Soul Candy by JN Powell
Soul Candy by J.N. Powell
Condensation dripped down the side of Anton’s cocktail glass in alternating reflections of chartreuse, teal, and violet. The bar’s ambient lights transitioned among the three shades in a sad attempt to mimic the exclusive clubs in Haven Hill. His glass, a lonely disco ball lighting up an empty dance floor: the party-going Mids too despondent to rise from their seats, too apathetic to even speak, and fuzzy elevator music rambling in the background. The drink itself was supposed to be a Roulette cocktail, the preferred beverage of Haveners, but the bitter concoction in front of him was a poor-man’s imitation. Its mood-modifying effects barely registered in his brain. Still, it was the best he could get in Midtown.
With a resigned sigh, Anton sucked it down and slammed the empty glass on the chipped laminate counter. A hint of happiness sparked in his mouth, but as soon as he swallowed, the weakly-engineered mood effect was gone. He looked at the bartender, dejectedly. Every day for the past six months, he’d been observing the man’s white shirt gradually darken to a depressing shade of piss.
The bartender, Tommy (or was it Troy?), asked, “Top you off?”
Anton studied his empty glass and then his mood-tech ring, linked to his temporal lobe with fancy transmitters imbedded god-knows-where. It was black, the color of despair. He closed his eyes and focused, forcing the color to change to apathetic grey. The preferred color of Mids. “You said this was a Roulette, right? I might as well be drinking regular whiskey. I don’t feel any emotions mixed in.”
“We don’t carry Soul Candy liquor. This stuff is a knock-off. Spirit Water.”
“Funny. Try taking off your mood-tech when you drink. It spoils the fantasy.”
Anton scoffed at the man’s advice, but he couldn’t help glancing behind him to the scattered tables of Mids, swirling tiny straws in their pale drinks. Forcing smiles after each sip to convince themselves of their happiness. Like Toby suggested, he didn’t see any mood-tech on their fingers or around their necks. They probably thought they were happy.
Anton knew otherwise.
Just yesterday, he’d been waiting for the Midtown train to take him from one end of the concrete city to the other, one identical building to the next, when the sleek and shining train to Haven Hill darted high above him. He had thought about climbing up the scaffold base of the soaring tracks and waiting for the next one to fly past, to grab hold, and ride it to paradise. His mood-tech ring had turned a hopeful shade of periwinkle at the thought of escaping to Haven Hill, but then a body plummeted from the sky and landed next to him with a sickening crunch on the platform. The woman’s blood and brain matter had splattered on Anton’s shoes. His ring returned to its normal temperament of black as he crouched down to check on her, pointless as it was. The dead woman’s dirty and tattered attire made it obvious she came from Sewer City, one level below. The other Mids waiting on the platform barely glanced up, their eyes and concern stopping at her appearance. It wasn’t the first time a Mid or Sewie woke up from the fog of meaningless life and attempted the escape. Anton stood up and watched the Haven Hill train disappear above him. If he were to muster up the courage and try to catch a ride, by god, he wouldn’t let go till he got there.
“I prefer reality,” he said to Trent and watched him pour the bottom-shelf mood liquor in the glass. Its opaque coloring suggested dirty water.
“Reality is overrated, my friend,” said a voice behind him.
Anton turned to see a man in a fashionable white leather jacket, the kind that cost a thousand credits to get tailor-made, grinning at him. His teeth were as white as his clothes, and an alluring woman in a corseted burgundy dress hung on his arm. Flecks of gold covered her cheekbones, eyelids, and lips like a trail of stars leading to heaven.
The man’s black sunglasses shielded any sign of his eyes. Without invitation, he sat down at the bar next to Anton; the woman remained standing behind her date with hands draped over his shoulders and chest. Her eyes never left Anton. They glittered gold as her skin. He’d heard Haveners sometimes wandered down from Haven Hill, but he’d never seen them up close before. They were even more brilliant than the commercials: Rise to Haven Hill, the ads proclaimed next to glamorous shots of glitzy condos and skyscrapers piercing the clouds. Feel the Paradise.
The man stuck out a perfectly manicured hand and said, “The name’s Blaze.”
Anton grasped it with his own clammy one. “Anton.”
“I noticed your mood-tech. Not many Mids wear them.”
“Keeps me honest, I guess.” He fidgeted with his ring, cleared his throat, and wished he’d shaved recently. He didn’t even know the last time he’d done laundry.
“It suits you,” said Blaze, looking him up and down and nodding approvingly. “Like a true Havener: unafraid of feeling.”
Anton felt his cheeks burn at the compliment, but after a few seconds, the blush died. There was no way he could be confused for a Havener. He only had a hundred credits to his name and a dead-end job inputting numbers in endless columns and rows that no one would ever look at. “Thanks, but I’m no Havener. I’ve only got one mood most days.”
“Would you like more?” asked Glitter Girl. Her golden eyes: honey.
Anton quickly looked away. “I wouldn’t know what to do with them,” he said as he downed his lukewarm pseudo-Roulette. Toilet water, he thought.
“I’m throwing a party tonight,” said Blaze. “Why don’t you come?”
Anton stared from Blaze to Glitter Girl to Todd. The bartender raised his eyebrows, equally shocked. Anton stuttered: “To Haven Hill?”
Blaze stood up magnanimously with a wink and a smile. “Where else? And I only serve the finest Roulettes.”
Glitter girl produced an oversized card from her purse. As she stepped closer, Anton reflexively straightened up, heart quickening and palms sweating. She leaned down low and whispered in his ear, “I can’t wait to see you again.” Their hands touched when he took the card. Glitter Girl’s nails sparkled in the dim light like a vein of gold in a dark cavern, and his ring faded from grey to periwinkle as he took the offering.
Control the tech. He managed a polite smile as he willed the color of hope away. He wasn’t afraid to feel, but there was a time and a place, and how pathetic was he to show his desperation so easily? Haveners weren’t salivating over party invitations and beautiful women.
“What’s the catch?” Anton said in the smoothest voice he could muster.
“You’re right. I don’t hand those tickets out to just anyone,” Blaze said, waving his hand dismissively at the Mids in the bar. “But you’ll have to come to find out. And it’s for tonight only, you understand.” Then he shook Anton’s hand again and walked out of the bar with Glitter Girl latched onto his arm. She sneaked a final, lingering look before the door shut behind them. As if a switch had been pressed, the usual Midtown darkness crept back into everything—the shadows grew blacker, the air grew staler—as if radiance followed the Haveners wherever they trod, and only once it was gone did you realize how bleak and dreary the world really was.
An invigorating tingle danced inside Anton, stronger than any mood the imitation Roulette could ever claim to provide. He looked at the card. The ornate calligraphy, written in gold ink, shimmered like Glitter Girl’s lips. Admit One to Haven Hill.
“How ‘bout I buy that ticket from you,” said Travis as nonchalantly as possible, wiping down the permanently stained and peeling counter. When Anton didn’t respond, he said: “C’mon, this one’s on me,” and filled the glass with yet another transparent cocktail of bland nothingness.
Anton could probably get a couple thousand for the ticket, but he’d be back to broke in no time. Mids might not even believe it was a bona fide pass to Haven Hill. They would laugh at his gullibility. But Blaze hadn’t asked them, had he? He didn’t want a smile-faking mediocre at his party. Blaze had asked him.
“What’s your name, anyway?” Anton asked.
Anton held the invitation in one hand and the cocktail in the other, eyeing the sweating glass. Blobs of ice swam on the surface. It reminded him of backwash. He pushed it away and carefully placed the ticket in his wallet so it wouldn’t crease.
Anton entered the cold and institutional train station at dusk, when the sun was escaping the day as quickly as it could manage. A few Sewies were hunched over here and there, filling the empty corners and crannies with their gaunt and twitching forms, licking the trampled plastic wrappers from the floor for any trace of emotions. Authentic pieces of Soul Candy chews didn’t have wrappers, but the second-rate ones came in colorful packaging to convince the consumer it was better than it really was. Speckles of pink for Carefree, kaleidoscopes of green for Ambition, and so forth. Anton tried to stay away from the stuff, but every now and then he’d find a Sewie who was selling the off-brand version and drop fifty credits to indulge and dream his life was better than it was. The mood lasted longer than Spit Water Roulettes, but it didn’t compare to what you could get in Haven Hill. The crap here fried your brain after a while. Sometimes you were slipped a bad one, too, like Sorrow or Guilt and you were lucky to survive the night.
He approached the trains, walking past missing person posters layered over one another on brick walls and metal posts. Faded and crinkled, never found. A dark stain remained on the platform where the body had fallen the day before, a shadow of a life now gone. Dozens of shoes walked over the stain, some heading to Train 03 to the Industrial District and others to Train 09 for Shopping District. No reverence. Everything was one giant stain.
One pair of feet stopped right on top of it—black stilettos. “Which train do you need, sir?” asked the attendant, noticing his card with golden script.
“Train 11?” he said. Anton didn’t belong there. That’s what she was thinking: how could he be getting on Train 11? There must be some mistake. He was obviously lost. Didn’t he mean Train 01 to the Residential District?
“Of course. Head to the central escalator for the Haven Hill platform.”
The escalator was in the middle of the station, proudly ornate and clean and inviting, like the grand staircase of a palace. It could easily fit five people across at the same time, but the steps were usually empty of people. Anton had seen only a handful of Mids ever allowed to climb it, golden tickets in hand, and they had ridden the immense steps alone like a small child in a giant’s world. He wondered where the down escalator was for the return home. The only down escalator was on the opposite end of the station, built in the wall like a cave and just as dark and dripping with unknown substances. Sewer City. That one was wide enough for one person at a time and usually had a line waiting for their turn downward, hungry for second-rate Soul Candy. You could find your fix in Midtown, sure, but it didn’t flow like it did down there. If Mids couldn’t ascend, sometimes they settled for falling. Anton would have made the descent years ago, he had often considered it, but something inside him wouldn’t let him join the others. It was that damn periwinkle. He looked at his ring, but it didn’t convey the hope that thoughts of Haven Hill normally conjured. It was bright yellow. Coward’s yellow, and blinding as a neon sign at night. When was the last time he’d experienced that one?
A single attendant stood by the entrance of five turnstile gates. Anton paused, wondering if some of them were locked or broken, like a test to repel the idiots: only the most virtuous and worthy would select the correct entrance.
“Pick any gate you wish,” the attendant said, as if he were offering a tray of unique delicacies that all tasted equally wonderful. Decisions were not a Mid’s forte, especially ones that had so many options. He picked the center one. It seemed noncommittal, even aloof, to pick the middle one. Aloof was good. Haveners were aloof, weren’t they?
The machine sucked in his ticket, and the turnstile clicked forward.
The only way to go now was up.
Anton stepped off the train and breathed the crisp, pine-tinged air of early evening. Real pine from real trees. Another attendant appeared, ruining the moment, and ushered “Mr. Bishara’s Special Guest” to a waiting limousine.
Bishara. He knew that name.
Anton slid inside the vehicle, savoring the smell of leather. The windows were blacked-out to the point that he couldn’t see out of them. Shame. The car began to move, and a television screen dropped down from the roof. Shielded eyes and smiling face appeared briefly, the same as the man from the bar, and then a series of familiar advertisements for Soul Candy played—the liquors, the chews, the medicines. Fast-acting, Long-lasting, Soul-satisfying! Blaze Bishara was the owner of Soul Candy. No wonder he so easily offered access to Roulettes. He invented the damn things.
When the last commercial was done, the screen shut off and retracted into the roof. Moments later, the limousine stopped and his door was opened. Anton exited and stood before a gilded elevator, as grand as the gates to a theme park. Across its threshold was engraved: Soul Candy. He cleared his throat and entered the elevator, pressed the button for Up. It rocketed upward without a sound or a single jerk of machinery. He looked at the ring on his shaking hand as his stomach churned. The mood-tech accessories were a Havener’s status, and he was positive not one of them ever displayed bright coward’s yellow.
Control the tech, he told himself. Slowly, it changed to a luminescent sapphire blue.
That’s it. Stay calm.
The elevator came to a seamless stop. Powerful bass of electronic club music throbbed on the other side. The doors parted, and a surge of deafening beats and gyrating bodies filled his senses. Mood-tech hung off everyone’s fingers, wrists, and necks, all radiating some shade of purple. Their skin-tight clothes left nothing to the imagination. Anton glanced down at his own loose-fitting shirt that hid his belly rolls and immediately hated the party. He felt their stares judging him, pitying him, and he wanted to leave, but when he looked behind him for the elevator, the doors were shut and without any buttons to call it back.
“You came!” shouted a deep, soulful voice above the music. “Anton, right?”
Blaze appeared before him, grinning, and still wearing his black shades. Instead of white, he wore black pants and shirt without a single wrinkle or stray piece of fuzz. How was that possible? Blaze wrapped his steely arm around Anton and led him to the bar across the room. The guests parted for their host and studied Anton out of the corner of their eyes as they sipped on true mood-modifying cocktails. The liquid in their martini glasses radiated colors that he could never hope to name. Some of the partiers placed white candies on their tongues, the kind covered in sprinkles or confetti.
Once they reached the bar, Blaze began sorting through various glass decanters of cyan, amethyst, and coral liquors. “Weren’t we talking about Roulettes earlier?” he asked, lifting up a container of liquid as black as ink and another that resembled milk.
Anton responded, “Yeah,” and hoped it wasn’t the inky one. It looked like poison.
Blaze uncorked the decanters with a pop and deftly combined the two in a champagne glass. It quickly turned lime, then magenta, then gold. “Time it right, and you can choose your shot of emotion,” he said and proffered the elixir to Anton. “But I prefer to leave it to chance.”
Anton took the glass and watched it change hues as if it held the beating heart of a rainbow. The nearby Haveners were huddled close together laughing, smiling, drinking their rainbow drinks, their mood-tech glowing. That kind of pleasure couldn’t be faked.
“Feeling alive yet?” asked a woman in an emerald dress that could have been painted on. Silver glitter covered her lips, neck, and shoulders and trailed down between her breasts like an invitation. Glitter Girl. In Midtown, she had been gold. In Haven Hill, she was silver.
He stared at her sterling eyes, speechless. His ring turned from calm sapphire to lustful ruby. She stepped closer, took his hand, and playfully inspected the telling shade.
“Me, too,” she said and smiled seductively.
Blaze laughed. “You don’t know what feeling alive is truly like until you’ve tasted Soul Candy.”
Anton watched his Roulette rotate vibrant colors and considered the drab world he’d just come from. “People have died for a chance to drink this. Died trying to escape to Haven Hill.”
“You mean the train grabbers,” Blaze nodded casually. “Mostly it’s the Sewies who fall isn’t it? Poor bastards.”
Anton recalled the smashed, obliterated body on the platform. “Wouldn’t you risk it if you lived in Sewer City? Even Midtown?” he asked. He’d washed the blood from his shoes, but blood never really went away. Traces buried in the laces or hidden in seams. Impossible to see, but still there.
“Indeed, and here you are,” Blaze said, his tone turning grave.
“What a depressing thought for a party!” Glitter Girl said, slowing licking the rim of her cocktail glass.
“Apologies,” Blaze said. “Let’s toast to new friends and new emotions!”
At his words, every Havener in the penthouse instantly stopped talking and dancing and turned to their host. The music quieted.
Blaze raised his glass and quoted, “Fast-acting! Long-lasting!”
“Soul-satisfying!” the crowd finished in unison, their purple mood-tech shining. Anton felt like he was in one of Blaze’s infomercials, but the cultish vibe was strangely comforting when compared to the stoic loneliness of Midtown. The lesser of two evils.
All in attendance raised their cocktails, and the chorus of delicate tinkling as the glasses touched dissolved the last of his worries. He would drink to the dead Sewie and feel alive on her behalf. Glitter Girl took a sip, never looking away from him.
The first sip was gold-colored and danced on his tongue like sugared lemons, melting and coating his entire mouth with freedom and sunshine. In an instant, Anton remembered what it was to be five and play in a sandbox, rolling in the soft sand and flexing his fingers in its depths. Then he felt the wind upon his face as he swung through the air, his stomach free-falling up and down in a swing. The rough edges of bark scratched his hands as he climbed higher and higher in a tree, the leaves rustling in delight and encouraging him to reach the very top.
Then the feeling vanished as quickly as it came, and he was back to the normal Anton, lonely, chubby, and still a Mid.
“Wicked timing!” Blaze laughed. “Nostalgia is a good one to start on.”
“Nostalgia is my favorite, but it’s gone so quickly,” said Glitter Girl. Her smile faded briefly then returned as if she had forgotten her manners.
Anton turned the color-changing Roulette this way and that. “Yeah, but now I feel like shit.”
“That’s why I invented the chews. They last for over an hour, so you can really enjoy the emotion but still have time to change it later,” Blaze said. He glanced at his watch and took the glass out of Anton’s hands. “If you liked the Roulette, you’ll love my secret stash. Downstairs!”
Anton struggled to find the words to describe how he felt when Blaze took his glass away. He was surprised at how strongly he wanted to drink the Roulette, as if nothing else was more important in the world. “What about the other colors?”
“Bah, the chew variety is so much more potent. This way!”
Images of trampled chew-wrappers flashed before him. Sewies licking filthy pieces of plastic to feel something. Anything. Meanwhile, here, in every glass, on every tray…
Glitter Girl took his hand, interlacing her fingers with his. “Can I come along, too?” she said, her lips sparkling in a sultry smile. “My Revelry is running out.” Her chandelier earrings glowed a faint lilac instead of the deep plum most of the other Haveners displayed.
“What does the Revelry feel like?” Anton asked, forgetting all else, mesmerized by her touch and how the jewelry swayed with her every movement. The vanilla-musk of her perfume.
“It makes you laugh and smile,” Blaze said. “I originally thought about naming it Flirt, but that didn’t quite encompass its full potential. Anyway, it’s pretty basic,” he said dismissively then waved for Glitter Girl and Anton to follow him. They sliced through the mass of party-goers, who had resumed dancing, to a blank alcove at the other end of the penthouse. Blaze placed his hand over a panel. It scanned and confirmed his identity, and the back wall slid open to reveal a hidden elevator.
“Actually, why don’t you two go down first?” Blaze said. “It’s a small space.”
Anton allowed Glitter Girl to enter before him, but once she was inside, she pulled him in. It was a tight fit. The doors closed without a sound and they began a swift descent. Her body brushed against him and his skin prickled.
“The best blend is called Lust,” she whispered as if it were a secret. “Of course, Blaze is always creating new combinations.” She slid her arms around him and kissed him on the neck.
He was sure a silver imprint remained where her lips touched, and he didn’t dare wipe it away. “Blaze won’t mind?”
“Blaze lets me have whatever I want.”
His eyes wandered down the glitter trail as she pressed herself against him. Anton flushed at the thought of where else she glittered beneath her emerald dress. He kissed her silver lips. They tasted like sugar. But just like the Roulette, the embrace was short-lived. The elevator came to a stop, and the doors opened.
“That was quick,” he muttered and peered into the room, empty and silent.
Glitter Girl laughed and leapt out of the elevator. As soon as her heel clicked on the pearly white floor, lights flashed on. Lining the right side of the hallway was a wall of glass that revealed a flower-filled courtyard, ground-level. On the other side were countless metal doors with small, barred windows. The farthest end of the hallway had yet to be lit up, but Anton discerned a cluster of chairs in the darkness.
Glitter Girl strutted down the hall as if it were a runway, and more lights turned on every few feet. Beneath the lights, Anton noticed faded bruises on her wrists—in the shape of fingers—that he hadn’t seen in the dim penthouse. The glitter did a good job distracting the eye.
“Who did that?”
“It’s nothing,” she said, covering her wrists. “It’s part of living here. Look, we’re almost there.”
The last of the lights flashed on. Burgundy armchairs were arranged in a circle and occupied by silent, slumped bodies, strapped down. Black power cords snaked the floor, connected to monitors labeled: Test Group F, G, H.
As if on cue, the elevator chimed behind them and Blaze appeared with a ready grin and arms outstretched like an actor taking the stage. “How are my little lovebirds doing?” Blaze asked, his voice echoing down the hall.
Anton’s voice echoed back: “What the hell is going on?”
Dropping his arms and his smile, he said, “I see the honeymoon is over.” Blaze shot a nefarious look at Glitter Girl as he walked toward them.
Trembling, she said, “He started asking questions. I didn’t know what to say.” Anton noticed her earrings had turned neon yellow. His own was changing to the color of smoldering embers.
“Get the chews,” Blaze said a little too loudly.
Anton watched her hurry away to a table, her heels clicking, and considered his options: wall of glass, dungeon doors, and the elevator. His best chance was the elevator, but it required Blaze’s hand to open. “Do you get all your lab rats from Midtown?” Anton asked, trying to buy more time.
“Mids and Sewies alike. They will do anything, take anything, no questions asked.”
Anton looked at the flabby, average people strapped in the chairs and remembered the missing posters plastered in the train station. “So the straps are for decoration?”
“The straps are for their safety. Sometimes the blends bring on such real hallucinations that they act it out.” For the first time, Blaze removed his shades. “I promise you, they are not prisoners. They are not being harmed.”
Anton was startled to see how normal his eyes looked. With the shades and the secrecy, he expected Blaze to be blind, disfigured, or sporting lifeless cybernetic eyes. Instead they were normal, brown, and very human.
“This room is only for the most deserving,” Glitter Girl said in a rehearsed voice, bringing a tray of assorted Soul Candy chews, some spherical, some shaped like cubes, stars, or hearts, and all colored vibrantly with marbling, sprinkles, or painted swirls. Anton only recognized the confetti-covered ones from upstairs.
“None of the Haveners upstairs would appreciate the experience of blending.” Blaze dropped his flashy smile and adopted an earnest expression. Even his voice lost the bravado it usually held. “They’re too acclimated and numb to Soul Candy these days.”
Anton stared at the drugged people, nearly comatose. “Too addicted, you mean.”
“Blending is an art, and every artist needs a blank canvas,” said Blaze, his passion hanging on every syllable like a priest at the pulpit. “Take Revelry, for example.” He picked up the confetti-covered candy. “Normally, it inspires laughing, spontaneity, but when combined with Rage, it freezes the muscles instead. As the Rage floods every pore in your body, you want to lash out, to release your anger, but all you can do is lie there and take it. It’s the most exhilarating feeling of paralysis. Like a spiritual cleansing. I call that blend Nirvana.”
“No thanks,” Anton said, wondering how thick the glass was in the wall of windows. He watched the sun begin to set in brilliant shades of crimson outside. No fence, no guards, but no ride back to Midtown, either.
“Your skepticism is why I chose you. I want to know how the chews react to resistance,” Blaze said, eyeing Anton’s ring that continued to glow a fiery orange. “That is the price of the ticket I gave you. Ember is so rare to find.”
Anton studied the series of identical doors along the wall with their barred windows and punch-code lock panels—and then looked at the circle of chairs, the people strapped down. Another decision to make, and neither option good. “We both know I came here to get out of Midtown,” he said, heart pounding, but voice steeled. “But no straps.”
“That will require you test a brand-new blend for me.”
Anton paused a beat and considered being strapped down like the others, but there was no guarantee he would ever be released. At least this gave him a chance. Play it cool until things settled down. Bide his time.
“Alright, I’ll take a blend,” Anton said.
“But just this once. And then I leave.”
The grin remained plastered on. “Of course.”
Damnit, this was bad. But what else could he do? He was a nobody in a world that Blaze had made. No one would notice his absence. No one would come for him. No one would listen if he managed to get out.
“Please, sit,” Blaze said, motioning to an empty burgundy chair.
As Anton positioned himself, Glitter Girl attached sensors and leads to his temples. She looked everywhere but into his eyes.
Blaze sorted through the candies until he found the two he was looking for. He held up a spherical piece that looked like clouds against a blue sky and a square one with tiny red stars on a black background. “Bliss and Courage! Are you ready?”
He nodded, and Blaze handed him the chews.
The first one tasted like purity itself, like dewdrops collected on a rainforest leaf. He could smell the damp sweetness in the air and hear the tranquil song of exotic birds. His muscles immediately relaxed. All Anton wanted in the world was to lie on the forest floor and disappear in the mist. It was like breathing clouds and falling forever. He felt nothing and everything in unison.
Then there was an explosion of fireworks when he bit into the second chew. It immediately burned through his tongue like raging flames, but the pain was exhilarating. It wakened something inside him. The pain made him alive. It coursed down his throat and into his stomach, searing a path of inspiration and fearlessness that spread throughout his body. Finally, it collected into his chest, bursting with energy and brimming with righteousness.
The surge of power mixing in his bloodstream was ecstasy itself. It summoned him to go.
At first, Anton tried to fight the calling, to control the emotion as he controlled the mood-tech, but the blend intensified its command. Anton stood up and lifted the armchair above his head. It was as easy as lifting a child. Then he slammed it into the wall of glass. The shattered pieces flew out into the twilight and sliced his skin as he ran through. The cuts burned and tingled at first then quickly went numb. Bliss. Blood dripped down his face and arms, but Anton didn’t mind. It fueled his instinct to do something heroic. Courage.
He smiled as he took his first few steps at a jog and built up to a steady sprint. Anton thought he heard some yelling behind him, but it seemed so petty and trivial. He had more important things to do, though he wasn’t sure what those things were yet. The Soul Candy called him to search: Find someone to save.
Each building of Haven Hill that he passed blurred into the next, each street a duplicate of the one before, and all in desperate need of nothing. He had yet to find his gallant deed to fulfill, and the urgency to do good increased in his soul with every fading minute of sunset.
Finally, Anton came upon the synthetic stone wall that enclosed Haven Hill, separating it from the surrounding region of Midtown—and below that, of Sewer City.
Of course! Sewer City!
Grappling the jutting stones, he climbed up as if he had been scaling walls all his life. On the other side, he marveled at the maze of scaffolding before him. The descent down didn’t take long. He expertly navigated the tangle of planks and platforms as if they were steps and ladders, and he not hundreds of feet above the ground. Once he reached the train platform, empty at this hour, he headed for the dark cave that led to Sewer City. Its shadows, a beacon.
A putrid stench of decay wafted around him. The street was slick with stagnant puddles and nearly every lamp light was busted or flickering.
The handful of homeless that watched his arrival huddled even closer around their make-shift fire, coughing and drinking from scavenged tin cups. Anton stared at them across the damp and littered street. Did they need help? When he stepped toward them, they scurried to their shadows like rats. No matter. Anton collected stray pieces of wood from a pile of splintered chairs and broken tables and fed the fire for when they returned.
But surely there was more he could do?
The blend pulsed inside him, hungry for action.
A terrified scream erupted from a dark alley, and Anton almost cried out in joy.
Finally! Someone to save!
He raced down the alley and discovered a scrawny girl, maybe eighteen, with torn fishnets and knee-high boots being harassed by a group of Sewies. They pushed the girl between them, mocking her and laughing that she was about to have all her dreams come true.
“Unhand her!” Anton shouted, surprised at his own forceful command and choice of words.
They stopped and stared at the man with blood streaked clothes and puffed out chest.
“Release her or face the consequences of your actions,” Anton warned them. He’d never felt more powerful, more righteous.
“Kill that fucker!” ordered the leader as he grabbed the girl and led her away to a more secluded alley. His three cronies approached Anton and pulled out knives and pistols from their pants. Anton only had his hands.
The fight was a bloody blur of fists, bullets, and blades.
The first shot felt like a hammer to his shoulder, but it didn’t knock him down.
Then a knife pierced his side.
Anton grabbed the grip and the man holding it, removing the knife and slicing the Sewie’s throat in one movement.
Another gunshot, a flash of light.
Anton threw the knife into the gunman’s chest.
He stood over the two dead bodies in triumph and gasped for breath as the third man fled into the bowels of Sewer City. Blood covered his hands and dripped down his side, soaking his shirt scarlet. As he knelt down to pick up the gun, he spit up blood but hardly noticed the pain. He actually felt pretty good.
Anton ran in the direction the ring-leader had gone with the girl. It wasn’t hard. He followed her muffled screams and echoes of hurried steps splashing in the muck on the streets until he had them cornered in a dead-end alley.
“I will spare your life in exchange for the girl.” Anton could taste victory in his blood-filled mouth even as the pain from his wounds began to throb and ache in growing waves, but the Sewie only chuckled a deep guttural sound in response.
“This girl? I can get another bitch on any street corner. Take her,” he said as he shoved her away from him like trash that hadn’t been taken out in weeks.
As soon as she stumbled away from her captor, the shot rang out. She fell forward and collapsed into Anton’s arms just as he, too, fell backward from the bullet’s impact. It ripped through his body like an explosion to the chest.
This time the pain was unbearable.
This time he couldn’t breathe.
The blood collected in the back of his throat, and when he rolled the dead girl off him, all his cuts and bullet holes burned like brands. There was nothing he could do to stop the agony from scorching every nerve and squeezing his lungs shut. Mercifully, his vision clouded and went black, black as the pools of rot and refuse that Sewer City swam inside.
Anton blinked slowly, adjusting to the fluorescent flood of light above him. The bulbs buzzed in their struggle to stay alive, and a musty, moldy scent permeated the air. He coughed, prompting a nauseating pain to ripple throughout his body. Each breath was fire in his chest, as if a creature was lodged in his lungs and trying to claw its way out.
He recalled a woman covered in rhinestones. No, glitter. And a man who never stopped smiling. Something about candy.
A shadow moved across his face, and he tensed, summoning a new round of convulsions to rack his body. His vision was still fuzzy, but he could see now the bandages that covered his torso, chest, and arms. Dark patches of blood seeped through. The shadow stopped at the foot of his bed, and he squinted to see through the crust that clung to his eyelashes. He opened his dry and gummy mouth to speak.
Only a hoarse grunt sound emerged when he attempted, Where am I?
“Are you in pain? Do you need more Serenity?” the shadow asked quietly.
Anton recognized the voice, a woman’s. He strained to see her features: hair pulled back in a loose bun, fly-away strands falling down the nape of her neck. She turned, and he heard items being moved like marbles rolling on a table. Anton tried to sit up again; his muscles painfully complied only to be stopped after a few inches of movement. Attached to the corners of the bed were leather straps that shackled his wrists and ankles.
The woman retrieved a syringe from a tray of vials. Lifting the needle, she shot a small amount into the air.
“No drugs…,” he said, his voice and memory returning.
“It’s medicine,” she assured him and began to inject the Serenity into the clear pouch hanging by his bed. The pale blue liquid from the syringe mixed with the saline in icy ribbons. She turned toward the only exit, a dark metal door with a small barred window as he pulled against his restraints and thrashed his legs. “It’s best if you don’t try to fight it,” she said, stopping at the door. The glitter was gone from her eyes and lips, but there was no mistaking her. Glitter Girl unlocked the deadbolt and pulled open the creaking door. A man with a Cheshire grin and black shades stood on the other side.
“Our newest resident is awake!” Blaze said.
Immediately, the memories of Revelry and the party and all the purple mood-tech shit everyone paraded around flooded Anton’s mind. The thought of the Roulette cocktail summoned a sour taste to his mouth. He strained to speak, “Let me go.”
“You think a wanted criminal can just walk out of here?” Blaze said, his smile growing even wider. “Don’t you remember? You killed two citizens—three, if we include the woman.”
Anton’s breathing quickened. “They were…hallucinations.”
“I fetched you myself from Sewer City after you bulldozed through the glass wall. Stunning, really. I ordered you to stop, but you wouldn’t listen. So I just followed the trail of dead bodies until I found you lying in a pool of blood,” Blaze said, chuckling. “Who would have thought Courage would react so strongly to the Bliss? It needs some tweaking, of course. Too much do-gooder and not enough obedience. I think I’m going to call this new blend Soldier or Vigilante.”
“Why not Hero?” Glitter Girl said quietly. Instead of chandelier earrings, she wore a pendant that glowed black. “He did try to save her.”
“Hero has a nice ring to it, yes. My new military clientele will salivate over that one.”
“We had a deal,” Anton said, fighting the Serenity inside him.
“If you step foot outside this tower, you’ll be hunted down and locked away for murder. I can’t risk my new favorite telling tales.”
“Please, it’s for the best.” Glitter Girl insisted, biting her lip to keep from saying more.
“Isn’t this what you’ve always wanted? Daily doses of candy, clean air, rich food, emotions galore to fill the void in your soul. And after a few days of Revelry and Roulettes, when you’ll do anything to get another hit, I might invite you upstairs to join the others. Parties every night,” Blaze said. “You’ll never want to leave.”
Blood trickled down Glitter Girl’s lip. Blaze noticed it and handed her a candy from his pocket. She stared at the sphere, like clouds against a blue sky, then obligingly took it and placed it on her tongue. Her jaw clenched as she slowly chewed. The stress dissolved from her expression, replaced with a vacant gaze and vapid smile. Her pendant, now blue.
“Welcome to Haven Hill, my friend,” Blaze said, from somewhere far away.
But the ring on his finger, the color of smoldering embers.
Copyright JN Powell 2019