Eight and free. Eight and golden. Eight years old with eyes yearning for the world outside.
It didn’t take her long to reach that world.
It didn’t take that world long to devour her.
“Everything okay?” the voice behind the door said.
Stephanie stood in another bathroom that didn’t belong to her. She’d grown used to this in the last ten years. Especially the last few years. Sliding inside stranger’s doorways in order to get what she wanted.
The plastic bag in her hand was what she wanted. Needed. Longed for in order to breathe. And if sleeping with the guy she got it from worked, so be it.
You’re getting older and less enticing to those opening the doors.
“Yeah, I’m fine,” she said.
She snorted another bit and then began to touch up her makeup. When you drove over a road too many times without patching up the rough spots, the wear and the tear began to show. She could try to cover it up but it was so obvious to her. She looked sick. Tired, sluggish eyes and a sunken face and bony features. Only thirty-five years old but looking more like she was almost sixty.
Or almost dead.
Stephanie opened up her hand and looked at the plastic bag. She rarely snorted it unless she was stuck somewhere without a needle to use. She’d been busy enough last night—now she was just being greedy. But this was just one of the many bags she’d be leaving this house with. A quick taste before the fifteen-minute drive back home was all she needed.
Every now and then she’d picture that eight-year-old girl. So many hopes and dreams. So full of life. There wasn’t one big thing that happened. No ship striking the iceberg in the middle of the ocean that would eventually sink it. In her case there had been hundreds of hidden holes that steadily leaked. She had grown used to wading around in these flooded waters.
Stephanie opened the door and headed back into a house that didn’t belong to her.
Neither did this life.
“Nothing on the news?”
He looked at her from the driver’s seat. Barron was a small man, one of those who didn’t carry an ounce of fat on his body. It wasn’t because he used. Barron liked being in control. He thrived on it. He was fine selling his drugs and taking his money and bypassing the business when he could get a little something extra in return. But Barron wasn’t a user. He was simply tiny in every way possible. Especially deep down in his soul.
“There’s news everyday that only gets worse so what kind of ‘news’ are you looking for?”
His tone sounded like the kind a sober man would use with a completely soused one. Barron was used to talking like this. Most of the time, the people in his life were in fact completely wasted. But Stephanie hadn’t arrived at his place bombed. And she wasn’t leaving high either. Well, not that high.
“I’m talking about anything suspicious?”
“You in trouble?” Barron asked her.
She shook her head.
“You better not be coming around me if you’re in trouble.”
“I’m not,” she said.
He was driving her back to the apartment. This way, if Stephanie saw anything worrisome outside the building, she could make up an excuse and get Barron to keep driving. Little men would act on little lies and little threats. Yes, Barron was a nutjob and dangerous in his own way, but she knew she had complete control over him.
When the door doesn’t open anymore then my use will be done with these men.
“Well, there’s was some massive tornado that destroyed Columbia last night. You see that? That’s all they’re reporting.”
“I didn’t see that,” she said.
She hadn’t seen that because she’d seen a corpse floating in a tub of blood yesterday morning. Then she’d gone home and found the remaining heroin in her apartment and had promptly shot up to get rid of the bad mojo she’d left behind. That afternoon, she had called Barron wondering what he was doing.
“You gotta go easy,” he said to her, looking over at her with those eyes that wandered up and down. “You’re gonna end up dead.”
So are you.
She couldn’t help rub her arm and then stretch both of them. She hated wearing dresses but knew he liked them. Stephanie had known the moment he showed up in his car and saw her walking toward him, he’d give in. This relationship wasn’t any surprise to either of them. He wanted something and so did she. It worked out well for both of them. Of course, Barron was right. She was going to end up dead if she didn’t stop.
“It’s not always going to be like this,” she said, staring out the window at the forest passing them by.
He put a cold, limp hand on her bare knee. “I like you, Steph. A lot.”
How very charming.
It wasn’t that he repulsed her or anything like that. He wasn’t bad-looking, but he had his issues. His grooming, for instance. Everything was neat and trimmed and shaved. His hands, so soft and impeccably clean, represented his whole being. His weekly manicure showed. Barron was the kind of guy who made sure his fingernails were perfect and his hands felt like silk. Maybe all his clients had filthy hands, but at least he could give himself the idea that his were clean.
“I like you too,” she said.
No lie. She did. She liked being a phone call away from getting drugs. From hearing someone who actually knew her and talked to her.
They reached the apartment. They were nice enough—she could still afford the rent with her unemployment and financial aid and personal injury settlement. They weren’t always enough to support her habit, especially lately, but she’d figure out how to soon enough.
It was midday and the lot was still fairly empty. People actually worked for a living and made money paying for the places they lived. Imagine that. Barron parked the BMW and then shut it off, turning toward her to make sure she didn’t dart out and leave.
“Listen, Steph. Please, just hold on. Okay?”
“Are you going to propose?” she said.
Sometimes she didn’t know how bitter her tone could sound. Sometimes it resembled a voice that didn’t know it was starting to slur after all those gin-and-tonics. She was just being her natural loathsome self, but few knew just how bad that could be.
Barron knew, though. He knew and he just looked at her with those big blue eyes. The biggest things on him, in fact.
“Don’t be mean,” he said.
“I told you I like you too.”
He gave her a nod, then looked out the front window to the brick apartment building they’d parked in front of.
“Every time this happens, and you leave, I worry.”
“I’m not going to tell anybody or get caught,” she said.
Barron cursed. “That’s not why I worry. Come on. Give me some credit.”
“Fine. Then why do you worry?”
“I don’t want to find you dead the next time I come around here.”
She shook her head. “You won’t.”
“I don’t know that.”
“I think you do.”
Stephanie didn’t like his look or his demeanor. She felt thirteen again, thirteen and vulnerable, thirteen and scared of talking with older boys who judged her.
Thirteen and ravaged.
“Look—when you came over yesterday, you were borderline hysterical. What the hell happened? And why have you asked about a dozen times about the news?”
He cursed again but this only made her resist answering. Her parents used to curse a lot and Stephanie wasn’t a big fan of it.
“Nothing,” she said.
She still didn’t know what had happened. She wanted to get high so she went out and hooked up with some single guy who ended up dead in a bathroom. How, she didn’t know. She really, truly believed she had nothing to do with it, but then again, she didn’t know. Maybe she was so strung out and messed up that she went in there and slit his throat and wrists herself.
Shut up you didn’t and you know it.
“Are you in financial trouble?” Barron asked.
She looked at the tiny bits of stubble along his jaw and around his lips. Stephanie bet she could count them all if she tried. He tried so hard to play the part of the leading actor. But he just couldn’t. He was just too weak to play any kind of part except for the guy wasting away in the hospital bed.
“I’m fine. Just like the rest of the country. Deep in debt and getting by with government help.”
“I can help you.”
For a moment, Stephanie glanced all around them. Just to make sure.
“Who are you looking for?” Barron asked.
This was getting annoying.
“Listen—what do you want, Barron. Seriously?”
“I just want to make sure you’re okay.”
“I’m okay,” she said. “No, make that stellar. I’m amazing now that I saw you. I feel good and soon enough I’m going to feel even better. You know? And maybe sometime later—tomorrow even—I’ll come by and make you feel better, too.”
“I’m not talking about that . . .”
“Then what are you talking about? What? Are you actually—do you actually have some kind of feeling deep down inside there? Something more than I’m seeing?”
He let out a quiet sigh and just looked at her. So serious. So earnest. Oh, so earnest, it made her sick.
“This is crazy,” she said.
“This. You. This. Look at you. Listen—what do you want? What are you thinking? Yeah, we’re just—look at us. The next great Nicholas Sparks novel. The drug dealer who falls for the woman he sleeps with and supplies. A match made in Hell, but hey, we’re in North Carolina, so you know it’s going to be love ever after. Right?”
On another day, Barron might have laughed at her comments, but today he didn’t. He gave her a sad sort of look that she was getting from lots of people more often these days.
“You don’t have to be so hateful,” he said in a voice that sounded like a ghost might.
“And you don’t have to be so weak. Come on. What’s with you?”
“I’m worried about you,” he told her again.
“And I’m worried about you,” she said. “I’m worried you’re suddenly acting like some kind of teenage boy or something.”
“You have a problem, Stephanie.”
The way he looked at her and said the word “problem” made her use a word she hated. But she dropped the F-bomb on him because it was either that or grabbing his pole of a neck and trying to squeeze the life out of him.
“When you’re done judging and counseling and you want to simply have fun and mess around, call me,” she said right before climbing out of the sports sedan.
It wasn’t true, of course. She didn’t really want him calling her for any reason. Stephanie wanted to be the one in control. The one to call when she was running low. The one to ask him to come over. The one to be on top. The one to try to navigate everything. Every emotion and interaction and promise and passing comment.
He just cares for you which is something of a luxury in this world these days.
It didn’t matter. None of that mattered. Barron was right—she had a problem. A big one. But she would deal with it eventually.
For now, she wanted to slip inside that murky water and douse herself just enough to keep from drowning.
There were two ways to drown to death in this world. Stephanie knew that a lot better than Barron did.