first

first


Her hands were warm.


You remember that much.


Her hands were curled around you, propping you up against the stage at three AM, dress drenched in sick and spilt wine. Until her hands were no longer there, letting you fall limp against the stage.


The lights are so pretty from here.


...


"You don't know anything about life, you're just a pretty boy." Anger, perhaps, at weakness. Maybe more that your will has been ground down to nothing, broken somewhere along the way with the countless alcohol fuelled nights and disaster filled performances, hands clinging to cloth and skin and so much more. 


You cannot look at your hands, they're not really part of you. Not in the same way your eyes are, or your face, or any of that. Your hands are just part of the job. "Buy me a drink and tell me about the Colorado lights."


...


Bitter behind the face, silent behind your tongue. It's cold, it's not for you, and you've never quite been so hungry. And the light on the stage and the people out there, they're all too loud and too there and too everywhere. There's no break from it, your hands pulling you desperately forward, gaunt and thin, careful bands hiding wrists and elbows and veins and whatever you decide is needed to make it through this night.


God. 


...


This isn't the first breakdown on stage, but it hurts all the more because of it. Knocked out heroin chic, half naked, struggling to breathe, half dead from alcohol poisoning, and Lucy's taken your place, raking in whatever's left of your money.


You'd buy a gun if it was cheaper then blacking it all out and starting over, anyway.


...


What were you thinking, anyway? Dancing softly with her, tears held back, both of you drifting between dreams that won't ever happen and god god god god god god. She's so warm, so full of life, she's got butterflies and all of that, and she's got a future and she's so has been, she's got everything and she's more running on nothing then you are, she's got three shots of miracle left and she's going to give you one and it's all gonna be over by morning.


It's gonna be all over by morning, and you're gonna wake up in a cold bed, hearing her retch into the toilet, and it's all gonna be over by morning.


...


Jimmy's got one thing going for him, and that's what he can't get, he'll buy.


He pities you. You don't blame him. He's got sad eyes, and you're sure he'd leap all over to help you if you aren't just as much of a washup as the rest of 'em. At least you're no villain, caught up in madness and fear and lust and needing the money to break out of a cycle.


That's Lucy, alright. She robs from the beggars to save herself from starving on the streets, and not even noble ones. Ones who's biggest concern is keeping afloat, hanging day by day, hoping someone finally kills you for being worthless. Maybe the Kaiser'll roll out the plans. Maybe the Chancellor will finally put out those human decency laws. Maybe the Reds will string you by your thumbs, and if the Reds don't, maybe the Church will. 


And by that time, maybe Lucy will be free and she'll be replaced by some new starving scrapper urchin, looking for warmth and food and some fun and companionship. 


...


She's got her hands in your hair, combing and braiding it out. She owns a mirror, she does it for her own pleasure. She's not as defeated as you are, she hasn't given up her sense of self, she hasn't surrendered it all to the machine. "Jimmy said he'd get up some uppers this time. Take us out to see the stars, Emily." She's the only one who knows. She knows and she knows and she knows and if that "I think the fresh air will do us some good. You can use it, you've been stuck performing for so many days now. We'll get some uppers and watch the stars and it'll be good. It'll be good. It'll be good. Y'know? It'll be good. It'll be good, Emily, it'll be good." 


...


It may be skimpy and nearly nothing, but it's something. You're more real then you have ever been.


...


When the boss comes around, it's only because he hears the Union's in town. What does he think, anyway, in his suits? A strung out bunch of jokers who got nothing to live for are gonna unionise? Gonna strike and let the mad folk have their way out of Mike's wary gaze?


No. You may be meat, but at least meat's protected. None of those filth will lay a hand on you without the right sum. And that's all you got, and if that's all you got, then don't give it up for promises. She said that, before she went and got herself killed on a hell of a binge and brought Jimmy to tears.


And then you don't think about it, cause Mike doesn't care about corpses. She's somewhere out there in the starlight though. And maybe one day you'll show up there, too, and you can smile and wave and just be.


...


Lucy's stopped by, she's wearing overalls, she works at the mill, she comes by to see you. She calls you a fighter, she wants to help you, she's afraid of what you've become.


She's afraid of what you will become. And she's got regrets, so she holds you and tries to get you clean, tries to bring out one of those fucking Reds to come and help you, and what are they going to do? Not much. They fucking abandoned you once. He comes by and he's covered in sick and slime, and he sits down and he tries to convince you to detox like you're not in some brutal neverending dream and he can't make you see reason. He can't make you not see Helene, and she can't get you out. 


You don't want to get out, anymore. Stage is hers, place is hers. Where she was exploited, sure. Where she was destroyed so systematically and brutally that the Church is to blame. Sure. But Helene's here, caught in a trap of drugs and alcoholism and nailbiting and disease and... no. She's here though, her hair's in the shower drain, her skin flakes are in your sheets, her lipstick is on her bloody broken mirror, her needles lie in a drinking class. It's all hers. And yours, but every minute of every waking hour and every sleeping minute of every hour she's everywhere. 


You don't want to give that up.


...


The lights are so pretty from here.


...


And Jimmy's back, he's got the news, they're losing the war, they're dragging whatever's left of this hellish world out there against the French. And he's got draft cards for the clubs, and he's distributing without looking, and he doesn't say anything.


He don't even smile. He just sits back, sipping his bitter beer, sipping and watching as the sun comes up. He holds a gun in his left hand, didn't think you could get one of those. Not with the rations.


He shows you, just so you know, and then it goes back in Jimmy's bag of tricks and ways to make your life worth living.


...


Lucy shows up one last time, she's got marching orders, she wants you to run away with her, but you won't do it. You won't leave Helene. They'll drag you out screaming and kicking, bleeding bloody murder before they do. You don't know why Lucy tries anymore. She's out, she's got a war in France to dream up. She goes to the Rhine, where they bleed out like demons and diamonds from the Congo. Maybe she makes it out of the trenches and gas attacks. Maybe she doesn't, and the Reichstag stamps another one of their skulls above their mantlepiece and coalition with the Reds. You'd say something ironically if it wouldn't hurt her, and hurt you more.


She puts on her tan helmet, then, kisses your hand, and leaves through the door like it's her last.


But there ain't no like, that's the last you'll see of Lucy. Even if she survives the Rhine, she gets a military pension, she gets an apartment in Berlin, and she doesn't see anymore of the rundown shuttered towns here. She gives you a locket, which goes with Helene's.


...


Boss comes by, he buys you a drink, says he's bought his way out. Offers to buy you out, too. He's frank, at least. Not because he cares, but because you're the only one left besides Jimmy and Mike who hasn't been drafted to go stand on the damnable front that sits on the Wester, sits presumably where Lucy lies in some godforsaken field if she didn't bite it in the retreat from the Rhine. Takes you a few times, but you turn him down. You laugh so bitterly, they'll never accept someone like you. 


The Boss concedes that you're right with a grin, nobody ever will. And he clinks your glass, and maybe he's an asshole, but he's honest, and that's about as good of a thing you get here, and he won't let some of the bastard workers get you, so you smile back. 


...


Third round today, haven't talked in a week. No reason too. You step out on the stage, no bands covering the blood stained arms you sport, no pants to cover your picked at legs, and you take your pay and you go see what Jimmy's got left and waste your morning in Helene's bed making yourself sick all over.


You got nightmares, you get things attacking you, you're crawling with mice, you're lousy with bugs. Shake so much that even one of the regulars got concerned, but Jimmy just shrugs and says that it's your life to ruin. with a bitter frown, saying that he wishes that maybe it wasn't your life to ruin. And you get curled up tight, bedsheets pulled over your face, dotted in dried blood and you got no idea if it's Helene's or yours or maybe somewhere along the way those two things stopped being separate and now it's just together, together for whatever point there is. 


...


She's so warm.


When was the last time you felt something so... warm?


...


Jimmy's got himself the kit now, he's off to Luneburg Heath, and maybe he'll find Lucy in Heaven, cause he ain't going.


...


Boss comes around now, serves the drinks with a frown, he gets you what you need though. And the regulars have gotten halved or maybe quartered to fight in the fucking war, and there's practically no money and the drugs just send into worst hallucinations and nightmares but you get so bored without it. And you hate doing it and you hate being off, and you hate living it, and you hate being away, and at this point you might as well just enlist to go meet your fucking maker in Luneburg Heath but maybe you won't and maybe you will, but you won't because the Boss has paid your dues and you won't leave Helene. 


So now you're back on stage until Mike has to take to it, dragging your unconscious, overdosed body into the backroom and dousing you in water and shoving you back out, and he doesn't he want to do it. Neither does the Boss, but you don't miss out on the performance because it's a different kind of raw burning hatred.


It's old, it's so fucking old. It's been here with you for so long and it's yours. And maybe it hurts the most, but every fucking Papiermark just means you get to hate yourself in different ways. And Mike's begging you to stop, he's crying, he's got no soul and even he can't take it. And the regulars don't even watch, they give you money out of pity, and it's so ritualised and in the end you're just a bloody charity case.


But you know what tonight is? Boss has his hands on some miracles and you'll see if you can't get as high as a blimp and sort out your goddamn life from two thousand kilometres in space.


...


"Miss?"


...


They got pretty much all the regulars now, it's just you and the Boss. Mike's gone to dance with Satan on the Elbe, and you ain't making anything, and you're stuck in Helene's room coming down cold from what feels like a decade of bad decisions. Boss won't do it anymore.


...


Special holiday, you're out there, you're paying some fucking dealer upcharged prices for the worst, but you're feeling awful again and that's all you want. And they're raising the prices to avoid the draft and the Boss can't pay and you won't, not that you could. And the Empire's on it's last fucking legs, and you can't even remember if they shot the Reds this month or last month.


At least they fucking did.


...


They did it, Boss is out on the bum. He cried as you just sat there in shocked silence, sent to the worst part of the war because the Kaiser won't admit defeat and his cronies sure won't go against him. You don't know what to say, or maybe you're too high and bloody to say anything at all. He's closing it up and now you've got nothing but hunger and Helene's room now, and he leaves tomorrow. And he doesn't even bother anymore, he's just drinking whatever he can get his hands on. He says you're the best fucking employee he's ever had, and that's not a compliment. He says the last part, looking at you, and for the first time, maybe a flash of regret shows.


...


You've been hunting rats for the past few days to not starve to death. Your stockpile is dwindling, and soon you won't even be able to function anymore. You know exactly where Helene went, when you run out.


...


She's carrying you out, she's carrying you to the hospital, the Entente-Cordiale's got your British citizenship and they're wondering what the fuck the Germans did to you. They didn't even pogrom you this time.


She doesn't leave your side, you don't know why, not until she says her name. And then it's like a whole new chapter of your disastrous life closes as the guns fall silent all across Berlin and the Great War ends on the backs of ninety million dead. Too many to know, too many people gone to even learn if anyone survived.


Except you and her. British soldier meets half-starved worthless bitch, hauls you out, and then waits for you again anyway.


They say you'll make a full recovery, but they say many things anyway. Like that you'd amount to something.


Maybe that doesn't matter, as you rest your head against a pillow and decide to listen to her play the guitar. It's been years since you've really heard music.


She's quite good, you think. You wonder if you can play as well as her one day.