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[Fiction] Past is Prologue


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“No more… Please…”

Neurosis stood over the last remaining gangbanger as he writhed in pain on the sidewalk. His compatriots had long since abandoned the fight, retreating into the shadowy alleys of Oakland’s streets. Even if it wasn’t a new moon and the closest lamplights were busted out, Neurosis wouldn’t have bothered to pursue them. He had given the Kevins enough footage for the filler they needed, and so his work was done for the day.

“Good job, man,” fat Kevin said with a smile, taking his camera from his shoulder. “I especially liked how you accused the one guy of destruction of property when he dropped the television he was jacking. Cute touch.”

“It’s a good thing we caught these guys in the act,’ thin Kevin chimed in. “We were lacking a good fifteen minutes of action, but even after editing, now we should have more than enough.”

Neurosis snorted. “It isn’t hard to find scum like this these days. When I was kid, my Dad told me about how L.A. used to be pretty glamorous, back when Hollywood was the pinnacle of the entertainment industry. Now all the celebrities, dilettantes and high-brow escorts have all relocated to Bollywood to whore their respective selves out there. Sure, there are a few enclaves of out-of-fashion has-beens and patriotic action heroes still lingering around the north side, but everything east of Rodeo Drive has gone to absolute shit. Nothing but crack dens and stinking barrios.”

Thin Kevin shrugged. “Still, at least we got a bunch of bad guys in our backyard you can go beat up whenever we need some film. Couldn’t get that in Bombay.”

“All the same, Kev, I’d much rather have high-class vice over the second-rate stuff,” Neurosis said. “Now let’s load up the stuff and get out of here.”

Giving the gangbanger one more swift kick in the side, Neurosis joined his cameramen as they piled into their N! Network van and drove away.


It wasn’t the fanciest place in the world, but it was home.

Neurosis had been living in his Santa Monica apartment for a few years now, ever since he had moved back to the city looking to use his newfound quantum powers to land a TV deal. Alexus, his girlfriend, had long been voicing her dissatisfaction with their residence and her desire to move someplace nicer, like A-A or Paris or Bombay or virtually anywhere that had four-star shopping plazas and restaurants. As he was often reminded, her mother strongly agreed with her opinion. Despite her complaints about L.A, Alexus still found a way to help Neurosis bleed his bank account faster than he could refill it.

He passed the two goons in suits that stood guard at the stairs leading up to the second tier. N! had hired them at his insistence, to prevent any potential stalkers, paparazzi or any other unwelcome guests from getting entrance. There had been a few disturbing packages mailed containing undergarments and requests for bodily fluids by a lonely housewife in Bakersfield, but those had stopped for now and nothing threatening had been discerned. While the goons probably weren’t enough to stop a truly determined intruder, so far Neurosis and his nascent fame hadn’t stirred any such dedicated nutjobs.

Dim lights provided just enough illumination for him to make it along the balcony. He rapped on the door and waited for the series of clicks and squeaks that meant the locks were being released. As the heavy door swung open, a thin, curvaceous woman in her twenties stood in the doorframe, one hand on the doorknob and another on her hip. A strand of chestnut hair hung over a delicate face, unable to block the force of her brilliant emerald eyes.

“I ordered that pizza from Nova Express an hour ago. What took you long?”

Neurosis grinned. “Funny. Sorry, babe. Filming ran late. Me and the guys had to drive around looking for some thugs to batter for the sake of entertainment.”

Her eyes fell and her smile went crooked, and Neurosis sensed just enough to know that she was suppressing displeasure. Alexus liked the money and the attention just as much as anyone, but naturally she wasn’t warming up to the drawbacks of being romantically involved with a public figure. Mixed amounts of isolation and overexposure were enough to get on anyone’s nerves, as if being a baseline intimately involved with a superhuman trying to break through as a TV icon wasn’t taxing enough. She formerly had been a pampered party type used to being the center of a spotlight, a spotlight she directed. Asking her to give up Daddy’s riches, nightly bacchanals and a generally normal life had not been easy, but it hadn’t just been Neurosis’ powers of persuasion that had convinced her.

“How big a dent did you make with our credit card today?” Neurosis asked. Rightfully, he should have said “my credit card” since Alexus had not bothered to find herself a job and showed no intention of hunting for one anytime soon. But she was a proud woman and Neurosis knew he couldn’t very well preach about fiscal responsibility.

“I picked you up some dinner like you asked,” she replied. Her dodging the question implied the dent was pretty big. Neurosis decided not to press the issue and to satisfy the huge appetite that had been crying for gratification since late afternoon instead. “It’s in the microwave. Guapo Taco. Hope you like it.”

No, he probably wouldn’t like nuked fast food, but it was better than nothing. As it stood, he could have eaten a few stables worth of horses…

Swinging open the door, he found two crumpled paper bags. Emptying them, he stood there for a moment, counting a dozen chalupas over and over again in his head. Then, with piercing eyes, he stared across the kitchen counter at Alexus.

“Twelve chalupas?” he asked quietly. Then, he raised his voice. “Twelve chalupas? What the fuck am I supposed to do with twelve fucking chalupas? This isn’t going to hold me over until tomorrow! What the fuck were you thinking?!”

She tried to look indignant, but the blush in her cheeks revealed her shame. “Look, I’m sorry, all right? I picked you up what you asked for, but… I got the munchies… And they smelled so good…”

Neurosis sighed loudly, rubbing his head. He could feel a headache coming on. “Hey, I get the munchies too. Difference is, you get yours sitting here smoking up and watching U.N. Peacekeeper while I’m out using my powers to earn a paycheck. It’s bad enough you’re a Jewish American Princess with a need to own every latest fashionable piece of shit out there, but do you have to be a goddamn pothead too?”

Such anger and hurtful name-calling would have likely driven off most self-respecting women. But Alexus just looked defeated and embarrassed, eager to defend herself and win back Neurosis’ approval. He had that kind of effect on people.

“I’m sorry, baby. Really, I am… I was hungry, okay? Look, there’s some Tasty Pouches in the freezer. Why don’t you just heat them up? You’re just grouchy ‘cause you haven’t eaten, baby, that’s all.”

Neurosis slammed a hand down on the counter. “Tasty Pouches? Broccoli-and-cheese Tasty Pouches! Do you think I want to eat those with some Mexican food?” The truth was, he was hungry enough not to care what it tasted like. But if you had the power to push someone without fear of having them push back, it was pretty easy to abuse it.

“Please stop yelling at me,” she said, starting to choke up. “I’ll do better next time. Just, please, don’t be angry at me.” Tears started to slip down her cheeks, falling down to chin, dropping on wringing hands.

“Oh God, here comes the waterworks,” Neurosis said, shaking his head. He tossed the chalupas into the microwave, banging the door shut and punching the digits for ten minutes. He grabbed a large jug of red Powerade from the fridge – they sold them big enough for novas now – and twisted off the cap with uncalled for speed and strength. He took a deep gulp, wiping his lips with the back of his arm. “I’m going to my room.”

Alexus took the dismissal and went to a couch in the living room, sobbing softly in the shadow of the giant plasma screen TV that hung on the wall. She emitted feelings of guilt, sadness and frustration that only pissed Neurosis off more.

Neurosis waited silently for the microwave to finish its task, taking a few more swigs from the bottle. Grabbing his plate and almost stomping to his bedroom, he flicked on a light and shut the door behind him.

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Sitting alone on the mattress he and Alexus shared, Neurosis ate like a greedy pig until his plate was covered in open greasy wrappers. He wasn’t sated, but it was enough for a while. He reached down to the foot of the bed and tapped a combination into the keypad of a small steel safe. As the door swung open, he pulled out a shoebox and yanked off the cover.

Inside were large piles of photographs, letters, documents. A diploma from San Diego State in philosophy was at the top. Casting it aside onto the comfy down comforter, Neurosis sorted through documents of what seemed like someone else’s life. The pictures were of a man who looked a lot like Neurosis – almost identical, in fact. Except in many of the pictures, the man looked so happy he seemed completely innocent and naïve. Hopeful and optimistic. The self-confidence was the same, but it was a different kind – not the kind that comes from self-reliance, but from dependency on something else.

In most of the photos was the “something else.” A tall, skinny – one might say frail – woman with neck-long blonde hair and a smile bright enough to radiate every dank corner of the world. She had fierce blue eyes that could rival the intensity of Neurosis’ own brown ones. There wasn’t a single photo where she didn’t look cheerful, although she looked happiest in the photos with Neurosis’ “twin.”

Neurosis tapped a finger on a profile picture of the woman. The words escaped his lips in a whisper. “Emily…”

His mind drifted back to a past he had put far behind him. He thought of her in high school, of holding hands and stealing kisses and learning about love through awkward expressions. He thought of the expressions getting better with experience, of promises and commitment made before the consequences could be fully appreciated. He thought of a college campus and long walks and study sessions and two clever kids prepared to live their dreams. A wedding cake, a white dress, a honeymoon that was too short by eternity.

Then he thought of failure and disappointment, hardships and heartbreak. But resiliency and vows resurfaced, replaced by resolve and encouragement. She had stood by him as he had pursued his entertainment career, his passion for acting, drama, glory, fame, fortune. She had worked her fair share of dead-end jobs to help make the rent, just as he had his – stand-up comedian, rent-a-cop, waiter, caddy, and so on and so forth. But it was never enough. He never rose above being just another extra, getting a brief spot on screen while nova actors with their astonishing abilities hogged all the big parts. He had resented them, the superhumans… Not hated, as some did and still do, but he couldn’t have helped but be bitter.

But she could never be bitter. She just couldn’t do it. She joked about how she could make more money selling herself on the street than they could make all week put together. But she had been too pure for that, too honest and wholesome for him to have ever believed it possible. He earnestly believed they could make it, find their big break, that it was always darkest before the rise of morning. He believed it because she believed it.

Then the child came.

It (He? She? What difference did it make?) was never born. It just hung around in her belly for a couple of months, getting bigger and kicking harder. It was another mouth to feed, one that didn’t carry its weight. And because of it, she couldn’t carry her weight either. But he never complained. He was the dutiful husband, the bold and stoic master of his domain. She was only glad to receive the extra help and intimacy that he offered, and she returned it in turn for his sacrifices and sweat.

In his mind Neurosis saw himself – back then, just Johnny Malkav – walk whistling into a decrepit high rise, totally ignorant of the harsh realities of the world. Walking on brittle stained glass, expertly crafted by the one true love of life. He couldn’t see the bottomless pit beneath.

He saw Johnny Malkav start up the stairs, probably thinking of giving her a tight hug, of kissing her full on the lips, on rubbing the bundle of joy waiting to pop out of her and into their lives.

He saw Johnny Malkav halt in his tracks as he saw two men waiting for him. Two men dressed very officially, with pressed trousers, polished shoes and broad overcoats. Two men with very solemn and humorless faces standing outside the door of his small one bedroom apartment.

He saw Johnny Malkav hear the news that his wife and unborn child had died in an electrical accident. The details of the accident were incomprehensible, because inside Johnny Malkav’s head, there was nothing but the searing flame of loss and pain burning up from his heart. All Johnny Malkav did was stare off into space, his jaw hanging down a few centimeters like some stupid animal in the headlights, not realizing it’s already dead.

Then Neurosis saw Johnny Malkav erupt.

It started with a loud scream, which given the circumstances would have been a very understandable reaction. Johnny Malkav fell on all fours, bawling his soul out. Strangely, though, the two men, complete and total strangers, did the same. Screaming and sobbing. Echoes of grief and tragedy. Soon, they were nothing more than instruments of awful sound, loudly lamenting a disaster that was otherwise unknown to them. All they knew was what they felt – the greatest sorrow they had ever known.

Yet they hadn’t really known. Johnny Malkav had just manipulated them, their feelings changed to his and then powerfully augmented by a superhuman who didn’t know his own strength. And from that fateful day had come Neurosis.

The box fell from his head. The papers and pictures littered the carpet, spilling across the floor, a lifetime of memories breaking into pieces like shattered glass. It took a few moments for Neurosis to regain his composure, to collect the shards and put them back into their container, neat and proper. Without words or tears, he put them back in the safe. He had no words or tears, for he had long given up on both as a way to escape the loss he could never escape.

As he shut the safe door, he felt a cold breeze on the nape of his neck. Looking up, he was shocked to see her standing before him. Not Alexus. Her.

“Darling, what are you doing?” The happiness on her face, the warmth emanating from her… It was enough to make one think she had never died.

“Go away,” Neurosis murmured, running a hand through his hair. “You’re not real. You’re just a part of my imagination.”

“What are you talking about, honey?” She extended a hand from the flowing white robe she wore. “I’ve never left you. I can never leave you.”

Neurosis forced his eyes shut. “No. You’re gone. I’ve moved on. I’ve left all that behind me now.”

Her hand touched the back of his head. He could feel her. But she wasn’t there. No, not really. She was a sign, a symbol, part of a fragmented psyche that couldn’t repair itself. She was the landmark of a descent into madness, a directional arrow pointing down into an abyss of wailing hurt.

“You’re not there,” he muttered. “Get away from me.”

“Johnny,” she called, her voice as sweet as a hundred sirens. “Come with me. I’ll make it all better. I promise…”

“Get away from me!”

The strength of his shout surprised even himself. Calming down, he peered around the room. Nothing. He was alone. Just like before.

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It was several hours before Neurosis woke up from sleep. It was a sweet smell that woke him. It was sharp and poignant, and it reminded him of dorm rooms and psychedelic music, jam bands and philosophical discussions like the kind he used to love.

Going into the living room, he found Alexus sitting very relaxed on the couch, a little white joint between two fingers. She exhaled a large puff of smoke into the air, which circled around her face, giving her a sort of mystique that enhanced her beauty. If he didn’t know better, he would have at that moment claimed he loved her, flaws and all.

He snuck up on her slowly, letting the marijuana and the tunes from their stereo distract her long enough until he was right on top of her. She didn’t detect his presence until he was right behind her, touching her shoulders, sliding fingers through her hair. She smiled, cooed, adjusted herself against pillows like an infant in its crib.

“Hey, baby,” she said, without any of the despair she felt earlier. “How are you doing?”

“Not as good as you, from the smell of things,” he said. He began to rub her shoulders in a slow, rhythmic motion. “Look, I’m sorry about earlier…”

She cut off his apology before he could start. “Do you really care about me, Johnny? I mean, really? Why do you keep me around if all I do is piss you off?”

He bit his bottom lip. This was going to take some finesse.

“Alexus, listen to me.” He leaned down, his mouth inches from her left ear. “Baby, I need you. The things we do, the time we spend together… It keeps me going. You know, to me, you’re not just another baseline. You’re a link to a world that’s lost to me simply because I was born with this little node in my brain. I didn’t ask to become what I am today, but here I am. And super-powers or no super-powers, I still need you.”

They weren’t his words. But he said them with enough sincerity that even he could believe he meant it.

“No one understands me like you do. The fans, the network… They see me for the image I project. But you… You’re the only one who I let inside. Do you think I would just drop my armor for just anyone? Of course I care for you. The TV show… the money… the fame… All that shit is just fleeting. Part of the career. But you… What you and I share… That’s personal.”

That’s bullshit, he thought. She was totally expendable. A cute little distraction to wrap himself up with on what would be otherwise lonely nights. Lonely nights he would spend probably spend thinking of himself and his past.

“I yell and get angry only because I work so hard. Not for me, but for us. I want us to have the best life together possible. You make me mad sometimes, baby… But you also make me the happiest damn man left in L.A.”

She smiled, believing all of it.

“I trust you, baby,” she said, touching his face. “I love you.”

I could make you even if you didn’t, he thought. And it was true. He could.

She turned around, taking another hit. But this time she choked. She stared at him, her face full of disbelief and fright. Her lips trembled as she shrunk back from his touch, stammering to find the words.

She looked into two eyes that were no longer eyes. They were a pair of spirals, circling into each other in an infinite coil. They looked like the old hypnosis movies used in ancient science fiction movies, when the villain would try and turn the hero into his unwitting fiend. And they struck out from the face of Neurosis, trapping her in mid-movement, shooting into her mind as his words had just shot into her heart.

Neurosis raised an eyebrow. “What’s wrong, baby?”

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