Starla woke with her head pounding and her stomach churning. She didn't dare move. The details of the night before were mercifully dim and Starla made no attempt to clear her mind. If she did that she'd have to face something terrible. She had more pressing matters to distract her, anyway. She would have to do something about the headache and the nausea, for starters.
Even as this thought occurred to her the pain in her head began to fade and her stomach seemed to settle.
"Okay then..." She murmured, sitting up cautiously.
Last night... She started to think. NO! Don't think about that. Think about the things you have to do today. She suddenly felt filthy. She'd need to take a shower and then she should probably go to work.
Thank god for mid-shifts, she thought. She'd go to work for a while, get off, and then have the evening to herself. Plenty of time to watch TV or go for a walk before she went to bed again. Or maybe she wouldn't go to bed. Maybe she'd go out in her night-clothes.
Yes, get up and go to work and then do whatever I damn well please... She thought.
Starla moved as if in a daze. She stared into the world and through it and it wasn't until she plodded into work and marked her time sheet that she snapped out of it. Then her mind was mercifully busy with orders and numbers and empty greetings. The bagel shop was busy. So many people wanted coffee or bagels, or both.
So many people sauntered lazily up to the counter and started off long rambles with: "Yeah, I'll take a..."
Followed by, "And a..."
As well as, "Also an..."
And often ending with, "And that'll be all."
At which point Starla smirked and muttered under her breath, "Oh, is that all?"
Today the smirk always seemed to slide off her face too quickly and something heavy and persistent kept fighting its way to the surface of her thoughts. She stubbornly pushed it back into the depths of her mind and dove into the next order with as much enthusiasm as she could muster. The day seemed to drag by.
It was getting hard to ignore the nagging feeling in the back of her head. She was putting whipped cream on top of a "frozen mocha madness" when it finally hit her. The looming monster of a thought that had been hounding her all day finally broke the surface and rattled Starla's brain.
"Oh my god." Starla said quietly, her whole body tensing. "I'm a bad person."
For a moment she thought her heart might explode in her evil little chest but she quickly relaxed into a sullen slouch. And then her mind went to war:
"I'm going to rot in hell."
"But it was an accident! You didn't kill that bastard on purpose."
"It doesn't matter. Accident or not, I violently ended someone's life and there are people who will miss him and suffer and it's all my fault."
"But he deserved what he got! He would have kept hurting innocent people if you hadn't stopped him!"
"He was a bad person and he probably would have hurt more people, but who am I to sentence him to death? Who the hell am I?"
"You're a good person. A just person."
"Part of what makes me good is that I deplore wicked people. People who think they are above the law and don't respect the rights of others are disgusting to me. They are reckless and arrogant and they don't think about the pain their actions cause."
"And so they should be punished! They--"
"Should I be punished then?"
"But I broke the law."
"No, you were just defending yourself! You--"
"I knew something about me was different. I knew that I was somehow more powerful but I was reckless and arrogant and someone died as a result. I was reckless and arrogant, just like that poor idiot... I'm just like him now, only worse because I killed. I snapped his neck when I could've just as easily have smacked him around. There is no justifying it. I was cruel, vicious..."
Starla swayed and the can of whipped cream clattered to the floor. She felt tears welling up in her eyes and it occurred to her that she should curl up into a ball on the floor.
"HEY! Can I get my mocha madness already?" An angry voice interrupted her thoughts.
Starla ran. She ignored the curious stares of the customers and the shocked cries of the staff and she ran.
"Starla! what happened?"
"What's wrong with her?"
"Where's she going? Did something happen?"
Their voices chased her out the door. For a very brief moment she considered that she might not have a job anymore but it wasn't important. It was a small matter. It might have been inconvenient for someone who deserved a home and happiness but it was nothing to Starla. Starla the reckless. Starla the murderer.
She wanted to run forever. She wanted to run until she collapsed from complete and utter exhaustion but her lungs started to hurt and she got a cramp in her side so she stopped just short of her apartment.
But she didn't go home.
It seemed silly to go home after that kind of realization. She felt more inclined to wander aimlessly and think things over again and again until her thoughts turned to gibberish. She was just about to start babbling nonsense to strangers when something struck her. It hit her like a truck hitting a deer on a winding road. It ran her over and left her twitching in its wake. One name echoed in her mind like thunder. One name that represented everything fucked up in her fucked up life.
"TRISTAN!" She screamed.
She clenched her fists and whirled around, fully expecting him to be standing just behind her.
"TRISTAN!" She screamed again.
People were starting to stare at her. She didn't care. She whirled around and around, waiting for him to come around a corner or to duck out from behind a trash can or a parked car.
"Tristan..." She hissed. "Don't be a coward. Come and face me, you crazy son of a bitch..."
Then she waited. When her legs got tired she leaned back against the rough wall of a building. When standing became impossible she slid down to the ground. The dirt, the trash, the questionable brown splotches on the pavement, none of it mattered, though she took note of it all in her usual bemused and observant way. People chattered and screeched with laughter and cars clattered by or growled like angry dogs but she ignored it all.
She even ignored the few crude comments passers by thought to throw at her. The remarks bounced off her. She waited. Patiently even.
She waited for Tristan to come. She needed to have a word with him.
And he did come, eventually. Starla was sleeping soundly when he reached her. She was slumped over and drooling like a drunk, her chin resting heavily on her chest. He watched her for a minute, momentarily amazed by her stubbornness and intensity.
She's going to have one hell of a neck-ache. He thought.
He crouched down and prodded her shoulder. She muttered and flopped over onto her side, her cheek smashing flat against the pavement. He fought back a raucous laugh and poked at her again. She barked out a strangled "What?" and bolted upright.
For a moment she only stared blankly into his eyes but slowly comprehension dawned on her and her features focused and tightened. She frowned dramatically.
"How long have you been lying here? You're lucky no one took advantage of you." Tristan smiled sweetly.
Starla could have murdered him.
"Oh no, but that would make you a bad person." Tristan said.
"I hate you." Starla replied.
Tristan grabbed her shoulders and stood, hoisting her up with him. She collapsed against him but quickly regained her balance and pushed him away. He let her go and watched her as she dusted herself off in a most dignified manner. He smiled sweetly again and she glared at him.
"I fucking hate you." She said.
"Let's go for a walk. We can talk about this." He said, reaching his hand out for hers. She slapped it away. He shrugged and started walking and she reluctantly followed.
They had walked a few blocks in silence before Starla was completely overcome by rage and had to speak.
She sharply twisted her head to the side to glare at him and said, "What the hell have you done to me?"
"I've made you stronger." He replied.
"No! You've turned me into a monster!" Starla cried passionately.
"I haven't. I only gave you the courage to be what you truly are." He said.
"So I'm a murderer by nature?"
"Not necessarily. You are fierce by nature. Most humans are." He said in a matter-of-fact voice.
"I am not a killer! I've always been a little angry but I'm not some heartless, twisted fuck who can't appreciate the value of human life. You've ruined me!" She cried, advancing on him threateningly.
"Oh, stop it. Take responsibility for your actions and forgive yourself, for the love of god. You're acting so... tortured."
"You don't understand. This is not who I am! I'm a good person!" Starla was getting desperate to make her point.
"Spare me." Tristan said, rolling his eyes. He seemed to suddenly get an idea and he stared off into the distance until Starla interrupted his reverie.
"I'm a good person." She stated.
"I'm sure you are, deep down. Deep, deep down. Let me show you something." He said, walking ahead of her.
Starla followed, frowning deeply and kicking petulantly at small rocks and litter. Such pointless little actions were distracting and she needed distraction. She let it absorb all of her attention, as she did most things. She kicked at a particularly colorful stone and went out of her way to keep it tumbling ahead of her. Tristan didn't look back but every sound she made painted a picture in his mind. How he loved her silly, sweet, childish behavior...
He led her on and they were both silent until a strong scent reached them. Starla lifted her head and tested the air and moments later something black and swirling caught her eye. It was twirling up from between two buildings just ahead and to their left.
"Smoke." She said softly.
"Yes, oh observant one." Tristan said mockingly.
"Asshole." She observed, before darting past him to investigate.
She found herself running toward the chaos once she realized what was happening. A building was burning and there were people tumbling out of it, coughing and crying. She stopped next to a woman who was screaming frantically.
"My baby girl is in there! My Anna! Oh god, someone help her!" The woman cried, and then she tried to rush through the front entrance. The fire drove her back out and she crumpled into a sobbing heap on the pavement.
Starla watched the sobbing woman, horrified, and then she turned to face Tristan. He was where she had left him and watching her intently, a curious expression on his face. For a moment smoke obscured her vision and he seemed a shimmering apparition.
The stupid bastard, why doesn't he help? She thought. I have to do something...
Then all thought stopped and Starla rushed into the building. Fire swirled around her, singing her hair and making her sweat. Within seconds her whole body was wet with sweat and her eyes and lungs were stinging from the thick smoke. It didn't matter. She climbed the stairs, dodging flaming bits of debris.
"Anna!" She cried over and over until she had no breath left. She climbed ever upward, choking and gasping.
Anna, where the hell are you? I don't even know what floor you're on! She thought. She pushed on, calling out and searching with bleary eyes. She kicked open doors and ransacked abandoned apartments. Then she heard it...
A tiny yet insistent mewing. The tiny voice of a tiny creature in distress. Starla launched herself at a door and it caved in, fiery bits of wood flying in every direction. The sound was louder now. She moved toward it, now crawling on the floor, thick black smoke churning above her. The sound was coming from underneath a coffee table.
"Meeeeeeeeew!" it said.
"I've got you!" Starla cried, plunging her arm deep under the low, wooden table. She pulled the kitten, clawing and crying, out from under the table and cradled it against her chest. She felt a moment of triumph and then she heard a horrible rumbling. The building was unstable. Parts of it were collapsing in flame.
She made quickly for the door and for what seemed like an eternity she slid, hopped, and tumbled downward.
I have to get out of here fast or I'm going to die... She thought as all hell seemed to break loose. She kept moving, even when she couldn't breathe. Even when she couldn't see. She kept moving because there was nothing else she could do. Giving up was not an option. Searing pain engulfed her. The kitten screamed out its displeasure.
For the briefest moment she considered the possibility of defeat. She considered that firemen might dig her crisp corpse out of the fallen, burnt out building. But then she saw something bright moving ahead. It was light reflecting off of something.
It was light reflecting off of water. Water, which blasted her and sent her flying back the way she had come. She screamed loud and long. The water let up.
Starla burst out into the world, wet, soiled, and gasping for clean air.
She crawled to her feet and brushed aside the people who tried to restrain her. She heard a woman wailing like a maniac and many manly voices shouting commands to each other.
She moved instinctively and inevitably across the street and dropped to the ground right at Tristan's feet. She lay there for many long moments, breathing heavily and marveling at the speed of her body's recovery. Her vision started to clear and the ache in her lungs slowly let up. She felt Tristan's fingers curl around her arm and she was soon on her feet and moving quickly away from the madness.
"Meeeew!" The kitten cried.
Starla had almost forgotten that she had the little creature clutched to her breast. It had given up struggling and opted for mewing pathetically.
"Meeeew!" It repeated.
Starla wanted to stop and examine it but Tristan was still leading her firmly away. It wasn't until the sound of sirens and screaming was faint that he stopped to let her rest. Starla plopped down at the foot of some stairs and gazed curiously down at her new little friend. It was hard to tell what color the kitten was with all the soot smeared into it's coat, but she guessed that it was probably gray with patches of white.
An adorable little creature. She thought. Then she felt Tristan watching her. She was almost afraid to meet his gaze.
She looked up to see him smirking at her, his arms crossed against his chest.
"You couldn't save little Anna, could you. Or did you even try?" He asked, his face full of mock concern.
Starla clutched the kitten tighter and it let out a long mew of protest.
"You crazy son of a bitch. You led me right to that building. You knew it was on fire! Why didn"t you save that little girl?" She yelled.
"Don't be angry with me just because you failed. You could have saved her, you know, if you had just gone a little further, but you just had to stop and save a kitten." He said.
Starla was flustered and for a while all she could manage were random curses and gasps. "Well, if you want to know the truth I don't think anyone who is dumb enough to leave her child in a burning building should be breeding anyway!" She finally spat.
Tristan laughed hard and loud and clapped her on the shoulder. "Finally we can agree on something!" He said, wrapping an arm around her.
"Don't touch me. I hate you." She said lamely, though she made no move to escape him.
I'm a bad person. She resolved. There is no hope for me.
"Come on, we've got to get you out of these clothes, and then maybe I'll take you out to dinner. I know this great little joint with burgers that are to die for." Tristan said, tugging her along.
"Mew!" said the kitten.