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Old Wounds
Topic Started: Nov 12 2017, 06:15 PM (617 Views)
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The myriad boom and hiss of machinery nearly drowned out the foreman's voice as he briskly made his way across the shop floor toward the welding station. Various scrap metal littered the area around an enormous steel table as the welder, perched upon the end of a large T-shaped weldment and clad in thick deerskin gloves and protective helmet, finished his bead on a molten stitch.

“Yo, Kenny!” repeated the foreman, watching his step as he navigated the scrap and cables strewn about the place. “Fuck it’s a mess over here. Where's Noah?”

“Fuck if I know,” replied the welder, raising his helmet and glancing around. “I sent him to recut some pieces like a half hour ago.”

“Get Noah on clean-up when he's done,” boomed the foreman over the nearby whistle of an air gun.

“You got it, boss.”

“Also you got a phone call. Heather's got them on hold.”

Kenny the welder's expression became puzzled as he made his way down the weldment onto a ladder. “Who is it?” he asked, placing the MIG-welding gun upon a jury-rigged hanger and crossing his arms.

“No idea. A friend of yours. Apparently it's urgent. So yeah. Phone, and get this shit cleaned up.” With that the foreman turned and abruptly continued on his way, flagging down another worker operating the adjacent plasma cutter.

Kenny shrugged and removed his helmet, placing it on his workbench with his gloves and heading to the front office. As he opened the door, a small middle-aged secretary halted her paperwork to address him on the other side.

“Kenny! Sorry to bother you hon but you got a call from a woman saying she urgently needed to speak with you. Said she was a friend of yours. Here,” said Heather, hitting the hold button and offering him the phone with a free hand.

Kenny wasn't expecting any calls. Kenny didn't have any friends. Kenny preferred it that way. Kenny got more work done that way. Kenny was a workaholic.

But he'd met people. Lots of people. People at the bar mostly. People who sat and drank and laughed and loved and went out for a dart on occasion. Alcoholics. Kenny was an alcoholic.

Kenny had been drinking on the job. For the past year. It was ok; the foreman didn't suspect a thing. He had half a 2-litre of homemade Jack ‘n’ Coke under his desk. He had also smoked a fat joint at lunch. Whatever. He was fine to weld.

But yeah, people. Which people called him a friend, if any? A woman? And what could possibly be urgent? Kenny's life was quiet. He liked it that way. But he was curious. It was with a dark curiosity indeed that he reached for the phone, took it and raised it to his ear. “Hello?”

“Hello?” came a smooth female voice at the other end, “I'm calling to speak to Kenneth Burns.”

“This is him.”

“Mr. Burns, it's a pleasure to meet you. This is Mara Montalvo.”

Kenny's eyes widened. THE Mara Montalvo? Kenny didn't watch ‘the game’ but Montalvo was a name he had heard at least once a day for months a few years back. Winner. How fucked was that? Kenny had no idea what to say. Wait, yes he did.

“Is this a prank?”

“No Mr. Burns, this is the real deal. I was hoping to speak with you in person.”

Kenny lowered his voice. “What do you want?”

“Just to talk. We can meet anywhere you want. I trust you.”

“And I should trust you?”

“I don't bite.”

‘Heard stabbing was more your thing.’ Kenny was glad not to say that aloud.

“I'll buy you a beer,” added Mara.

Kenny thought about it for a second. “I take it you know where I live then?”

“Honestly? Yes.”

‘Guess I’ll have to deal with you either way.’ “I get off at 7. Meet you there at 8?”

“Sounds like a date.”

“Bring beer.”

“I think I can afford a case. See you then.” Dialtone.

Kenny hung up the phone. “Thank you, Heather,” he said absentmindedly on his way back to work.

‘Was that real? I'm not THAT drunk.’

Kenny's van was a ‘96 Ford Aerostar XL, full of scrap metal, which shifted and scraped around in the back as he drove home. Still intoxicated. Blasting Maiden's ‘The Trooper’.

The time had gone much slower after Mara's call. Kenny had been distracted from his work. Kenny'd had a couple swigs from a flask after that 2-litre in fact. Fuck it.

Kenny wished he knew more about Girl 27. Although he knew a fair bit. He knew she was a winner, one of two alive, and not to be underestimated. She had a good reputation (within the public eye at least) so it was unlikely she would try anything funny. Either way, Kenny was in it for those cold ones.

Kenny's apartment was located in the hills overlooking Old Sudbury. He pulled the van into his building's parking lot and took his spot, cutting the ignition just as Alice in Chains’ ‘Them Bones’ drew to a close.

Maybe Mara was already here. The thought had occurred to him back at the shop. That was why he had taken his work knife home in his jacket. That was why his grip was firmly on said fold-up knife as he approached his front door. That was why he was relieved to hear his Aussie shepherds skittering and barking as he turned the key in the lock.

‘Nobody better fuck with my dogs.’

Jazz and Rocky greeted Kenny in their typical fashion, licking his face and hands as he came in the door.

“Nothin’ wrong, eh guys?”

Kenny quickly checked every room of his apartment. No one had been here as far as he could tell.

“We got company tonight,” he said to the dogs as he threw his knife on the kitchen table and grabbed a beer from the fridge.

At exactly 8 on the dot there was a buzz from downstairs. Kenny had showered and fed the dogs to keep the time from crawling and now sat dressed in jeans and a Rush t-shirt on his couch. He pocketed the knife as he got up to buzz Mara in. Hopefully he wouldn't need it.

Jazz and Rocky became quite excited as there soon came a knock at the door. Kenny took a deep breath and went to answer, corralling the dogs back and pressing an eye to the peephole.

It was her, standing in a tan pea coat, dark wash jeans, spiked leather boots and enormous sunglasses, holding a case of Molson, alone in the hallway. Kenny fought paranoid fancies of assailants lurking just out of view as he undid the chain and threw the deadbolt.

‘Here goes nothing…’

“Hello, Kenneth,” smiled Mara as he opened the door. She lifted the glasses to rest on the crown of her head, sweeping her glossy black hair behind them.

“Mara. Come in,” said Kenny through the surrealness. “Don't worry, they don't bite either.” The dogs whined excitedly to meet their guest, backing up as he let Mara in.

“Hello there, doggie,” she cooed to Jazz, stowing the case on the kitchen table as the shepherds fought her for affection. “What are their names?”

“That's Jazz. Rocky’s the spaz. Here, lemme take your coat.”

“They're really cute. Thank you,” said Mara as she removed her coat. “Your home is...cozy, Ken.”

“Eh, it's good enough for me,” replied Kenny, hanging the coat by the door and cracking the case of frosty cold beers. He fished one out and popped the cap off, handing it to Mara, and grabbed one for himself. “Cheers.”

“To friends,” said Mara, clinking his outstretched bottle.

“Old and new.” Kenny would have joked about pouring one out for the homies, but this whole scenario was already beyond belief and he didn't want to make it even stranger.

Actually, fuck it. “For the homies,” he grumbled, spilling a small amount of beer on the floor. Mara gave a nervous laugh as the dogs immediately scrambled to lap it up, and Kenny felt a little more at ease about this bizarre meeting with Girl 27. Plus her jacket had felt empty. That was a good sign.

“It's really nice to meet you,” smiled Mara as she took a seat on the couch with her legs crossed and hands in her lap. Jazz leaped quickly up beside her to receive pets, and Mara obliged. “How are things going?”

“Busy,” replied Kenny. “We're behind at the shop. It's been a shitshow to be honest.”

“Sorry to hear that.”

“It's fine. Shit gets crazy this time of year. Come spring it'll be dead. I like keeping busy anyway.”

“Whatever works,” Mara nodded, taking a swig. “I'm glad you enjoy it.”

“Not as much as this,” said Kenny, swigging his beer. “Thanks.”

“I figured you'd appreciate it,” she said with a smile spreading across her face.

“I do. Life's hard without a drink. Oh, by the way…” Kenny withdrew a cigarette pack from his pocket. “Do you smoke?”

“Oh, no thank you. I don't smoke cigarettes.”

Kenny had a twinkle in his eye as he produced a fat joint from the pack. “I didn't mean cigarettes,” said he, raising his eyebrows.

Mara took a deep breath. “Why not? When in Canada.”

Kenny sparked the doobski and passed it after a good puff. Mara took a hoot and passed it back.

It was silent for a moment. Finally Kenny said, “I'm really sorry. That you had to play the game.”

Mara waved a hand emphatically. “Please, don't apologize. None of this is your fault.”

“Hey, when in Canada.”

Mara patted a seat on the couch beside her. “Come sit down. I've been looking forward to talking. I want you to be comfortable, I mean, it’s your house after all.”

Kenny hesitated.

“I promise I just want to talk. I’m not here to cause trouble, Kenny. Is that what you prefer? Kenny?”

“Eh, call me whatever you want. It's a special occasion.”

“Okay. Please. Come sit.”

Kenny finally shrugged and sat down next to Mara. Rocky leaped promptly up onto his lap and was rewarded with fond pets.

“I read up on you,” said Mara. “What there was to read. I hope that's ok.”

“No problem.”

“There's nothing on Kenny Burns though. I had to pull some significant strings to find you.”

Kenny had no answer. For a moment there was silence, then Mara grinned and said, “I like the welder bit. I was half-expecting a lumberjack, but that'd be cliché, wouldn't it?” She grabbed the joint unceremoniously from him and took a drag.

Kenny chuckled. “Fuck you, I like welding. It's relaxing.”

“I'm just busting your balls a little,” giggled Mara, and they both sipped their beers. The joint returned to Kenny and he puffed liberally, enjoying the flavour as he held it in for a long moment. He would want a cigarette soon.

“I'm glad you've done well for yourself,” said Mara. “You deserve a nice quiet life.”

“Agreed,” replied Kenny. “And that's what I got. That's what I got and it works for me.”

Mara sighed. “I wish things worked out for everybody, but we're not all so lucky.”

Kenny snorted. “Lucky, yeah. Real lucky.”

“Luck of the Irish.”

“Ain't it just?”

“I remember hearing that a lot several years back…before I was in...you know.”

“Well, you survived. That's pretty goddamn lucky.”

Mara nodded, but her eyes searched the floor as she scratched behind Jazz's ears. “It wasn’t luck, it was me,” she said softly.

Kenny noticed Mara's unease and tried to change the subject. “So what have you been up to?”

“Busy as well,” replied Mara. “Running several charities in honor of my friends and their families. The press has been insane to deal with. Like, I was sure I'd have to kill again.”

They both laughed. It was dark, sure, but these were dark times and you had to laugh or you'd go nuts.

“I'm sure you're aware Danya is dead,” said Mara.

“Good riddance,” grumbled Kenny. “And you met his kid?”

“I did.”

“Bet he's a real piece of shit too eh?”

“The apple didn't fall far.”

“You get nightmares?”


“Yeah. Makes sense. That shit sticks with you.”

Mara nodded. Softly she said, “I actually wanted to open the wounds a little...maybe then they'll heal properly.”

“I understand,” said Kenny, swigging his beer. “Talk freely, man. I ain't gonna judge.”

Mara took a deep breath. “I just want to know...does it get easier?”

Kenny mulled the question over, weighing whether to be more honest or uplifting. “Well, it never goes away, if that's what you mean. But it does get easier. You adapt to it.” He felt the answer didn't satisfy, so he added, “You'll survive. You're good at it.”
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Mara looked down at the bottle of beer she was cradling. Her heart squeezed in her chest, but she felt like she could open up with this person, even if they'd just met.

"You know, that's what he said to me. Danya the younger said something like that. He told me that I won because I'm the best at adapting."

Her nails scraped against the glass of the bottle and she bit her lip. There wasn't anything particularly interesting down in the half-emptied bottle of amber liquid.

"Are you good at that too?" she said, snapping her head up quickly to look at him. "Sometimes it feels like I'm finally used to the way things are and sometimes if I don't keep my guard up I feel....like I'm still going to see those kids from high school."

She held out her hand, reaching for the joint and clearing her throat.
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[ * ]
Kenny passed the joint and grabbed his beer, finishing it. He rose, leaving it on the coffeetable in front of him, and fetched another two fresh bottles from the case.

"Betcher ass I'm good at it. Provided I give a fuck." He set the extra beer down in front of Mara and cracked the other one. "If Danya Jr's anything like his old man he probably thinks he's doing you a huge favor. Fucking bugshit."

Taking a swig, he patted Rocky affectionately, betraying his glib demeanor. "I see ghosts sometimes. But the fact is, they're dead. They're never coming back. Not outside of dreams, or nightmares. You mind if I go for a dart?" Kenny pulled out a cigarette and gestured to the sliding balcony door. "Feel free to join me."
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Mara finished the joint and looked around, trying to find a good place to put it. She quickly finished the beer in her hand and stuffed the nub into the bottle. She grabbed the new beer and took a small, inaugural sip. Mara had been nervous the whole way leading to the apartment. The call, the drive, pressing the buzzer with her index finger. But now that she was here, and slightly inebriated, it felt safe.

"Do you? Give a fuck, I mean," she asked.

He asked her about going out for a dart and she stared for a second, not knowing what that meant, but quickly noticed the cigarette and put the pieces together.

"Of course, like I said, it's your house."

Mara picked up her drink and stood from the couch. She gave a sidelong glance back at the dogs, hugged herself and stepped on to the balcony.

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"I give fucks from time to time," replied Kenny, lighting his cigarette. "A lot less than I used to. But life's been simpler since I moved here. I haven't had to worry about much other than feeding myself and those two knuckleheads."

Kenny exhaled deeply, blowing a plume of gray smoke out into the cold wind. He hadn't grabbed his coat, but in retrospect he felt he should have brought Mara's for her.

"Anyway, it seems like you still give a flying one, so good on you." Kenny hoped he didn't come off as chilly as the night air. "Not many people can spare the occasional fuck. Even if it'd make all the difference in the world."

Kenny gazed off into the distance. The lights from town shimmered under the darkening sky. People. Shit tons of people just caught up in their daily lives as highschool kids were regularly kidnapped and forced to murder eachother. Sighing under his breath, Kenny spat off the balcony.
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She leaned with her back against the balcony railing. The two of them stood framed by the square sliding glass doors leading inside. The purple of night hugged them and clashed when it met the yellow light pouring from inside the apartment. Mara took a long drink from the beer and placed it gently on the railing. She bit down on the nail of her thumb and looked at him.

When she thought he was looking back down at her, she looked away. One of her long fingers traced the faint scar on her cheek. He wasn't all that much older than her, but she felt like a kid.

"I do," she said forcefully. "My best friend ate one of my other best friends," she blurted out.


She looked around nervously and took another swig of beer and tried to play the statement off with stale, plastic laughter.

"....but I still love them both."

God, what a mistake. She wondered if he would throw her out. Mara pretty much said one of the worst things possible at the moment so if he was going to kick her out, well, might as well go for broke.

"What happened when you got back?" Mara looked directly at his half-obscured face, smoke curling and dying in the wind.
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Kenny sighed as Mara dropped the gruesome factoid. One of many, to be sure. He said nothing. What was there to say? What good was an apology? This girl's life had been torn inside out and beaten to a twisted bloody pulp. At least she could fake a laugh at it all. It wasn't funny--of course it wasn't--but if anyone had the right to laugh at it, it was her.

Mara asked a tough question. Tough to recall. It seemed so far away now. Although as Kenny thought about it, he realized it would be tougher to say.

Whatever. Fuck it. Mara had come all this way. It would be shitty not to give her an honest answer.

"Tried to kill myself. Failed, obviously. Then I was institutionalized for a while. Just over six months. Fucking hated it. Fucking hated everyone and everything. Felt like a goddamn failure. Every night I'd see visions of people dying. Over and over and over again. I got so many letters from grieving parents, a lot of them hate mail. Some death threats. Not that I cared. I felt like...like there was no solid ground to stand on. Like I was sinking away into my inevitable suicide." Kenny paused and took a drag from his smoke. "I'm better now, though. Life goes on. Usually, anyway."

Edited by ODB, Nov 13 2017, 12:32 AM.
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Mara listened to the answer, head tilted just slightly to her right. His voice was the only noise as he answered the question, with some slight sound of movement here and there from the dogs inside. An ice cold spike ran through her and she smiled a smile that didn't reach up to her black eyes. She picked up the beer bottle and drank again.

"We're like twins, huh? I only made it about three months before I tried to kill myself. Got discharged pretty quickly though. My family only came to the hospital to disown me, but it was really the best thing for me in the long run. I only started to get better once I wasn't around them anymore," she said, studying the label on the alcohol, flipping up the corner with her thumb nail.

"I....one of the things I thought about when I was trying to go it alone is that it could be done. And if other people could do it, there was no doubt I could do it to," she said, with a slight haughty tinge to her voice.

"Sure, the kids from the last one could, but they had each other. I guess...you were my model. I thought 'He's out there somewhere and if he can make it so can I.'"

She was slightly embarrassed by the admission, an extreme rarity for Mara, but she would be damned if she let it show. Besides her therapist, she hadn't talked to anyone about what happened when she got back and how her family reacted.

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Kenny nodded solemnly. "Anyone can make it. Long as there's a pulse." He flicked the remainder of the cigarette off the balcony and slid open the glass balcony door. "After you."

A torrent of unpleasant memories were still returning to Kenny, and he cast another look back at the town in the valley below before heading in.

"Can I get you something to eat? I've got some leftovers in the fridge. Or we could order a pizza on me. Whaddaya think?"
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Mara saw him step forward and went ahead of him quickly, downing the third beer and rubbing her arms. She heard the sliding glass door close behind her as she went to the kitchen and grabbed another beer. She flopped down on the couch, petting one of the dogs that came by to sniff her leg. She was starting to be pleasantly cross-faded from the alcohol and weed, especially given the fact that she didn't do either very often.

"Please," she said emphatically. "I can pay for pizza. I can pay for as many pizzas as you can eat." She put the beer on the table.

Mara slumped to the side with her elbow on the arm of the couch and her hand propping up her cheek, watching him.

"No pineapple. Or I'll kill you," she said, closing one eye, making a gun with her finger and pulling the finger-gun back, firing an invisible bullet.

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Kenny chuckled at Mara's pantomime execution. Suddenly he felt awful about the knife in his pocket. Mara wasn't here to cause trouble. Why would she? The game was over, even if the nightmare was far from. All that was left was survival. And in order to survive, you had to eat.

"Hadn't planned on it," he replied, producing his cell phone and dialing Pizza Royale. "All that matters at this place is the extra cheese. It's like... EXTRA extra cheese. It's like TOO MUCH cheese. It's good, you'll see."

As soon as the pie was ordered, Kenny grabbed another beer and sat down with Mara and the dogs. "45 minutes. I gotta walk Jazz and Rocky in the meantime. Won't take long. You can come along or chill here if you want."
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Mara put a finger to her chin and looked as if she were deep in thought.

"You're really jazzed about this cheese. Okay, okay, my expectations have been set pretty high for dinner."

She didn't consume much pizza, even as a college student. It always seemed to remind her of the pizza the terrorists had given her. Her "prize" for killing someone. The first time she had a whole pizza to herself, and even then she didn't finish it. There was no point in mentioning it to "Kenny." She didn't track down this person just to throw her own baggage at him and she already laid more than enough of her own personal trauma on this nice man and his nice dogs. Mara considered the options that he'd given to her.

"I think I'll stay here if that's alright. Hispanic people, we're not really optimized for this kind of weather."

She stood up and stretched, reaching her hands as far above her head as she could before dropping all the way down and starting to unzip one of her boots, seeing as she was going to be in the apartment for awhile more.

"You better not try to make a break for it. I'll know and I'll find you and you won't get any pizza" she said in a sing-song voice.
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"No problem," said Kenny, getting up and donning his coat. He grabbed the dogs' leashes from a hook by the door and they scrambled gleefully over to be outfitted for their walk. Once the leashes were attached Kenny stood up and grabbed his beer with a free hand. "Make yourself at home. I'll be back in five, ten minutes."

He paused before opening the door, a smile creeping across his face as Mara joked with him. "I'm glad to meet you, Mara. You're cool shit." With that Kenny and the two shepherds stepped out into the hallway.

"I'll be back," Kenny grunted, doing his best Schwarzenegger impression as he closed the door behind him.
Edited by ODB, Nov 13 2017, 09:18 PM.
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Mara waved briefly as he left the apartment. The impression was amusing, even if part of that came from it being a little dorky. Now she was alone again.

Her lips spread into a similar smile echoing the one given by the man who was there a moment ago, but sharper. "Cool shit." Not the exact words she might have chosen, but the sentiment behind them was understood.

It was much easier to smile when she was alone. Sometimes she felt there was a certain expectation from people that she be solemn for the rest of her life. That was mostly from strangers and some acquaintances and she felt those disapproving looks thin out the more time that passed.

Still, was it really ok to let her guard down so quickly? She knew about him, but it wouldn't be good to mistake that for knowing the person himself. She went and turned the lock on the door knob. Either he had keys with him or he'd knock and she'd let him back in. Safety first, but it would also make it impossible to catch her by surprise since she would hear noise when he tried to enter.

Mara looked around the room she was in. Standard living room, nothing special. She started to wander down the hall which forked off into a few rooms.

"Well, Cecilly wasn't wrong," she murmured, looking down to open the door to what turned out to be the bedroom. There wasn't much to look at. After feeling around on the wall, she found a light. She quickly flicked open the drawer to the night stand, nothing of interest. She closed it.

What was she looking for? Nothing in particular. Just curious. Maybe snooping just a little could give her a short cut to understanding him better.

On a whim she opened the doors to the closet in the room. In the otherwise austere apartment there was a brass urn next to a box on a shelf. Mara looked left, looked right. Coast was clear. She stood up as far as she could on her tiptoes and could barely touch the urn. Thinking light thoughts, she jumped and was able to grab it, knocking the box down as pulled the vessel down.

Mara turned the urn over in her hands, but there were no markings on the smooth surface that indicated what the contents might be. She lifted the top and saw a chalky substance.

"I don't know what I was expecting," she sighed, putting the lid back on the ashes.

Standing back on her toes, she used her fingertips to push the urn back into its old spot. Next was the box that had fallen. She opened it to reveal papers. Just as she was about to return the box to its old spot, she saw an envelop.

It wasn't addressed to "Kenneth," but a different name. The envelope looked a little worn. After a quick glance behind her should she pulled out the contents; a letter and two photographs. One was a candid of girl smiling in a garden. She looked to be in her mid-teens maybe and had dark hair and striking blue eyes behind black frames. Mara moved the first photo behind the second. It was the same girl in a glamour shot with big barrel curls, makeup, a wide white smile and a dress such an electric color of teal that the 80's would have told her to tone it down. She could spot that look from a mile away. It was a pageant headshot.

She moved on now to the letter:

It is with a broken heart that I write to you, as I'm sure yours must be. I want you to know outright that my husband and I harbor no resentment toward you, nor is it our place to judge your actions under such harrowing circumstances. We are happy you are alive, and wish you all the best in your recovery.

It has been tremendously difficult to gather my thoughts at this time, as you can no doubt imagine, but I apologize for how long it took to write to you. I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart for everything you did to protect our daughter. She was and still remains the most important part of our lives, and our only consolation now is that you were watching over her amidst this devastating tragedy. Your efforts were not in vain. In fact, we are forever in your debt for standing by her like you did.

Please know that we consider you family. If you ever need anything--anything at all--please do not hesitate to ask. We will survive this together, I promise. Please don't give up. You are not alone.

P. S. Enclosed is a photo of our daughter during happier times. We want you to have it, as a reminder that she will always be with you.

She sat on the bed and tried to make out the handwriting which seemed to get more jagged as the letter reached its conclusion.

"Love, Silvia Jefferson," she read out loud.
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Kenny and the dogs made their way down the hall to the elevator. Jazz and Rocky whined eagerly to get outside, pawing at their human as he pushed the call button.

“Yeah yeah...I know, guys. Hold it in.”

Kenny would use this time walking the dogs to collect his thoughts and hopefully be of some help to his guest. It all seemed so far away now, as if from another life. Then again, it technically was.

The elevator arrived and the shepherds scrambled in, Kenny bringing up the rear as he pushed the button to bring them to the ground floor. He glanced at his reflection in the mirrored wall, removing his cap and running a hand through his thinning brown hair. He had one hell of a widow's peak, owed largely to stress. His autumn beard was bushy and unkempt, and there were dark maroon circles under his eyes from lack of sleep.

Kenny would be lying if he said he was truly content with his life. Maybe it took Mara visiting for him to realize that. At least he had Jazz and Rocky.

Several stops down, the door slid open and one of Kenny's neighbours, Norma, shuffled into the elevator. She smiled warmly at him and the dogs, her eyes wrinkling shut behind her thick glasses. “Hello Kenny!” she said as the door slid shut behind her.

“Hey Norma, how are you?” Kenny replied with a halfhearted smile.

Norma shrugged, petting the dogs fondly as she said, “I’ve been better, dear. Lost my sister last week, unfortunately. Cancer got her.”

The nonchalance in which she stated this caught Kenny off-guard, and he glanced down at the floor. “Shit...I'm sorry, Norma.”

“It's alright, dear,” she replied. “When you get around my age people start dropping like flies. Hell, pretty much everyone I knew in highschool have been dead for years.”

Kenny felt a lump in his throat. He coughed and managed to collect his voice enough to respond. “Crazy.”

“Yep. Life is a fragile thing, my dear. You just gotta hang in there and hope everyone you love outlives you.” She sighed and gave a pained laugh. “I'll never forget her laugh, though. Ugliest thing I ever heard. Sounded like a goddamn jackal. Now that she's gone, I'd give anything to hear it again.”

There was a moment of silence that Kenny had no idea how to break. Fortunately, Norma changed the subject. “Anyway, how are things with you? Have you got a girlfriend yet?”

Kenny chuckled and scratched at his beard. This was Norma's usual go-to for conversation. “Nah, not yet,” he said sheepishly.

“Such a handsome fella, I bet they'd be lining up around the block if you cleaned up a little.” Norma laughed and gave him a playful slap on the shoulder. “I'm just kidding. Half-kidding.”

The elevator reached the ground floor and the door slid open as they stepped into the lobby. Norma zipped up her coat and smiled, grabbing the door for Kenny and the dogs.

“Thank you, Norma,” said Kenny.

“You're welcome. Have a good night, dear.”

“You too, take care.”

The shepherds veered off to their favourite walking route as Norma climbed into the back of a waiting cab. Unless he missed his guess she was headed to the bar for more beers than any small elderly woman had any business drinking. Whatever. It was endearing. That old dame would outlive everyone.

Kenny walked Jazz and Rocky to the small forest trail where they always went for constitutionals. The moon hovered radiant over the silhouetted treetops, shedding dim light on the dirt trail. Kenny relished these walks nearly as much as the dogs did. It was dark and quiet in here. True, it had taken him years to stop searching the shadows for imaginary assailants, but he now did his best thinking in the woods.

‘Mara Montalvo...just another kid thrown through the ringer. What's it been now, hundreds? Christ, here I am off in my own little world while she's actually fucking doing something with her life. All I did was run away. What the hell good is survival if you don't know how to live?’

Kenny's heart sank as he looked up at the moon, hot tears beginning to stream down his cheeks.

‘Fuck...I wish it had been me.’
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