Hot breath, colored white by the cold air, heaved out of his lungs. She hovered over him in her wide-brimmed hat and long red dress. Anxiety gripped his fingers as he reached into his jacket pocket for the box of cigarettes that was not there.
She pursed her lips, but only for the reapplication of that deep red lipstick around the outer edges. It was late at night, not even a moon shining overhead, yet she still wore those dark shades.
Perhaps he should have done the same, worn dark glasses. He straightened his tie and swallowed.
This street was probably the darkest, dirtiest street in town. Roaches scrambled in the dark where he couldn't see them.
He saw the approaching headlights. A haggard woman in tribal tattoos unrolled her window, sticking her striped arm out of the car. Her bony shoulders protruded out of the thin fabric of her shirt. He could taste the cigarette smell that stained the inside of the woman's car.
"Not for you, Sammy," said the tattooed woman, waving the roll of cash in front of her sagging face. He nodded and stepped back so his girlfriend could reach inside the car.
Charlotte counted the money, right in front of him. He knew better, but he took his eyes away from the money to talk to the woman in the car.
"You know who I'm looking for?" he said, huddling close the opened window and the elbow resting there.
Too late, Charlotte had given the nod of approval and the car was peeling away from that shady street.
Charlotte wedged the bills into his fist. She gave him a quick kiss on the cheek. Who knew how much of it she had slipped into her purse.
"We got the payment," Charlotte said. "Now let's-" The end of her sentence was silenced by a gunshot exploding in his ear. Never had he felt so disoriented by that kind of sound.
He placed the money in the front pocket inside his jacket and calmly sat down on the curb. Spite welling up in his eyes, he looked up at the black man, his death, holding the gun.
Charlotte stood by the man in his dark leather trench coat. At least he had the satisfaction of getting paid. That money was his to the grave -unless she didn't mind the dark red stains.
Sam awoke sweating on the stiff, yellow-stained mattress. The smell of boiling vegetables, cabbage more than anything else, and frying rice pervaded the thick air of the compact room that consisted of little more than the mattress he slept on. Sam sat up on the disgusting bed and wiped himself dry with the scratchy bed sheets that had been kicked into a ball at his feet during sleep. The sensation of being shot hadn't felt all that real, yet the dream itself clung to him into wakefulness. He shivered, as if he could shake the squalor off of himself.
He used to deal in dreams, but that had been so long ago it had faded into another life to him -or rather, a bad dream in itself. He never dwelled much on his dreams. Yet, since returning to life, Sam felt the pull of old dreams returning to him.
In his new life, he had a lot to be ashamed of -sweating, vomiting, nausea, hunger, fear, mortality. Besides being heavy with those things, he also knew that his new state also rendered him weak and animalistic. Especially weak.
He hated how sick his body felt, rejecting all the toxins of preserved death accumulated over years. He hated the noise in his veins as they pulsed with hot and thick liquids. He hated the pain in his chest as his lungs swelled and released in repetition at every moment.
But there were some things that could not be helped. While he had started out with the belief that he hated cooked grease sliding over his salivating tongue and foods crunching and squelching between his teeth, Sam came to realize that he actually loved eating. After the first few days of intense illness, Sam found himself desperately craving the things she cooked.
She was a slight girl with hips that protruded from her skinny frame and a mischievous smile that spread over her thin face. He saw her, a silhouette of that shape, standing in the doorframe. He could imagine the smile on her face, and the narrowing of her oval eyes with it. She wore her usual outfit of tight clothing along with her drooping gold earrings. He wondered if she smelled of her golden-scented perfume at that moment, but there was no way his human nose could catch that scent under the air of food.
"How are you feeling?" she asked him.
"Better today," said Sam, his voice cracking from dryness. He was used to a much more intense thirst than most humans experienced from day to day, so remembering to drink water on a regular basis was difficult for him. Drinking plain water, tasteless aside from the metallic tang from the pipes, was an odd habit for him.
"You sound better," she said, keeping her voice low and level. "I left more food on the counter, if you feel like it." Sam stood up on the mattress, frustrated by the soreness in his muscles.
"Tara?" he said, approaching her with shy caution. "Are you leaving for work today?"
She nodded, looking as shy and cautious as Sam did. Sam was not particularly tall, but he was taller and stockier than the young woman. She should have been uncomfortable with him standing there in his boxers so close to her.
Sam did not feel like he wanted to harm her. Mostly, he was sore and tired. And then, even if he was more comfortable with himself, he thought he kind of liked Tara. She had been too kind to him considering she'd found him in such a sorry state on a street likely to attract drunks and drug addicts. There should have been no reason for her to drag him three blocks to her apartment while he struggled not to vomit over himself, as if he were one of the lost souls belonging to that grimy stretch of concrete. She shouldn't have looked twice, at his trembling form, collapsed amongst debris and litter scattered from a nearby bus stop trashcan. She lifted him from a stain that smelled of soured milk, mumbling assurances to him as if he weren't a stranger to her, or a possible danger. She was patient as he limped along, and she put up with the burden of his weight as he leaned into her skinny frame on the way to her apartment, trembling all the while. Only one thing stuck with him from the long walk to her apartment, that her skin had been warm, but not blazing like his.
The things he would have wanted to do to her, had he been his old self.
But he wasn't. Somehow, becoming more humanized had wrung the old violence and perversions out of him.
Sam used to deal in dreams, as well as souls. In his first life, that dreamt life, he knew well enough that intangible things could be bought and sold -dreams, at least.
He later found out that other intangible things could be traded. Some people called them souls, and Sam handed his over to a woman with crimson eyes. It was the best deal he'd ever arranged, receiving an extra century of life and a century and a half of strength without aging or ailment. And, on top of that power, he'd been given the chance at revenge.
He remembered her brilliant red dresses, but never her name. She was brighter than the woman with the blood-colored eyes, but he could never remember the color of hers. That woman's identity didn't matter. Sam had done with her what he could.
Sam looked at Tara now, and thought he could only do the opposite. He felt he owed her loyalty, protectiveness. All those years without a soul, and the only person he'd felt obligated to had been the crimson-eyed woman.
He missed the woman who'd retained that useless piece of him (well, he never thought it had done him any good, and had he missed it at all? he wondered), but she was already fading like any of his other dreams. The reality that stuck with him only went back a few months at most, making him some kind of fully grown newborn in the world.
He didn't quite feel strong enough to leave Tara's apartment. The world out there seemed somewhat intimidating in his weaker form. He wished Tara didn't have to leave their small world that smelled of good food and gross human closeness. Every day that she had to leave for work, he agonized over her safety. Despite being so insensible when Tara had helped him to her apartment, he was all too aware of the type of neighborhood she lived in.
They called it the "International District" nowadays, but still, most everyone in town still referred to it as the War Zone. Sam used to use some its mercenaries to his devices, back when he'd been powerful. Back then, they had all been nameless nothings that could bleed and die without his care.
Now the residents of the area were his neighbors, and real threats. He was someone who could bleed and die on the streets.
Sam used to take, but now he was amongst those who could be taken. He was a soldier in the petty wars he sometimes had dabbled in for fun. Shedding his own blood was easy now that the taste of blood made him want to vomit. Thinking about himself as a mere bag of blood, though it was true, made him feel a little queasy. He knew survival depended on stomaching violence with ease, but he was too fragile. His recovery was close, but he was not quite there.
He kept from thinking of the mouthwatering food he could smell awaiting him on the kitchen counter in the next room. Sleep was more bearable than anything else at that moment. As soon as he could hear the scrape of Tara's keys locking the door behind her, he collapsed back onto the mattress.
Maybe he would be shot again. He didn't care what happened to him, though. All he cared about was the dream state itself.