Ajax reached out to touch the liquid pooling on the street. It was heavy and thick, and much darker than his own blood. It crawled down his hand and clung like oil, but he could smell the bloody reek of it.
He stared at it, then swore and tried to wipe it off— first on the pavement, then a tree trunk, and finally his jeans. He left black smears everywhere but he only really succeeded in spreading it further over his hand. It was disgusting. At last he gave up and headed home, to soap and water.
His house was white, with a peaked roof and porch. There’d been a fence when he’d been younger but it had been torn down as the neighborhood worsened. The lights were still on, but avoiding Leo and his dad seemed like a trivial concern. Or at least it did, until he banged the front door open and Leo said, “Hey! I just had that door painted!”
Ajax ground his teeth together and shook black blood onto the new linoleum. It had been stained and curling forever, but Leo had replaced it one day. Ajax never knew you could scam new linoleum, but somehow Leo managed it. Jim, Ajax’s father, had loved it, of course. Leo was his golden boy.
“What the hell, A!” But Ajax ignored Leo, and went to the sink. In the fluorescent lights of the kitchen the blood really was black.
Leo followed him into the kitchen. His father’s ‘business partner’ was five inches shorter than Ajax, and five years older. Leo had carefully styled dark hair and a flashing white smile he used as punctuation. He and Ajax’s father Jim were partners in a number of get-rich schemes that always seemed to require a ton of computer equipment in the front room and Leo living in the spare bedroom, rent-free.
“Where have you been, man? Your dad was getting really worried. And then you come in, banging the door, without even an explanation. What’s that on your hands? Been working on a car? Hey, my car needs some work done.”
“Shut up.” The heavy duty soap and vigorous scrubbing got most of the crap off.
“Hey, A. Don’t be like that, it was just a suggestion. I’ve got something better for you to do anyhow—”
Leo narrowed his eyes. “I’ll tell your dad you’re home.”
Ajax returned to cleaning the black blood out from under his nails, working at them ferociously with a worn scrub brush.
“Why are you being rude to Leo, Ajax?” His father’s mild voice broke his focus.
Ajax refused to look up. He didn’t need to see his father’s weedy salt-and-pepper beard, his concerned, disappointed gaze. Ajax’s mother had always talked about how handsome his father was, and even now he had a tidy charm that convinced most people he was harmless.
“Because he wouldn’t shut up.”
His father sighed. “He was just worried about you, kiddo. You stay out all night, you’re never around to help out at home. Leo had to buy groceries yesterday.” He paused, waiting for a response that didn’t come. “You could be making yourself useful to us but instead you run around town with your friends. Leo really thinks you have a lot of potential. I’d just like it if you could be respectful to my business partner. You could surprise me sometime.”
Ajax clenched his hands on the edge of the sink to stop them from closing into fists.
“So are you working on cars now? What happened to the job at the hardware store?”
From the door, Leo chuckled. “You were fired, you mean. That attitude of yours. Well, it’s okay, A. We’ll find something to keep you busy.”
Ajax’s father moved a bit closer, dropped a hand on his shoulder, and lowered his voice. “I know you don’t like him, Ajax. But admit it, things have been better since we started working together. He has a lot of great ideas.”
“Sure,” mumbled Ajax. “He’s the son you wish you’d had.” He ducked away from his father and went upstairs to his room.
His own line drawings were interspersed with posters, carefully papering over damaged walls. He drew monsters as easily as he drew girls he’d seen on the street. The room looked like a mess, but he had a system— not the careless system of people who can’t be bothered to clean up, but the system of someone who laid traps in the mess of cans and old books and cd cases, and who used the disturbance in the drifts to track when his space had been invaded. Only the desk was neat, with pencils, pens and stacks of paper carefully arranged beside an ancient laptop.
Ajax pulled clothes out of the box half-full of clean laundry at the foot of the bed and changed, taping up the wound in his side first. Then he stretched out on his naked mattress, kicking a blanket away.
He couldn’t get the black blood out of his head, even though he’d gotten it off his hand. It was still all over his jeans. What the hell was that thing? He stared up at the pictures of monsters on his walls, then got up and sat at his desk. First he sketched the monster that he’d fought. He stared at it for a moment then realized his hand had kept on working, sketching in more monsters around the edge of the page. He hadn’t seen any other monsters tonight, had he?
He knew he hadn’t. But his gaze fell on the tears across his shoe, and his hand touched the injury in his side, and he wondered if he was going crazy.
Ajax threw the pencil down and stood up. It was quiet and dark downstairs, and he knew where Leo kept his bottle of whiskey. A fair trade for all the things Leo had stolen, and how else would he sleep tonight?