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1. I’ll never think of our moments together without nausea.

-
Jack often wondered how different things would have been, had he not gotten on that bus for Camp Elliott. He would not have met many, and seen so many go. His mind goes through a checklist of possible outcomes, categorized by the catalytic element, and by the time it reaches “Hank Merrill” or “Cole Phelps” it stops. It pulls the plug and says no more, because it’s pointless, useless subjunctive, and nothing would have changed because it can’t; it’s already happened.

At times Jack wonders if his mind is a separate entity.

If Jack said he wished he never got on that bus, he was lying. Imagining what could have happened only made him focus on the lit path, anyway.

But if he had known what he knows, if he could have controlled it (he couldn't, he can't, but)

Cole Phelps would not have been more than a shadow.


2. They’re floaters. Not much more than a suitcase full of nothing between them and the gutters.

-
It’s when Jack is lying on his sofa and naming constellations in the popcorn stucco of his living room ceiling that he understands raw quiet. The open area reeks of tobacco, stagnant at the source but wafting through the kitchen. It’s been maybe an hour, maybe fifteen minutes since they cleared the room, an unfinished poker game scattered across the unpolished mahogany tabletop.

Everyone has a home to get back to.

Maybe Jack forgets that, among his pals, beside his buddies, amidst their camaraderie. Maybe he forgets that his gear is in his footlocker, and all of his collective pedestrian thoughts can be found on the edges of a crinkled grocery list.

And suppose he’s forgotten he’s too old to be single and too young to be lonely.

Somewhere along the winding line, he’s gone and made a mistake.


3. What I like about you is you’re rock bottom.
   
-
The orchestrated din and clamor tightening his chest kept warmth in Jack’s hands, telling him to fight. His pursuers were far behind him now but he continued to run - the abandoned sacrificial Fleetline was just as distant.

Stumbling to Elsa in his brown oxfords, Jack counted four years between the last time a dangerously right man or woman got his heart running its own marathon, and him dragging up the stairs to Elsa’s floor two at a time.

And when he stumbles past the threshold (Elsa’s white dress fits her wonderfully, but it’s still unfitting, he notes through a loaded heartbeat) Jack has to smile, or give his drained attempt at one.

It’s short and smart and he can only name what he sees: Cole, his toy soldier, clinging to that fucking .45, and when Jack closes his eyes he sees the Emperor on his knees.

What a child, he thinks, and even the darkness blurs.


4. She was worth a stare. She was trouble.

-
Scratchy flannel, muted sunlight, anxious honking, and the faintest wisps of iodine, isopropyl, and an iris perfume.

These are some of the things that register in Jack’s hurting head when he comes to.

He’s still groggy and pliant when he exhales the fresh truth in his mind and Elsa accepts it with her caged bird grace. Jack knows what she is, and he has to ask himself, how many have looked at her  and never saw past the stage?

And she’s humbled herself to come here, a far cry from debutante gloves, shimmering dresses, and morphine-addled sighs.

Jack wants to love her, but Cole’s still comparing scars. He concludes in private that Elsa is always singing for someone else.

And Cole; he’s always trying to hum along.


5. It’s a bitter little world.

-
Cole is in Jack’s office, and Jack can feel the crumbling remains of Phrygia, dusting the case file in his hands.

There’s something about the conversation that feels pre-determined; pored over repeatedly before it solidifies, and even then it’s cracking, and they’re retracing steps like they’ve done this before.

It’s all too natural, and greater men would feel ashamed.

Distance, time, and proximity seem more and more relative, and Jack is losing their meanings; fewer words are lost on Jack, and Cole won’t stop goddamn thinking.

The downhill battle moves far too slowly. Neither one is surprised. And Jack slouches, slurring strategy; he sees the pages turning in Cole’s head and Jack numbers the reasons Cole Phelps is here, still here.

L.A. will never be big enough.