With fists clenched Stephanie felt Orinoco Flow inside her Honda Accord. The speakers rattled as Enya sang her theme song all while Stephanie lay with the seat back and her fingers clawing into her thighs. Her laugh could only be heard inside this car. Inside this parking lot where the other cars slept just like most of the people in the apartment building next to it. She didn’t belong inside but she belonged here, floating and smiling and being.
Sail away sail away sail away.
Her skin felt open and her flesh felt kissed by a gentleman about to propose. Her heart skipped over the water like some rock unable to sink. Her mouth opened and her tongue licked her lips and she laughed again. Fingers sinking, trying to hold on, trying to savor each moment. That sweet, sweet rush.
It was nine or midnight or three or something like that.
Stephanie knew it was impossible. It was a lie trying to kill this joy. Her dead son wasn’t watching anything and he wasn’t judging or looking down or doing anything.
Another song came on but she changed it again. Listening again. Coasting again to the song of her youth and her life and her joy. One more shot. One more flood. One more love.
The drift and the air and the swoop and the drop and the flip.
I’m watching you Mommy.
Somewhere on the single play of the same song she started to truly drift away, from the rainbow to the abyss. The unconscious swallow of the rag smothering her soon felt like acid in her mouth. Her eyes rolled back while her mind rolled forward.
Suddenly evening fell and Stephanie could feel herself floating above this rusted-out car and this over-looked parking lot and this forgotten-about life.
Young once with so much of everything. But the years covered her like the lines under her eyes. Like the holes in her arms. Like the leak in her soul.
Stephanie laughed and fell into slumber and remembered the good and better and best times. Like some thick, familiar comforter, they wrapped around her and allowed her to sleep.
At least for a little while.
The pale color of her stomach. Then her legs. Then her chest. Then everything else.
Stephanie tried to move her arm but it felt heavy and shackled. Her dry mouth tried to swallow but felt stuffed with cotton. She didn’t feel cold but she felt stretched and watched and very naked.
That was some ride . . .
Her flickering, barely opening eyes kept expecting to see the dirty windshield of her car. But instead, there was some kind of fan hovering over her. Stopped like the blades of an abandoned Army chopper.
Where am I?
Everything was slow motion. Her muscles ached and she knew she must have been out for a while. But for how long?
Further examination proved that she hadn’t been alone in this strange bed. She’d been with a man last night. Maybe a stranger was making coffee for her. Maybe he had left with a note on the kitchen counter. Or maybe he had simply escaped before the junkie he’d brought home woke up beside him.
Stephanie hardly ever used that term. The J-term. But she was tired and her mind couldn’t help spitting it out.
It took her several moments to locate parts of her clothes. Her jeans, a t-shirt, a blouse. They were easy to find considering the sparseness of this bedroom. There was only the bed, a small pair of tables next to it, then a black leather chair. She didn’t even bother trying to look for anything else. All she wanted was to get out of there.
The ground wobbled as she tried sorting through her memory like a remote flipping through the channels. The dark haze covered over everything since shooting up in her car by her apartment. What happened after that? She didn’t carry a phone that could give her any sort of clue. She could just feel the keys to her Honda Accord which hopefully was parked somewhere outside this condo/apartment/house?
Her voice sounded like someone else. Like stepping over a gravel road hearing the crunch underneath your shoes.
The doorway opened up to a loft painted in soft white. The modern furniture was sleek and alabaster and looked brand new. Stephanie scanned the room with the high ceiling and the bookshelf with carefully arranged sets of high-brow books—not stacks of trashy paperback romance novels like she had in her place but hardcover cookbooks and literature and photography journals. A gray minimalistic painting hung on one of the otherwise bare walls.
She had a hard time breathing. Nothing in this place looked familiar or looked like her. This wasn’t her world.
Did I break into this place?
“Hello?” she called out again.
Half a wall separated the living area with the kitchen. It was sparse and modern and clean. No coffee waited for her. No pastry. No note. Nothing.
A part of her wouldn’t have been surprised if she had simply wandered into this condo by herself. She had done worse things. Far worse things. But she knew she’d had sex last night with someone. Naturally she had to assume it had taken place here.
Her body shook and she could already feel it. The longing and the need. If she’d been out long enough, she knew the sensation would start to grow. It wasn’t just a nagging addiction anymore. She was a slave, walking around in shackles knowing there was only one thing that would unlock them. Freedom was momentary and brief, then the irons would be clamped back on her.
Stephanie looked for a bathroom. There was a doorway on the other side of the bedroom with the light on inside. She wanted to shower and clean herself up but she didn’t want to stay any longer than necessary.
The tiles were an off-white with a bone-colored sink matching the shelf next to it. It made the bathtub stand out all the more.
It was black—no it was the color of wine.
This was her first image. Then she saw the dark water on the ground next to it.
Not dark water that’s blood. Dripping from a pale arm.
The arm was barely draped over the side with a bloody wrist and hand. The dry skin looked pale and a bit blue. An almost bald head hovered just above the top of the tub, half the face floating in the murk. Stephanie simply froze, looking and wondering if she was dreaming and afraid to turn around and run. This bathroom was so clean like the rest of this place except the bathtub and the body inside it.
They she looked slightly above to see the syringe and the two glassine envelopes on the windowsill. They both had the number 10 stamped in bold on them.
She creeped over toward it to look. It wasn’t like there was any chance this guy was still alive. But would she recognize him? He didn’t look that old except for the mostly bald head. The eyes were open oh dear God they’re open looking up looking at her and now she could see the other cut right below his jaw bobbing up and down in the filth maybe still bleeding . . .
Her body lurched and the vomit made a yellowish-green butterfly shape on the bright tile.
She didn’t wait around anymore. Stephanie ran out of the bathroom and out of this condo and didn’t worry about covering up any sort of signs she had been there.
All she could see was the stagnant blood and the head hovering at its surface.
So much blood God so much blood
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.
put your arms around it and hold tight
it sticks out in front of the blue and the white this wonderful little picture in the box of the sky and the clouds and the hills below it
touch it and take it
Stephanie drifts. Or maybe the land below her does. Or maybe the sky is rushing above her. Or maybe ever single centimeter she can hold onto is starting over again. Starting to breathe. Starting to see. Starting to siege away.
Eyes closed, she can see something but she doesn’t know what it looks like but it’s beautiful in this terrifying sort of way.
Something molded and shaped with something else sticking out.
And she’s somebody standing there, standing on it, standing at the edge, holding and hovering, waiting.
Waiting with the wind.
Waiting with the sun.
What do you have in store and what are you here for?
God what a feeling. Reeling. Reeling again.
Stephanie can see it all but this is a dream or some kind of illusion. David Copperfield has suddenly entered her mind and how can that be ‘cause is he still alive anyway?
breathe out little girl breathe
Sharp. Light. Take. End.
Falling. She’s falling now. She’s trying to run but she can’t anymore. And this place and this urging seems suddenly gone and someone’s laughing telling her it’s all lost and it’s all gone and she’s just one more unremarkable footnote in the story of eternity.
shoot up again little princess
Oh the hateful, awful voices.
shine on you crazy diamond
She wants to run. She wants to reel back. She wants to do anything but she can’t because the black and the malice and the anger and the whole dam bursting cover her entirety.
Coughing, laughing, crying, Stephanie wakes up. In her apartment.
She knows she needs more.
Just a little more.
So yeah, this little, this awesome, this crazy little diamond.
take it nobody will understand nobody can really understand unless they’ve been here at the abyss take it all you crazy little diamond
Day and night and minute and hour and moment all become intertwined into the same twisted, spiraling knot.
The rush. Once again.
Oh the rush.
yes the rush yes you don’t understand yes it’s good it’s so good
So good until it wears off. And it always will. Always.
Somewhere on a day Stephanie didn’t even know at a time she wasn’t sure about in a state of mind she could barely fathom, a weather reporter shared news of the upcoming storm.
“A winter storm warning for the entire western North Carolina region remains in effect tonight through Tuesday night due to a dangerous mix of icing and snow accumulation.”
Stephanie’s eyes hovered on the television as she half-dozed sideways on her couch. It was always the same old thing: some ominous alarm from some young and perky meteorologist that usually amounted to nothing the next day.
“Duke Energy reports they are prepared to respond to the winter storm that’s expecting to move through the region this Monday night. Company trucks are stocked and fueled, with crews ready to respond to outages. The icing could knock trees and limbs into power lines all depending on the strength of the storm.”
The screen showed a number to call and a website to contact for power outages. Stephanie simply closed her eyes and thought for a moment about how much of a supply she had.
I’ll be fine for a while. So bring on the ice and the snow. Let everybody else’s life shut down.
Stephanie knew her power lines had been down for a long time.
She picked up her phone and turned it on. The familiar beach scene came up like it always did. A real place that belonged to her and her memories. It always brought a small bit of hope to see the sand and the blue seas in the snapshot.
The information on top of the photo said it was 4:35 p.m. on Monday, January 25.
She would think about this moment often after everything happened. Stephanie would recall being sprawled out on this couch watching the news and dismissing it the same way she dismissed pretty much everything else in her life.
Some things should never be disregarded and disrespected. Especially Mother Nature.