She's long-limbed but fleshy, maybe even chubby if I'm not feeling generous. Her skin makes up for this defect: poreless, smooth and natural. A country girl, some might say. Her nipples are just a shade darker than her skin, but it could be the way the picture was shot. Her long, thick hair is dark, from her head to her armpits, but the shadows between her legs obscure any judgment in that area. I think I see a glint of metal there. Not sure. Not sure why I'm so interested.

The angle of the camera is almost straight on, pointed into her gaping mouth, with her arms spread limply from her body and her breasts and legs forming mountains in the distance. I didn't notice before, but there's tears running down her face as it tilts upside-down, spilling over her brow into her hairline. Her eyes are open, but not nearly as wide as they could be. I can tell pain, and the only time the eyes are completely wide open is when the pain hides before pouncing. The agony of surprise.

Plus, the woman's eyes are rolling up, not shock-focused into the strange and unaccounted-for places people go when something's being done to them that they'd never thought could possibly hurt that much. When the pupils roll up like that, that's not the agony of surprise. That's the agony of ecstasy, to put it tastelessly. Or, at the very least, the agony of the familiar: something's happening that is manageable, something recognizable. Like a dentist's drill. Or having your fingers unexpectedly sliced off. You wouldn't have thought it, but it's true; blunt trauma like that tends to roll over you in waves, instead of forcing itself on you all at once.

So I knew: Whatever was being done to the woman in the photo, however nasty it looked, it was something she was used to. In time, pain can even become your best friend, your traveling companion through the darkness of this world. It may make you wish you were dead, but in the meantime, it definitely lets you know you're still an organism capable of processing hurt.

Pain is everyone's lover. It just woos us with different flowers.

I toss the photo into my desk drawer, feeling like a gutted fish. I am not sleeping well. It has been three days since the Zebraman Job and I have clotted fingers reaching around the back of my throat, forcing me into spells of dry-retching that go on for hours. I feel like I haven't been out of bed in three days, even though it's more like five hours.

I open the newspaper, and if my headache was a flickering exit sign in the back of a mold-ridden theatre, now it's an A-bomb with all the trappings. Sweat on my palms dissolves the cheap newsprint into paper mache.

FIRE CONSUMES EMPTY SNUFF PORN DUNGEON:

NO SUSPECTS FOUND

It's the Big Failure. It's finally caught up with me, that damned greyhound. I think back to the clawed wallpaper, the chemical scent of death lingering on the furniture. Everything was how it should have been. Everything was in its place. The Job, both eyes out, tied up on the bed. The basement of horrors, up in smoke. The seven photos, glued to the bedsheets with blood and other bodily fluids-

No, not seven.

The worms in my gut increase. The photo is still in the drawer. Even as I pull it out with two fingers, it feels like an aberration, a mutant baby, a neutron star weighing a billion tons. I did what nobody who knows the rules is supposed to do: I sacrificed vegetables instead of meat, I looked backwards at Sodom and Gomorrah as they burned, I watched my father as he slept naked in his tent. I did what Indiana Jones did when he tried swapping the golden statue for a bag of sand.

What people don't realize is that it isn't one big decision that changes your life. Your eventual fate is like a huge river, barreling through the valley of your past and present and future, and we're all just these shrimpy creatures scuttling along its banks, trying to change its course. Most people try to do it all at once, and then they drown. What most people don't realize is, the only was to change your fate is to build a dam. Bit by bit. Moment by moment.

If my life is a river, it's already headed over a cliff at two hundred thousand cubic feet per second. Given the parametres, it's pretty easy to just spread your arms and pretend like you're flying. To pretend that what I do makes a difference. That every drop of blood I spill that precedes me will somehow inform the rocks below that I am a good guy, that it was all taken out of my hands a long time ago, and that none of it is my fault.

Now, as I stare at the glossy of the plump naked woman, legs spread for shadow and metal, I feel the teeth on my neck. For the first time since the Jobs started, I have fucked up. The Zebraman should be getting tossed around by the sickos in a federal prison by now, not... Gone. Disappeared. The article in the newspaper doesn't even mention the rope I tied him to the bedposts with, or the ball gag, slick with his DNA. There must be enough evidence on the bedsheets alone to convict him ten times over. So where the hell did he go?

Fear starts its slow escalation within me. It used to be that I did the Job right, it did right by me. No sirens stopping under my window. No flashing lights. No unexpected midnight visits. I did what the Job told me to do, and then I got out. That was the deal. I'm a rules guy. I played the game, and I played it well.

But I took the photo. I stabbed Abel's eye out. I slept with the whore of Babylon. I don't know how taking the photo was a bad thing, but the Job knows, and it's telling me in a neon scrawl: You fucked up.

The apartment has to go. It's no longer a safe haven, my Fortress of Solitude. Three days was my grace period, but now that I know the score, it is time to leave. I couldn't repair the damage by returning the photo to the Zebraman's shack; and anyway, it had burned to its foundations, just like I had planned. Everything had gone the way it was supposed to... Everything, except the photo in my hand.

I pack it, some money and clothes, my diary and whatever weaponry that can still fit in my backpack. It isn't enough to ease my trepidation about the veritable arsenal in the closet, but there is no time. The whole building is beginning to feel like the stomach of a leviathan creature, waiting for the digestive fluids to come pouring in and extinguish me.

I clatter down the fire escape and jump the last few feet. My sneakers scuff the pavement as I land, startling only an old wino as he panhandles on the corner. In my upset state, even the wino looks like a potential threat. Then I run, throwing my chest back and jerking my arms up and back, and only when I reach the Denny's five blocks away am I reminded of this girl I knew in high school who told me I ran like a chicken. That was over ten years ago. I get a corner booth in the restaurant and try to remember why she had said such a thing to me. What I could have possibly done to provoke that response. I never even knew her name. I was just running, running, and then she said, like a chicken. For no reason at all.

I make an origami tent from my arms. I put my head down on them.

Nobody notices except the waitress who comes to take my order, but she does a good job of pretending not to see.


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