Little Blue Ball Part 2: Case
By: Jodi Perkins

CASE CURSED AS the glass tore through his already worn jeans, cutting into his skin. He felt the warm sticky blood spread in a two inch diameter on his upper thigh.

It wasn't a bad cut, he noted with relief. He could feel that most of the blood was already being rubbed off by the course fabric of his crusty Levi's.

Squirming back and forth, he maneuvered his body through the broken window, avoiding the sharp clear blades that protruded from the side of the window frame like deadly flames surrounding a daredevil's loop. He pushed his box of goodies through, and they hit the ground below with a loud clank. A can of coffee and a half-empty bottle of bourbon spilled out of the box onto the crusty yellow lawn.

Now your turn, he told himself. One, two, three…jump!

Taking in a breath, he launched his body forward and hit the ground below with a soft crunch, his palms slamming into the scratchy dead grass. Glancing around, he grabbed the coffee and bourbon and stuffed them back into the box. It would be hella nice to be able to bring home his latest finds without having to kick someone's ass, or having his own kicked.

And what finds they were. Five small bags of dehydrated Top Ramen, three used candles, a lighter with a third of its fluid still left, a small roll of dirty blue painter's tape, a can of coffee, and the bourbon. This was the second can of coffee he had scored this month. It wouldn't trade for much, so he likely would drink it himself like he had the last can. The thought of enjoying another few weeks of hot coffee every morning put a spring to his step; that alone made scavenging the duplex worth all the effort.

But the bourbon was the real score. Liquor was a rare gem. It was on the short list of most wanted items, right up there with ammunition, canned goods, and weed.

Some of the more responsible citizens used liquor for its medicinal properties—a disinfectant for cuts and scrapes, an aesthetic when a rotten tooth needed to come out, a muscle-relaxer when someone was having an anxiety attack—while others used it for it's primordial purpose of drowning their sorrows. Nothing made the end of the world more palatable quite like the stupefying potion of whiskey or tequila.

Frankly, he couldn't give a crap what anyone used the liquor for. He wasn't the moral police. The stuff was worth its weight in gold, and even with half the bottle missing, he'd be able to trade it for at least a week's worth of food.

The sun was already sinking into muddied oranges and reds as he hurried away from the duplex. It never ceased to amaze him that the sun rose and set every day like clockwork. Like it never got the memo that in two years it would have nothing to shine upon. He half-expected each morning to wake up to find the big golden orb curled up on its side in a pile of tattered gray clouds, defeated and purposeless like the rest of the inhabitants on planet Earth.

Rounding the corner of Jasper St., he suddenly saw her. A girl. Actually, a young woman, though she was small enough to be a girl. She was pushing through the cracked door of the old beauty salon. She was empty-handed, her search for goods obviously having yielded nothing.

That was her own damned stupidity. Everyone knew that there was nothing left in the Old Town shops. The area had been way too touristy back before the shit hit the fan, so naturally those little stores were the first ones to be raided. You had to go into backwoods' areas—little hole in the wall places—to find anything worthwhile.

Shrugging, he started to make his normal left on Jasper. He didn't have time to worry about some chick out on the street. He needed to get his box home before it was noticed by prying eyes.

But without knowing why, he froze to watch her. He couldn't seem to will his eyes away from her.

She patted her pocket and glanced up nervously at the sunset, as if she was suddenly aware of the darkening hour. She didn't seem to notice him from this distance as she turned to walk away from the salon.

What was she doing out at this hour…so close to nighttime? In the past few years, the violence towards women had escalated to such exponential numbers that finding a female outside alone at any hour was like finding a unicorn. How could she be so ignorant? Anyone could walk up and do whatever he wanted to her, and there was nothing she could do to stop it. There was no police. No authority. You still had your vigilante good guys trying to maintain peace once in a while, but those were few and far between.

Case felt something stir within him.

Oh shit. You want her, he realized.

She was pretty, which was rare. The end of the world hadn't quite carved its way into her face yet. Obviously she was too skinny—they all were—but somehow she still managed to keep a little curve on her hips despite her bony structure. Her light brown hair spilled down her back in tangled waves, accenting her slender tan shoulders. She was young—probably ten years younger than he. He moistened his lips.

He wanted her. He wanted to feel himself wrapped around a female's body again. It had been too long.

Back when the announcement first aired, he got action every night. Everyone had that "These are the last days of our lives" mentality. Night after dizzying night he spent in the seductive glaze of alcohol, enjoying the caresses of soft, willing females.

But the party ended when people stopped going to work, and production came screeching to a halt. The economy collapsed, and within a matter of years the nation was thrust into survival mode. The resources required just to sustain one's family were barely available, let alone the resources required to "eat, drink, and be merry."

Now he spent his days alone. His dad had died when he was young—way before the discovery of Alice—and Case had helped his mom kill herself five years ago when she couldn't get the treatment she needed for her advancing cancer. During the day he lived in the large run-down home that belonged to his parents, but at night, the home was way too empty and massive. He didn't care for the idea of defending so much dark vast space, so he chose to sleep in a shed in the backyard.

How many nights had he spent in that shed, imagining himself pressed up against a woman's body?

He watched her, and he ached. He wondered if she had similar cravings. She must. Why would she be out here, outside, in plain sight, in the tourist district? She wanted to be noticed. She wanted to be wanted.

He could just go up to her and strike a conversation. Feel her out. Did he even know how to do that anymore? Still, there was no harm in trying.

Yes there was, the thought occurred to him. What if she thought he was a creep and ran away? People nowadays did a lot of knee-jerk fleeing. What would he do if she ran?

He let out an ironic snort, realizing he was a creep. She should run away.

If she ran, he'd go after her, he decided.

Go after her and do what? His brain wasn't willing to articulate the next part of the plan. He didn't want to admit it, even to himself, what he was contemplating. He wasn't that kind of person. He was not a man who would ever force himself on a woman…

But he couldn't lose her. Life was too short to deny himself this. He suddenly needed her more than the world-end junkies needed their next fix. The feeling of wanting gnawed deep within his gut like a carnivorous worm.

Following her, he rationalized the situation. The world was on its final rotations. What'd he have to lose? His morality? When Alice was first announced, he was certain that he would never use the planet's impending doom as an excuse to compromise his morals. For years he told himself, "Remember who you are," taking pride in the fact that he was one of the good guys. Alice was a test of character and perseverance; a challenge that he could either fail, or rise to meet.

And maybe that was still true. But now, after eighteen long years, it all seemed so pointless. Something had snapped in him the morning he killed his mother. He knew he was doing the right thing, especially when her last words had been, "I love you Case…thank you…thank you…" but watching the life drain from her eyes at his hand did something to him. Now, good guy, bad guy, it was all the same. The human species and every living thing on planet Earth would soon be rendered extinct, no matter which side of the fence he stood on. He wasn't sure if there was a heaven or hell, but if there was, he felt strongly that it was somehow tied to this planet. Once Alice took out Earth, heaven and hell would be wiped out right along with it. None of this mattered.

She probably wanted it, anyway.

Decision made, he tucked his box into a large juniper bush and picked up his stride. He almost had to run to catch up to her. The crunching of his rapid footfall betrayed him, and she turned around, gray eyes glancing furtively behind her. She saw him. Her mouth opened up in an "o" of surprise, and she ran.

"Wait!" he yelled. His longer legs, pumping with blood, quickly closed the distance. Once she was within arms reach, he sprinted forward and knocked her down to the rough asphalt.

Gasping, she pulled out a knife, but he quickly knocked it out of her hand and, before she could wiggle away, he pinned her wrists above her head with his right hand. He clamped his left hand over her mouth, although he wasn't sure why. If anyone were around to hear her yell, they most likely wouldn't come to her aid. People didn't like to go out much anymore, and when they did, they usually returned home to their families as quickly as possible before someone jacked them of whatever it was they went out for in the first place.

He secured his knees snugly on each side of her thighs, pinioning her in place. It occurred to him that she hadn't made a sound during this whole process.

"Are you going to scream?" he asked.

She shook her head beneath his hand. Her breasts heaved up and down beneath his weight. Damn how he wanted to feel her. But he hesitated. Years and years of playing the upstanding guy was still getting in the way. He willed his Id to pummel this good guy character and strangle it.

Her eyes gleamed with fear, and—something else. Defeat?

"Okay then," he said, lifting his hand from her lips. Her body was young and solid, and the way she squirmed lithely beneath him with shuddering breaths turned him on like nothing else. He remembered when he was a teen, he heard some statistic saying that rapists committed their crimes not because they wanted sex, but because they wanted control. Back then he thought that was a bunch of bull, but now he thought there might be some truth to that. With all of the things in his life that he couldn't control—the hunger, the deaths, the daily uncertainty—nothing turned him on more in that moment than taking control over her. The thought of who he had become overnight suddenly sickened him, but at the same time, he felt a sense of relief relinquishing himself to this inner-demon. It was like he could finally relax and let his baser urges wash over him; just sit back and enjoy the ride.

Without thinking, he ran his hand up her neck and clutched a handful of her hair.

"Please don't…" she whispered, her body trembling. He paused. Why did she have to be so quiet? Why couldn't she scream her head off? Or at least call him an asshole and try to kick him in the crotch? He wanted to take her, now, but he was still at the mercy of this weak-ass good guy impostor. If he were a physical person, Case would beat him senseless.

"What are you doing out this late?" he stalled. Hearing his voice, low and hoarse, sounded strange. He wasn't in the habit of talking.

She looked at him, her gray eyes widening, as if surprised he had actually stopped. "I—I was on my way back from Charity Village." Her first syllables were raspy. She wasn't used to talking either. "I was trying to find food."

Charity Village still had a few obscure buildings and homes left. It wasn't the worst place to search for food.

"Then why'd I see you coming out of the salon?" he interrogated.

"Trying to get a manicure?"

Her hands squirmed uncomfortably inside of his wrist, and he tightened his grip. She winced.

"I used to go there with my mother when I was a little girl," she answered. Her voice was clearer, now that it was warming up. It had a pretty lilt to it. In another lifetime, she might have been a singer in a church choir. "After she told me about Alice, we would do all sorts of mother-daughter things together…like get our nails done, if you can believe that…. I guess she figured it was impossible to spoil a child who was destined to die young."

She paused, again trying to flex her wrists. He could tell by the way her arm muscles contracted that she was very uncomfortable—possibly in pain—but for reasons he didn't understand, she wasn't going to beg him to release her. "So yeah," she trailed off softly, "I guess I was there for a manicure."

Shit, shit, shit. Why did he have to strike a conversation with her? He burned for her—more than ever. She was so very human, with a back-story that was probably as compelling as his own. With every word she uttered, she was looking less like a half-starved pretty girl and more like something substantial. Something real. His mind battled against the extremes of being forever stuck with this hunger for her if he didn't go through with his intentions, or burning with his own guilt if he did.

He leaned in and ran his rough fingers down her throat toward the small swells rising and falling beneath her thin tank top. She tried to shrink back, but she had nowhere to go. Despite the war raging inside his head, he delighted in having this kind of possession over another human being.

"I want you," he stated simply.

"I know," she said. Her voice was back to a whisper.

"Why shouldn't I take you?"

"Because you asked that question."

He pulled back, confused. She tried to sit up, but he quickly pressed himself back on top of her. "What's that supposed to mean?" he demanded.

"If you were truly going to do something to me, we wouldn't be having this conversation. You wouldn't care why I was out late and what I was doing in the salon."

He grabbed a fistful of her hair and tilted her head up. "Bull shit. You have no idea how much I want to screw you right now."

"Yeah," her voice shook, "but the fact that you're telling me what you 'want' to do shows that the human in you wants me to talk you out of it." A tear rolled down her cheek. "So please, don't. Don't do this to either one of us."

Rage boiled within him. He was exposed. She had exposed him. There was no way he was getting what he wanted. It was an ache that he had lived with for the last decade, and it was an ache he would continue to live with until extinction finally released him of his loneliness and pain. He yanked her up to her feet.

"Go!" he yelled at her, shoving her away so violently that she stumbled, almost falling back to the ground. "Get the hell out of here."

She nodded and turned to run. But then she turned back around.

"Here," she said, pulling something out of her pocket. She ran up and, before he could comprehend what she was doing, pressed a small hard object into his clenched fist. For a split second, her soft gray eyes met his. Then she turned and ran, disappearing around the corner, her long hair trailing wildly behind her.

Shoulders dropped, he stepped out onto the street and opened his fingers. Nestled within his palm was something he hadn't seen in at least fifteen years.

A gum ball. The kind that used to cost a quarter, back when money mattered. It was blue.

He didn't understand why, but something inexplicable and warm swelled up inside of him while examining this little treasure. Where on earth had she found it? And how was it in perfect condition?

It was a sweet little piece of faith. And she had given it away. To the man who had tried to take everything from her.

He wrapped his fingers tightly around the gum ball and headed down the street to find his box. But then he stopped. He stood, frozen, in the middle of the street, rolling the stupid gum ball through his fingers.

To hell with the box.

She was the one person in the world who had seen the humanity in him, when he couldn't see it himself.

He turned in the direction she had run.

He had two years to make things right.

-

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