Bad Habits


My earliest memory is of a cigarette. I used to wonder what was so great about a little roll of paper, stuffed full of this funny smelling, straggly looking, dried up plant. I thought maybe its appeal lay in that fact that it didn't burn.

You have to understand. I was a kid. When you set something on fire, it burned. Laws of nature, right?

But when you lit a cigarette on fire, it didn't just go up in flames. It kind of moved lazy, like it was going to simmer at its own pace and nothing anyone one did or said could change that. It didn't burn. It controlled the fire, and it let the fire burn it.

Of course, that idea wasn't my first memory. That came later on.

My first memory was screaming as my father put his cigarette out on me, using my tongue as his ashtray.

I hated cigarettes, but I admired them at the same time. I hated them because usually whenever anyone smoked them near me, I figured I was gonna' end up hurting like hell. And I admired them because they could control. They controlled fire. They controlled my father.

I don't know which of those I was more impressed by.

My father was a big guy, tall and broad. His arms were wide, and once, when he flexed them and told me to touch them, I found that they were as solid and immovable as any wall I'd ever been thrown against. His blonde hair was cropped. He wore tight shirts and tight jeans. He drank often and smoked like a chimney. He could brag he'd been in every whorehouse and every prison this side of Japan.

I never did figure out how he ended up with my mother.

She was slender and it seemed as though the softest summer breeze would knock her right over. Her eyes were the brightest green, and they sparkled like emeralds whenever she looked at my father. She wore spring dresses year-round, and she smiled often, pearly whites flashing at anything that caught her fancy. God, she was a beautiful woman.

He loved her, I think.

But he didn't love me.

Well, maybe he loved me, but I don't think he liked me.

I was tall for my age, but I had none of his girth. In that aspect, I was as lanky as my mother. My eyes were bright green, like hers, and my hair was a soft blonde, like his. I could never bring myself to cut it all off like he did, though, so I let it grow loose. I had high cheekbones, and I guess I looked pretty girly.

He wanted a perfect little tin soldier to follow in his footsteps, I think, to parade in front of his friends. He wanted a toy copy of himself. I wasn't any of that.

But I really think is that he just didn't like my face.

Maybe that's why he hit it so often.

I've always had an awful long-term memory, just like my father. Because the first thing I remember really is that cigarette.

I remember lots of other stuff after that, though.

I remember the first broken bone he gave me.

I was in grade school. Probably first or second grade, but I don't know exactly. There was going to be a play, put on by the younger students. God knows why the administrators thought Romeo and Juliet was kiddie-material. None of the girls wanted to be in it, but a lot of the boys thought it was kind of cool. Talk about a paradox. So I tried out, and surprise, got cast in the role of Juliet. The teachers thought that was a riot.

I went home, excited as anything, and told my father. I don't think I'd ever seen of look of rage in his eyes as fierce as it was then. He reached out one hand and grabbed my wrist, and a moment later I heard a snap and saw stars.

He wouldn't let me see a doctor for it. He made a splint himself and put it on me, and told me to tell my teachers that I couldn't be in the play because he and mother were concerned about my broken wrist and they didn't want me upsetting it.

"How did it happen?" they all wanted to know.

"An accident," I replied smoothly.

That was all I really could say.

My mother never said anything about it, and I never tried out for another play.

Even so, I got lots of other broken bones. I couldn't tell you how many. I never bothered to count.

It seemed like everything I did made him angry. Any little thing would set him off, and I usually ended up bruised and bloodied with a broken bone or two. Belts, baseball bats, cigarettes. I can't give him credit for originality, but I will say he was good at what he did with them.

The sad thing is, I can't blame him. It was my fault. I didn't learn fast enough. I didn't remember to do this or not do this. What else could he do? He had to discipline me somehow.

When I was in sixth grade, I brought home a girlfriend.

That's the first time I remember him smiling at me. He patted me on the head, nodded his approval of her, and told me he was proud.

That was the first time he told me he was proud of me, too.

When I dumped her, he gave me a concussion.

When I brought home a different girl, he gave me fifty dollars and told me to take her out to dinner.

When I refused to cut my hair, I had to wear a turtleneck for weeks to cover up the rope burn on my neck.

When I started smoking, he bought me a car.

For my eighteenth birthday he took me to a whorehouse and picked out his favorite for me. When I told him I wasn't interested, he turned bright red. Then he dragged me out of the building and into the car, and we drove home in silence. When we got there he pulled me from the car and threw me to the ground, and beat me within an inch of my life.

I must have passed out, because when I woke up I was in a hospital. The nurse told me that my father had killed my mother in a fit of rage, and then taken his own life. She stared at me a moment, then asked, "So, who's going to pay for your hospital bill?"

I couldn't tell her.

My mother was dead. My father was dead. What could I do?

After a couple of months, I dropped out of school. I didn't have any relatives, and I was legally eighteen, so there was nothing the government could do to me.

A year later I met up with Asuka in a bar, and we got to talking. She was a brilliant woman, and after ten hard lemonades, six beers, three Long Island iced teas, and bottle of scotch, we decided to start our own detective agency.

I don't know when it happened, but as time went on, I gradually began to change. My wardrobe shifted. I started wearing shirts that fit my body like a glove. I bought tight jeans. I think, because I never wanted to own a belt.

And I became a pack-a-day man.

Asuka and I drank often, spending most of our nights and weekends at a variety of bars. And usually we'd end up at whorehouse. She was as into chicks as I was. So we each bought ourselves a warm body for the night, and the next day, bleary-eyed and cloudy-headed we'd get to work. I got used to that life, forgot about the people who raised me, forgot about everything for a while but the cigarettes and alcohol and women.

Then it all came crashing down around my ears and I was left with nothing but her memory the sorry excuse for a business we were running.

So I did what I'd been taught to do. I dropped it all and ran, and when that led me into the middle of an intersection and the path of an oncoming car, I thought it was all over. I had no worries, no one to say goodbye to. My only regret was that I couldn't have one last cigarette.

For the second time in my life I woke up in a hospital, and a woman with red hair stared down at me with hard eyes.

"You're dead," she told me.

I wasn't in any hurry to argue.

"No living relatives, no girlfriend, no occupation. There's no one to miss you but a couple of whores and a few bartenders. Mr. Kudo, you've made my day."

Funny. When she put my entire life into a total of less then twenty-five words, she'd made mine too.

"So," she drawled, "how would you like a second chance?"

It didn't matter to me, really. I was as good as dead anyway.

So I opened my parched lips, and tried to sound somewhat dignified as I croaked, "Depends. Do you have a cigarette?"

She blinked at me.

Then laughed.

Still shaking with mirth, she opened up her purse and tossed me a fresh pack of reds.

Looking back, I realize that I sold my soul for a pack of cigarettes.

Of course, I can comfort myself in that she also gave me a lighter.

Somehow I feel I got the better end of the bargain.

She told me that I was to join Weiss, a group of assassins.

Assassins, of all people.

I was a two-bit detective who smoked two packs a day and drank to excesses, and they wanted me to pull off a job as an assassin?

I told that to the redhead (turned out her name was Birman), and she smirked at me.

"Don't worry, Kudo. That's just your night job."

I never figured the woman meant my day job was even worse.

And so I became Youji Kudo, the fucking florist.

My teammates were ... surprising. Ken, an ex-soccer player who still belonged in high school. Aya, a silent brooding man with no history that I could dig up. And Omi.

God, when I first met the kid, I couldn't breath. He was small, with two bright blue eyes that seemed much too large for his face. His hair was short, blonde, and it was all I could do not to bury my fingers in it and pull him forward and kiss his sweet mouth.

That, in and of itself, was a shock to me.

I never considered myself... I never thought I was... I mean, I didn't want to be...

I couldn't even admit that to myself in my head. I went against everything I stood for.

But then, I didn't really stand for much, did I?

What sealed it for me though, was the thought that my father would kill me if he was alive. So, smiling, I reached out one hand and tussled his hair and said, "Nice to meet you, kid."

He looked at me through those eyes, and I felt something in me stir. Something that sent the hairs on the back of my neck standing strait on edge. Something that told me to run, to hide, to get my hand of his hair and beg forgiveness.

Then he smiled at me, and the feeling was gone. I've never forgotten it, thought. That was the only indication, ever, that the boy wasn't just a boy. That he was dangerous. That he was a killer.

Months passed, and I got to know my three companions as well as I could. And Omi... God, if I didn't think that I'd frighten him I would have given into those dark desires in me. But he was a boy, for God's sake. A young, innocent boy.

But when I brought him to my bedroom and I let myself give in, just a little, I found how wrong I was. He didn't run from me. He wasn't innocent. He knew exactly what I wanted, and he gave it to me. I'd never gotten better from any woman I'd ever had.

And I'd had a lot.

After that, I didn't bother to restrain myself anymore. And he never stopped me.

Something in me, perverse and twisted, insisted that I still call him "kid." I don't know why I did. I don't think he ever was one.

Then something happened. He started to disappear, sometimes for days. The first time it happened Aya, Ken, and I were frantic. We searched everywhere for him, did everything to find him. It was as though he simply dropped off the face of the earth.

He came back, and I pulled him aside and held him against my body, and he let me. I buried my fingers in his hair, undressed him, pulled off my pants and took him there, on the back staircase in the flower shop even as Aya and Ken knocked on the door and demanded we hurry our conversation up. Even if I was angry with Omi and had a lot to say to him, I wasn't the only one who wanted to talk to him.

He made no noise as I came in him, and when I was done, he only pulled up his pants and ran a hand through his hair, then went to talk to them even as I leaned against the railing, spent and panting. With shaking hands I pulled out a cigarette.

By that time I was smoking three packs a day.

I found that I couldn't even do more then raise a brow when he started smoking them with me.

And finally, one night as I lay in my bed with him in my arms, a cigarette in my hand and a matching one in his, I found myself wondering which would kill me first.