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Billie

Mehki hasn’t been sleeping.

Or, rather, he’ll wake up like the sick lurch out of a nightmare, not quite disorientated but still hungover with anger and fear and helplessness that had no place in the real world . Sometimes he’s in bed. Sometimes he’s riding a bus, at the park, standing on a bridge, his fingers curled around cold metal.

June gloom, they called it when Mehki first got here. Has it been that long? Mehki hadn’t moved to L.A. planning to spend every moment at the beach surrounded by beautiful girls in bikinis. He thought he was being practical by having no expectations at all. Instead, the slow, steady sprawl of it in every direction, crinkled over mountains, stacked on top of each other—

It was survivable when he had an anchor. A compass.

God. His whole body still hurts when he thinks about her. 

Mehki is standing on a street he vaguely recognizes. A man walks by. Pushes by, really, and him Mehki recognizes. A producer: white, standard height, an average face he hides behind a well-manicured beard. Younger than they had first thought but dressed like really was both independent and wealthy.

“Excuse you,” Mehki says. The man doesn’t even glance at him before throwing open the doors of their old haunt—Mehki hasn’t put in any hours here since everything happened. He doesn’t know what he’s doing here. To no one, he says, “Yeah, fuck you, too, mate.”

L.A. is lonely, Mehki decides. Too many people, spreading out too far. It made it too easy to disappear, even when you’re right in front of people.

Come here

They don’t meet for the first time in LAX, but Billie acts like they are, running full-speed with one hand fisting the loose waistband of her pants as she launches herself into Mehki’s arms. Her hair is a faded blue and smells like artificial flowers. He has to juggle a few bags to hug her back properly.

There are already a few guys waiting in the car. Billie says, “These are my homies.”

Their names are things like Braedin and Trey and Doc, but they can talk echo machines and 808s, so it’s chill enough. 

You shouldn’t move to the far side of another continent without a visa for a girl you met online, no matter how well you get each other’s music and feelings and creative energies. But Mehki did. This is his life now. He should get used to it. And it is nice, to be clear. He’s in the back seat, it’s 22 degrees out, and everything looks exactly how it should. Even the traffic. Doc is even kinda funny beneath it all. He makes Billie laugh.

The guys are all from the studio Billie is working out right now. They say she’s shown them some of his stuff. Mehki’s heart pumps hard in his chest.

The flat is—well, it’s the kind of artist hideout Mehki thought didn’t exist anymore. Worse than that, maybe, like an old hotel that had been taken over. 

“It’s one thousand per cent as haunted as it looks,” Billie assures Mehki as she shows him to his room. And he does get his own room, his own bed. Nothing much else. He dumps his bags in the corner.

Listen

In a lot of ways, Billie’s an open book. She says what she’s feeling. She tells you what she’s hiding. It’s an arms-length distance, but Mehki trusts her. Of course he does. Completely.

That’s probably why it takes him so long to put shit together.

The whole scene with the studio is getting sour. They say Billie’s not showing up for sessions. Billie says they’re smothering her. It’s all really weighing on her. She goes days without sleeping, and in a lot of those hours, she’s sick, either slouched in their grimy bathroom or curled up in a chair, face strained and shiny, notebook empty, pen unmoving.

One day, Mehki comes home and Billie’s in his bed. The sleeve of her bright orange, baggy sweatshirt is pushed up nearly to her shoulder. She’s sprawled over the covers. A makeup bag sits next to her, its contents clustered in an orderly little pile.

The needle lay depressed and uncapped on the floor.

“Hey,” Billie says, slowly, drawing Mehki’s eyes back to her face. Her eyes are washed out enough to match her hair with only pinpricks for pupils. “Don’t tell the other guys about this, okay?”

The thing is, Mehki had known about—participated in—the other shit that dripped in and out of the house. Weed, pills, dust. This, though, this felt bigger. Like that turn you’re not supposed to take. But he looks at her, and his throat closes up. It’s Billie, headstrong Billie, the one who brought him out here, who’s supported him through everything. And what the fuck does Mehki know? 

Mehki nods.

Careful

When shit crashes down, it goes hard and completely. 

Mehki can feel blood burning in his ears and in his chest. Landing in L.A. had been a dream. He hadn’t realized it, but everything fitting together as it did—fuck that. This is real. This is the breaker crashing right down on Mehki’s head.

They’re in Pasadena, of all places. City of Roses. They say it’s been a wet winter—it rained earlier today. The riverbed is dry. The plants are evergreen, although they probably wouldn’t be anywhere else.

“Billie,” Mehki says. He’s begging, really. “Come on. We can figure some shit out. Get in fast, grab our shit, find somewhere else to stay. It’ll all work out, just—please.”

She doesn’t even bother arguing. It’s 20 degrees out and Mehki is wearing a sweatshirt. Billie’s thin white t-shirt makes her look bare to the world, exposed. There’s a gaping tear in the back. Doc had tried to hold her back, and she had screamed and thrashed until Mehki punched him, and then they were both running.

Mehki can still feel the sting in his knuckles.

Billie says, “I think you should get up here before a car comes.”

The bridge is a relic, but a beautiful one. It has the same sort of pointed iron fence you see around nice, old houses that never bothered to upgrade for something more sturdy, and Billie balances on one of its larger joints easily.

Mehki follows. It’s what he does now, apparently. He wishes he felt even a little separated from this moment, but he feels every inch of himself, the coolness of his toes, his locs brushing his neck, the panic when his Vans slip against metal and the tight squeeze of Billie’s hand as he rebalances himself.

The bridge lamps give off an electric, white light that makes everything look too stark, and even if they didn’t, they’re still too close to the city for it to ever be truly dark. It’s beautiful out here, Mehki supposes. The mountains and everything. He really meant it when he said it’d work out, even with his hands clinging so, so hard to the fence as he stares at the twinkling lights to avoid looking down.

“You know,” Billie says, “I never actually asked you to come out here.”

Mehki thinks, well, yeah, we’d never talked about tonight, and then climbing up the fence, and a panicked tremor shakes through him. “Yes, you—”

“No,” Billie interrupts, and Mehk’s mind is spinning hard, trying to remember what tipped this all into motion, because surely—

“Hey.” And Mehki looks at her, the slow smile meant for him, the hollow eyes it doesn’t even touch, and he feels unglued, truly, for the first time since he got here.

“I’m not sorry,” she continues. The whole world is unfolding. Mehki can’t let it. “But this was all just… killing time. You’ve got to let go.”

She’s trying to shake off his hand, but he just holds on tighter. Her face pinches, and Mehki thinks they’ve never been closer, more honest than right now, because she can’t hide anymore. Mehki can see the pain and certainty and the paths from this moment so clearly—no verses or beats or fronts for anyone else. He watches her panicked twitch when she looks over his shoulder; the wide curve of the bridge makes this space feel more private, but it’s closing in, fast.

“I’m serious, you’ve gotta—”

“No.”

“Mehki!”

And she jerks, hard, and her hand slips free. A moment of triumph as she follows the momentum, falling away, and Mehki, like a puppet, feels his feet slip, his head cleared out except for the one thought, if he could just hold on—