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The Ballad of Susie Knuckles

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This was his spot- where she could always count on him to be: seated at the stool beside her, downing his locally-brewed ale that she always teased tasted like shit, but every night, he’d just shake his head and argue it was an acquired taste. Except tonight, he wasn’t there. On all nights, he chose not to be there on this one, when probably all of them needed a stiff drink.

Kei flagged down the buxom bartender, and ordered the ale. “He hasn’t been here, sweetie,” she cooed. “You sure you don’t just want to order your usual? He’s probably shut himself in.”

“It’s for me, Moxxi,” the bitterness in her voice probably rivaled that of the drink. Of course he wasn’t there. Of course the bartender thought she was ordering his drink for him- granted she wouldn’t be caught dead drinking it before today… “Just bring it.”

The amber liquid was placed before her, and the lips of the bottle met her own as the liquid warmed her soul from the elements she’d braved to get to this bar. To see his face. And all she had was this shitty ale. HIS shitty ale. When all she needed was him. So here she was, at the bar he frequented, trying to get the next best thing to actually being with him on a night when she needed the company, and she was certain he needed the company too. And while she was surrounded by their group of friends, all mourning and dealing with Roland’s death in their own ways, she felt alone.

And she was certain they were all looking at her with pity as they watched her drink Mordecai’s drink. In an effort to drown out the loud thoughts, she chugged the ale, grimacing at the rank taste, and slammed the bottle down on the bar and signaled for another. And another. And another. Until the fuzzy feeling started to linger in her toes, and she lit her last cigarette- wishing for something stronger… but she’d promised… promised she wouldn’t use the drugs she’d been hooked on when she first sought refuge in the country.

Her phone buzzed, the caller ID not the one she was hoping on, but probably should’ve expected. The caller no doubt had heard about the bloody encounter that occurred only a few hours prior, and was checking on her whereabouts. A click and silence.

Well, silence being equated with the typical noise of barflies drinking their asses off, laughing, arguing, even snoring. It didn’t feel real. She hadn’t thought it could happen here in this new country, but death was as close as a nightstand’s edge in the darkness again- the shots still rang in her ears, and it had been a few hours. And no matter how many times she’d seen blood, the image still tore at her soul.

She shook her head as the red pooling light only added to the technicolor disassociation. Damn it. Roland had to get in the way. If a good man dies, and only racists and the intended target are around to see, does the world hear the cries of fallen angels that mourn and curse fate? Or the cries of his girlfriend when the news reached her? Or the ripples that tore through their little community- insignificant in the billions of people in the world, but all she had in the grand scheme of things- the closest thing she could consider to be a home since her country split in two, and her mother told her to run.

Did they all blame her for his death? Or did they know it was his choice to stop her tormentors, and instead was only met with the death meant for her- meant for her because of some antiquated fear stirred up from the 24-hour news and the leader of the country. The only one in the bar that understood the deep-rooted fear, felt the true sorrow and gasped the meaning behind another fallen brother, was Salvador, but he was mourning the loss with Lilith, comforting her on her loss.

Reassurances only did so much to alleviate the nagging thoughts that guilt-tripped her. Especially when they went at light-speed in her mind. Damn she needed something stronger than all of this. Needed to silence the insecurities that were firing back and forth in her brain, knocking down the self-assuredness she’d taken years to build up.

“One more, for the road, Moxx,” her voice didn’t sound like hers. Another bottle was placed before her, with a worried glance from the bartender.

“Honey, you’re welcome to stay here. It’s not good to be alone at a time like this. Just take the couch upstairs…”

She was waved off as Kei downed the bottle and pulled out the money- the money she’d suddenly found herself swimming in. Money that burned her fingertips each time she paid for something. A hand stopped her. “Kei, it’s on the house, all things considering.”

Outside, her cigarette-stained hands didn’t look like hers as she pulled out money in exchange for the powdery substance she craved… feeling herself collapsing under all of the emotions that had surfaced. And suddenly she was stumbling down the sidewalk, hijab no longer donned since… Roland… rain and sleet ruining her meticulously styled hair…and up the stairs… familiar yet not in her drunken stupor… and up to the aged, rickety door that supported her weight as she knocked.

Silence. What was she doing?

Another knock. Silence.

This was familiar, and she knew where she was, spurred on by some sort of shetani, no doubt. Knew I should’ve prayed into bound leather… She reflected, thinking on the old wives’ tales that were foreign to this land. Anything to avoid admitting to herself the truth.

She knew he was in there. Probably keeping to himself, drinking out of the stash of booze she knew he kept in the spare closet behind the various trinkets and outfits used for dancing. So out came the lock pick, and with a jimmy of the pick, she was in the entrance of the apartment, face to face with the man that she wanted… needed…

“What the hell are you doing here?” Mordecai blocked her from taking a step further into his apartment. “Aren’t you supposed to be up what’s-his-face’s ass?” He knew very well who it was, but he wouldn’t grace the asshole with a direct acknowledgement, and Kei new that. And it was a fair question… one she hadn’t thought of before.

In all honesty, she hadn’t even planned on paying Mordecai a visit. The drunk monsters just carried her to his doorstep, and here she was, soaked, teetering on the edge of reality and fantasy, and desperate for some kind of anchor to keep her from drifting away, and what’s-his-face wouldn’t be strong enough to keep her down.

“You weren’t at Moxxi’s,” she replied. “I wanted to check up on you to see how you were holding up.”

“Bullshit.”

“What? Can’t a girl make sure one of her close friends is alright?”

“They can. You ain’t one of those kinds of girls, Kei.” His eyes narrowed to slits as he questioned again, “What the hell are you doing here?”

Kei shifted uncomfortably under his gaze before changing the subject. Truth was, she wasn’t sure what possessed her to come here, except that she needed him, but she couldn’t admit that to him… not after everything she’d put him through. She sidestepped around him as she asked, “Mind if I have a towel? You’d think we were in the middle of a monsoon with that kind of rain…” She didn’t even wait for an answer- fearing he ’d still turn her back out on the streets, and Kei really didn’t think her state of mind could handle being around him.

Stumbling into the bathroom, a smile formed on her lips as she saw her blue towel was still on the towel rack. Even after two months, it was still here… Like he’d been expecting her to return… and well, he was right. Just not maybe in the way he pictured it.

As she reached her hand out to grab it, her hand was slapped away, and she was spun around to face the man that was now towering over her. Kei suddenly felt small- powerless. As powerless as a solitary atom floating around in space. And here she was, floating in a sea of self-doubt while his eyes studied her face, his calloused hand wrapped around her small wrist. “Why?” The ruff question came again, laced with booze and cigarettes in which he had no doubt been partaking.

“Why does it even matter?” she questioned while her body shook- whether it was from the cold or nerves or the booze with no food to tie her over, she couldn’t tell-, but she stood her ground, regardless. “You let me in. You could’ve kicked me out by now, and yet here you are, trying to reason with me. Just let me stay and drink with you… for old time’s sake?”

Rather than arguing with her, Mordecai reached behind her and handed her the towel he kept just for her, and turned to leave Kei in silence while muttering, “Lock the door on your way out.”

“I drank the stupid ale you always order,” she spat out, not wanting to be left alone. “I drank it, and it tasted terrible, and yet I kept ordering more.” She couldn’t help the nervous laughter that bubbled up. “It tasted like dog piss mixed with tree bark, but I had five bottles of the shit, thinking it’d fill something, or make you suddenly appear-“ Her phone began to buzz once more, and just like in the bar, she ignored it as she noticed his shoulders tense. Both knew who it was. They’d been through this before.

“Kei, just go-“

“No!” She stomped her foot like a child who had their favorite toy taken away. “I don’t understand why you’re keeping me at a distance- especially now at all times.”

“You’re drunk. I’ll call a cab,” he muttered, still refusing to face her. “He’s probably wondering where you are.”

“I don’t give a fuck what he’s wondering. I don’t want to be around him right now. He doesn’t get it. He’d probably just use it as some inspiration for another story, or say I should be lucky I’m here, alive-“

“Then go back to the bar. I’m sure everyone else is there-“

“Listen, Scrooge, I don’t want to be there. My feet carried me here.”

Mordecai stalked over to the fridge and pulled out ale from his stash, and flipped off the top. “You can go there or back to him, but you can’t stay here. Your choice.”

“Roland is dead, Mordy. I don’t want to be surrounded by people that may or may not think it’s my fault he’s dead, or don’t understand what it’s like to live in constant fear because they look different. Or worse, pity me because I forever have to live with the knowledge that it was me that was supposed to be dead…”

“Just because I don’t look at you with pity don’t mean I don’t feel it…”

“That’s a lie and you know it! You wouldn’t have given me the time of day before if you truly pitied me. And if you pitied me now, you wouldn’t be entertaining me right now. I’ve seen how you deal with the people that throw themselves at you. You put on that stupid front and then push them to one side, always leaving them wanting more. You forget, baby, I know you. Just like I know you’re hurting just as much as the rest of us. That you’ve probably had just to drink as I have. That you want me here, just as much as I want to be here…”

There went the drunk monsters spilling her guts out, trying to make them as pretty and presentable as possible. And there went the room, spinning as the alcohol finally caught up to her equilibrium. She waited with baited breath for him to dispute her claims, but he remained quiet, glaring at her over his shoulder as he pointed towards the door.

“Are you really that bitter over the fact I’m with him?” she asked, shocked that it just now was upsetting him. “Is that what this is really about? Mordecai, for once can we just speak plainly about what’s going on?”

Silence reigned once more as he took a sip from the bottle.

“’Cause if it is, you know why I’m with him. It’s got nothing to do with love, or attraction, or hell, even you. He’s got me making good money, giving me things I’ve never even dreamed of having. I’m actually preforming at credible places, not just sleazy joints that you feel like you need to take any and all antibiotics after working a night there. I could even become a citizen.” Kei crossed over to him and pressed her chest right up on his back as her arms snaked around his waist, only to be pushed away. What she didn’t explain was why she left in the first place… why she pushed away anyone that dared to matter to her in favor of those that could never truly understand… And now he was pushing her away, just as she had done months ago.

“I don’t want to talk about him, and I get it. You’re still the selfish cabrona I first met. Nothing’s changed. Thinkin’ about no one but yourself. You didn’t want to see how I was taking the news of Roland’s death. You came to get you mind off everything. To escape from reality for just a bit.”

It stung, hearing the truth, but that’s usually what happened when you mixed alcohol and stress. The sun burning in her chest only made her want to claw out her insides to make it stop.

“Jeez, Sugar Ray Robinson, pull your punches just a little. I’m aware I’m shitty, I get it. I got it two months ago. I understood that when I’m first here. Gotta be selfish to stay alive in this world, right?” Words were failing her. For once in her life, she struggled with stringing along sentences to bend others to her will. Her words weren’t considerate or thoughtful. There was no translation for what she couldn’t admit to herself first.

“Go tell it to someone that gives a damn…” came his muddled response as he pushed passed her and made his way towards the couch, littered with cigarettes and empty bottles of ale.

“You’re the one that gives a damn, Mordecai! Clearly you must if you’re this upset over some guy I’m just using! What makes it any different from anyone else we’ve used, huh? I’m providing for myself… I making my way in a world that’s trying to keep me down, and you’re upset over it-“

“I’m not-“

“Yes you are. It explains why you’ve just cut off all communication from me- it’s what I’d do if I was pissed you were using some clientele for their shit.”

“Stop deflecting things back onto me,” he yelled as he rose to his feet, fists clenched tight. “You were the one that left, Makeda. Why don’t we get back to why you actually showed up on my doorstep. If Mr. Universe provides for you as you claim he does, why are you here?”

She shifted her weight from one foot to the other, unsure of how to answer the question- one which would’ve been on the forefront of her mind if she had been sober. They’d been avoiding each other for two months- since she moved in with “Mr. Universe”, as Mordecai was now calling him.

“Isn’t this what we do? What we’ve always done? Why does it have to change?” She asked, finding questioning was better than giving him the answer she was certain he knew, but she hadn’t come to realize.

“No, not anymore.”

“Well, why not? Why not at least one more visit. For old time’s sake?” she sauntered over to him and paused within his reach, unsure if he would push her back or not. “Again, why did things have to change?”

“Because you turned your back on us, Kei. The moment you decide to accept that man’s offer to move in with him. You chose to take that step, and I chose to end it. I won’t play second fiddle-“

“But we agreed that this- this right here- was for fun. No one else cares that I’m with him. You saw other women, and I didn’t care…” She did, but that was beside the point. She didn’t choose to completely cut him out. “Why can’t I just do what I need to- I told you from the very beginning this was what I intended on doing. They know it’s for future security. His money is yours too! Anything you ask, I’ll give it. Just because I live with him doesn’t mean I love him, or have to cut off contact with you.”

Silence passed between the two, and the room began to spin. A single word came to mind: أأغرق. Aghraq. I am drowning. She was drowning under the half-truths, a single word threatening to burst out, but was stuck in her throat. And why was the world spinning? Words couldn’t drown a person. Death by unspoken truths had never happened.

“It doesn’t matter.”

“It matters to me,” Kei muttered, stumbling slightly. Thumping in her ears took place over the pouring rain and whatever else Mordecai was saying. Vision blurred into nothingness. And a thud.

Chapter Text

Thudding. Loud and distinct, like the sounds of fists banging on the wall is rapid succession.

BA-BA-BA-BANG BANG BANG. Silence. BA-BA-BA-BANG BANG BANG. Silence.

Though maybe silence wasn’t the word, because Kei’s thudding heart filled the stillness in her ears. She’d been through this before. Laying still- dead still- in her bed, willing the whoever it was to go away. Every night, they came, waking her from dreamless sleep. Impossible darkness creeped in around her bed- no windows to illuminate the room. No windows for intruders to break in to and take her life in the dead of night.

She’d seen it. How soldiers would break the glass- or in the case they wanted to be discreet, wedge the window open- and slaughter every man, woman and child that did not subscribe to their cause. Their fight for freedom. And both sides believed they were fighting for freedom; the kind of freedom was what differed.

BA-BA-BA-BANG BANG BANG. Silence. BA-BA-BA-BANG BANG BANG. Silence.

And there were many people after Kei for what she’d done. While she’d never participate in nighttime raids- “there is no honor in killing unsuspecting people”- she could never divorce herself from the image of decapitated heads and dismembered limbs that followed their group, because she supported them. Spoke out at rallies for them. Watched her brother take up a gun and join their cause against injustice. Though, the two warring sides had become indistinguishable for civilians at this point.

BA-BA-BA-BANG BANG BANG. Silence. BA-BA-BA-BANG BANG BANG. Silence.

Had they finally found her? Come for her for the blood on her hands- blood she had spilled, not willingly, but out of duty. Honor. To preserve her own way of life- at least, that’s what she told herself. It was easier to forgive her actions that way. They had given her no choice. Come after her because she stood up for the cause.

The fear seized up in her heart. She had heard of other families or factions of those that opposed what her brother did coming after the family. She had already been forced to defend herself more than once. Lucky enough to fire first, because her father taught her everything he knew about defense before disappearing into the night. Blood she spilt to stain her country’s soil.

With a “them-or-me” mentality, there were no winners.

BA-BA-BA-BANG BANG BANG. Silence. BA-BA-BA-BANG BANG BANG. Silence.

Like clockwork, they came at 2:33 am every night. Pulling her from sleep- dragging her into terror she’d thought she’d never experience again, and it seemed like no matter how much incense she burned or leather-bound prayers whispered, the banging on the wall adjacent to her bed persisted.

Tonight, she’d face whomever was tormenting her. Tonight was the night it would all stop. They wouldn’t hold fear over her. She was the one control- the one to be feared. Since they were adamant on drawing her out of the safety of her room, she would give them what they wanted. A fight. See whose beliefs were stronger, and Kei wasn’t ready to die yet.

BA-BA-BA- Reaching for the knife she kept in her bedside drawer, only to find it missing-BANG-, Kei rolled out of bed-BANG-, feet touching the cool, slate floor of the small tin hut. The last knock didn’t come. Silence prevailed.

Walking slowly, cautious not to alert whomever was the source the nightly intrusion, she made her way out of the bedroom. Knife or not, she could still disarm the intruder should it come to that. Her mind, previously foggy with sleep and confusion, was on high-alert- noting every sound and every shadow in the vicinity, though the banging had stopped. Why had it stopped?

Kei peered around the corner to wear the knocking should’ve been coming from, but found no one. No sign of forced entry, no mark of dirt on the wall that wasn’t already there from the dust that plagued the outside world that most visitors were marked with. The beating in her heart quickened.

Who was doing this? They had to be near. She ran to the door of the small house, pushing it open and running into the moonlit desert, scanning the horizon for anyone out at this hour. The village was still except for the wind, picking up the sand from its restful place on the ground. Everyone was still in their beds. No fire. No doors kicked in. Peace.

“Kei?” came a sleepy voice from behind her, and suddenly, she wasn’t in the desert. She stood, large t-shirt grazing high on her nutmeg thighs, in the hallway of an apartment complex. The howling wind had gone to be replaced with air conditioning and florescent lighting. Mordecai stood behind her, bare chest pressing up against her back as his lanky arms, thin yet surprisingly muscular she had come to discover, snaked around her waist. Confusion flooded in only to be cleared by the hand reaching out for hers, and she allowed herself to be pulled back into reality by the only person that could seem to ground her.

She remained silent, allowing herself to be led back to the shared bed, light from the city casting shadows on the walls. Neon lights flooding the space of his box-sized bed. Under the covers of quality that she had never felt before coming to this country, she reminded herself she was safe. That world was far away. The only monsters were in her head.