A cloud of dust puffed into the air causing John to cough. The bus screeched to a halt and the door swung open. John looked back over his shoulder a final time. He saw iron fences and stone walls. His home for the past two years. Stepping onto the bus, John felt the immediately felt the eyes on him. They had all seen him being picked up, frail and alone, standing in front of the prison. John clutched his pack of belongings against his chest and held his head low. As he lingered between the rows of seats, surveying which spot would give him the most space, the bus lurched to a start. John stumbled forward and grabbed onto a cold metal handle. The eyes were still on him. They didn’t feel human. Or maybe they did. He wasn’t sure what people were like anymore. His life had become too detached, even before prison. John slouched into an empty seat and rested his head against the vibrating window. Only a single though rose in his otherwise blank mind. Ben. John scrunched his nose and felt an uncontrollable snarl curl at the corner of his mouth. This had been his fault. If anything, he would at least admit it. Then maybe John can begin to pick up the pieces. It all began with him; it’ll end with him too. As the bus continued to rumble its way toward the city, John lazily gazed out the window. Dusty plains spotted with short shrubs. Soon enough, John was lulled to sleep.
An odour permeated the air. The whole building reeked of the strangeness. It was like a coat of fresh paint layered the walls to hide a creeping mould. It was a familiar scent. John stared at the golden ‘13’ that hung on the peeling green door. Maybe Ben wouldn’t be home. Hopefully he wasn’t. Hopefully Sam was. He could get a shower in, maybe unpack. Take a second to breath in the freedom before Ben tainted it.
John rubbed his cheek, pulling his hand all the way through his hair. He rolled his shoulders in a frail attempt to relieve the tension and knocked on the flimsy door. A brief moment later, it pulled open. “John!” Ben said with a wide smiled. “Who let this one out of prison huh?” Ben took John by the shoulder and led him inside. The place was a mess. Everything everywhere but nothing was distinguishable. The strange odour seemed to vanish here, however. Instead, a searing scent of chemicals and bitterness took its place. “Here, how about a beer to celebrate your return. We’ve got a lot of catching up.”
“Um, maybe later,” John said. “Thanks though.”
“Shut up mate,” Ben responded. “You’ve been gone for, what, 2 years? Have a beer with your mate.” Ben shoved the cold drink into John’s hand. John followed Ben as he sprawled himself over the couch and began his endless rambling.
Sometime later, John heaved his legs onto the coffee table, careful not to knock off any of the empty bottles. A headache thumped in the distance, threatening to barge its way into his mind. But John had gone numb. He watched the TV, despite its slight static fuzz, as though it was the best entertain he had in years. In more ways than one it was. “Johnny boy,” Ben called. “You ready for some action?” The slender man strode into the room. He slammed a brick of white powder onto the table causing the bottles to clink loudly. “A kilo needs to be moved by the end of the week. Could really use your hand.” Ben slumped into the couch beside John. “It’ll be good for ya. Get back into the swing of things.” He stared with bright eyes at John.
John waited before responding. His eyes lingered on the pack of drugs. “Seems a bit soon, doesn’t it?”
“Soon?” Ben said. “You’ve done your time. They can’t get you again right? What’s that double jeopardy rule? Something about only going to prison once. You’ll be fine.”
“Just what?” Ben stood up. The table shook as he bumped into it and a glass bottle fell onto the carpeted floor. “This is a couple grand right here. A small fortune. Don’t tell me you’ve change on me.”
John clenched his teeth. His fingers dug into the couch. “Fine,” he said before marching off into the bathroom.
Blaring cars roared past. The street glowed in neon red as John and Ben stood across from the entrance of ‘Hightop Nightclub’. The line to the place stretched around the corner. It wavered and bobbed as people drunkenly made up for lost time and socialized in the cold street. “Oh fuck this,” John said spinning to face Ben. “This is way too high profile.”
Ben recoiled slightly. He furrowed his brow at John. “What do you mean? We’ll make a killing. It’ll be an easy night. In and out. Few drinks, few-”
“You’ll make a killing,” John interrupted. “You’ll take everything for yourself and leave me for the cops.
Ben’s mouth dropped. “Excuse me?” he said.
John stepped closer to him. Ben was the taller man, but he was skinny. Even in the $300 puffer jacket, the man wasn’t one to physically intimidate. No, he had his own brand of that. “You heard me,” John said. “Just like last time.
“Just fucking admit it. Please. For my own sanity. You fucking sold me out.”
Ben took a step back. He shook his head, huffing a sarcastic laugh. “You’re joking me right. You must have really gone crazy looked up for that long.”
“You’ve always wanted everything for yourself. Even if that meant dropping me. If it meant dropping your best friend.” John felt the redness rise up from his gut and into his face. “Is Samantha next? How much will it cost to sell her out?”
“Hey fuck you man!” Ben pushed in finger into John’s chest. “You’d be nothing without me. You know that? Everything good in your life. Me.”
“The past two years have been an absolute blast, so thank you for that.”
Ben pulled back and slapped John. The frigid air froze between them. John’s cheek burned and his left eye watered. But he did not look away from Ben. Ben was breathing heavy, and his eyes fluttered around the alley, unable to fall on John’s. Without another word, Ben tucked his hands into his jacket and walked away.
Clean air surrounded John. This far from the city, there was even a sweetness to it. It had an absence of taste that John only found in memories. John pushed open the short gate and stepped into the garden. It clanged gently as it fell closed. The neighbour’s dog barked and jumped as it followed him on his own side of the fence. John smiled at it and continued up the walkway. He stopped briefly and inspect a bush. Were these roses new? He’d have to ask. It had been too long, so much could have changed. So much had changed. John looked back over his shoulder at the quaint suburban street. With another deep pull of the fresh air, he stepped up to the white door. John pressed the doorbell firmly. He stood and waited, hearing muffled chatter and footsteps. A moment later the door swung open, and a warm light touched John’s face.
“Mum, I need somewhere to stay.”