✘ 7:25 PM ✘

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7:25 PM—halfway between safe and hell, NJ

Joel

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THERE HAVE ALWAYS BEEN TWO KINDS OF PEOPLE. The leaders and the followers. Doesn't matter where you come from or how often you pray. You're either a leader, or a follower.

Once you've fully witnessed both sides—and seen both of their blood spilled on the ground—it starts to become easier to tell which-is-which.

Sometimes, in rare occurrences, there is a third side.

It's not an automatic realization when you've met one of these types of people. Sometimes they seem like they're ready to follow anybody's rules—and other times they won't take 'no' for an answer and start swearing like their salvia is made of four-letter words.

Maybe my fascination with this subject is why I'm leaning against the brick wall of the diner, watching the process unfold before me.

The dense fog that was starting to appear less than twenty minutes ago, has completely thickened. Still, I can see her switching expressions and quick motions. Her friend glares at me from where he is, the bruises on his face reflecting the small amount of light from the street lamp.

He's a follower.

"What the hell happened?" she asks, reaching a hand up to his cheek, getting him to look her way.

He peels her hands off of his face before pressing a skinny finger against his chest. "I was getting the shit beat out of me while you were sleezing around," he says, his choice of words causing me to shake my head.

"Teo, that's not fair," she says, obviously hurt.

"No, it is fair, it's very fair," he starts, slurring his words as he points a hand down the block, "do you know what I was coming this way to do?"

She looks down at her feet, her arms crossing over her chest.

"I was heading to the store to make sure you were alright," he continues, stepping closer, "I'm not sure if you noticed, but there was a shooting."

There's a long pause of silence where he just looks at her and she does anything if it means not looking back. I spend this time trying to push down the anger filling-up my lungs. It's not going to take much for me to knock-him-out.

"What, do you like him or something?" he questions, and a part of me wants to listen for an answer. "Whatever he's offering isn't worth it, Fia," he ends and I decide to make my way into the conversation.

"What's your problem with me, man?" I use my foot to push myself off of the building and take a few steps closer to Fia.

He points the same finger over at me, his eyebrow raising and his eyes going ballistic, "you know exactly what my problem is, man."

I raise my hands slightly, "okay, then I'll tell you what my problem is with you." I glance over at Fia and she's seemingly emotionless, the circles under her eyes growing by the second. "You don't get to talk to her like that, get it? Treat her with more respect and maybe she won't feel the need to have humane conversations with people like me."

Done with this whole scene, I hold out my arm toward the shivering, and emotionally beat girl, "come on, I'll walk you home."

There's a flint of something in her eyes and, to my surprise, she starts to walk with me.

He narrows his eyes at me before I turn around, slipping off my jacket as we leave.

"Here," I hand it off to her, amazed at how she's never wearing a coat.

She takes it, slipping her arms in. I almost laugh at how long everything is on her, but I doubt she's in the mood to get made fun of.

We don't get far before I hear the kid's feet running toward me. I wait to turn around until the last minute, letting him tackle me to the ground. He throws a few punches at me, hitting me square on the jaw. I hold his neck at arms-length before gaining on him so that he's on the ground and getting dealt the swings.

I catch a glimpse at Fia and notice her look away, watching the fight completely unfazed.

It's not long before I'm lifting him off the ground, keeping my arm tight around his chest to keep him from going anywhere.

His heart bounces up-and-down through his shirt, never giving him a chance to calm down.

"Why don't you ever listen to me?" he aims the question in her direction.

Something keeps dripping on my arm and I understand why when he collapses, his weight depending purely on me.

"Shit," I say, laying him on the ground.

She rushes over, crouching down beside me as she peers down at him, "Teo, come on, snap out of it."

Sweat seeps from his hairline, making its way down every pore, soaking his neck, and dampening his shirt.

I tap the side of his face, looking for any movement. When that doesn't work I lift his clamped-shut eyes, watching his pupils dilate the second I do. "They've got him doped up," I start, getting to my feet before grabbing underneath his arms to lift him, "let's bring him to my place, he'll be a hell of a lot safer there."

Trying to be careful, I hoist him over-my-shoulder, his limp limbs swinging back-and-forth. She stays close by me, watching him with focused eyes.

"What is he on?" she asks, her tone lacing with fear and, of course, curiosity.

"I don't know," I lie through my teeth, remembering the assortment they laid before me, giving me first choice.

"What is he on?" she repeats, yelling with frustration at my lack of honesty.

She's smart. Too smart. I'm never going to get anything past her and it's taken me too long to realize it.

"Something heavy, something dangerous," I respond, making sure she hears me.

It's too late, because she's my drug. All it takes is one time ... and you're hooked.

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