Diamond Is Not Kush
rating: +53+x

Jude never knew what to do with his hands. Pockets. In the air. Sometimes, touching his thigh too much. Maybe it looked creepy? Ran through his hair. That one was good, but it couldn't last long. A crystalline teardrop of non-awkward time. Composed moments where each syllable in his body didn't tremble and tumble but instead kind of came together for something glorious. Then back to discombobulation. Too much, and it looked like you were digging for weird shit in your hair. Too much, and you looked like you were fiending. Which he wasn't. Couldn't. The slit eyes said as much.

Electric Eye, called that even by her father, was quiet. Small mouth. Premature crow's feet. Sharp chin. Didn't she look like the Critic? Different eyes. Smaller. Closed, though. He hadn't seen them open. His were green. Hers could have been, too. He couldn't remember genetics. Probably. Her head was shaved. Easier to keep her clean, he figured. Not to say that the Breeder had done very much in the regard.

Sores. Filth. The poor thing. She wore a sack. It hadn't been washed. The smell was vile, and the room was foul. She seemed to know how to go to the bathroom at least. They taught Electric Eye that much. And to wash, and to feed. Only what was necessary, only to make keeping her a little easier.

In here, Electric Eye had presumably spoken. Long, uninterrupted streams of his stream of consciousness. Certainly others, but probably only Jude in recent memory. Just talking. Maybe, like a feral child, language was only a series of sounds to her, barely connected to commands like a dog. Or maybe, there was something else.

And what was even her name?

“Are you okay?” Jude wasn't sure who he was asking. Or what.

“Yeah,” said JJ from his nest in the corner. He wrapped his hands around his knees. The twink didn't like the dirt, was Jude's guess. Or maybe it was the general vibe of the place. Or maybe, just maybe, it had to do with the bloodstained screwdriver sticking out of his pocket, just a fine fucking how-do-you-do, sir.

It had to be projection, obviously, or maybe they were fucking shining light on each other orbiting like twin suns. Except Jude wasn't exactly sure which was the bigger sun and who was feeding whom. Could it be an equilibrium situation? Astronomy was never a strong suit. Jude examined his nails.

“I think she'll be okay. I don't know.” Esther bit her lip. “We should take her to a hospital?”

“Then what?” JJ said.

“I don't know. We can't send her to an orphanage.” He had images of Oliver Twist, of Leela from Futurama. “We could do something better with her, you know.”

“Any ideas?” Esther had knelt down and cradled the child, but they had found that she disliked contact. But the girl let them make her a bed. Now Esther just huddled over her. A respectful distance. She could be matronly. Like a badger mom from Redwall. Or a big otter queen.

Even though Jude could undo the atoms of everyone in the room, she still intimidated him.

But even with her mom powers, even with the boy's luck, and whatever Jude could bring to any child-rearing scenario (a big load of nothing, mostly), they didn't want a fucking child. No one wanted that. But they felt as though they should. It went unspoken, but Jude thought it the hardest. He was sure.

What the fuck kind of parent would any of them be?

“We can always leave her somewhere. In a home, that'll take her. We can, uh, have JJ find one. You write a note. A really, you know, mind grabber. Kind of, you know, that thing you do, Esther. JJ'll make sure it's a good home, and you can, uh, make it easier. Meld her into the life as easy as possible.”

Quiet. Jude looked down at the fast food wrappers. The dead body was still in the room. The bugs, the weird twitching corpses, surrounded him. The wood was scorched, warped around him. There was a lot of blood.

“And then what?” Esther took a seat on the floor next to the girl. Every now and then, one of the Breeder's children skittered across the floor. They'd be dead within hours. She flinched every time.

“We go to him. It's all here. His home. His, you know, vacation place. There's a lot of it.”

“Even with me, it's a little convenient, don't you think?” JJ finally stretched upwards. A blanket had fallen off the girl that had been called Electric Eye. Two blankets covered her from the outside world. She still whispered, but it was impossible to tell what she said. He picked it up and draped it across her, frowned. “I mean, we kind of know he wants you to find him. That's, like, you know. That's the thing. But why is his address with this dumbass?”

“He's crazy,” Esther said.

“I don't care,” said Jude.

“There's easy, and then there's weird easy. That's all I'm gonna say.” JJ was up on his heels, stretching like a well-fed cat. When had he last eaten? Did twinks need to eat? Definitely not as much as a normal person. They fed on self-satisfaction. Their own youth. His t-shirt rode up, showing a flat stomach. Jude stared, just a little. JJ caught him and grinned, winking.

Jude blushed, shook his head, and said, “It's like a magnet. I don't know why I want to go.”

“He tried to kill you,” said JJ.

“He tried to kill you two, too,” said Jude. “Don't you kind of feel it, too? Prominence or whatever? I wanna go.”

JJ said nothing.

Esther knocked the knick-knacks and the corny old-timey microphone and the dozens of fast food cellophane wrappers onto the floor. A piece of paper. One sheaf. Folded, but clean. Her pen hadn't broken in the scuffle. Of course it hadn't.

Esther drew Electric Eye a new life and a new name.

You sweat. The air conditioner hums. Hyperhidrosis. Cold air blasts you in the face. A thirty-seventh view, and it's falling down your face, your big, stupid face. No matter, you'll sweat. You get used to the smell. Antiperspirants might give you cancer, but what's a little cancer when there's so much life?

It's easy to deal with when you're older. Children see it as weakness. You can smell a lot on someone's sweat. Diabetes. Tumors. Seizures.

In your room, there aren't a lot of decorations, which you suppose must be surprising to your visitors. You've always found that art is made better when unreflexive. When it isn't a moon taking another star's light.

But you know a lot about that, don't you? Lunar perversions, nocturnal diversions. Wasn't that a song? It had a good beat. You thought it could have been a song some time, maybe.

There is only a desk. A bed. An easel, with paint. Three brushes. A notebook, open. A pen. An ashtray. There are no windows. There is one door.

The walls, truthfully, are what you're most proud of. The ambiance gets to you without them. A little bit of jive and voodoo, and you don't wake up every morning feeling so satiated. You like to think of yourself as a guided missile. Can't just scoop it from the top or even shove it down inside like a ravenous child rifling in a bag of cereal for a prize and a handful of the marshmallow bits.

You wait. And it's better that way.

It certainly hadn't always been like this. You take a long hit of the marijuana cigarette. It is oddly sweet, and it isn't at all like it used to be. Evolved. Only the perfect bits. More crystal than plant. Hardly any seeds now. The old joke. How are they growing the seedless watermelons?

You know he's coming, because he has to. It's how he wants it.

Your way wasn't always the predator's. Maybe you had been mean, once. Maybe you had been a little rude in front of him.

The boy wanted what he wanted.

Once, you thought you wanted him to replace you. Like some old wizard giving away his spellbook. But now, you only want to be free.

You want to stop the world from being the way he likes it. You want yourself. You want your daughter normal and untouched.

Your hands don't tremble as you spritz yourself with the spray. The cologne fills your nose like syrup. You can smell him, can't you? Even through the doors, every disturbance like an alarm clock dropped on a water bed.

They killed you when the heater broke. You were always intrigued that the human desire to fuck in fun ways superseded all other imperatives.

Your door opens. It's unlocked, of course.

The boy's hands are up in the air. You see them, and for a moment, you get dizzy. Nerves. Nothing but nerves. He sits down at the chair opposite you. He doesn't speak. The boy puts a cellphone on the table. It's currently off.

He points at it. There is resin on his finger. He had tried to wash it off, but there was still some stuck between the wrinkles of his fingerprints.

You smile. Already, you can taste him. You can feel him.

JJ had asked Esther to tell the story about a dozen times now. For more details, more interpretations. He wanted her to paint a picture for him that was complete, that was more real and intense than having been there. But JJ knew that he already understood what he needed.

The story of Alexander had touched him. He wished that he had been there, but he knew that it was good that he hadn't. Providence, as always. Seemingly divine, but nothing that loved like that could be divine, could it?

If it would have been good for him to be there, JJ would have been there. Sometimes, things were as simple as that. It had never bothered him like this before.

JJ thought, maybe, that he could have understood Alexander. Maybe, the Architect didn't need to die. Maybe the weird Pagan could've been with them. Could have been a friend. His friend. Their friend. In Alexander's love for Jude, platonic nearly with a capital P, JJ had found a kindred spirit.

Jude wasn't necessarily easy to love. Clever, sure, but an idiot at the same time. Something like the magic version of Steve Urkel. Sometimes, he, what?, drank a potion or something and became, like, cool. (A metaphorical potion. Or if potion were weed.) That was when he did the laser magic. Or electricity. Captain Marvel bolts of energy or maybe more like Havoc. Havok? But he was so earnest and honest and sweet and.

Lying came to Jude easily, though. JJ had always noticed that. Sure, there were big things in his life that he needed to lie about. People like them, the gay and whatever, get good at lying. But Jude lied when it didn't benefit him. Jude lied as a second nature, unreflexive and unflinching. It wasn't even malicious. Like he didn't even know he was doing it.

JJ wanted to protect him. It was that wide-eyed childishness, the way that he repeated a mistaken fact so many times with that halting cadence to the point that you started to believe in it yourself.

The Electric Eye plan was fine. That was basic, but the rest of it? He didn't like it.

JJ had directed Esther for a few hours now, winding up and down side streets, some suburbs and some swanky places and some average homes and for some reason a lot of fast food restaurants.

He felt the invisible fingers around his wrist, and then JJ said, “Stop. It's here.”

Esther did initially miss the house, but she backed up, parked, and turned off the car. Jude was in the backseat with Electric Eye. She wore clothes, finally. Jude had created them, so they were baggy, plain, and to be honest, shoddy. Still, they were better than what she had been wearing.

The note was pinned to her hoodie. A mindfuck. A name, a history, an entire life.

“Is this wrong?” Esther said.

“They want a kid. I know it. This is how it works, right?” Jude said.

JJ wasn't entirely sure, really, if it worked with other people like this. Sure, it had let him help Jude. But just anyone? He had hoped so. Deeply. It was probably true, but fuck. He said, “Yeah.”

Esther opened her door and then helped Electric Eye out of the car. Though, he supposed that was no longer her name. He didn't know what she would be called. He had supposed it would be up to the parents. He supposed they would fill in everything they needed to. That was how Esther's magic had always worked.

The home was large. Not offensive large. Not weird rich large. But it was bigger than most of the places he had slept in. He watched Esther walk her down the long driveway to the front door.

Jude said, “I can't stop thinking about how he treated her.”

JJ said nothing. The door opened, and a woman opened the door. For a moment, confusion flickered on her face. Had she just gotten home from work? She wore scrubs and a nametag that JJ couldn't see. Hospital work, right? Either that or she worked for Umbrella Corp.

The confusion was replaced by a blank look that JJ knew too well. It felt like a headache, like a pinprick bit of nausea. Like confusion, like anxiety, like the taste of maraschino cherries. So many things. He wondered what this one was like.

She called her husband. He was handsome. Young. They were both young. Dark hair, tanned skin. There was confusion, and then they smiled. They led the girl inside, and they closed the door behind them.

For the longest time, Esther didn't move. When she came back to the car, she turned the ignition and said, “They seemed nice. Their house smelled like a cake. I think he's a baker.”

Jude leaned in the backseat, finally stretching out.

“Do you think she likes cake?” he said.

“I hope,” said Esther.

“I know she does,” said JJ.

He is stronger than you remembered. Your shirt clings to your back. You take a hit of your marijuana cigarette. The air is buzzing.

“What do you call it?” he asks finally.

“You're wasting time. The longer this takes, the weaker you'll be. This isn't art class. You're the only one here, my boy. Is this what you want?”

He cracks his neck, and you wince. Loud, popping, crackling. Disgusting.

“I'm charging it.”

“What are you charging?” you ask, but you’re not interested. Any power coming to the surface wasn’t enough to kill him by the end. Your hunger was draining the boy, like bloodletting. Maybe he would feel fresh at first, but the sluggishness would set in.

“I'm going to kill you.”

“I don't know if that answers my question, Jude. You never were very good at that, were you?”

“You didn't answer mine.”

“This isn’t an anime. They don’t have to have names, Jude.”

“Tell me what you called it when you did that to me.”

“Any Colour You Like.” You shrug. “It could have been anything. It’s whatever you want.”

He doesn’t speak. The boy just stares at you, like he doesn’t understand what you mean. There are sparks in his eyes. He is heat, and he is thunder, terrible and mighty. But you are like the ocean. You are like the wind atop a mountain. You have always known this.

“This is all just a game for you. I’m ending it.” You think you sound sure and capable. You try to keep composed as the sweat burns your eyes.

“Your daughter has a real family now.”

“Trying to get me emotional won’t make it falter. It’s been devouring you from the inside out as soon as you came inside. You’ve killed yourself, and when I’m done, Lauren will come back to me, normal and real. Untouched by you.” You try to smile. You’re nervous. There is so much heat, and you feel so much energy sliding down your brain. It hurts. It’s like drinking hot chocolate.

“It was over as soon as I stepped through the door.”

“Did you ever think why we even accepted you?”

The boy just taps the flip phone. You can see that it’s at forty-three percent and rising, charging, blinking. You can’t tell if it’s the phone that’s hot or if it’s the energy from the monster’s body. The air is wavy around it. You do not touch it.

“You’re a weapon. Everyone in our little section is a warrior. Nothing else.” You bite the inside of your mouth. Truthfully, it stings. You had always wished to be accepted on the virtues of your work. “I made sure they were kept sharp. Some of my colleagues, Critics of a different stripe, focused on the finer things. You all were never meant for any grand statements. You, the Architect, the Gardener, the Performer, the Breeder. Protection for our interests. Insurance against our enemies.” You’re hissing by the end. Your face must be quite red.

The marijuana cigarette’s ash is nearly an inch, and when you gesture it falls onto the table.

“You hurt me,” he says. The face of hurt. The tone of innocence.

“I only ever did what you wanted me to.”

You don’t think about it. You choose not to dwell on the things he has made you do, the villain for his twisted little game of play-pretend.

“You hurt your daughter.”

“Do you really think I did that? Do you really think a man would ever do something like that?” Snapped. You break the marijuana cigarette in your hands. The flame burns your fingers, but you don’t notice it until the butt has scorched you.

“You gave the Sculptor the idea, didn’t you?”

You shrug.

He taps the cellphone again. It is fifty-six percent.

Esther couldn’t help but think of her sisters. Just as old as the girl had been. Well they had been that old when she left. She thought of little Rebekah and Miriam too often. They were small girls. Rebekah, a little sickly but honey sweet in such a genuine way. And Miriam had been so funny. Even at a young age, she'd make fun of herself to get a laugh. She even got her father, Rabbi Kogan of the long, pontificating reflections on the meaning of text and translation, to smile.

Tati so rarely smiled. His bushy, severe eyebrows. A little bow-legged. People had said she looked like him when she was younger, and she always got mad. But truthfully, she saw it.

Ima, well, she had smiled more. She was always happy. Skinny, tall, sharp. Not in the bad ways, mostly. Esther had missed her for a long time. Her mother and her sisters were what she missed most.

Definitely not stubborn Rabbi Kogan. Definitely not the meanest man in the world. She remembered yelling that at him, and he'd tell her that he'd show her the meanest man in the world. Except, he never did do anything. He just yelled and gnashed teeth.

He wasn't horrible, really. No more horrible than Esther was, she thought.

And even the good things she remembered, weren't a lot of them the result of cheesy rose-colored glasses? She had been so much older than her sisters, and they had been so annoying.

And sure. Bracha Kogan had a beautiful smile, but Esther’s tendency to spit acid wasn’t one that arose from nothing.

But she loved them. Of course she loved them.

“What're you thinkin' about?” JJ sat on top of a picnic table. Clean clothes again, but he still looked a little irritated. Like there was something under his skin. Probably literally. She thought of the bugs again and shivered.

She held the clove cigarette to her mouth and clamped it between her teeth. She lit it with a green lighter, resin resplendent on the bottom. In the wrinkles of her own fingers was sharpie ink.

They had taken a rest at a large wooded park nestled within the suburb where the Critic lived. Jude had gone off alone into the woods. He said he wanted to take a walk and clear his head. Think of things. Probably closer to the truth was that he only had a bowl or two left and didn't want to share.

The sun hadn't set yet. It was a little too high for that. It was at that horrible waning point of its peak before it started the pink descent down the horizon into Tartarus or something suitably goth.

“I was thinking of what I'd name my thing. You know…”

“If stands were real and not just something a bunch of weirdos were molding their powers around as some kind of post-ironic joke?”

“Yeah.” She took a long drag, and it was sweet, sweet on her lips. They had to sell them as cigarillos now. Something about flavored cigarettes and marketing to children. The air smelled like onions. Nobody, obviously, was cutting anything. Esther assumed it was coming from the plants. One of them, at least. The weeds. Thistles. They did look pretty, though.

Big purple blooms. Thistle was as beautiful as any flower. Just tougher, bitchier. Untamed.

The smell of onions reminded her of her mother's kitchen. Bracha Kogan had not been the best cook. But she took a pride in her work that was infectious. It made it taste better. She had kept the kitchen so clean. A kosher kitchen with three daughters and a husband who loved to eat.

She never let them forget that.

“What would you call it?”

“I don't think mine would have a name. It’s not like yours.”

JJ yawned and flopped backward, closing his eyes and facing the sun. His knees were pointy. She rested her elbow on one. “So you get to be Mewtwo?”

“No, more like Jewish hamon, you know?”

“Jewish people fight a lot of vampires?”

“That’s why we invented golems, too. A bloodless warrior.” She would have pointed out the uncomfortable association with the Jewish people and blood libel, but JJ couldn’t understand something like that.

“Why hamon, though?”

There were cicadas out. In beams of sunlight slanting through the limbs of trees, she could see hundreds of pinprick small bugs flying in erratic, senseless paths. She wondered what they were. Too small to be mosquitoes, right? Gnats? They could have been anything. All she knew was that they had a startling ability to dive bomb into the corners of her eyes over and over. She had killed at least five, and everyone disgusted her equally. They couldn’t be a successful species if that’s where they constantly tried to fly. What good is an eye to a mosquito?

“Stands are a little too close to idolatry for this rabbi's daughter.” Esther was satisfied when JJ let out a bark of appreciative laughter. Something a little more dainty than a guffaw, but not much better.

JJ lifted his upper body off the ground to take the clove from her fingers. He took a single hit and then coughed, spat, laid back down on the picnic table. Esther snatched it back from him, but it was almost done anyway. She dropped it on the ground and then stepped on it.

Then, thinking better of herself, she bent down and picked it up. She tossed it at a large recyclable garbage container. It missed. She didn't go after it. Close enough, really. JJ watched with one eye open. He slid off the picnic table onto the ground, barely kicking up any dust. He bent in a ridiculously slutty way, arching his back and practically squatting.

Esther was going to ask him what the fuck he was doing before she heard something like a small sasquatch making its way through the woods.

Jude came, sweating. There were scratches on his arms. Nothing self-harm, more like he had walked into a thorn bush while walking off the path. He had told them that he had always thought better when he was uncomfortable. And there was nothing more uncomfortable than the hot tail-end of sunlight, when the bugs were awake and active and hungry. Especially Off The Path. He had said it like that. Off The Path. Like it was all capitals. She hated him sometimes, really.

Jude clearly was going to say something. He, however, stared at JJ, mouth agape like an idiot. He closed it and then hacked, spitting at the ground. Had a bug flown in his mouth? Good. Owned. Destroyed. He deserved it for taking so long to “think things through.”

“Fuck. Fuck.”

“Hey, dude. Have a good walk?” said JJ, face impassive, suddenly just a concerned friend and not a flirty bitch.

“Yeah, actually. Well, no. Not really. I just got stung a lot by like, I don't know. Mosquitoes. I dropped my pipe on a rock, and it broke, you know.” He shrugged. “I left it there. Thought it was a sign, you know.”

“What do you mean?” Esther said.

“JJ's butt gave me a super good idea.” Which didn’t answer Esther’s question but whatever. Not like she wanted to know what she was supposed to have gathered from that.

JJ actually blushed. Bright, burning red. High on his cheeks. His eyes fell to the ground.

“Your sharpie still work?” Jude asked.

“It's not gonna run dry. It's a sharpie. We can buy another sharpie. We can buy a pack. It's not a magic magic marker.”

“But it writes?”

“Yeah, it writes.”

Jude sat down at the picnic table and gestured her over. He put both hands on the table, palm down. “I have an idea.”

You know he is dying because of the way things have always worked for you. That is, how you now remember things always having worked for you.

You devoured your mother from the inside out the day her water broke. You sucked her dry like a boy sticking a straw in a ripened fruit. She was left dry, quite literally, and you came from a husk, paper dry.

Your wife left you, because you hurt her. And so you hurt her.

You used your daughter as a tool to monitor your rivals and enemies and friends and protégés. You gave her to a vile, filthy henchman who cared more for his bugs than for people.

“She was normal before you did this.”

But you knew. You knew that it wasn’t you. You were a man who woke up in a world crafted by a madman. A little boy in a man’s body who wanted nothing more than to stumble around a play land modeled after the great works of Araki-sensei.

“I have no idea what you’re talking about.” He clenched his fists and then put them palm down on the table to try to raise himself up. His muscles failed him.

You knew you loved your wife. You knew your daughter was normal. Maybe he saw you snap at them. Maybe he imagined you would.

“You’re getting weaker.”

As you devour him, the power that courses through your body frightens you. It is exactly as strong as you feared. The monster who bent and twisted and sculpted your life into something ugly was a nexus of energy and potential and god, what is that?

The boy with the face that plagued your dreams and nightmares, a face that you once thought to be so beautiful, had left streaks of black on the table. You stare at them, briefly perplexed.

Is that sharpie?

But there had been no sharpie on his hands, had there?

The phone chimes.

Next to him, there is suddenly a squat woman who had clearly just tossed on purple t-shirt and a pair of sweatpants. The shirt was backwards. And then there is the skinny one that the boy fancies.

“Why would he have come alone?” the squat woman says. You know she is Esther, and you feel fear for the first time in a long time. “One hand made naked people invisible to you. The other made the sharpie symbols also invisible to you.”

“We’re just so lucky you looked at the right hand before the left hand. But I always like to roll the dice,” said the one that would have had to be JJ.

“You’ve actually been feeding on three people,” says the boy whom you hate more than any god in this wretched world.

“Dude he gets it,” says Esther as you say, “Jude, I get it.”

Jude opens the cellphone. The air is so hot and so thick.

“This is going to hurt,” Jude says. “This is the power of Radio Killed the Video Star Requiem. Wait, shit. Reverse tha—”

But you feel no pain. You can’t speak. Your sweat has evaporated. The three of them watch you as all the atoms in your body shake and quiver and then the pointillism that is your entire being fractures and bleeds and bends.

It doesn’t hurt as you feel everything you are burst.

It doesn’t hurt as you’re strained as electricity and information and quarks through a stupid, stupid boy’s idea of how a text message is sent.

You do not die.

You are alone.

You see yourself. You see every possible version of the man that is you. You see every choice, every decision, every thought and desire. It is infinite. There is so much of it. There is so much you.

That is when your pain starts.

The ride in the car after they took the Critic from this world was quiet.

Jude didn't speak for the longest time. A few gray hairs, errant and wild, had appeared at his temples and the nape of his neck. JJ had tried to say it made him look sexy. Jude hadn't reacted.

It wasn't until JJ was near asleep and Esther was almost ready to park the car and pass out when he finally spoke.

“I tried to bring them back, but I couldn't,” he said at last.

Neither Esther nor JJ spoke.

“I put some of my life into it, you know. I don't, I don't think I'll be able to do anything for, like, I dunno. A few years.” He shrugged. “No meaningful magic, at least. Or else I'll spit blood like some shounen dude.”

“How do you know that?” JJ asked.

“I also watch Hunter X Hunter. I know that sometimes you have to give something up for a big power move.” He stared off into the stars, and he said, “I didn't give up enough this time.”

“You're an idiot,” Esther said, not unkindly.

“I don't know where to go for right now,” said Jude.

“You'll stay with me until you can get your own apartment. As soon as possible.” Esther pursed her lips. Definitely a bullet being bitten.

“No need,” murmured JJ from the front seat, eyes closed. “I know a guy named Armand. I'll give you directions in the morning. We can drop Jude off there.”

Jude was quiet for a moment, and then he asked, “Will I like him?”

JJ shrugged. It seemed he was already nearly half conscious.

“Cool,” said Jude. And he closed his eyes.

Esther parked the car into a rest stop a few moments later. She fell asleep soon after.

Jude didn't sleep that night.

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