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SURVIVOR'S GUILT
by Pete Milan

Can't be held responsible,
She was touching her face.
I won't be held responsible,
She fell in love in the first place."
The Verve Pipe

Denton disliked him on sight. He had the smile of one who has complete confidence in himself, whether justified or not. Well-built, strong-looking. A roughneck. But it was the eyes. They had a feral glint, like the owner was already sizing Denton up, seeing if this was someone to fear or attack.

John Potts' smirk disappeared as Denton sat down at the bench. They were separated by inch-thick Plexiglass, a guard directly behind Potts.

"So who the fuck are you? A cop?"

"I'm a reporter," Denton said.

"Good for you. Whatcha want?"

"I'd like to hear your story."

"I didn't do it." Potts took a long drag on his cigarette. He looked up with mock surprise. "You still here? Shit, the social worker took off by now."

"Anne Benson's very worried about you, John," Denton said, choosing his words carefully.

"She's worried about her image."

"She wants to make sure you get a fair shake."

"She wants me to fry. Hate to tell you this, pal, but Anne Benson doesn't give a fuck about me. If she sent you here, it's to make sure you write a story saying I did it. Well, fuck her. And fuck you. And fuck this guard while we're at it—"

"Watch it, Potts," growled the guard from behind them.

"I didn't do shit," Potts said. "There's your story."


The call from Anne Benson had surprised Denton. She had been at Harriet Hauptman's funeral, but Denton, in a rare display of restraint, hadn't asked her any questions. It had made Lucinda livid; then again, maybe it was that restraint that made Benson turn to him in the first place.

"A girl was killed a few blocks from Omega House last week," she'd said.

Denton knew.

"They've already arrested someone for the crime," she's said.

Denton knew that too.

"It's one of my kids," she'd said.

That Denton didn't know. He and Lee had piled in the car and headed for Maryland as fast as Denton's car could take them. A few hours later, they'd been sitting in Anne Benson's office, drinking tea.

"His name's John Potts," Anne said. She couldn't disguise the distaste in her voice; Lee picked up on it immediately. "He's a problem kid. We've had to take more disciplinary measures with him than any other member of the house."

"So he did it," Denton said. "Why are we here?"

"Because I'm not 100% sure," Anne said. "Because I think he's hiding something."

"And because you can't believe he could do such a horrible thing," Lee added.

Anne said nothing.

"Did he have any contact with the murdered girl?" Denton asked.

"Ginny," Anne said. "Ginny Brewer. I guess she and Potts had some kind of relationship, but he never said what it was."

"Why not just read his mind?" Lee said.

"I'm not in the habit of just reaching into someone's mind and pulling out what I need," she said.

"And you're afraid of what you might find," Lee replied.

Again, she said nothing.

"Could we see his room, please?" Denton asked.


The place reminded Denton of an Army barracks; a little cushier, perhaps, with all the amenities of home, but not deviating from the bunk-beds-and-foot-lockers motif. Maybe a dorm room was the better metaphor.

Potts' half of the room was cluttered but not messy. A large television and VCR dominated the room. Lee glanced at a pile of tapes next to it; Scarface, Casino, Reservoir Dogs, and other crime films.

Anne seemed to notice his scrutiny. "John fancies himself quite the little criminal. I've caught him running protection scams on the other kids; cough up your lunch money or something heavy falls on you."

Lee couldn't help smirking. "Sounds like my kind of kid." Anne didn't share his amusement.

"Did he have any problems with the law before this?" Denton asked.

She hesitated just long enough for Denton. "Kid stuff. Nothing important."

"And yet, you don't seem terribly surprised that one of your kids is in a cell," Denton said.

"John is...well..."

"A bad kid," Lee said. He stood close to Anne, looking her right in the eyes. "That's what you mean, right? Not a 'problem kid', not a disciplinary problem'. He's a bad kid."

"I didn't say that," Anne said, locking eyes with Lee.

"You didn't have to," Lee replied.

Neither one showed any sign of breaking the stare. Denton jumped in just in time.

"Thank you, Ms. Benson. We'll have to start out now if we're going to make visiting hours."


"Little intense in there, pal?" Denton asked.

"I don't like her," Lee replied. They were driving on the highway towards Brooks State Maximum Security Facility. "She's got a real...what's the word...ice-bitch quality. It bugs me."

"Really? I don't get that at all," Denton said.

"You don't?"

"No."

"You don't get a whole, like, unattainable, head-sorority-sister, looming-over-from-you-atop-Mount-Olympus vibe from her?"

"Uh...no," Denton said, looking askance at his partner. "Is this something you should be discussing with your shrink?"

"Hmmmph. You just want to get some Oversex, that's your problem."

"Shaddap."

"Hey, speaking of that, you gonna make a play for Leigh or what?"

"What," Denton muttered.

"How come why for? I've seen her giving you the eye, man," Lee said, enjoying Denton's discomfort. "Give it a shot."

"It's a little more complicated than that." Much more complicated. Denton had been a resident of Transverse City before returning to this, his original dimensional wavelength. In Transverse City, he'd nursed a crush on another version of Leigh Avedon. It was just his dumb luck to find out he was working at the same magazine as this dimension's version.1

"Whatever," Lee said as they pulled up to the front gates of the prison. "You think we can help this kid?"

"Maybe he did it."

"Aw, c'mon...we'll go in there, the kid'll be all freaked out from being in jail...he'll be easy."


"I DIDN'T KILL THAT FUCKING GIRL!" Potts roared. It was now ten minutes into the interview and things had declined. Denton has pressed Potts on his whereabouts on the night of the murder. Potts hadn't liked it.

"So what's your alibi?" Denton yelled back. "Your girlfriend, your neighborhood, you'd had an argument with her earlier in the day, there's scads of witnesses—"

"If I'd killed her, why would I stab her? I could just use my Omega and crush her or something, make it look like an accident!"

"That's your alibi? Oh, I gotta be there for this trial. 'I couldn't have done it, Yer Honor. I would have dropped a 16 ton weight on her head'!"

"FUCK YOU!" Potts screamed, his voice almost breaking.

"You're one stupid kid, Potts, you know that?" Denton replied.

"Hey! HEY!" Lee stood up, his voice rising above both of the others'. "John, you wanna give us a minute here?"

"Do whatever the fuck you want." John sat back down, arms folded. "Ugly motherfucker."

"You little—" Denton was cut off as Lee pushed him gently against the back wall.

"Okay, okay," Lee said soothingly. "I know."

"I'm here to help this little bastard and I gotta put up with this? Screw him. Let him fry," Denton growled.

"Let's do it this way," Lee said. "You go follow up on Ginny Brewer. I'll talk to him."

"Have a nice time. Little creep." Denton walked towards the door.

"I'll see you later, fucker!" Potts yelled.

"I'll be waiting, you little shit," Denton tossed over his shoulder. The door slammed shut and Lee was left alone with Potts. He pulled his chair close to the plexiglass and looked in at the young man.

"Fuck are you looking at," Potts muttered.

"A mirror," Lee murmured.

"What?"

"It's a pretty good act," Lee said, looking Potts over. "I mean, you got it down perfect. You got the smirk—the smirk's important. It really pisses people off. You got that roughneck pose...where'd you get that, Snoop Doggy Dogg videos? I got mine from Guns 'n Roses, myself."

"Fuck you, man!"

"Oh yeah, the vocabulary. 'Fuck' as every other word. That rattles them. Keeps 'em off-kilter." Lee leaned in closer. "And all the time, you're holding up that pose...hoping no one notices how shit-scared you are. Hoping no one realizes you're not as bad as you pretend to be."

Potts looked Lee over, saying nothing.

"It used to be my act. But I was never in this deep...except once."

Potts smiled. He almost looked like a little kid.

"What happened, John?"


Denton was still fuming as he sat in his car, looking over the police report. Not standard procedure, sure, but the names "Benson" and "Hauptmann" carried some weight. He looked at the picture of Ginny Brewer's body. The throat had been cut. Stabbed a good six times. Left half-naked on a stranger's lawn, to bleed to death. A solitary, lonely death.

Could John Potts do that?

Could an 17-year-old kid do that?

Denton sighed and started the car. He knew the answer already. Hell, he'd seen it. Maybe that's what set him off about Potts; he reminded him, ever so slightly, of Mr. Ting. But that was another story.

Denton drove to his next destination; the Brewer house.


"We'd been going out for a month or so," Potts said. "Nothing too serious, you know...we'd go to movies, we'd hang out, we'd fuck, whatever, you know?"

"Yeah," Lee said, smirking. "Nothing serious."

"And things were cool for a while, but she got...she got clingy."

"Okay."

Potts looked around the room for a moment.

"Why are you guys here?"

"Denton told you. Anne Benson asked us to look into it."

"So why's she care? She thinks I'm shit, man. Every time she looks at me, I feel it. She looks at me like I'm a piece of shit."

"Yeah, I caught that vibe. So what? When you turn 18?"

"Four months."

"Hell, just wait it out. Keep your nose clean, you can move out, you'll be all set."

"That how you did it?"

It was Lee's turn to fall silent.

"My folks kicked me out," he said finally.

"What for?"

"I was a little creep. Stole from them, shit like that. I was into some heavy shit for a while."

"Like what?"

Lee hesitated.

"Heroin," he said after a moment.

"Daaaaaamn," Potts said, impressed. "What was it like?"

"What?"

"H. What was it like?"

"It was—" A hundred Just Say No messages flashed through his head. "Actually...at first, it was great."

Potts broke out into loud laughter.

"I like you, man. Anyone else woulda told me it was, you know..." He assumed a deep, condescending voice. "It was a horrible experience, and you should never, ever..." He trailed off into laughter. "Honesty."

"Yeah, well, I'm not finished," Lee said, smiling. "At first it was great. Then I got so into it I had to start heisting shit to get more. Then I couldn't get any more. Then I stuck somebody up. Then I got arrested...the rest's a long story."

"Nothin' like a life of crime, is there?" Potts said.

"Nothin' like it, John," Lee replied.

"Ever miss it?"

"Not too much."

They fell into silence again.


The housekeeper let him in. The Brewers were a two-car two-job four-child family; two grown brothers and an older sister, away at school. She'd just returned after the funeral.

"You ever meet John Potts?" Denton asked as they walked up the stairs towards Ginny's room.

"Once or twice," the housekeeper said, in a don't-ask-about-my- green-card accent. "I didn't like him. He was..." She searched for the words.

"A little shit?" Denton offered innocently.

"That's it. But he made Ginny so happy. She would light up when he was around. And he...he did treat her very well."

"You think he did it?"

The housekeeper stopped at Ginny's door, turned, and looked at him.

"He is the number one suspect," she said simply.

"Yeah, but there's no real physical evidence...all they've got is motive and lack of alibi. Do you think he'd do it?"

"Love can make people do anything."

"So you think it was love?"

"It was for her," the housekeeper said. "Call me when you're done." She walked off down the hall, leaving Denton to look at the simple brown door.

"Chicks dig jerks," he muttered as he walked in.


"Nothing. Just didn't work out," Potts said.

"That's not what I heard. I've got statements here...a bunch of people saw the two of you having some furious argument. Says here she was crying."

Potts said nothing.

"Eric Harris," Lee said. "Big Eric Harris."

"What about him?"

"You pretty much stole Ginny out from under him."

"She made her own choices," Potts said.

"He's sure pissed at you," Lee commented. "He gave a whole manifesto to the cops about how he wants you dead for what you did to her."

"Fuck him."

"Where were you that night, John?"

"Playing skee-ball."

"Cut the shit!" Lee shouted suddenly. "You're not talking to those Omega House dipshits now! The attitude doesn't faze me, John! And I'm not gonna go away!"

Rather than rising to the bait, John said nothing. He stared at the wall, his eyes hollow.

"I saw your movie collection," Lee said, changing tacks. "Lotta crime movies."

"Heist movies," Potts said after a moment. "They're heist movies. Most of 'em, anyway."

"What's your favorite?"

"What are you, tryin' to bond with me or something?"

"Hey, you won't talk about anything important. We gotta talk about something."

"Reservoir Dogs."

"Pffff!" Lee pffffed. "Reservoir Dogs ain't shit."

"Fuck you!" Potts said, in a friendly manner.

"Reservoir Dogs is a rip-off of City On Fire," Lee said.

"What's that?"

Lee looked at John with a mocking mixture of pity and contempt.

"You're kidding, right?"

"No. What is it?"

"It's a Hong Kong movie. That was the best thing about growing up in Chinatown, pally; the video stores. Chow Yun-Fat."

"What?"

"You don't know Chow Yun-Fat? Man, if you ever get out of here, I'm sending you some videos. Anyway, City On Fire was out like five years before Reservoir Dogs. Undercover cop—that's Chow—infiltrates a bunch of jewel thieves. He makes friends with the coolest crook. That's Danny Lee. Anyway, the big heist at the end goes wrong. Chow gets gut-shot. So back at the hideout, the big boss wants to shoot Chow, right? 'Cause he's a cop. But Danny steps in to help his friend. Four-way standoff."

"No shit?"

"No shit."

"I'll have to see that."


The first thing he noticed was the picture on the dresser; Ginny and her old boyfriend, Eric Harris. They looked like a poster for milk. Denton found himself lingering over Ginny's face; good bone structure, the kind that would last over the years...

He laid the picture face-down and looked around. The room had already been gone over...no chance of finding anything. At least in this room. He wondered if any of the cops had had sisters. Denton=20 had three. He'd also had a brother, and there was nothing that they delighted in more as kids than finding and reading their sisters' diaries.

And when you hide something in the same place for a long time, it becomes a habit...

He tried the bedposts. Solid. The heating vents. Empty. The back of the closet, behind the dresser...he looked for holes in the mattress and loose floorboards.

Nothing.

There was no reason to believe that she kept a diary, of course. But if you guess the cliche, you're rarely disappointed. In this case, however...

A noise by the window attracted his attention. A bird chirping. He opened the window, scattering a bluebird.

Next to the window, there was a birdhouse. It looked like it had been designed by a four-year old, and its paint had long since faded. Something from kindergarten, maybe?

He reached out. It was within easy reach.

And the roof was loose.


"Where were you that night, John?"

"Out."

"Doing what?"

"Stuff."

"Goddamnit, John—"

"Look, it doesn't matter what I tell you!" John shouted. "Nothing's gonna help! Nothing's gonna fix any of this!"

Lee was about to retort when his cell-phone rang. He picked it up and answered.

"Yeah." Pause, listening. He looked at John with surprise...then understanding. "Got it." He hung up and leaned close to the Plexiglass.

"Stephanie Mercer," he said simply.

John's eyes grew wide, and Lee knew he'd struck home.

"That was Denton, calling from Ginny's house. Apparently Ginny kept a diary. Lot of jealous people in this story, John. You had something on the side with Stephanie Mercer. Who is she?"

"She's no one," John said. "She's a girl."

"A girl you know? Hmmm? You know what else is in that diary? Eric called Ginny almost every night while you two were dating. That's what she says. She wrote that he was crazy jealous of you!"

"I don't know anything about that—"

"BULLSHIT!" Lee roared. "You wanna know what I think? I think you got caught cheating on Ginny with Stephanie. I think that's what that argument was about! I think you were with Stephanie the night Ginny was killed!"

Potts stood and banged on the door of the visiting room.

"I wanna go back to my cell!" he yelled.

"What do you think, John? You think if you take the blame, the scales will balance? Is that it? You cheated, so you gotta go to jail for the rest of your life?"

Potts turned, and his eyes were so hollow and tired that Lee was almost shocked.

"That is what you think, isn't it," he said quietly.

John sat down in his chair and cradled his head in his hands.

"I shoulda been there," he said. "If I'd just stayed, if I— this is my fault."

"John...you didn't know somebody had it in for her."

John sniffled, and Lee realized that the kid was crying.

"She was the only one who...everyone thinks I'm a piece of shit, you know? Everyone does. She thought...and I fucked around on her..." John buried his face in his hands, his body racked with silent sobs.

"Why hasn't Stephanie come forward?" Lee asked quietly after a while.

"I told her not to." He looked up at Lee. "I deserve this."

"No, you don't, John." Lee stood up. "We're going to get you out of here."


After the diary's authenticity was verified, things moved pretty quickly. Ginny had talked about the harassing phone calls she'd received from Eric Harris. She'd written about how she'd found out that Stephanie and John were seeing each other. The last entry read like this:

"Dear Diary,

I don't know what to do. Eric called again, and I said

I'd meet him. I tried calling John, but he was already gone.

I'm going to see Eric and then talk to John. I know we can

work this out. [Here the words "I think" are crossed out.]

I love him. I can't lose him. If I can just tell him, every-

thing will be all right, I just know it. Anyway, see you

next time!"

This entry was not released to the public. It did, however, appear verbatim in Denton's article. Denton swears he was only telling the story as it happened.

Eric Harris was soon brought in for questioning. After a round of vigorous interrogation, he admitted that he had followed Ginny Brewer from her home and slaughtered her with a hunting knife.

Stephanie Mercer came forward as John's alibi. Soon after the investigation, the two of them ended their relationship.


"I'm sorry, he's not here," Anne Benson said over the phone. William Lee was calling from New York.

"How's he been doing?" Lee asked.

"The same. Mean, surly, and bitter. I haven't seen much of the contrite John Potts you described."

"He's in there," Lee said. "Go easy on him, will you?"

"To be perfectly honest, Mr. Lee, I'll be relieved when he leaves Omega House."

"He's just a kid, Anne," Lee said. "He's confused and hard to take, but trust me...he's just a kid."


John watched the images roll across the screen. Judge, a flamboyant villain, was berating one of his stooges, whose wife he'd just killed.

"You can have no sympathy!" the subtitles read. "The world is insane! To survive, you must be just as insane!"

Suddenly, without realizing he was doing it, he reached out and turned the television off. He looked out the window, watching the house a few doors down, watching bluebirds eating from Ginny's birdhouse.


I was brutal, I was ignorant,
I was cruel and I was brash.
I never gave a damn about
The beauty that I smashed.
No sadist I, I found delight in
Making my love cry,
Now I'd pray for a single kiss from her
To be lashed and crucified."
Shane MacGowan, "The Song With No Name"


NEXT ISSUE:
Not too sure. It might involve a Harrakin, it might involve the Eye of Justice.
In any case, we'll finally move into post-Invasion time.

Anne Benson and John Potts are created by and copyright Marc Singer. Everyone else is me me me me me.

1[Note—go reread Beat #1 next time, 'cause I didn't understand what I just wrote.]

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