“No, man,” Dean said, stopping beside me. “I’m trying to tell you you’re an idiot for freaking the fuck out, that’s what.”

“Thanks.”

“So then what happened? You kicked her out of bed or what?”

I rubbed my sweaty palms on my face. “Pretty much. Then I figured out the whole thing that you had no problem picking up on. And then it was too late.”

“I got to tell you, that sucks,” he said. “And you’re an idiot.”

Majorly. I was overheating now, feeling trapped in my shirt. So much for turning over a new leaf. The rollercoaster was heading down again.

Dean shook his head in mild pity and started stretching. I took off my shirt, trying to get some cold air on my skin, vaguely aware that with the way Dean and I were posed, him bending over and me sweaty and shirtless, we could have been in a gladiator porn. I suppose that was an option if I wanted to come back to Shownet.

It didn’t help that he was staring at my chest.

“What? Am I giving you a hard-on?” I asked.

He shook his head and gave me a nasty look. “No, I’m reading your tattoo. And with madness comes the light.”

“I got it a long time ago. To remind me.”

“Remind you of what?”

“That madness isn’t all bad.”

A chilly breeze picked up and I slid my soaked t-shirt back on, shivering from the contact.

“Ain’t all bad?” he said. “Madness is not your friend, Dex. You just treat it like one.”

“I didn’t say it was my friend,” I said quietly, feeling a bit weird discussing it with someone. I never even talked about it with Jenn. “I’m saying I made the most of it. Sometimes you have to fall pretty fucking far before you can see the light. Believe me, I’ve been through some shit that I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy.”

Dean’s face grew serious. “I believe you. So, what’s the light then? What makes the madness worth it?”

Shit. Dean and I had gone from workout buddies to acting like a bunch of overanalyzing pussies. Next thing you knew, we’d start having our periods at the same time.

Yet, pussy or not, I kept talking. “Perry was my light. I didn’t know it at the time, but I know it now. And in her light, I lost that madness. It only came back when she left.” I paused, looking around at the tall trees and the sun streaming through them, unable to stop my mouth from going on. “She makes me want to live life as it should be lived. By the balls, you know.”

“Makes,” he mused, stretching his hamstring.

“Makes?”

“Yeah man. Makes. Present tense. She makes you want to be a better man. She’s still your light, no matter what the rest of this shit is. That’s pretty deep.”

“Balls deep?” I asked.

“Dude, enough with your balls. Maybe that should be your next tattoo.”

I raised one brow. “Balls deep. I guess it would be applicable to the ladies.”

He sighed impatiently. “No. Perry is your light. She helped you lose the madness. Something like that. To balance out the other one.”

“Dedicate a tattoo to her?” I asked.

He shrugged. “You’re still in love with her. She makes you want to live life. Personally, and this is just me, man, if I ever met a woman who saved me that way, I’d devote some temples to her or something. That’s how the Taj Mahal got started, I’m sure.”

We hadn’t even left the park before a phrase started floating around in my head—Within your light, I lose the madness.

CHAPTER FOUR

Even though my man Dean had been the one to give me the tattoo idea, I decided to take Rebecca along to accompany me during the procedure. It’s funny that I already had two tattoos and this one would also be simple cursive behind my shoulder, yet needles kind of freaked me out. I didn’t like to admit it, but hey, the whole becoming a new man thing had me spewing a lot of shit I used to keep to myself. Which was just what the world needed—an even more uncensored Dex Foray.

I didn’t know if I was just on a down day or if I was jonesing because I’d just quit smoking, but I was a pile of nerves as the tattoo artist did his work on me.

Rebecca noticed. “Does it hurt?” she asked as the first few words were completed.

I shook my head. It didn’t. Didn’t mean it was comfortable and it didn’t mean I liked it, but it definitely didn’t hurt.

She pursed her lips and looked me over inquisitively. “Do you mind if I get Perry’s address off of you?”

I flinched. Luckily the artist was fast enough to feel it coming and lifted the needle away just in time.

“What?” I asked.

“Are we okay?” said the tattoo artist.

I nodded quickly at him and the machine resumed its buzzing.

I lowered my voice. “Why do you want her address?”

“It’s not like that,” she said, taking a tube out of her bag that probably used to be a hamster and dotting sticky gloss on her lips. “Em and I might be in Portland soon and I was thinking—”

“Don’t you dare,” I warned her. “Don’t you dare go see her.”

She lowered her brows and snapped her purse shut with a deafening click. “Dex, please. She was my friend, too.”

“I’m your friend first.”

“You’re not going to go see her.”

“Obviously not, she hates my guts.”

“But you’re getting a tattoo because of her.”

“Well I’m not dragging the tattoo artist over there and getting it inked on her forehead, am I?”

“I just want to see how she’s doing. I’m worried about her.”

I wished she hadn’t said that, because I was worried as hell about her, too. Over the last week, I’d thought about Pippa’s message again and again, trying to figure out what it all meant. Why it was a warning. How Perry was doing. Just because I’d been mercifully free from seeing ghosts—despite no medication—it didn’t mean Perry was. I couldn’t imagine how she’d deal with it all alone. Even though, looking back, I hadn’t been much help—partially because of the medication, partially because I was afraid—I knew she had felt safer with me. Because I always believed her and I understood. Now who knew what was going on? I had little faith in her younger sister, Ada, and zero faith in her parents.

“Fine,” I said. “But I didn’t send you.”

“I know you didn’t. And I know you want to know how she is. I just want to make sure she’s fine and see if I can help in any way if she’s not.”

I nodded and gave her a stern look. “Watch out for her mom. She bites.”

Half an hour later, the tattoo was complete. I felt lighter already.

***

A few days later I heard back from Rebecca. She went to Perry’s and things hadn’t exactly gone as planned. I was torn between wanting as much information from her as possible and trying to protect my heart. In the end, my stupid, self-destructive tendencies demanded every single detail from her. I’d really lost it. That guy who wasn’t about to stalk her? Well I felt like I was mentally stalking her as I made Rebecca describe what she looked like. She sounded as beautiful as ever, darkness and light all wrapped up into one. My heart twisted itself into a well-worn knot.

“She looked tired though,” she told me over the phone while I got ready to go to the corner store. I was having Dean and Seb over for some drinks before we hit up the bars, something I hadn’t done in an extremely long time.

“What kind of tired?” I asked. Perry had fair skin that usually rebelled when she didn’t get enough sleep. Yeah, yeah, I’m a creeper who noticed those things. I didn’t say she still wasn’t gorgeous when she was tired. It made her look more vulnerable than ever, and that, combined with her delicious tits that were just ripe for squeezing were a fucking lethal combination.

“I don’t know,” she said. “I caught her coming back from a run, so maybe it was just that. Or perhaps it was the fact that she wanted to throw my arse to the curb. It was hard to tell.”

Regardless, I made her tell me everything all over again, going over every word she said. Perhaps, if Rebecca repeated it enough, it would be like talking to Perry herself.

It wasn’t, but in some sick way, it was close. Hearing this gave me a sense of closure that I didn’t have before, relief that she, as tired as she might have been, was okay. She was alive and out there in the world, living her life, working a new job. She’d moved on, and as much as that stung the shit out of me worse than any wasp could, I was somewhat happy for her.

Of course, being happy for her made me feel more miserable for me. Call me a selfish dickmonkey, but it’s hard to be happy for someone when you can’t share their happiness with them. I wanted to be there with her as she lived her life, watching for those rare smiles on her face.

I was grumbling about that to myself as I pulled my coat around me and braved the cold, crossing underneath the monorail tracks to the store. I tied Fat Rabbit outside and went inside, searching the aisle for the cheapest bottle of wine. I was unemployed now and wasn’t about to waste a drop of expensive shit on Dean and Seb, not when they’d probably be puking it up later anyway.

It was just a small convenience store, and while the douchester hipbag guy behind the counter—Paul I think his name was—dealt with a customer at the jugs of beer-to-go (who knew it would be so popular?), I waited at the register, watching a lady with interest.

I’d seen her a few times before…in fact, lately I think she’d been in the store every time I was there. She wore all black, with a furry velvet hat that looked vaguely Russian. I’d never seen her face; she would just walk from the counter, down the aisle to the end, like she was part zombie. You know the way really old people walk when they’re too stubborn for scooters or a cane? That kind of walk. Slow, deliberate, and shaking slightly. I’d never seen her look at anything on the shelves or buy anything. She just did that ultra-slow walk of hers.

“Ready to go?” Douchester Hipbag said to me. I straightened up off the counter and pushed the bottle of wine toward him.

“Sure am.”

“Still not smoking?” he asked as he rang it up.

“Still not,” I told him and turned my attention back to the woman. I nodded in her direction. “Hey, what’s the deal with the Walking Dead reject over there?”

He frowned and looked past me. “What do you mean?”

“I mean,” I said, watching her do her death dance. “What’s her deal? I always see her here, just…acting like a zombie.”

Paul gave me a funny look and popped the wine into a paper bag. “I don’t know who you’re talking about, Dex.”

I looked at the lady and back at him. “Uh, you can’t see that lady there?”

He shook his head. “I think quitting smoking might have done something to your brain.”

It wasn’t quitting smoking that did something to my brain. Oh fucknuts. There was no lady, was there?

***

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