TAINTED

CHAPTER ONE

As I may have already touched upon, my name is Brian Darkhurst. When this story began, I was 18. I didn't think myself particularly naive. Though that's usually the first thing naive people say. Turns out I was. I thought I knew pain; having suffered what I thought was a pretty unfair amount of it before the events of that winter. That's laughable now. I knew nothing of pain, knew nothing of the true, malevolent nature not of the world, but of some of the things that infest it. A lot of people say they hate the world, I don't think that's fair. It's not the world's fault that the people who live in it suck ass, and that some of them are just evil, pure and simple.

I wasn't into any particular genre of music, but I do prefer that the stuff I listen to at least attempts to address serious issues. So yeah, there goes like, 98% of the bands they play on the radio. No shit. You're probably going to laugh, but I used to think wrestling was cool. It's in the shitter now, but in all honesty, it taught me how to fight. I mean most of the moves, particularly the submissions, are actually damn effective on somebody if you actually do them. Then, it teaches you coordination and balance, as you're working NOT to hurt the other guy, you have to be even more precise and accurate than if you were actually fighting him.

Don't worry; I certainly don't watch it anymore, so that's probably the last you'll hear of it, but my interest in it, not in believing it was real but in actually teaching myself to emulate it and apply it to fighting is a fact that's certainly relevant. I'd always had this respect, almost reverence, for hand to hand combat. Not the aggression aspect of it, but the intricacy of countering, blocking, and using your body as something more effective than most weapons just seems so rational to me. Like it was already in my blood; like I knew I would need it.

Also made evident previously, is the town I have lived in all my life, and where this particular saga takes place. In the quiet, unsuspecting town of Darkhurst. Hey, that's my name! What a coincidence! Well, not really. A great, great grandfather (Give or take a few greats) founded the place. Guess that means I'm rich, right? Not really. My parents had some money, but unlike most rich people, my parent's didn't believe in raising kids to have everything handed to them so they can become arrogant, elitist jackholes. Allowance was my Dad, every once in a blue moon, taking a break from his research and story-writing, sauntering over to me and tossing a fifty my way, along with the sage-like advice, "Don't spend it all on one whore, Brian."

Which I thank God for. Sometimes I resented it. I wouldn't be a modern teenager if I didn't, what with television, the internet and society in general stuffing materialism down your throat like bad meatloaf. Ah, bad meatloaf. Gotta love redundance. Anyway, if they had spoiled me, I probably would've ended up one of the Hitler Youth douchebags who strut around every North American high school in the world, thinking themselves superior and simultaneously adopting blatantly Nazi viewpoints, albeit not as concentrated on the Jewish. Just on everyone who either made less money, or dressed just a mite differently than they did. Same thing, however downplayed.

That's actually not as bad these days as it used to be. Not the whole discrimination thing, just the form it takes. Now, they don't hate you for being visibly different.

The hate you for thinking different.

You got a beef with the government? They call you a conspiracy theorist, which is pretty as bad now as 'Witch' was during the Salem Trials. One of my old pals, Jack Stewart, got ragged on for that. It was 9/11 that got him. You name a situation in the world where the evidence didn't match up with the government's explanation, and Jack was on it like a moth to a flame. Albeit a pissed off, linguistically dangerous moth on a mission. He could tell you an explanation for JFK's assassination that coincided better with any presupposed conspiracy theory. And he wasn't just pulling it out of his ass to rebel against something. He had the facts, and they infuriated not only him, but everyone he was able to show them to. Anyone who wasn't too hung up on the blatantly untrue version of the truth the government spewed, that is. And even some of them became converts in the wake of Jack's verbal onslaughts.

We were all like that a little bit. A little disenchanted from most of the other students because of our open distrust of society, education and the government, and most things that other people blissfully accept as the way things are supposed to be. Maybe that was part of it. That unflinching honor that manifested inside each and every one of us given the gift we were given. We were all so different, yet so alike.

My biggest 'problem' was that I couldn't let things go. Never have, and I hope I never will. It feels, inhuman to me, to be able to let things go. For example, you lose a girl who held your heart, and they tell you to 'get over it'. Just, erase what you felt, tear out a piece of yourself and continue, like the chick was a pair of shoes instead of a person. Never mind a person who could magnetize your gaze with a smile. Who could captivate every ounce of your attention with a single syllable.

It's like with pets too. Those animals, who shared so much of your life with you, became not a pet but a friend. A constant companion, whom you're supposed to forget and replace when they die. People tell you to get over it like it was a toy you broke or something. Just a marketable commodity that didn't quite live up to it's cost. 'Oh, Sparky got demo'd by a transport! You rocked, pal, but we're going to replace you with a jumped up Springer Spaniel and forget you in two weeks! Wahey!' Fuck that. Letting go of someone you loved is like saying your feelings were never real. Accepting the death of a car-struck pet is like accepting that shit like that should even happen. That a man in a car has the right to hold himself above another living thing. A living thing, I might add, that doesn't drive around in vehicles that poison our air.

Darkhurst wasn't a good burg for that kind of relentless grieving. For that kind of sensitivity.

There has never been a shortage of sorrow here. Even before the proverbial shit hit the fan, things have happened here which seem not to happen so much in other places. Even Toronto's shootings and gang violence seems almost tame to some of the sheer badness that seems to make this tiny 'burg it's home. Not so much in the quantity of it. Hell, if the number of violent crimes in a town of under three thousand people got anywhere near Toronto's, I'd shit the CN tower. No, it's the quality of the crimes. How such violence and destruction can suddenly rip through the mostly uneventful streets without a second of warning.

Look at the town's origin. Before the town was even finished being built, it was rocked by a series of after-the-fact witch trials that nobody likes to talk about too much. They don't even mention it in any of the material they have out at the yearly anniversary festival. I only found that out from my Grandfather, who departed the story to me only months before he died of the lung cancer that had been ravaging him for years. A reverend by the name of Ogden Rowen accused over thirty men and women in the blossoming town of witchcraft. Just up and accused them. And lo and behold, after brief trials, all of them burned. He'd get his entire congregation fired up, and there'd be no hope for the hapless 'witch'. One of whom was 12 years old.

And as the newly born town flourished, so did the violence. All very downplayed stuff, but not to those involved, I'm sure. I don't know it all. Just bits and pieces. A dismemembering here, a double murder there... Yearly rapes hitting the double digits, suicides about the same. I sure as fuck don't want to know all of it. But I've heard things. Seen examples in my own lifetime. Seen faces I had become familiar with end up in obituary columns, seen police tape cordoning off homes, businesses and finding myself thinking, "I know everyone who lives in or goes there.", and having that sick feeling in my gut. It never went away. No matter how often it happened, I never got use to it. It never got better.

But nothing that had happened yet prepared us for the carnage that the particularly blustery and dismal December would hold. There was certainly no sign of the approaching darkness in Ryan Skathen's well lit and expansive backyard. No wind that parodied a haunting scream, no billowing clouds in the shape of skulls, it was only me, the people that I loved, a keg, and a shitload of 24's. The only sound was some classic-rock blasted through the latest line of Sony speakers. What more could an 18 year old ask for? The weather was even good for being so close to Christmas. Probably the global warming everyone denies. A thrumming crowd of T-shirted teens and the esteemed Al Gore disagrees with the naysayers.

I myself was clad in a Rise Against tee, my straight, shoulder length black hair combed and dyed black, a tall boy of Keith's clenched in my hand and my ears open to an animated discussion between Morris Hayder and my good friend Tommy 'Raunchy' Hayes, involving the pros and cons of hiding atop a bar, wielding a fishing rod with a recently deceased carp upon the hook, and slapping exiting patrons of the establishment with the aforementioned fish.

"Sure you'd get in shit if you got caught." Tommy explained loudly, his loud, carrying and sometimes grating voice rising above the din of the bustling party. "But one must emphasize the if, my friend! Think about it. It's last call, and the final wave of staggering drunks are heading home for the night, They pause, maybe take in the fresh air, dig for their keys or that one last cigarette, and what slaps them in the back of the head but a giant stinking carp?"

Me and Morris burst out laughing, though Tommy was nowhere near finished. This was Tommy, exhibiting a flair for the vulgar and questionable that belied the depths I knew lingered beneath his surface. Every fart-noise he could muster, every unnecessarily descriptive sex-joke, I had seen opposed by moments of determination, empathy and poetry. There was no hint of this now, as there rarely was when Tommy was in large groups. I suppose that was why he was one of us losers. Sure, the popular kids had they're vulgarities, but even they could scarcely handle the volume and absurdity of Tommy's brand of humor.

That's society though. You either assimilate into the norm, accepted only for becoming a cardboard cut-out of everyone else, or you're alienated by being what society doesn't want you to. Yourself. Tommy, along with the rest of our group, was one of the latter. He refused to not shock and disgruntle people with his trademark raunchiness, and yet for every person that was repulsed by his openness and individuality, there was someone who was just as delighted by his unbridled spirit. Namely us.

"You're quite learned in this, I'm sure." I guffawed, imagining Tommy laughing manically and swinging a dead fish over a confused and terrified swarm of booze-hounds. ("Ever seen a flying fish, fuckers?" This Imagi-Tommy howled with mirth. This was such a vivid imagining and so true to life that it may even have been a vision of sorts. On top of everything else, it really wouldn't surprise me)

"Damn right," Tommy nodded in affirmation. "Usually do it every summer. Sometimes I do it in the dead of winter just to really freak 'em out."

"It's true," Morris confirmed. "I supply the fish. Dad's usually got a freezerful." Morris was alright. One of the stoner crowd who we didn't mingle with too much. He was a bit unmotivated, a bit materialistic, but he rarely had a bad thing to say about anyone. He wasn't a permanent fixture in our group, however, and it was probably just the party that even put us in the same conversation.

The party in itself was weird. Skathen, who threw it, was pretty new, but already established as one of us. He was a death metal kid. Thinking that the bands we listened to, like Slipknot, Rise Against, etc, were 'lite fairy bullshit'. Naw, Ryan was a Cannibal Corpse, Slayer kinda guy. So why almost every student from the Darkhurst High was at the party I'll never know. It's probably because of Ryan's large house and backyard. They'd figure on lots of booze. They weren't wrong. But at the same time, that didn't seem like the explanation either. I mean, usually when one of the losers throws a party, the in-crowd'll throw one at the same time, just to undermine it. Come to think of it, that's almost a scientific fact.

So why they all turned out is still a mystery, and didn't seem like a sign till after. It's like the whole teenage populace had tuned into the undercurrent of the events to come, and came together for one last night of normality.

Tommy opened his mouth, perhaps to supply the information that Morris's mother had a decent supply of fish inside her undergarments, when thankfully he was cut off.

"Have another beer, Raunchy." The blonde mountain of humanity known as Blaine Gerald Anders intoned as he sidled up between us, simultaneously stabbing the side of the can it with his pocket knife. This forced Tommy to nod in appreciation and apply his mouth to the mortal wound, lest any of the sacred fluid be spilled. Blaine, Morris and I stood in silent awe of Tommy's ability to consume alcohol before commencing with greetings.

"What's up Darkhurst?" Blaine, my oldest friend, grinned as he tossed a harmless fake sucker punch toward my face. "Met any girls to trade eye-liner with, or are you sticking to your regular brand, you emo fuck?" That may seem like an insult, and usually was when uttered from the mouths of the popular kids, but we used such degrading insults as jokes. Finding humor in the fact that labels were really impossible to apply to people. It was like they all strived to be the same, and hated us for being different. Not even realizing that we were the clear winners for not being so abrupt to embrace mass conformity. I'm sure they were unique too, in their own ways, when they were alone and not functioning as one hive-mind.

I certainly didn't wear eye-liner. Only once, when I passed out after a party at Joel Grayson's, one of our other buddies, and his sister took it upon herself to tranny me out. I wasn't even emo. Just liked black, but that's all it takes these days. Got a face piercing and you're a man? EMO. Considering how many I had, they must've thought me some shade of emo. Got a tendency to still feel emotions, unlike everyone else? EMO. You like bands that are supposedly EMO for the messages the lyrics contain? EMO. It's such a fuckin' farce.

"Naw." I deadpanned as I effortlessly slid my arm upward and caught his gigantic fist in my palm with a meaty smack. "You know me, Anders. I'm a creature of habit. The old stuff'll do."

"You faggot." He snorted, and then yanked me toward him and wrapped me in a headlock, followed by an onslaught of noogying. I didn't even try to evade this maneuver. Trying to escape Blaine in close proximity was like trying to dodge a tsunami. There was just no point. He was 6'5, 256 lbs, and played for the Darkhurst Demons, our high-schools football team. He was also the reason that, while we were openly disliked, we were rarely the target of direct harassment. The popular kids all wanted to be him, but they didn't understand why he was always hanging around with the 'Sketch Squad' as we were called.

Fuck I hate that word. I swear there's somebody that thinks up annoying catch-phrases for every member of a clique that's ever lived. I heard one chick say 'Sketchbag', and it spread like a wildfire as a word to demean different kids everywhere. The best thing about asshole people, is that they're rarely ever original. You can pretty much get use to anything they've got to use against you after dealing with probably three.

Anyway, Blaine was an enigma to most people, even to me sometimes. He should've been like the rest of the football and high-society trolls, but he had this iron sense of justice. It didn't matter what his personal leanings were or who his friends were, or how much trouble it would get him in, when someone was in the wrong, he did something about it. So in turn, he saw all the people who tried to worm their way into his affections hating on people like us for liking metal, reading books and horsing around, and would rather have been on our side. The rest of us being all under six feet and 160 lbs, we didn't mind.

We met in Gym Class in Grade 1. Marty Blanko, one of the head honcho's of the Asshole Brigade, was making fun of me for being bad at dodgeball. Blaine broke his nose with one of those supposedly harmless elephant skin balls and made him apologize or he would forcibly cause Marty to swallow the aforementioned dodgeball. He could've done it, too.

"You going to man up and talk to Johanna tonight?" He asked as he finally released me. Somehow, I had managed not to spill my beer. Blaine would've got me another one if I had. That was just how he was. I opened my mouth to respond, but was cut off by a vocal ejaculation from Tommy.

"You even have to ask!" Tommy cough/snorted as the last of his beer erupted from his nose. "He's just going to strike up casual conversation, wimp out, and then cry himself to sleep, like he always does." Tommy's eyes flashed challengingly. He was messing around, but there was genuine frustration behind it. He had loved Johanna as long as I had. Maybe longer, maybe not, there was no way of telling. But he did. A mountain of poems and songs strewn about his disaster-zone room proved that. It was like, no matter what he felt, he couldn't express himself as anything but a clown around girls. He was like that around most people, but it got worse with girls. He tried to be this funnyman. Sometimes this got him 'lucky' with some chicks. But that wasn't what he wanted. He just settled for it because he was sure he'd never have the true object of his and my affection.

Johanna Grayson. Every loser protagonists dream girl. The combination of beauty, brains and humanity that you can barely even dream about. Hair like an angel. Voice like a siren. Eyes like asteroids carved of jade. Cliché, right? Well it didn't feel cliché when I got lost in those eyes. Didn't feel cliché when she opened those lips and spoke. I imagine Tommy felt much the same. I couldn't imagine how anyone couldn't. Could not for the life of me understand why every male in Darkhurst didn't try to wipe each other out for the right to stand by her side.

"Better to cry oneself to sleep than to pass out in the middle of beating off." I pointed out, rising to Tommy's challenge by addressing the time we had found Tommy unconscious with his hand down his pants in the aftermath of a party.

"Shazayom!" Morris howled and high-fived me.

"Yo, that ain't even fair. I was scratching, ya fuck." Tommy grumbled. "Everyone's done it. You're just drifting off and one of the boys gets a little itch…"

"Whatever helps you sleep at night, Tommy." I grinned and hauled back the rest of my beer, tossing it through the thrumming humanity and into the nearby garbage pale. "With your hand down your pants."

"Woah, is that testosterone?" Blaine exclaimed in mock disbelief. "I think you schmucks just hit puberty." He scanned the mass of heads, bobbing to the music, which, for once in the history of high school parties, was not mainstream hip hop or other such valueless bullshit. "Speaking of the lady fair." Blaine nodded toward the direction of booze table.

She split the crowd like a ray of sunshine through a nimbus, her face aglow with a smile of recognition at her best friends. A bottle of Smirnoff was in her hands. I never understood why girls like Vodka so much. Shit's like rubbing alcohol. But I imagine tasting it on Johanna's lips would make it taste a hell of a lot better. Jack Stewart was at her side, his rather oblong but intense face in the mellow and observant grin only found in the intellectual drunk. Johanna had taken up the school paper, so it she was probably getting a few pointers from the Stewinator.

"Jacky!" She howled in melodramatic liberation, flinging a bracelet-adorned and particularly lovely arm over her equally angelic head. "It's Brian! And his piercings! And Blaine and his Billy Idol hair! And Tommy and his…" She paused, peering at Tommy from beneath her forearm. "Tommyness!" She seemed to realize Morris, not that he noticed, attention temporarily devoted to his cell-phone. "And that guy." She added conspiratorially before beginning her ritual embrace of the groups members. Johanna was a Huggist. One of those people who if you're in her circle, she will relentlessly subject to hugs.

Some people like this annoy me. I never had a complaint in that regard about Johanna.

"I think the word you're looking for is chimpishness, when searching for a proper pronoun for Thomas Hayes." Jack quipped, prodding Tommy's scarecrow chest. Tommy placed his index and middle finger on either side of his mouth and wagged his tongue furiously in response. "And it's Brian's piercings and Brian, not the other way around."

"Don't hate me cuz you ain't me." I returned in a passable imitation of one of those white-gangsta kids that are spreading faster than the word 'Sketchbag.' I blame television. "It's fucking good to see you, man." It'd been a long time since I'd hung out with him. He was once a as permanent a fixture in our group as Blaine and I. Without him there, it felt like missing a limb. I raised myright hand to accept a fist-pound from the long absent Stewart, which he returned with great zeal.

"Likewise, Darkhurst." He grinned.

"Just a breath of fresh air to see you too, gooch-master." Tommy snapped back over Johanna's shoulder.

"Beautiful, Tommy." Johanna snickered, wrinkling her noise. "Just the imagery EVERYONE needs."

"Naw, only 'Jacky'. He needs more than to just imagine it." Tommy taunted, turning Stewart's new nickname falsetto. "He needs to taste it."

"That's a 'Chicks Only' slang term, Raunchbag." Jack warned, eyes sparkling as the rapport of old friends did it's thing. It was amazing how quickly we were a functioning unit again. Like he'd just left yesterday. "And as for the tasting of gooches, I should think that was your department."

"You guys are just on edge tonight." Blaine tutted, quite amused, as Johanna moved to hug him. "Must be that time of the month. Can you believe these women, Jo?"

"I miss you, big guy!" She wailed. Blaine, much taller than Johanna, could not entirely return the embrace, so he ruffled her shock of pixie-short blonde hair.

"Jo, I saw you yesterday." He reminded her. "Dipshit."

"Nigga that was WEEKS ago!" She screeched, quite amused with her Dave Chappelle quote. "Ah, I don't care how 'old' everyone says that is. That shit just never dies!" She skipped over to me. "Briiian, you little antisocial hug-Grinch!" She teased, opening her arms.

"Dear God, no." I groaned, managing to sound quite pained by these proceedings. Like hell. It was just a game we played. She knew I didn't mind, I think, and either way, it certainly didn't stop her. In fact, I noticed it generally increased the ferocity of her hugs. This was good.

"God yes!" She announced, and attacked, wrapping me in a beautiful death-grip and pulling me against the mystical, knowing smile of Jimi Hendrix on her shirt. "We haff ways of making you hug!" I feigned disappointed resignation well, considering it was disguising a most spectacular lightness in my chest. One that only her touch has ever created.

Blaine, and Stewart elbowed each other and nyuk-nyuk'd behind Johanna's turned back. Tommy's mouth was moving, and I didn't need to be a lip-reader to know he was saying, 'Don't get wood, horn-dog' Tommy got the finger.

"So what's the industrious Mr. Stewart been occupying himself with these days, besides profiting from the bloodshed of the Crucifix murders?" Blaine intoned somberly. Blaine had a natural, deep-seated dislike of reporting, probably cause by his Dad being a cop. He didn't hate Jack, just made it very clear how he felt about his occupation. The Crucifix. It was hard for us to wrap our brains around what had been happening in our town since Halloween. I mean, our town had seen a lot of shit, as I mentioned, but a serial killer was something entirely different. Never mind on so god damn brutal.

The paper didn't touch too much on it, due to common sense and Jack's empathetic wording, but we'd got the story from Blaine. Blaine wanted to be a cop like his Dad, namely a Detective, so his Dad shared lots of information with him. The Crucifix literally disemboweled and partially devoured his victims, painted an inverted cross on the wall with their blood, then nailed them to it, upside-down, with fragments of their own ribcages. We were effected of course, but it was like we were all in shock at the same time. Outrage mingling with disbelief. We tried our best to live our lives outside of it's shadow, sure it would stop.

"Hey, not my fault. And besides, the more people know about what that guy does, the better chance he has of getting caught." Jack crossed his arms defensively and straightened his back, still a foot and a half shorter than The Anders. "You of all people should appreciate that."

"I guess it didn't occur to you that media attention eggs these sickos on, or anything." Blaine said cuttingly. "I mean, surely you know better as a reporter than the police do about their job. You give away too much info, and people call in claiming to be The Crucifix just for a laugh or for attention, and hold up the investigation."

"Man, you watch way too much TV." I said with an awed shake of my head.

"On the contrary." Blaine noted. "I read too much. Fuck TV."

Tommy cackled. "THAT is rich. Discovery should do a special on that. 'Football Players Who Read'."

"Definitely wouldn't have a big enough study group." I pointed out. Blaine nodded in confirmation.

"Whatever, big guy." Jack threw up his arms in surrender. "To each their own, eh? You honor, me truth, kemosabe. But back on topic, I am actually doing something else. Namely, writing a book."

"Noice." I nodded my approval. "About?"

"It's about how you can trace an increase in clandestine and questionable government activities since the assassination of JFK. Pretty much confirming Jim Garrison's theory that it was a hostile government takeover disguised as the actions of a lone assassin, who, when the evidence is stacked up, could not have killed President Kennedy."

"And, I'm lost." Morris Hayder said jovially. "I'll catch you guys when I reincarnate as someone who cares." Hayder disappeared into the crowd. It was the universal reaction of the uninformed when confronted with conspiracy theory. Shut it out. Deny the evidence, put your head in a hole and transform into a fucking ostrich. It's like people think conspiracy theorists get some rise out of believing the worlds as fucked as it was. I for one, would rather NOT believe the government does some of the shit that it does. But when you see the truth for what it is, unseeing it isn't that easy.

"I think that's an awesome plan." Johanna defended, sending a disdainful glance at the departing Hayder. "Don't worry about him, he's just caught the apathy-bug, like 90% of the fucking planet."

"It is a good idea." Blaine reinforced. "Until you get shot or taken to Guantanamo."

"I almost hope I do, then I'll know I was right." Jack grinned.

"Fuckin' optimist. I'm gonna puke." Tommy groaned, replete with retching.

"Hey." I said. "It's better to suffer and die for good than to live in comfort for evil." I don't know where that came from, to this day. But it's probably the most profound thing I've ever said.

All eyes turned on me, but I just noticed the pair that were like twin emerald flames, and the hint of both respect and something more that I saw in them. "I'll drink to that." Johanna smiled, holding my gaze.

"Amen." Blaine said, shaking his head in disbelief that something like that had come from me. "I think that might go on my tombstone."

"Dibs on that, bitch." Tommy interjected, raising his beer. "To suffering and dying for what's right."

"Cheers." Jack said, and clanked his glass of rum and coke against mine, Blaine and Tommy's beers, and Johanna's vodka. I'll remember that moment for the rest of my life. I know that. It was as if it was more than a toast, but a solemn promise. That come what may, we would always know what side we were on. But I'll remember one thing even longer than the rest of my life.

That one smile made everything worth it. It burns on in my mind, even now, as I write this, I can see her. The left corner of her perfect lips cocked upward in a perfectly imperfect crescent. Everything could burn around me. I could die a million horrible deaths and I would accept every one with a smile on my face for the one I saw directed at me from the angelic visage of Johanna Grayson.