He heard the music first. He was not sure how. The streets of New York City were full of noise, not all of which could be justly considered music. It vibrated and hummed off the stoical skyscrapers—the wails of street vendors, the raucous laughter and percussive honks, the gasps of taxies pushing through struggling air, the drunken, gyrating pulse of pop music belching from the clubs. But he heard the song instead. It was quiet, but it drifted on the air like an enticing scent until it reached him. He paused where he was in the middle of the crowded street and let shoulders and curses jostle past him. It was a woman's voice, high and wavering, not at all the crass, abrasive speech of popular music. He didn't recognize the language. Italian, Spanish? It couldn't be any language he'd ever heard, but the song was seductive. It was sweet, but with the most striking overtone of force, an insolent, husky edge, like a flute with smoker's voice. It reminded him of sobbing.

Suddenly, he remembered himself. It was late. He had call early the next morning. He needed to find the apartment building, the cheap one that his agent had told him was on this street. He was twenty-two; he was just starting out. It would suffice while he filmed this tiny role in an independent film, while he got his bearings and made his name. He was sure. He looked up and tried to ignore the feelings of vertigo and smallness. And there it was, strange name, Aeaea Apartments. Unmistakable. "Rooms For Rent, meals provided." The sign called to him feebly. It wheezed and flickered. Its light bled over to the window beside it, bathing it in a red glow. And there, the faint silhouette of a woman waited for him in her concrete island, as he came to rest, weary of fighting his way through the sea of humanity, the streets of Manhattan. Her body moved with the strains of the music that trailed from her open window. She lit a cigarette in one fluid, apathetic gesture. The woman's voice broke on the highest, most poignant note as the lighter flared to life. Its reflection in the glass was much more potent than the sickly neon. The woman waved the cigarette in haughty circles like a wand, trailing smoke until it obscured her face from view.

Humming faintly, Bryan Herrick took several steadying snorts of air, entered the building, requested a room, climbed the stairs, turned the key in the door, and sat on the bed, staring at the ceiling and listening to his stomach growl.

The next morning, he was on his way out of the building when he glimpsed the woman he had seen the night before. He wasn't sure it was her, but something in her regal bearing was familiar. He was unprepared for the experience. This was just the type of woman four years of college education had taught him to fear. She was pushing her way, rather aggressively through the glass doors at the moment he reached the top of the stairs down to the lobby. A briefcase swung from her arm like a weapon, and her heels scrabbled for purchase on the hard floor with a noise like gunshots. Her head turned for a second as she pulled the door toward her. Her serenely haughty expression begged the question, You and what army? with the clear foreknowledge that no one would dare challenge her. She was not as young as he may have guessed from a distance, perhaps in her late forties. She was rather severe in the face, and her square jaw was not softened by her black hair, which was twisted into submission at the nape of her neck. She must have been beautiful once. Her eyes rose and caught his, the color of bruises, of falling on the smooth, scintillating surface of a sheet of black ice. It hides its cracks beneath the surface; it aims to hurt. Her eyes were almost as seductive and every bit as dangerous. In the same motion, her head turned and the door slammed shut in front of him.

An apartment door flung open behind him, and a man in a sweater vest of a criminally vomit-orange color emerged, adjusting his large square glasses on his small nose. At any angle, they overwhelmed his thin face.

"Who's that?" he asked the man.

"Oh, you mean the dread goddess? Lives upstairs. She owns this circle of hell. I don't believe I even need to ask why you want to know."

The man sniffed faintly with mirth. Bryan studied him uncertainly.

"The dread goddess?" he repeated slowly, dripping irony.

"Indeed. The old widow's so bitter she's positively congealing. You'll see—Ah, Eddie, come over here. We have a young novitiate."

A corpulent, red-faced man stumbled tipsily down the stairwell, yawning and fumbling with his half-tucked shirt.

"Oh, good." He chuckled and turned to Bryan.

"I don't know what he's been telling you, but, yeah, you'd better watch out. She's a real ball-buster." He offered a meaty hand. "I'm Eddie, and this jackass is Laurence."

"I resent that."

"I'm Bryan."

"Before you so rudely interrupted, Eddie, I was informing Bryan of our beloved landlady's ability to spit venom and turn men to stone at will."

"Oh, she's not so bad as all that. You're just mad because she doesn't like your poetry."

"She has no taste."

Eddie laughed. "She's in good company, then. I hear The Times agrees."

"I'm a poet," Laurence told Bryan, "and, as with every great poet, I am grossly underappreciated."

"Poet?" Eddie snorted. "Try high school English teacher."

"Sticks and stones, Eddie… Besides, I am sure my being a poet by nature and an educator by necessity is preferable to being unemployed."

"Have it your way, Mr. Stewart."

"Well, anyway, as I was saying, about our beloved landlady with snakes for hair—"

"She's a businesswoman, a pretty darn good one, and makes more in a couple months than Laurence makes in a year."

"—which is no excuse for being an insufferable harpy. Which was completely fine until her parents died. I swear she came here to claim her inheritance out of pure spite. They were reasonable people. Imagine their shock when they spawned a thing like that."

Eddie grinned at Bryan. "I wouldn't listen to him if he owes her half the rent I do."

"Regardless, forewarned is forearmed."

Eddie shook his head in a sort of amused tolerance then fumbled in his pocket and pulled out a pack of cigarettes. He held it upside down over his hand hopefully. "Hey, I'm out. Either of you have a smoke?"
"Of course not." Laurence bristled in mock offense.

"Why don't you ask her?" Bryan suggested, half-joking.

"Her?" Eddie echoed incredulously. "She'd sooner throw me out on my ass than give me a light. Probably never even looked at a smoke in her life, the old prude."

If he had learned nothing else in his years of theatre school, Bryan had become a scholar in caricatures. Drama, he had come to appreciate, was one massive caricature of itself—the ideas of emotions and people magnified ten times actual size in order to be discernable from the balcony. Bryan's greatest flaw as an actor, according to his professors, was his inability to be substantially larger-than-life—that is, pretentious. He was too real, too methodically to-scale for the stage and screen. His shy handsomeness, according to his agent, was his saving grace among his dramatically more ostentatious peers. And his neighbors behaved so much like these painted undergraduate fools, he assumed that their portrayal of the woman upstairs could be nothing else but another caricature.

Over the next few days, he was able to judge for himself. And, in the end, he concluded that if his neighbors were caricatures, the elusive woman upstairs was a realist sketch in charcoal. In the mornings, he watched their interactions with the rapture of a museum visitor studying childish red squares on canvas and a blunt Warhol concoction side-by-side, inescapably amused with the catalyst of contrast.

"Good morrow, Catherine, for I hear that is your name," Laurence brayed showily one morning by the mailboxes.

The woman upstairs quirked one eyebrow in tired skepticism. Clearly, this was a weary routine of theirs.

"I was never a fan of the Bard," she responded in just the voice Bryan expected to emerge from her tight lips—a blasé, serrated contralto. "He never had original material, always borrowed his words from other sources." She gave Laurence a brief, meaningful glare. "And even then, he never quite got it right."

Then, there was that awkward incident when Eddie ran directly into her on the stairs. The stairwell was wide, well-lit, and entirely empty, save for the two of them and Bryan, several steps behind them with an armful of dry-cleaning. Eddie grinned like an idiot, pink in the face, throughout the entire episode, uttering a perfunctory "'scuse me," while the woman upstairs grasped the handrail like a javelin, her eyes steely.

"Good afternoon, Mr. Wright." Her tone dripped exaggerated composure and saccharine friendliness. "How is your wife?"

Ignoring her jab, which was obviously a familiar one, Eddie took this opportunity to introduce Bryan to the woman upstairs. "By the way, this is Bryan Herrick. Just moved into 3A."

"Yes, I know." A spark of irritation flickered in her strange black eyes, but then the woman upstairs turned to Bryan and took his hand in an almost challenging manner. Her gaze bored searchingly into his face.

"I'm Catherine Hirsh."

"Nice to meet you," Bryan said staring back but, feeling vaguely self-conscious at his manners. They felt vaguely childish, well-intentioned and silly, somehow, on the bright stairwell beneath the imposing landlady's scrutiny.

"What do you do, Mr. Herrick?"

"I'm an actor," Bryan said, maintaining steady eye contact. Knowing just how to say this was every bit as vital as rehearsing how to smile and nod politely whenever someone said, "A degree in Theatre? How will you use that?" He had practiced saying it multiple times with varying inflections, but it still sounded pretentious to his ear. "I'm here to be in my friend's independent movie."

An almost puckish grin curled Mrs. Hirsch's lips. "An actor, you say?" She put her face uncomfortably close to his. Her breath was surprisingly warm; somehow, Bryan had half-expected her to be cold-blooded. She tilted her head derisively, as if reading his thoughts. "My late husband was an actor. A braying ass to the very end."

The actress Bryan was to work with couldn't have been older than he was. If anything, she looked younger. She was pretty, in that feeble, generic way of budding obscure starlets. Bryan did not notice much about her until the first take of the rape scene.

Then, under the heavy, cinematic lights and the borrowed camera's vigil, he noticed that her nose was faintly upturned and the faint sprinkle of freckles beneath her eyes. Her eyes, which were ingénue-wide, round and terrified and staring at him. Her long, spindly legs were tangled beneath him. In the silence, the edges of the room and their bodies became bright, incisive angles. It reminded him of the moment before he hit a fawn in his car one night, when the headlights and her eyes stared each other down. He could not stop. The fawn struggled against the blow fiercely, as if trying to damage him as much as we would damage her. Then, head bent regally, the deer's legs crumpled beneath her, like a paper doll's. When he got out of the car, the fender was crushed and both headlights wept glass onto the pavement.

The girl's screaming broke the silence. She had stopped fighting him. She laid there, gasping, small head bent, her eyes tightly shut. For a moment, everything seemed all too real. The sweat on her forehead, his neck was magnified under the spotlight, a million glass fragments, a million refracted mirrors. Their bare skin seemed not flesh-toned but stark white. Her eyelashes were a tragedy of soot and snow against the white lids. There was the metallic taste of blood in his mouth. Real blood, no mixture of syrup and food coloring. His blood.

"Cut." The word gave Bryan the sinking sensation of a forgotten line. The word was supposed to bring him back to reality, but he could not remember the way. This scene was reality now; it had to be. It was so real.

His co-star, returned to the realm of the generic, yawned as she stretched her arms into her robe. Her eyes, beneath the raccoon's mask of makeup, were rather small and squinty.

Bryan excused himself and slipped out the backdoor into the raucous city night. This would be the end of his job, which according to his agent, he should feel grateful for, young fresh-faced kid that he was. He couldn't summon the energy to care. The job, the entire world outside that razor-sharp moment, it all seemed unreal. All he knew was that he had to leave. In his distraction, he rushed into the busy street and started slightly when a taxi profanely screeched to a stop at his feet.

It was late by the time he returned to the apartment complex. Wandering the shrill city had only made him feel more lost. To his confusion, as he unlocked the door to the lobby, he heard a fluttering of wings over his shoulder.

"Shit! Get the window." Out of the darkness, the command was so sudden and urgent, Bryan obeyed.

When his eyes adjusted to the dingy glow of the lamp, he saw Catherine Hirsch chasing a pitiful, speckled pigeon towards the window with her bare arms flung formidably out in front of her. In a flurry of squawking and feathers, she had all at once slammed the window shut and crossed the room towards him, breathing rather hard, cheeks flushed. Her stance was almost nervous. Her hands fluttered at her sides. He had never seen her like this before.

"I hate animals," she gasped. She collapsed into one of the scarred armchairs littering the entrance hall. Her pale shoulders rose and fell rapidly with the luminance of the moon in the dim light.

"Pigeons at two in the morning in New York City. What are the odds?" he said nervously, meaning to break the silence. His nerves were still strained with feelings of sensory overload. The silence pulsed; it was unbearable. It was a stupid thing to say, but she didn't seem to be listening to him anyway. He saw her drink from a glass with some sickly amber liquid at the bottom and refill it from an unmarked bottle.

He tried again. "What're you doing up?"

She continued to ignore him, seemingly absorbed in her task. She held the glass in front of her face, tilting it back and forth with small twitches of her wrist. It made a faint swishing noise, and a metallic chime every other time, when the glass collided with her wedding band. He thought it was strange the she should still wear a wedding ring; he'd heard she was a widow.

After a while, she gave a start like a sleeper awakened by a sudden noise. "Well, I live here, don't I?" Her scathing reply seemed thoroughly unselfconscious, if aware, that it was so belated. She yawned. "Couldn't sleep. What are you doing?"

"I got off work late," he lied. "There was this one scene we had to take like a million times. Just couldn't get it right."

She lifted her face from her drink. Her eyes were unfocused. "Ah, right, so you're the actor. Smoke and mirrors, huh? My husband was like that, too, except he could never get anything right. Just the lying part. Used to always have me see his shows and ask me afterwards, 'Did you see me as the character?' And I always said, 'No, I saw you.' It fit, especially since Puck from A Midsummer Night's Dream was his signature role for a while. But, oh, that drove him insane."

She grinned with a sort of venomous pleasure. He had never heard her talk so much, and this was infinitely stranger than her characteristic coldness.

"Oh," he said helplessly. The events of the night were still swimming before his eyes. Without thinking, he snatched the bottle beside her and took a swig. He was unfamiliar with alcohol of any sort. In college, only the kids with futures could reasonably drink them away. Whatever it was went down with a burn, whiskey perhaps? He coughed and spluttered, feeling vaguely ashamed at this weakness. To him, it tasted suitable only for polishing silverware.

He held the bottle out to Catherine Hirsh. She looked rather incredulous at being offered her own liquor, dark eyebrows raised, but she shrugged and accepted. For a while, the only sound was of her drumming her fingers on the glass neck in a violent caress.

"Ever get tired of lying?"

Bryan's head pounded.


"Don't you ever get tired of lying?"

He thought of that night, the harsh lights on the young actress's white wax shoulders, that feeling of it all being too much. Yes.

"No," he said aloud. He could feel the heat of the drink in his head, full of blood and bottled courage. Suddenly, it seemed crucial to make her understand. "It's more than that. It's reality, except the best version, where no one ever mumbles, and people always talk to each other. It's life, except it begins and ends in a few hours, and all the questions get answered."

"Then that's not life at all," she said softly. She refilled her glass again then poured one for him. The way her dark eyelashes hung like curtains before her eyes suddenly struck him as the most tragic thing he had ever seen. They fluttered as she took a contemplative sip.

"That's why I'd take business any day." Her brusque contralto had returned. "It's clear-cut, it's simple, there's always one logical answer. None of people and their bullshit."

"That doesn't sound like life to me, either," Bryan asserted. His normally quiet voice echoed in the glass at his lips. "That sounds like calculations."

Catherine sighed. "So, choose lies then."

His tone became uncharacteristically urgent. "It's not lies. It's…"

"…fabrications, add-ons, half-truths, euphemisms? Really, now." She lit a cigarette. The light threw her features into cruel relief, every line, every wrinkle. She looked down his nose at him, his make-believe, his child's play.

"No, I…" He paused. "I quit my job tonight."

The admission came tumbling out of his liquor-greased lips before he could summon it back. She took a drag on her cigarette and eyed him impassively. She was waiting for him to go on.

He inhaled deeply, listening to the wind outside echo him hollowly. It looked like a storm. He opened him mouth, closed it again, and drained his glass with a wrinkled nose. Warmth spread beneath his shirt like a bloodstain.

"It's like I can't tell the difference anymore," he said carefully. "Between acting and life, I mean. This rape scene I did tonight… I knew it was acting—yeah, of course—but at the same time, I didn't. I know this sounds crazy. It doesn't make sense, but you know what I mean? I'm an actor. I've got to believe what I'm doing. It's my job. But it can't all feel that real. It's not right. I want to know what's real. But I can't remember. It all looks the same, and I don't know…" He trailed off. "I'm afraid there really is no difference."

"Really," she said flatly. She sounded faraway. She hadn't moved the entire time he'd spoken. "You know, my husband's dead," she said with incongruous matter-of-factness, as if they had just been discussing it. In that moment, he suddenly noticed how badly her words had begun to slur.

"Yes, I know. You told me when we met." He was trying vainly to call her back from wherever she had gone, but the alarming glint of sobriety in her eyes mocked his futility.

"Well, then I lied," she said briskly. "He hasn't been dead until this evening, when his sister called and told me."

"I'm sorry," Bryan said uncertainly.

"Well, that's a stupid thing to be. Useless."

"I don't understand…" Bryan mumbled, but she seemed to have forgotten him completely. She studied her hands.

"You're lucky, kid. You wanna know why? I almost never got married. Every guy I ever met, I could always tell what he really was. I always saw through the roses and bullshit, whether I wanted to or not."

She gave a helpless little laugh that turned into a hiccup.

"And then, there was Richard. He was funny; he made me laugh. He was the biggest jackass of them all, but you know what, I was getting old by then, and I was tired. I wanted to believe him, even though I knew he was doing what he did best—being an actor. I loved him against my better instincts, I guess you could say.

And sure enough, my career took off, while he was damned to community theatre Shakespeare. He hated me a little bit, I think. He was always so fucking demanding, ate me alive. Then, one night, it all became too much for him. We had a fight. He hit me. I hit him back. He was huge, though, always a glutton. He thought exercising was a direct violation of his art." She snorted

"And he just left me there on the floor. As he was leaving, I said, 'I see you. I still see you.' And I haven't seen him since.

"So, you see, that's why I prefer to tell people he's dead. Because I was stupid. I should've been like my niece, in jail for life for killing her brother and husband. At least that would be quiet. Never heard her side of things. Bet it was a good story."

She threw her head back and laughed, a crescendo into hysteria. Bryan doubted she could stop. The bottle beside them was now empty, a discarded shell. He knew from the static in his head that he must have drank some of it, but he couldn't remember for sure. He let her laugh and counted her age in the protruding tendons of her neck. Finally, she stopped, gasped, shook her head, blinked, and continued, seeming sadder than before, eyes heavy at the edges with seriousness and time.

"I should have killed him before he killed me. I haven't been working for years, you know, but I like to keep up the pretense. It's just all too much reality, I guess. But now, he's really dead. Food poisoning. The bastard. It was better not knowing. Every day, I could decide for myself whether or not he was still alive. Now I can't even have that luxury."

She looked down quickly, and he saw the muscles in her throat contract with a wet, vulnerable sound, but he pretended not to notice. Finally relieved of the urgency of speech, the widow and the actor avoided each other's eyes. She studied her hands folded on her knees with an apathetic concentration, as if she was disappointed that they were still only hands and nothing else. Bryan steepled his own hands thoughtfully beneath his chin, pulled them apart, then put them back together. He couldn't think of anything to say. The empty glasses on the table cast technicolor prisms of light. Her face was an empty white oval in the dark. The small lamp cast morbid shadows beneath her cheekbones and under her eyes. For once, she looked her age. Hardened and tragic and so beautiful. He wanted to rescue her, still possessed the illusions that such a thing could be done. The urge to touch her was overpowering. She was just so close.

"Good night," he said hastily. "And I'm sorry."

A stupid, useless thing to be. And with that condemnation echoing in his aching head, breathing hard, he cut his retreat.

A few minutes later, he heard her stumbling up the staircase after him.

"Bryan, Bryan…" Her speech was slurred and louder than necessary. The sound of his name was so stripped of social conventions, it reminded him of the raw cries of a lost child.

Her warm breath on the back of his neck, the physical fact of her presence, startled him. She clutched the banister with white knuckles, as she lifted her foot unsteadily to the next step, exaggerating the distance and shunting backwards every time. She stretched the other hand out into the darkness in front of her like a blind woman. He wondered how much she'd had to drink.

"I'm right here," he said.

She staggered against him, and he reflexively caught her around the waist. Her arms flung around his neck like a sweetheart's, and she steadied herself. With an almost childish satisfaction, she smiled up at him. He hadn't realized before that he was so much taller than her. Her discerning black eyes were glazed and bloodshot, but when she spoke, she sounded momentarily lucid.

"Yes, you are, aren't you."

And in that moment of perfect symmetry, it would have been absurd not to kiss.

"Listen," she whispered. Her bedroom on the top floor was quiet, but the city raged on without them. It didn't seem to give a damn that they were tangled here together, two strangers, so perfectly matched, that the single strip of fluorescent light that stole through the curtains lit his face, while she remained in shadow, or that he could feel the purring vibrations of her laughter against him.

"Shh," she said and closed her eyes, tilting her face to his chest as if listening to a sea shell. After a while, he heard it to. The screaming of the world they ignored, the separate world, the other one. Sirens, drawing closer.

She began to sing absently. There were no words. Her voice was a shockingly fragile soprano, tender and intricate as birds' wings. He could feel it competing with the beat of his heart, harmonizing with the hysterical voice of the siren. It was the same voice that had called to him the night he'd come.

But the alarm punched its way through her voice and his alcoholic fog. Unable to explain why, he struggled out of the bed and tore his way to the window. Somewhere, someone was afraid for his life.

Her final note cut to silence in the air as clearly as the shinning edge of a knife. The abruptness was cruelty; the room rang with absence.

"Come back to bed, kid," she slurred.

He took her in, lying there on the bed, the straps of her dress hanging around her shoulders like a discarded skin, her glazed eyes, her tousled hair, and the catlike grin that seemed to know everything the rest of her missed. She was too exposed, too drunk. He should feel responsible, but he only felt her presence.

"It's wrong." He searched vainly for words. "All of this. It's just too simple. It has to be wrong."

The sirens crescendoed suddenly, then sunk into obscurity with a sigh. He raised his head. She blinked sleepily, cynically accepting the tormented screaming as just another predatory sound of the night. Sounding contended, or perhaps rather sad, she sighed and turned over, so her fingers trailed from the bed like an afterthought.

"Come back to bed," she repeated, the most seductive lullaby. "Welcome to the twenty-first century. Someone else prob'ly just learned just how pretty the pavement looks from the top. Somebody else prob'ly just learned the secret of life—that it's not worth the view. Come back, kid. Stay with me."

And as the sirens wailed in unheeded warning, they devised new worlds with their lying lips.

"I couldn't go," he said finally, gasping for air. "I love you."

She narrowed her eyes and gave a laugh that exposed her white throat to the ceiling fan knifing above them.

"No, you don't," she said, clipping her consonants deliberately, as if attempting to be heard from behind the heavy canvas curtain of the drink. "But it's sweet how sincerely you think so."

What he could see of her face was completely composed, rational. After all the giggling and staggering, she had hit a plateau of lucidity.

"No," he said rather angrily. "I mean what I said."

"Yes, yes, and you always do," she said soothingly. "And that's the best thing about you—that you're so sure that you're what you seem to be, you don't even know that you're not. Ever heard the expression 'too good to be true,' Actor? That's you. And you're not. True, I mean."

"Well, what are you then?" Slow to anger, Bryan had had plenty of time to pick up momentum. "Who else knows that you don't go to work, and your husband's been alive this whole time— you're just pretending. Who else even knows that you smoke? Behind that tough act, how many people know that you're just broken and lonely?"

Her eyes went steely. He felt her exhale slowly against him. Her nostrils flared unattractively, like an agitated horse. "That's exactly it. Have you ever stopped to think about what you really are, under all that protective baby fat? That maybe, under it all, you're just like the rest of them—pretentious and hungry."

"I'm leaving."

"I know. Goodbye." She propped herself up on bony elbows, her head lolling forward on her chest, and gave him a resigned little wave with one of her long-fingered hands. She seemed to forget it was all that was supporting her and lost her balance momentarily, gripping the headboard with a breathy giggle. He never would have thought her capable of giggling. The dawning light angling from the closed window tattooed her dark eyes purple as new bruises. "Goodbye," she said. "And I'm sorry, too."

On his way out, he left the door open.

He found the stairs leading to the roof and took them without thinking. He needed air, he needed space, he needed possibility. The steps distorted then reformed again in different patterns constantly. It made him dizzy. Nothing would stay constant. He was blisteringly aware that wood gilded in cement years ago was the only thing keeping him from falling. He challenged himself to walk in a straight line, but he could not. The pattern of tiles on the floor was rearranging, misleading him. He had never had so much to drink before.

The night air hit him like a benediction and whipped his hair about. He paced the roof out of a lack of anywhere else to go. He couldn't think straight either. There was no point in staying in the city now.

And then he heard screaming. He was not sure how. The streets of New York City were filled with screaming, but this stood apart from the rest, like a single triangle cutting through an orchestra. It was her screaming. He heard voices, too, harsh and animal, yet strangely familiar. Could they be the voices of the men downstairs that he had met only days ago? Staggering, he peered down from the roof ledge and tried to make out the single lit window beneath him. The headlights of a lone car refracted against the glass and into his eyes, blinding him. The screaming faded.

His final thought was that he would never mistake illusion for reality again. For this was the real thing.

Just like the solid ground beneath this feet one moment, and the next, nothing.

The two men climbed from the bed and pulled the sheets over her, covering her. It was a struggle. Her serenity was terrifying. She had to be out of her mind.

"How's your wife?" she slurred. "How nice to see you at last."

Then without warning, she tumbled backwards into the dreamless, drugged sleep of the oblivious.

And while she slept fitfully, the two men stood by the window, the pink of the sunrise staining their skin, and they lit cigarettes, that practiced gesture of defiance against life. As the smoke they snorted greedily swirled, obscuring them from view, they put on their clothes and became the men they were by day.

In the distance, there were sirens.