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by Elliott Silver (

"… the expression ‘black and blue’ comes from the Middle English expression ‘blayk und blud". Means ‘pale and bloody’. The way you look the second between being shot and going down."

Above them, the sky, once dark and forbidding, burst belly-open with the shrapnel of flaring confetti.

Around them, people rustled and whispered with the heavenly special effects.

The ground whistled as another round chambered up into the night and defused into a glittering rain of multicolored sparks.

It was a perfect night for fireworks, Jarod thought contentedly. It was a stunning Fourth of July.

The sky was illuminated in streaks of green, gold, and crimson flashes, red, white, and blue plumes trailing downward.

The woman leaned back against him and he tightened his arms around her waist, snugging and cinching their bodies together.

They hadn’t meant for it, this, to happen.

Her head rocked back against his shoulder, her temple melding to his cheek despite the sudden onset of uncommonly warm weather. The atmosphere washed calico and then faded.

But it had happened.

She took a deep, calm breath, her body relaxed and soothed against his.

She was happy, he thought. And it was really that simple.

It was all that mattered, that had ever mattered, that would ever matter. She was at peace.

He loved her.

A volley of poppers and boomers ricocheted through the still air and several small children shrieked, the majority with surprise, not fear.

Miss Parker hadn’t even flinched.

He bent his neck, ignoring the pyrotechnics for a second, to press a light kiss to her cheek. She met him more than halfway with her lips.

Flames of red-orange smoke descended in huge glistening streamers, followed by cornflower sparkles. Ivory sparks crackled and sputtered. They turned their attention back to the celebration, enjoying the peace and tranquillity of each other.

The finale showered the onlookers with a kaleidoscope of iridescent intensity. And then, too soon, it was over. Families picked up their blankets and their sleeping babies and strolled off to their cars. He stayed with her, rooted in place; firmly cemented together as if they had always been that way.

They had been together just shy of two months now.

He’d been in deep cover when she had fled the Centre, when she had finally run. He hadn’t even known, hadn’t even known she had escaped and was free until he had discovered her at his door.

"I left," she had said simply. She carried no bags, no facades, nothing but her honesty and what was on her figure. All she had had was herself, and as they had both known, that was more than enough. She went into his arms and he had held her for the longest time, reacquainting himself with the one dream he had never thought would ever come true.

Later, with her spooned Ziploc-tight against him, he had thought to ask why.

"The Centre held me long enough," she had answered, melding herself against him even closer. "Now I want to be held by you."

It was everything he had ever needed or would need to hear. It outshadowed and overwhelmed ‘I love you’ by leaps and bounds. It wasn’t the real reason exactly, but it was enough.

She brought him to the present, out of one dream and smoothly into another, by turning in his hold and staring up at him with eyes that were unmistakably blue even in the blackest night. Once again, he questioned his sanity. He pulled her to him, almost waiting for her vision to melt away, and kissed her thoroughly. Her mouth opened under his, her tongue dancing mischievously along his.

"I just needed to know you’re here."

"I’m here," she whispered, taking his hand in hers.

She smiled, one of those rare gorgeous knee-buckling smiles as they started to walk back. An onlooker might have thought they were newlyweds. Jarod’s arm had snaked around her waist, under his brown leather jacket she had stolen from him. She had followed suit, wrapping her hand under his bulky black leather coat. A human knot, no beginning, no end.

They walked evenly, matching equal strides, slow and unhurried. The crumbling dirt of the park path echoed soft footfalls. The park, jam-packed only minutes ago, was now all but deserted.

They walked in quiet companionship, letting the silence reel out its own poetry.

"Hello, love."

The voice floated out from nowhere, a distinct, nerve-grating twang. Jarod’s hand tightened harshly on her waist as the figure stepped out purposely lazily in front of them.

"Angel." Her father’s voice, low and sandpaper abrasive, as he joined his wife. Lyle and Raines merged with them, and even Sydney swam out of the background.

She took an involuntary step backward, yanking Jarod with her. Her heart pulsated excruciatingly in her chest, her breath suddenly asynchronous.

"Daddy," she acknowledged her voice raw and cold to her own ears. She was at a loss for what else to say.

"Come home, Angel. Before – "

"I’m not going anywhere with you. And we’re not going back to the Centre." Beside her Jarod surged slightly with her venomously reply. She slid her hand from around his back and immediately Brigitte reacted.

"Go ahead, Miss Parker," she warned, gloating as she leveled her gun at them both. Lyle and Raines followed slightly slower, her father and Sydney almost reluctantly withdrawing their side arms. "Like I said before, you’re too much damn trouble anyway."

Parker lunged forward, restrained only by Jarod’s arm.

"This is your last offer," her father warned.

"Like I said before, we’re staying here."

It was not the size of the dog in the fight but the size of the fight in the dog.

Jarod jerked the sleek silver Smith and Wesson from her waistband and aimed it at the closest attacker, Lyle. But gunfire erupted before he even touched the trigger.

And out of the corner of his eye, he watched her go down. And he knew how this had all been planned, the synchronization.

There was nothing he could do, nothing he could do to stop it, to turn back time.

She fell as if in slow motion, crumbling, crumpling to the ground.

A sob tore out the back of his throat as he went to her, the only thing he could do.

She had fallen forward on her stomach, her head twisted at an odd angle. Three exit wounds pocked her back, that smooth surface he had kissed only yesterday. He wrestled her body off the sandy ground and dragged her into his lap.

"Parker!" he whispered, his voice as jagged as her flesh. "Parker."

Her voice gargled in her throat, wet.

The first bullet had hit her high in the shoulder, knocking and spinning her around. It was the second that had wreaked such havoc. It was centered in her lower chest, a few inches below the sternum and it was bleeding thick black blood. He pressed his hand to it, to keep her life from slipping away, from her, from him, from them. Like the fireworks, she didn’t even flinch.

He understood why. Sinew and gristle had exploded ever outward, bone fragments glistening horribly on his hands, on her skin. It had fractured her spine, demolishing her skeletal framework.

The third bullet had merely chipped through her stomach. If her nerves had not been ripped away, she would have been in agony. Now the agony was only his, and for that at least, he was grateful.

"Parker!" His voice broke with the effort. The rest of the world had ceased to exist.

And then her eyes blinked, stuttered slow at first and then struggled to meet his, struggled to stay neutral and not give away anything she didn’t want him to see. That was too late. He cradled her head on his folded knees, his tears scalding down his face and onto hers. Blood spurted from her mouth as she choked.

"J’rod –"

Her head lulled on his lap, her fingers spasming. Her whole body shook with rough convulsions.

"Parker! No! No! Don’t leave me! Please don’t leave me!"

Her eyes yielded once again and he saw the terrifying burden of pain within them and knew she was too weak to fight even that.

"Please," he pleaded. "Don’t leave me. I love you."

"L – " she coughed on the liquid in her throat, heavy and wracking. "Love you – too."

Her hand gripped his and he held it tight, pulling her against his chest, trying desperately not to lose her and knowing it was impossible. Even if by some miracle she could survive, she wouldn’t want to be alive. Not like this.

"Angel –" he cried.

Her eyes lighted on his again. A smile flitted across her lips, soaked and stained with her own blood. Her hand closed around his and he knew.

"Let – " she tried again. "Let me – go."

"I can’t," he moaned. "I can’t."

Her hand bit into his, insistent. Her face twisted and contorted as she struggled for breath. "You – can," she told him, her tone reduced to ashes, nothing but wet, crimson ashes. "You – must."

"How?" he asked her, his chest heaving with pain, real wrenching pain. "How can I let you go?"

He voice slurred the ‘because’, retching it outwards in a fine mist of blood that spritzed his face. " ‘Cause – I’m’n – angel."

Her body tensed, stiff and taut, her eyes desperate in anguish. "Love – you," she coughed, her eyes tearing with the effort. "Al – ways."

"I love you," he told her. "I’ll always love you. Always."

Her eyes relaxed as his words settled into her mind. He felt her battle to the end, never quite letting herself stop fighting. But her eyes, they stayed open. In the end, she would need him. To end it. He bent down and brought his lips to hers, her blood mixing on his skin, bittersweet on his tongue.

When he looked at her again, she was gone.

He didn’t know how long he held her. Not long enough. A sweeper moved a fraction too close to the downed body and he grabbed her gun and fired. Fired heavily and without remorse.

He stood and stared at those assembled in front of him, a heavy, almost drugged calm descending over him.


"Why what? Brigitte asked, taunting him forward, taunting him to submit to hate and rage.

"Come with us, Jarod," Sydney broke in, moving forward, the gun that had killed Parker clutched tightly in his hand. "I know what’s best for you."

Jarod aimed straight at him, cold disbelief and anger welling dark and thick as he struggled with the trigger. "She was what’s best for me, Sydney. She was the best of me."

The bullet hit high in the temporal lobe and Sydney collapsed, dead before he hit the ground. Parker hadn’t trusted him, and in the end, she had been right. It had been the reason she had died. The rest of the group moved forward, flanking him.

"Just kill me," he threatened, settling his sights on each one of the group.

"We’re not going to kill you, Jarod," Raines oozed, choking on the word ‘kill’.

"Why not?" His voice was rough, spiked.

"Because that’s exactly what you want us to do." Mr. Parker holstered his gun under his voluminous trenchcoat as if it were a matter of logical simplicity. "You’re not expendable." He gestured toward the body on the ground, the blood seeping into the tanbark. "She was."

The rage inside him burst crimson dangerous like the fireworks at the man’s, her father’s, cold calculation.

"I loved her!" he shouted, the tidal wave breaking and bleeding as he swept toward them.

His last thought before the slug tore open his chest was that the shooter had been merciful and aimed for his heart.

The remaining four Centre players turned to face the second murderer of the night. Angelo stared back at them, unseeing, unrepentant.

"I decide who lives or dies. I decide who lives or dies. I decide who loves or – " He closed his eyes at the simple vowel change, the vast difference in meaning.

He brought the gun to his head and pulled the trigger. A mucilaginous epicenter explosion erupted outward.

Those left standing stared at the massacre before them, the absolute charnel.

The charnel of the Centre.

It was the end.

The end of everything.

But as the sky split one last time, and endless light spilled over the three of them, they understood.

The end was only the beginning.

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