, forcing them upon the couch I'm somehow lying on. Ow, my whole body feels like shit. I hear murmuring from the distance. A throng has gathered at the top of the basement. I can see part of the crowd from the corner separating the den and the kitchen. I wish I knew what they were saying but the majority of their eyes are on me.
"Get away from me! Is Laurie okay?" Nikki sounds semi-hysterical. He's grasping one shoulder tightly, a pool of red spreading around his fingers.
"Didn't I tell you to wait in the other room with Taylor? You are not helping the situation." Kris turns to glower at Nikki.
"I told you I."
"Later!" Her vicious tone is enough to send him out the den.
What the hell is going on?
"Lemme up, Kris!" I lurch forward.
"Will you at least act sane?"
"What the fuck?"
"That's what I want to know."
She yanks me to my feet and pulls me over to the basement, snarling at the other guests to get the hell out of her way. We clop down the stairs, greeted by a chaotic display of trashed canvases, busted easels, and an overturned storage cabinet. Its bottled contents have already stained the floor a variety of colors and glass is everywhere, as well as the diluted scent of paint thinner.
"I'm starting to think your therapist may not be extorting you after all, Laurie."
Dizzy, I bring a hand to my forehead. My fingers tingle as they stick slightly to the skin. I rip the hand away. The hand's covered in blood down the wrist and there's a jagged slash imprinted in my palm. Smaller slices reveal themselves along the inside of my fingers. This shit keeps getting worse.
I start shaking. Kris gathers the glass around us, taking her time in lifting a five-inch shard from the ground. Its shape is disturbingly familiar.
My knees hit the frigid ground.
"Fuck."
I hate it when they're right.