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IX. Just Like a Pill

Free. That's what it felt like in his hand. As we walked through the crowd in the market, it only became clearer to me how long it has been when I was this free. It was overwhelming. Like getting on the crest of the rollercoaster track and expecting gravity to pull you down. You want to let go but instead you hold on tighter. That's how I knew what I'm feeling is right.

We bought several trinkets after searching through piles of them on every corner. There were some beautifully crafted pieces studded with gems. There was a fortune cookie that reminded me that I'm a strong person. That I've always been one and it made me smile. Those are the simple joys that I missed. Walking past puddles on the ground but not caring if they ruin what I'm wearing. Strangers greeting you with no intent other than sincerely wanting you to have a great day because they are having one. My feet were getting tired but I wanted to explore more of this world. I've tasted several street foods that brought life back into my taste buds.

Every time we passed by a store, Jagger had to raise his hand and greet someone inside. I would hear his name being called out loud. There were some 'hey's and 'what's up', and my favorite, 'how you doin'. For every callout, he would wave his hand. He would even mistake using the hand that has mine locked in. It was cute seeing him try to pass it off as not a mistake and continuing on our long and winding path to wherever he had in mind. It was tiring but I did not mind.

We stopped in front of a food truck. Their specialty was hotdogs. And a million ways to eat them. Of course, the owner of the truck knows Jagger as well. Hell, how does he even know that many people in one place. Which made me wonder, do they know of his different line of work? No, that would be weird. And disgusting. And seriously awkward for anyone involved. Until I heard the man present a sausage in a bun to Jagger, "Oh hey, Jagger! This one looks just like your--"

"Hey now, we've got a lady over here." Jagger was quick to cut him off while he received the sandwich.
"Come on, as if anyone still hasn't seen the merchandise." The overweight man, sporting a thick, dark moustache and a white apron, winked at me. I could only give back half a smile.
"Oh, Pedro, you'd be surprised to find some people uninterested in what's inside these pants."
"Yeah, like me. And if you pronounce my name wrong one more time, I'm gonna have to collect payment." He stopped Jagger from taking a bite by lightly smacking a fly swatter on his face.
"Alright, alright, Peh-dro. Why you gotta be so touchy today?"
"For starters, you didn't tell me you're bringing a visitor to my five-star hotdog joint." Pedro turned to me, "Only the best hotdog in Downtown, princess." He got down from his truck and slid the same sandwich on our table. It was an 8-inch sausage lined with mustard, mayonnaise, tomato ketchup and some bacon bits. The bun was not enough as both ends were an inch out of the bread. I stared at it for 5 seconds and all I could say was, "Are you serious?"

Jagger choked on his bite of hotdog and flailed for a glass of water while beating his chest. He couldn't help but smile afterwards. His cheeks were so red as he tried to cover his face and turn away from my gaze.

"Yup, serious. Your boy right here has a snake in them jeans. One of those low hanging ones when not up for a fight, you getting me?" Pedro sat down in a thud right in front of us. Listening to what he said and I couldn't even touch my sandwich now.

"Wow, let's all talk about my pee-pee some more."
"The fuck is a pee-pee, hombre."
"Yeah. Why are you being shy, Jagger?" I inquired teasingly.
"Alright, it doesn't mean that I work in porn, I'd be comfortable talking about my private… parts." He tried to swallow a small bite of his sandwich.
"Yeah, unless you don't like the girl with us today, which is obviously not the case." Pedro winked at Jagger whose eyes widened.
"Don't listen to him." He dismissed while I finally took a bite off my sandwich. It's actually delicious but I don't want to seem too excited eating it after all the recent talks.
"So what brings you here? Not much work in gay porn?" Pedro asked nonchalantly that I coughed and immediately reached for a glass of water.
"You see, the thing about gay porn is, I can work a scene and be set for the month." Casually, Jagger took another bite.
"True." Pedro turned to me and tapped my hand before I take a bite, "I had some porn work back in the day and let me tell you, the men are just dicks in the shoot. Like literally that's all we're getting paid for. All the spotlight is on the woman. We can't even make noise! Like how are we not supposed to make a sound we're getting--"
"Okay! I think we're done here." Jagger stood up from his seat.
"Jagger, Jagger, come on. I was just getting started!"
Something about what he said excited me for no reason and I blurted out, "You mean you got out of the Industry?"

They both looked at me like a wide-eyed innocent child and Jagger sat back down. There was pain in Pedro's face after absorbing my question to find an answer for me.

"Somehow, you just find your way back to them." It was enough of an answer to tell me that he was never still out. In what way, I don't know yet but I no longer wish to pry. But I wanted to know more about Jagger's work and how he claims that we are the same. It was kind of unsettling, thinking that a man probably in his forties managing a food truck claims that the porn industry still has a hold of him.

"I was lucky enough not to be that big of a star unlike this guy right here." Pedro tapped Jagger's arm who brushed it off. "I had a few scenes in big studios but not noteworthy enough to win awards or something like that."

"There's award for porn?" I scoffed.
"You'd be surprised how they take those things seriously. The more famous you are, the better chances of you getting picked up by executives or being invited to secret parties of very wealthy men and women. Mostly, registered Republicans. Actually, it doesn't matter. The non-famous ones get shopped anyway if a certain executive notices you. Or if you have ties with someone they regularly hire. Just look at how hard life is every day and no wonder people will bite. For two thousand bucks a night, that's ten times what we get for a scene in porn. Doesn't matter if you don't consider yourself as an escort. Doesn't matter how you define your sexuality. They don't really care about that."

"How did you try leaving?"
"I may not work regularly than I used to and it has been years. These people, they don't take no for an answer. Your No's are just maybe's to them. Maybe a little nudge will do. If it doesn't work, a little use of force. Some mild threatening. Then they involve your family. It's as simple as that. The only way I had little escape is to prove to them that I'm not worth anything. We faked health records stating that I had some sexually transmitted disease." He snapped, "Just like that, they threatened to kill me if they find out I infected them and they never contacted me again. But even if they did leave me, I always got that feeling that someone is watching me. Waiting to kill me in my sleep. To shut me up and never spill any details of these rich men's exploits. At this point, I thought no one would really believe a man cooking hot dogs in a food truck about being in snuff parties once. I just knew that at any moment they find out and some news broke, I'd be swimming in my own pool of blood."

"And you're telling me this."
"Because I know that time is coming. If I'm going out, I'd rather take the people who destroyed my life with me. I can't do much to hurt them. We're the pawns of the pawns. Now princess, your story is not gonna be any different."

I clutched my own arms just as he said that. A chill went down my spine and I couldn't move for seconds.

"If it is, the stakes are gonna be higher."
"You don't even know me."
"Of course I do princess, you are Glory. Managed by Lucian Gastrell. Under the label of The Grid which has faceless executives working as decoy for Gastrell himself. He literally controls everything about you. You are the only artist signed under the label. You broke out into the scene three years ago with a critically acclaimed debut but commercially unsuccessful effort. Mainly because, Gastrell opted not to present you to the masses. You never did interviews. He kept the mystery as a marketing strategy even to your own self. Tell me, what do you even remember about the last three years?"

The nerves have won me over and my body was panicking at every word that came right out of his mouth. I was about to get up and leave until I felt an arm around my shoulder. Jagger looked me in the eyes and pressed on my shoulder firmly. This helped the jitters feel a little less apparent to me but I still wanted to leave.

"You don't. Of course. That's the kind of thing electroshock and some drugs do. Rewires your brain. Programs you into an obedient pawn only driven by instinct. They take you out in the night, strap you on some stretcher, plug wires on your head, give something to bite on and proceed with frying your brain to submission. Tell me, how many times have you felt a sharp static every time your brain tries to dig into those suppressed memories? When faced with big decisions, your body's initial response is flight. As if your mental state is always on the verge of breakdown. You always have to have someone to decide for you. And that's the job of your manager. Or should I say, your handler."

"You're lying. Lucian would never do that to me." My lips trembled.
"Then why can't you answer me, Glory?" His tone got louder.
"That's enough." Jagger protested.
"They've got my sister on watch," he caught my attention. "I know for sure my parents died because of them. It wasn't an accident like the news said. People say I'm lucky I haven't broken down after everything they did to me. But I've been dead long ago. The only way I can secure a better life for my sister is to arrange a flight for her to leave the country and start somewhere else with a new name. And you are helping me do that by being here."

My heart sprung a loud and irregular beat.

"You're a smart girl, princess. You always have been. You've always known deep inside that you need to break free from this. Now is the time. I want you two to get out of this alive. Cause I'm not going to. But I hope I can make a way for you two." He stood up and Jagger followed him into the truck. I could see their silhouette moving. Didn't realize it has been almost dark. I'm sure Lucian will be mad but somehow, I have this feeling that I could not care less.

Jagger came back with uncertainty in his face. His hands were in his jacket pockets as he met me looking over the food truck. Pedro gave me a nod from inside. Without any word, I followed Jagger back to the train station. The number of people we passed by never changed even after hours. It was still the same crowded and noisy Downtown.

The train took a while to stop fully and open its doors. I thought Jagger would be coming with me but he stood there. Before he let me go, he slipped something in my hand. The crowd moving past us was the perfect cover.

"When you feel like they're going to take you. Drink one. For the thunder."

I let the crowd move me along into the train. As it started moving, I caught a glimpse of Jagger looking over. I looked inside my palm to find a vial of green pills. Something told me not to take it and drop it down on the crowded floor of the train car. Another voice kept it tight in my hand. I closed my eyes as the lights inside of the train flickered.

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