(DISCLAIMER: This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. It’s important to remember this is all totally fabricated, embellished, and exaggerated for entertainment purposes.)
Your soul is oftentimes a battlefield, upon which your reason
and your judgment wage war against your passion and your appetite.
Kahlil Gibran – The Prophet
***TRIGGER WARNING: SELF-HARM***
New York, New York
The concrete bit into the bare soles of my feet like sandpaper. Up here, the wind was earsplitting, roaring past my head like a freight train. Ready to knock me forward if I weren’t careful. Despite the onset of spring, it was freezing cold. Not a bit of warmth inhabited my body. After picking myself up off the floor, I’d come outside in nothing but my t-shirt and briefs, juddering all over. Now the atmosphere was shrinking and the sky crashing down on me.
Is this what you want? I asked no one in particular; voice a panicky whimper. I stared ahead, entranced at the shape of the world from this high up. A concrete jungle. Urban decay, or at least inside my mind. My vision was blurred; hot tears pouring from my eyes as if a tap had sprung a leak at the rear of my brain. I couldn’t stop it if I tried.
Sobbing, gibbering, drooling, I stood on the ledge of the roof, teetering toward the vacuum below. An uproarious hellhole that somehow promised quiet. A refuge. An unending retreat from life’s scrutiny. An escape from the mortification to come. Trouble was, I would never be forgotten. They would never stop sharing the photos. Virality would be an understatement. It was a coward’s way out, no doubt, but who said I ever desired to be brave? I’d let those people deal with themselves. Leave them to their ideas of me. Their ideals. Their crazy-making expectations and scorn for whenever I failed to live up to it all. Leave them to their tasteless jokes and ruthless memes until one day they were horrified by the news of what became of me. I hope I haunted their dreams. That my blood never left their hands. Hoped they couldn’t sleep for remembering how they had ridiculed me in my lowest moment.
Such hypocrisy too. Poisonous pretenses. If only people could see the shit they got up to themselves when they hoped no one was around. If only their browser histories were distributed for all the world to see, how hard would they laugh then? How much would they mock and judge me then? This world was such an abominable place full of low-minded creatures, but we all spent so much time trying to pretend we were the exception. Weren’t we all each other? Every one of us uniquely exemplary of why the world was such a fucked up place to begin with, and why no one reserved the right to judge except Allah himself.
The idea of praying right now was ludicrous to me. If he cared at all, I wouldn’t be here. Things wouldn’t have gotten to this point. He could have killed me in my sleep many years ago. Where the fuck was he when I stepped foot into that motel room? He could have saved me sooner if I mattered to him even an infinitesimal amount. Wasn’t he all-seeing? Didn’t he possess foreknowledge of everything that took place beneath the sun? He is indifferent. To my existence, to my struggles, to my confusion. It’s something I realized long ago, but never had the balls to voice to the believers who constantly hounded me about my flailing faith and mounting dissent.
My heart leapt into my throat, thudding away. I could hardly swallow past it. Could hardly take an unlabored breath. Something was sitting on my chest, urging me to just jump and get it over with. Oh the sweet fucking relief to be had. Oh the stillness that awaited. If I was lucky, I might not even be conscious during the freefall. I hoped to be dead long before I smacked the pavement, or smacked onto the roof of a bright yellow taxi, inadvertently killing the driver. Two lives with one blow—
A deafening gust swept past me and sent me stumbling. I flailed a bit, then doubled over the arrant nothingness before me. Over the void of light and smoke and shadow and hissing midday traffic. A universe that did not know or care what I was contemplating. Would not know or care what I had been plagued with until long after I was gone.
My photos would never leave the internet. Social media moderators might do away with them as they were reported by good Samaritans, but at large they would thrive in individual hard-drives across the globe and in seedy chatrooms littering the dark web. I was finished. There was no coming back from this, and even in death their ridicule would not end. I just wouldn’t be around to hear it.
I caught my balance, mouth agape, noticing it had been a flock of pigeons that ascended from a lower ledge hoping to finish the job as I was clearly too much of a bitch to see it through. “Mum…” I whispered, seeing her seated at the kitchen table in Bradford, flipping through a fashion catalog. She had no idea the condition I was in. She was going about her day as usual while I was stuck across the world, deteriorating from the inside out. Her only son. Her sonshine. How could I do it to her?
The news she received would be earthshattering. I wondered if she might be so unfortunate as to hear about me on the internet or international news before the police made the declaration at her doorstep? My dad would have to arrange to collect my remains. He was the only stalwart one among us. The only one capable of dealing with the aftermath. I wondered if he’d be glad it was over and done once the photos hit the web? If he’d think I made the right choice. They’d all have to move. That neighborhood would eat them alive. My sisters would have to abandon social media. And Harry….
Harry. I could see him too, seated at a meeting with his label. Laughing with big-timers like the Azoffs and Rob Stringer. The secretary would run in. He’d get word of me as well as the photos and would run home to grieve in isolation, as the one person on earth who could commiserate with him had dipped without a solitary word of goodbye.
“Zayn…” Right away I turned to look for him. Had heard him clear as day. How did he get here?? I eyed the empty rooftop behind me but found no trace of another presence. Only more brick and wobbling cement. Not a disembodied footstep. Not a flicker of shadow. Not a distant silhouette. My vision was shit. Everything was dim and filmy like I had a sudden onset of stage-four cataracts. I rubbed them but they never cleared.
“Z…” he whispered in quiet urgency, as if he was standing beside me, ready to take the leapt too. He’d take my hand if he must. How the fuck could I have dreamed of doing this without him? What message would that send? That I was so ashamed of our love I couldn’t stomach the thought of the world learning of it? Not for one second? That I’d literally choose death over living with people knowing that I had made love to him? If I vanished now, where did that leave him? Stuck alone in all the horrifying shit I sought to escape just now. How was that fair? I stepped back from the ledge, collapsing as soon as my feet touched solid ground.
Frank Ocean’s “Seigfried” was playing in the bedroom when I made it back to the apartment. A Rick and Morty marathon was going on the TV, but my world was colorless. Flavorless. I climbed into bed and curled on my side, turning my phone towards my face and refreshing my accounts every two minutes, expecting the images to show up. I refused to take any calls. Deaf and dumb, I sputtered beneath the blanket. Feet blackening the sheets. Eyelids raw. Taryn was blowing me up. So was G. I couldn’t get up to save my life. Not even to take a piss. Not even if a meteor tore through the neighborhood. Set fire to the place. I was more than prepared to burn where I lay.
A couple of days later, Taryn arrived and refused to take no for answer when I responded to her text telling her to go away. She kept ringing the buzzer nonstop and driving me insane. I put a pillow over my head, but it was no good. Finally, I got up and went to the bedroom door, and she was already inside the loft by the time I flung it open, having used her emergency key. Now she was storming up the steps towards my room.
“Chill, T. I’m fine…I’m fine. Okay? Quit stressin’ me!” I put a hand up to block out the blinding sunlight filling the loft. “Just need to be alone right now, okay?”
“No, Z, you need to tell me what the hell is going on! Right now! I’ve been worried sick about you! This isn’t like you, to keep ignoring me!” She shoved my chest, looking angrier than I’ve ever seen her. It was funny because it was hard to take her seriously. She had the hairstyle of a five-year-old. Two blue pigtails that swayed as she gesticulated. “I’m not going anywhere until you tell me happened!”
“I can’t, alright??”
“Argh! Don’t give me that bullshit, okay?! Think about it, what don’t I know about you?! Huh? What could you possibly not be able to tell me? It’s me, Z! I’ve practically been your mom these past couple of years and you know it! I shop for you, I cook for you, I clean, I forge your signature, I do all your business, I unclog your toilet when you take massive shits. What can’t you share with me?! Huh? You think I’m gonna judge you? Dude, I’ve seen your shit. Nothing else can scare me—”
“T…it’s soh fucked up. You wouldn’t understand, anyweh. And it’s makin’ me, like, realize, everythin’ is fucked because of me. I’m the fucked up one, yeah? I’m the one fucked in the head…”
“No, you’re not!” She grabbed my arm. “Stop abusing yourself!”
“How can I not when I’m like this?” I croaked, trembling with barely contained rage. I refused to cry anymore. I was sick of pitying myself. Now I was just angry. At everyone and everything. “I did this shit to myself, okay? Youh have noh ideah how much I’ve fucked up latelyh…”
“I’m trying to understand, sweetie, I really am. Just tell me what happened. What do you even think I’m here for? Whatever you’re going through, Z, we’re going through it together. Hasn’t it always been that way?” I slumped to the floor and she followed me, sitting on her legs.
“Him?” I could only nod. “Who??” she touched my boney knee. “Z, sweetie…m’gonna need a little more than that, okay?”
“H-haz—H-harry. I…we’ve been…sort of seein’ each other…” At once I felt nauseated yet also like a ton of bricks had been lifted off of my chest. I took my first full breath in the past few days, easing it into my lungs like I was hitting a meth pipe, then exhaling shakily. “Since…since like New Years’…”
“Seriously?” She didn’t seem shocked, mostly intrigued.
“Do I know him?”
“Yeah, it’s Harry,” I said, deliriously. “S-styles…Harry Styles…” Now she gasped and covered her mouth, eyes widening.
“No. Fucking. Wayyyyy. The Harry Styles?!”
“Yeah…yeah it’s pretty fuckin’ weird, innit?”
“No, no, no, no no…it’s not weird at all! Dude, what the fuck?!” She grabbed my face. “That’s like, incredibleee! Z?! That’s like, soooo sweet!”
“What? Uh, yeah, I guess…” I chuckled dryly.
“How long have you been together?!” Her unrestrained glee threw me for a loop. Of all the years I had contemplated being exposed, at no point had I anticipated anyone having a positive reaction. But this was Taryn. T. She was built different. Cool as fuck. Real as fuck. Funny as fuck. Gorgeous and down to earth. Down for literally anything. The one person I knew would help me bury a body and would never ask questions. She was a freak like me. An outlier. Her hair was blue for crying out loud. I couldn’t imagine being without her for as long as I lived. She wasn’t just my righthand man, she was my fucking liver.
“Since I was, like, seventeen, eighteen. Long time, T, long time. Surprisin’, that…” I rambled, running a hand through my hair. “Never would’ve dreamt how far we’d take it. Since we were just kids, y’know? Touchin in the dark.” I shook my head and squinted at the sun-soaked living room.
“Awww…” her eyes misted over, nose growing red. “Sweetie, that is beyond amazing! Like, super dope. I could cry right now,” she squealed. Then she reached over and lightly slapped me. “What’s the matter with you, huh? Why haven’t you ever told me this before?!”
“I’m just…I dunno…” I scratched my eyebrow. “It’s always been safer to, like, uh, keep quiet about it, I guess?”
“Ah, no worries here, it’s all safe with me. I promise I’ll keep my mouth shut, but damn. I could’ve sworn you talked shit about him before. I thought you two hated each other?!”
“Well, youh were supposed to. That was the, uh, general idea of the cover.” She looked twice as shocked now.
“That’s so fucking clever. Unreal.”
“Pretty crazy, right?” I avoided her eyes, awkwardly stretching my t-shirt down over my upraised knees and bare legs.
“Craziest shit I’ve heard in a while. Like really surreal.”
“Bet youh don’t know how to look at me now, yeah?”
“Don’t you dare. You’re still you, Z.” She followed my gaze until I met her eyes. “I have nothing but respect for you. Much, more now, actually. Vulnerability is cool, dude. It’s totally ok.” Finally I found the courage to meet her eyes for more than a fraction of a second, gifting her a weak smile. I bet I looked half-dead. She continued:
“You and I are way more alike than I ever realized before. How cool is that? And I have soooo many questions, you have no idea. But first, let’s take care of you, ok? Tell me what’s wrong.”
“I fucked up…badly.” I dragged a hand down my face. “And I don’t think I can come back from this one. It’s over for me, T.”
“Wow, you’re really on some doom and gloom type shit today. I don’t wanna hear you talking like that. Tell. Me. What’s. Wrong.”
“We met up…he and I, in Paris. G didn’t know. Still don’t.”
“Oh my god, Z…no. That’s not good!”
“Yeah…trust me, I know. But we got a motel. We did things. Unsightly things. Then I get home and a few days pass, all normal. Then suddenly I get this in the mail.” I got up and moved to grab the package from where I’d stuffed it between my mattresses. She followed me into the room.
“Good god it reeks in here! Dude, you can barely see through the smoke!” She cracked a window and opened all the drapes.
“They saw it, T. All of it. They saw us. They have it all on film…the whole thing, the whole night.” Now she came over and we sat on the edge of the bed. I swallowed thickly then handed her the least offensive photo.
“Oh my gosh…sweetie…this is…”
“And you have any idea who did this?”
“Noh, thankfully, because I swear to god, T, if I knew, I’d kill them. I’d kill them my-fucking-self.”
“Fuck…” She fingered the envelope. “Er…may I? For evidence…? Like, as a witness?”
“Shit…might as well. Goh ahead. The whole fuckin’ world will probably see it soon.” She opened the package and removed the rest of the photos. I was too numb to have a reaction. There was a still of me blowing him. She flipped to the next one, and it was a still of me boning him, unknowingly staring up into the camera behind the mirror on the ceiling.
“Woah…you guys don’t mess around. Are those handcuffs??”
“That was actually quite tame for us…”
“There’s soh much more, maan. It’s not even pictured there, but I know they, like, have images and video of everythin’. Clean shots of our faces when we first got to the room. All our tattoos show exactly who we are, soh there’s noh real chance of pretendin’ it’s not us. We’re seriously fucked. Like, royally.”
“No…I don’t think so.” She bit her pretty lip, wracking her brain for a solution. “I don’t believe that for a second. These people, like, always want something, y’know? “They won’t just release this stuff for no reason, especially not because they know how rich you are. This is worth fucking gold to them. Once it’s out there, they lose all the power. They’re going to be super careful with this. And there has to be a way to make this go away. Money talks, babe.”
“There was a note. I dunno where it is now. It said they’d be in touch. They’re askin’ for 100K to start. There’s a deadline listed.” I grabbed my smokes, popping one between my lips, then talked around it. She organized the pics and stuffed them back into the envelop.
“But we’re not allowed to move that kind of money without the banks trackin’ it,” I muttered. “They’ll ask questions that I can’t give answers to. Not without lyin’. I’ll have to make some shit up, I suppose.” I lit the cigarette with a lighter that always gave me loads of trouble, but I wouldn’t get rid of it because it was one from Haz. He’d gotten me one in every country we visited on tour. I kept them all.
“So what’re you thinking then? Car purchase? Real estate?”
“Shit, I need to do it in installments, I think. But not soh obvious where it’d be super apparent we’re tryin’ to skirt reportin’. Is that even possible, though? Can youh even transfer money that way? Or do they, like, only ask questions when it’s cash? Fuck, I don’t know how this shit works, if I’m honest.” She massaged the back of my neck as I hung my head, cigarette burning between my quaking fingers.
“Yeah, well, you’re not a criminal so I wouldn’t expect you to…”
“I think ten grand is the safe amount? Right? To avoid reportin? Sumthin’ like that.”
“Cool. When do you wanna start? I can get it going first thing in the morning.”
“Thanks, T…you’re really a fuckin’ life saver, youh know that?” I took a long, steadying breath, standing up. “Might as well give it a goh. But I just feel like 100k won’t be the end of it. Once they see how easily that works, they’ll ask for more.” I lilted. “It’ll just keep goin’ on and on until I’m broke. Then what? Goh broke tryin’ to hide this shit? Then they’ll probably still release it in the end once I run out of money, yeah? What is my life then? Might as well release the photos me-self, take back the leverage from these filthy fuckin’ bastards. But then it would destroy our families, our careers…literally everythin’. I can’t even think clearly right now!” I punched myself in the head repeatedly.
“It’s ok, Z, chill! “She stood and grabbed my fist. “Chill, dude. We’ll figure it all out. What about Harry? What’s he thinking about all this?”
“Haven’t told ’em—”
“What?!” she shrieked in disbelief. “Are you crazy?! How is that fair?!”
“He’s busy as fuck, at the minute. Why bother him with all this if I can somehow make it goh away and he doesn’t ever have to worry? I don’t won’t him feelin’ the way I’m feelin’ right now, not even for a second. He doesn’t deserve that shit, broh. It’s my fault, anyweh. I begged him to stay in France one more day. I found the motel. I tied him up and did all that weird shit to him. It’s all me. The problem starts and ends with me. Maybe I know how best to get rid of it and I’m just too much of a bitch to actually see it through. If I goh, then it’ll all be over by default—”
“Shut up, shut up, shut up!” she screamed, furious with me, tears springing to her eyes. “I’m not gonna listen to you talk about yourself like that! You’re not doing anything stupid. Not while I’m around! This is NOT your fault, Z! These people are pieces of shit! They’re low, they’re criminals and they can be taken down. We have to speak with the FBI. The money transfer is a good place to start. It’ll buy us time to figure out who they are and how to stop them!”
“Yeah, but we can’t do anythin’ to piss ’em off,” I panicked. “They say they’re watchin’ me. They’ll know if I talk to the police. I just have to pay up and hope one day they’ll goh away and leave me be.”
“Whatever works. We’ll figure it out. I promise.” She sniveled, grabbing my arm to stop me from pacing. Now she pulled me into a crushing hug. “Okay, first things first, sir. You must shower. It smells like a dead animal in here,” she wept. “I’m gonna clean this place up, then I’ll grab you something to eat. Go, go!”
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