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"Where to, kid?"

I pulled a wrinkled scrap of paper from my shirt pocket and passed it over the cab driver's shoulder. He took the address, his eyes lingering on my swollen hand. I couldn't blame him for gawking -- the dips between my knuckles were gone, filled in with a single, purple bubble that stretched the entire width. Its edges were ringed with a nauseating green-to-yellow gradient, like a nebula made out of vomit. A set of sunken, exhausted eyes peered back from the dice-clad rear-view mirror and noted my matching cheek. He tore his gaze from my wounds like a Band-Aid and cleared his throat.

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"Bel-Air? Damn," he said. I couldn't tell if he was impressed or surprised. "You visiting someone out there?"

I would have been offended, but my brain was already having a "Reasons To Eat A Bullet" party, and it was standing-room only. Offense would have to wait outside in line with Joy and Hope.

"Kind of," I said as sparse, fat raindrops began to kamikaze themselves against my window. "I'm moving in with some relatives." I held up my hand and said, "Ran into a bit of trouble in my neighborhood."

He smirked and said, "Heh. Yeah, I noticed that. You know if you start shit like that out here, they'll just throw your ass in jail. I don't know what it's like back where you're from, but out here it's a bunch of rich assholes, and they all know lawyers."

I wanted to give him a "go fuck yourself" look, but his eyes were already locked onto the road. We were moving, and I hadn't even noticed it. I scanned his dashboard and saw a name tag. "Hi, my name is Mark Holmes. Thank you for not smoking." Fuck you, Mark Holmes.

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"Nah, it's not like that. It was one little fight. My mom got scared and told me I had to go live with my aunt and uncle. Ironically, my uncle is a lawyer."

"So where's home, if you don't mind my asking."

"West Philadelphia. Born and raised."

"Ugh," he grunted. "Yeah, that explains it. At least tell me the other guy looks worse than you."

I turned my eyes to the window as thunder softly growled its first warning, like a dog protecting its food.

"Something like that."

It wasn't "something like that" at all. Looks were the least of that boy's worries. Last I heard, his mother was feeding him baby food because he couldn't operate utensils or chew anything denser than oatmeal. The cops said he might regain the use of his legs someday, but his brain ... well, once you lose that, it's never coming back.

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The sky flashed white, fracturing the air, and I recoiled. If this was a TV show, I'd roll my eyes at the imagery. The black fog obscuring a normally clear, beautiful sky, the way my mind felt when I lost my temper. That same white flash that went off in my head when my fist made contact with his jaw -- a shockwave that rode my arms and coalesced behind rage-blind eyes. The static buzz of adrenaline pulsing through my body when I felt that bone give under the pressure and he crumpled to the concrete, like cutting the strings of a marionette. No, this wasn't a dumb TV show ... it was God clearly mocking me. Fuck God.

My stomach gurgled, but it wasn't from hunger. I closed my eyes and slammed through a quick, silent prayer that I could hold back the vomit. At least until I got to the house. That would make it seven hours since I last threw up -- the longest I've gone since the fight.

The rear-view mirror was staring at me again. It looked concerned. Mark lit up a cigarette and cracked his window. Microscopic flecks of rain sprayed my swollen face. I considered complaining, but it actually felt pretty good.

"It's not your fault, you know," he offered.

I almost burst into laughter. Instead, I furled my eyebrows and said, "And how the fuck would you know?"

He exhaled a thick cloud of smoke, and the storm greedily sucked it out of the cab.

"Because you smell like fear."

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I turned my eyes back to the rain and said, "Ooookay. I'm just going to stare at this storm now. Let me know when we get close to the house."

"Oh, don't pretend you don't know what I'm talking about. You smelled it on that kid you fought. Maybe not a full-on smell, but you can sense it, and it's unmistakable. It's hard to describe ... almost metallic, like tasting blood in your mouth after biting your tongue. Or a buzz. A sort of ringing that hangs around for a few seconds after you bump your head on something. You can't explain it to someone who hasn't felt it. But you've felt it. I can see that much."

This time, I did roll my eyes.

"The thing is," he continued, "people with ill intent don't smell like fear. They don't smell like anything, because they're predators. And predators are very good at masking their scent."

"So I can't be afraid and still start some shit? I could use you on my jury."

"That's not what I mean. Everybody's afraid during a fight. That's natural unless you're a psychopath. How you feel after the fight -- we're talking a week, a month, a year later -- well, that's a whole other story. The fact that you feel fear right now? That's a good thing. It shows that you regret your actions."

He was right about that much. I did regret it. Hell, I hated myself for it. I found myself wondering if Uncle Phil had a gun cabinet. And if so, how easy would it be to break into it? I'd probably need to pull the trigger in the shower or something, so I'm not leaving a huge mess for some poor bastard to clean up. I wondered if guns are waterproof. I wondered who'd find me. Hopefully not my cousin Ashley. She's too young to deal with shit like that.

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Mark was still rambling.

"It's not all bad, kid. Now that you know what fear smells like, you can use that to your advantage."

I smirked and asked, "Can you possibly pick a shittier superpower to pretend I have?"

"That's the problem with teenagers. You're nearsighted. Blind to the grander picture. I'm not talking about superpowers or ESP or some supernatural horseshit. I'm talking about being able to recognize basic human emotion. Or, at the very least, a lack of it. I'm not saying that you should seek out other people who smell like fear and try to hunt them or help them. I'm telling you that if you're around other people, and they don't smell like fear, be on your guard because they're up to no good."

"So in order to be human, you have to constantly be scared? What a fucked-up worldview you have."

He sighed out another cloud of smoke and said, "Being scared and having fear are two completely different things. Scared is what you get when you're in danger. Fear is what keeps you out of danger in the first place. Fear is what keeps you from crossing the road without looking both ways. Fear is what keeps you from breaking into your uncle's gun cabinet and shooting yourself in the shower, William."

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What. The. Fuck?

I sat forward, suddenly aware of how wide my eyes were opened, and asked, "Why did you say that? How the hell do you know my name?"

"There are a lot of things in this life that are going to scare you, William. Lots of times where danger is going to present itself, and your gut reaction will be to freak out and start screaming for help. To run in the opposite direction. To escape. This isn't one of those times."

I pulled my bags close and grabbed the door handle.

"Stop the cab! I'll just get out and walk from here."

"Relax," he said. Strangely, I did.

Did this son of a bitch just Jedi mind trick me?

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Mark continued, "If nothing else I've said on this ride sinks in, at least give this one thought some consideration: You are not a bad person. The world has some truly incredible things in store for you. You will make millions of people laugh, even when they think they'll never have another reason to smile again. You'll console the hopeless masses of teenagers who think that their parents just don't understand. You'll encounter strange, otherworldly creatures ... and then punch those creatures directly in the face. You view yourself as a vagabond, William, but trust me when I say that you are nothing short of a prince. Pull that trigger, and you rob the world of joy. It's not just your choice to stay alive, William... it's your responsibility."

The car pulled to a stop. Mark pushed the stick into park and turned to me.

"Well, look at that," he said through a smile. "Record time."

I stared in shock, not knowing what to say or do. How do you respond to something like that?

"The door's unlocked, kid. And don't bother reaching for your wallet. This one's on the house."

I slowly spilled out of the cab and blinked as my eyes adjusted to the new sunlight. I hadn't even noticed that it had stopped raining. Pulling my bags free, I shut the door and turned away from the car. As I took my first step toward my new life, I heard the window roll down behind me.

"Hey, William," said Mark. "Good luck."

"Yo Holmes," I said, pointing my swollen finger and giving a knowing nod. "Smell ya later."

For more ways in which John Cheese has flipped, turned upside down his life, check out 7 Things You Don't Realize About Addiction Until You Quit or learn how to flip your life rightside up in 5 Reasons Today Isn't Going To suck. Really great to have you back John Cheese!

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