Smart money’s on Brendan and the bull getting close by end of play, and The Brain’s smart – it’s in the name and the name doesn’t lie. If he had a ten, he’d spot it against the notes saying Brendan’s run, Brendan’s hiding, Brendan caught the fifteen north.
If Brain knows one thing (and he knows more than one thing), it’s that Brendan doesn’t hide; he just goes places no one else cares enough to go. And Brendan can’t run - not even if he wants to, because there’s a rattle in his chest following him around like something hungry.
Something gnawing on him right now.
Brain stops before the racking wet cough does; he watches the last bus home pull away, then he turns and makes his way around the back of the lockers. Brendan’s crouched tight against the breezeblock, shoulders hunched over like his jacket’s right there, not down at the shop, covered in the real deal, making some lab coat excited.
“If you go, don’t go north,” Brain says, just to see if Brendan’s still paying attention.
“Why’d you care? You got nothing riding on it,” Brendan says, like there’s no such thing as too far down to be straight.
Brain crouches next to him, leans back against the cheap render and keeps his eyes ahead. “Bull’s looking, Trueman’s looking. It’s the jacket, kid -- that’s what bit you.”
Brendan doesn’t look surprised Trueman flipped, takes it under the skin just like everything else. “Came down to the jacket or me.”
Brain nods, he gets it. But - “They want words: it’s you anyway. Hope you got a tight tale.”
Brendan chokes on another cough, maybe a laugh. Brain ignores the wheeze that follows it and says, “Can’t go home, can’t stay here. You got another hole?”
“I can stay here,” Brendan says flatly. “Right here.”
Brain nods again and waits out the ticks until Brendan lists into him, dead to. He raises a hand to be sure, because unconscious is better than the fight that’s coming otherwise. Brendan’s out cold and burning hot; slipped under the sickness.
Brain’s not strong, he’s never been strong, but he’s got enough to pull an unresisting arm over his shoulders and walk, drag, carry, walk, drag, carry until they’re inside the library, right in the back stacks, where no one asks Brain any questions.
So Kara should know better - Kara knows what’s good for her - but twenty minutes later there she is, finding them like Brain’s as open as the books around him.
So maybe he is.
“He should be in a little white bed, all hooked up,” she says, looking down at Brendan, not even trying to make it sound like she cares. The pointed toe of her red, red shoe comes out to nudge at his ribs, no expression when Brendan just rolls with it. Maybe she didn’t paint one on today.
Brain doesn’t look her in the eyes - that’s how she steals your soul. Instead he flips a page in Fevers 101 and says, “Don’t you have some curtain to raise?”
“I’ve got boys for that.” She smirks and he lifts the book so she can’t see him flush like all her fresh young things.
“You’ve got places to be,” he tells her, through someone else’s words and a printed plastic veneer.
She shrugs and nods. “Of course I do. The Pin’s over, Tugger fell down, poor little Laura got shook out. All those empty hands left waiting for me to raise them up and shower them with bags of powdered dreams.”
“You’re some kind of saint, lady.” Brendan’s voice is quiet, but stronger than it was and dosed up with something not quite bitter and not quite laughing.
“You know what I am.” Kara’s shoe delicately licks out to his ribs again; he bats it away and pulls himself up until he’s slumped against the wall, slumped against Brain. Just slumped.
Kara lowers herself piece by graceful piece, until she’s sat at Brendan’s other side and Brain sees it now, there’s some devil and some angel, and a fever hot war between them.
And here he is, unarmed.
Kara comes out of the gate with, “It’s just you and me now, Dan. You and me, and you know we’re good together. You get out from under the bull, from Trueman, we could run this like The Pin never did.”
Brendan takes too long to answer – laugh and say no – so Brain does it for him, just in case. He leans to the left and hooks out one of the big, dusty slabs no one else tries to lift. Flips through to the Gs and drops (throws) it in her lap. “Good, adjective: look it up.”
Her mouth thins and maybe it would smile, if she were wearing her lips today. “Right, proper, fit,” she reads, low and sticky, like she’s rehearsed.
“Genuine,” Brendan says without looking and then lays down his answer with a, “not counterfeit.”
There’s a pause as Kara checks her lines; the dictionary slams shut under chewed up nails and Brain breathes out.
“Fine,” she says. “Waste it all.”
Brendan stares up at her, meets her eyes because his soul already came and went. “What’s to waste?”
She climbs to her feet like some marionette, dance steps all forgotten. “Then get a road, Brendan. Get it fast and get out of here.”
Brain waits until the door has slammed shut behind her – the lady likes her exits, learns them over and over – and then says, “You know if it’s not you, it’s her.”
“Then it’s her. I told you, I told Em, I told Jerr: I got no business doing business. A dose of white’s for the saps with a taste for it, I’m done.”
Brain wants to believe him, he really does. “You got words for the bull yet?”
Brendan is heavy against his shoulder; Brain can feel it when he shrugs. “It’s just a jacket.”
“Just a jacket all covered up in other people’s blood. Just your girlfriend dead. Just your – maybe your –“
Silence. Two ticks. Three ticks.
“Maybe my kid, maybe not.”
Brendan sounds locked up tighter than Brain’s ever heard, but the words went over the wall and now he’s not sure if he should pick them up or sweep them away. “So I guess I’m sorry,” he says, because he guesses he is.
Three ticks, four ticks, before Brendan says, “What’s sorry worth?”
“A C-note and a ride north, if you want it.”
Brendan turns his head just enough Brain can see the lank hair trailing in his eyes and the scratched up specs, distorting the scene. “I’m not going anywhere. I still got plays.”
Brian nods, meets nothing with nothing. “Then it’s worth a quiet night. Maybe the last one for a while, so take it.”
Brendan doesn’t move away, but he taps on the book that Kara left like so much debris. “Good.”
The Brain reads and maybe Brendan sleeps.