Since the massive data leak, there had been political strife like the city had never seen. Every day, there was a new headline of some city official taking their own life with pistol in hand, or throwing themselves out of a high-rise window in a poetically correct fall from grace. Others just claimed medical leave and skipped town, though their fates were just as inevitable as the ones who self-destructed. The level of paranoia in my department was unbearable. It was only a matter of time before something led back to me. Though I had covered my tracks as meticulously as possible, it wasn't digital clues that would lead them back to me, but the nature of the leak itself. There were only a handful of people who could have conceivably accessed the information or even knew it existed, and though I had temporarily escaped scrutiny, my luck was bound to run out.

She spotted me as I was walking out of the Florence Convention Center on 23rd Street. It was dark outside, but not dark enough for me to blend in with the other faces that were streaming out after the performance, most of them lined with age and cautiously navigating the slabbed steps. People my age don't buy tickets to the orchestra, and swimming in a sea of grandparents, I wasn't difficult to find.

The shadows darkened Eva's complexion, though her eyes reflected the passing glare of headlights as she watched me from the street below. The thickness of the evening could not mute the fire of her personality—strong and fierce, but framed within delicate structure. Everything about her was laced with the same touch of candy sweetness I had known before, from red heels to her tart lips, a veneer of innocence atop a nervous undercurrent.

"Hello, Thomas."

"My mother told me not to talk to strangers," I said, brushing past her.

"Your mother told me I was too good for you."

"She's right; you can do better. Why don't you give it a shot and wreck someone else's life." She followed after me, trying to keep up, heels striking the sidewalk, stiff arms swinging to aid an unnatural stride for her small stature.

"You can't run from this. You know why I'm here."

"You're wasting your time. I told you I'm not making a deal with anybody — that includes you."

"Why can't you realize that they're going to find out eventually anyway? You don't have any choice in this."

"There's always a choice. When people try to convince you otherwise it's manipulation — or in your case, blackmail."

Her eyes narrowed and her tone darkened, dainty facade cast off — she was down to hard tactics now. "You had a chance to stop all of this before it started, and now you blame me. You would have been protected, but soon everyone is going to be on your ass. They won't stop at anything once they find out. What are you going to do then?"

I halted in my tracks, forcing her to stumble, almost falling into me as I turned around to glare into her long-lashed eyes. Weeks of frustration and anger she had caused me rose up into my chest, and the heat of my blood began seething through narrowed eyes, making her reflexively shrink into herself. "It doesn't matter what I'm going to do, and the last person on Earth who should care is you. You had a chance to care, but you sold it for a shitty promotion and an apartment on the west side. What does Vance think of you now? Even he knows that you've fucked up and deserve whatever comes to you. After all this, you haven't done a single thing outside of your own interest. Now it's finally come full circle. That's why you came to me tonight; nobody gives a shit about you, and there isn't one chance in hell that I give a fuck either! Is this supposed to persuade me?" I grabbed her with claws at the waist and pulled at the fabric of her dress. "Is this what will change my mind and make me forget?" I smeared her lipstick with my thumb, red pigment bruising her cheek as she pushed me away squinting.

She was beautiful, bold, but still fragile somewhere inside; her bones could still be broken with just the right words and just the right intonation. Everyone has a personal poison, and a corresponding quantity is toxic unless it can be shed quickly enough, otherwise it accumulates into sickness. I didn't realize when I said it, but my words would sink deep into her marrow, forever a part of her in a way she could not shake off or wash away. She turned her face away from me, slowly drew her arms up to her head, half clutching at her hair in hopeless frustration. She seemed to tremble invisibly as if the glue that bound her together had suddenly dissolved from the tears that immediately came.

Everything in her collapsed.

"Run," she whispered, distant and lifeless. "Just run. It's all over anyway, but just run." Her voice defeated, and barely audible, "Just run…"

Her tears were unnerving to me, however hollow they might actually be. I'd seen them before, but this kind of switch between anger and hopelessness wasn't normal for Eva. It didn't matter what she had to say. I couldn't trust her anymore, not after the choices she had made. As strong as she was, she looked like she had surrendered to something invisible. Men fall in love with strong women not because of their strength—any man can possess that—but because of the fragile skeleton that wields it, creating an otherworldly, uncanny elemental of emotional wrath. We stand mesmerized, amazed at the reckless abandon of an audacious heart on fire. I had seen her heart on fire once, but after she betrayed me, that beauty had been extinguished forever. She was only a shell of what she could have been, and my patience had withered, along with my hopes of ever feeling something for her again.

"I can't run from this," I said, while her face streamed tears that always make a man guilty no matter the reason, the politics, or the logic. "Take care, valentine." I swept away from her, unable to witness her in that pathetic state any longer, the fury in my blood making me feel ill. I walked toward my apartment, further away from the streetlights, toward the darker side of the city, leaving her a discarded mess on the sidewalk. I wanted to vanish into the shadows, out of her life and even out of her memories while she watched me go, but as I looked back one final time, she wasn't even looking in my direction. She was just standing there as lost as before, staring into nowhere, like she'd forgotten the entire world around her. It was one of those snapshots in life, when the world creates a vivid painting on reality's canvas, and the image is engraved on your mind forever. It has some sort of special significance to your life, and reveals things about you many years later — and had time been given the chance to calm my hatred, the memory of her standing under the cold streetlights could have given me a change of heart. I might have wished I had gone back to her and tried to change things, but I knew I didn't have years left. My time was far shorter, and the reflective side of me had been devoured by the primal instinct to stay alive—an instinct that knows no empathy or remorse.

The night swallowed me whole, making my footsteps anonymous, and the sounds of the city seemed much further away after walking a just few blocks, bouncing back and forth between glass and oiled streets, muffled by broken concrete and rusted steel. A metropolis is really just a massive amount of people and drama compressed into a tiny space, so when things happen a few blocks away, it seems like another part of the world. Everyone's drama is intensely local, and allows for a surprising amount of loneliness in such a crowded place. The sheer amount of direct impressions doesn't give the luxury of tracking anything outside an immediate, selfish vicinity.

My level of paranoia became unforgiving. Ghosts whispered threatening shadows that seemed to walk beside me, psychopaths waited on every corner, clutching the curbs as their only stable piece of broken, confused lives. I kept calling on my rational mind—my own imaginary friend—to convince me that the world was ordered, structured, predictable, and that demons don't hide behind dumpsters and parked cars. I created phantoms around every turn, giving rise to the kind of fear that makes you whistle or hum with the delusion that to pretend everything is safe and happy makes it so. Terrors seeped from storm drains in figured mist, dancing in waves as I walked past, and mixed with strange, unsettling thoughts of Eva…until reality shattered all delusion, grabbed hold of me as two forms emerged in front of me with obvious intent. They were not apparitions. They were not fellow travellers. They weren't wandering souls out for late-night coffee or even drug addicts searching for other zombified insomniacs to quell their hunger. They were stalkers with a singular mission, inverted shadows, larger at the top, soundless, mechanical with hidden eyes. They closed on me before I could react.

At that point, just before the grip of cold, iron fist took me, my trivial acceptance of those words flashed terrible regret. My callousness had broken her will, absolved her of whatever altruistic thread she had still possessed, cut sharply by my swift rage. Clueless me thought back suddenly, terrifyingly, to the hopeless look on her face as the words fell from her salted mouth, wet lipstick smudges of deep red. I realized…what she had really meant was, "RUN!"

Alley image by DMedina used via Morguefile license