It was nearly six on a Friday evening when Joe found himself inside the Shell station paying for a tank of overpriced gas and wishing he was already home, stretched out on the couch, playing his favourite video game and putting another week of too-hard labour – for too little pay – behind him. The teller behind the counter flashed him a distracted smile as he came into line behind an elderly woman with a mitt full of lottery tickets. With a quiet sigh and a slight twinge of irritation, Joe forced himself to smile back at the pimply faced cashier.
After what seemed to be an eternity, the grey haired hag finally finished checking her tickets, brushed past Joe with an air of irritation – as though it’d been him holding her up with some senseless endeavour – and waddled out of the store.
Joe sighed again and stepped up to the till. Just as the teller was fetching him a pack of smokes from behind the counter, another man stepped into line behind him and Joe was immediately struck by the oddest sensation he’d ever experienced. It wasn’t quite fear or disgust or worry, but more so a combination of these things mixed with a strange coldness that seemed to seep right down to his marrow and take hold, causing a shiver to run up his spine despite the overactive heater in the place. He fumbled to take his change back from the pimply faced cashier and rushed out of the store without more than a quick glimpse at the other man’s face.
A moment later, Joe was scrambling into his minivan covered in a frosting of goosebumps and shivering just a little as he tried to make sense of the strange feelings that had come over him inside the store.
“You ok?” His wife asked from the passenger seat, raising one eyebrow at him at him in her typical, quizzical way.
Joe shook his head, nodded, then shook his head again. “That was the weirdest damn thing I ever felt,” he told her. He reached out ant twisted the heater knob to its highest setting.
She watched him curiously, but didn’t prod as she waited for him to tell the tale.
Joe grinned sheepishly. “I don’t know what happened in there,” he admitted. With a flick of his hand he motioned towards the window and the small silver sports care beyond.
A good looking guy – thirty-something’ish by the looks of it, well dressed with dirty blonde hair – was just climbing into the vehicle. “That guy… him… right there!” Joe explained in a rush. “As soon as he came in the store I got the strangest damn feeling I ever had. I can’t really explain it, but whatever it was, it felt wrong.” He felt another shiver pass through his body.
She asked him to elaborate.
“I dunno… as soon as he came close I felt… dirty? No, not really that. Nervous maybe? Ah damn it, I can’t explain it Tammy. It was just weird. Really weird.”
The two of them watched the man drive off in silence. Joe put the minivan in motion and a moment or two later they were pulling out onto the highway a few cars behind the sports car.
Joe’s eyes never left the back of the car the entire time it remained in sight. There was a brief moment when it seemed the car might collide with a Mac truck, but then the driver safely manoeuvred the vehicle away from tragedy, took a sudden right and was gone from sight just seconds later.
At the near collision Joe had felt certain that he’d sensed something about to happen to the man, and as the car turned off the highway without incident he found himself somewhat confused. He was left with that gnawing realization that something odd had just transpired, and the nagging reality that he’d never have any idea what the oddness might have actually been about.
On the drive into work on Monday morning, Joe listened to the news on the radio. An accident was blocking up the bridge traffic again – thankfully he’d managed to avoid that, or he’d have been late for work again – another armed robbery at the ATM on the west side of town – that was becoming a bit of an issue lately – gas prices were going up again – surprise, surprise – and some freak had murdered his entire family with poison – Joe didn’t catch the location, but these sort of tales always seemed to be coming from the states, or at least the bigger cities, so he didn’t think to pay it much mind.
The radio went on to report some various other tidbits, and then the droning voice of the newscaster was replaced by Jagger’s exuberant insistence that he was – in fact – “pleased to meet you”, and the invitation to guess his name. Joe was happily singing along as he pulled into the parking lot beside the big steel shop.
It was a bit of a shock to learn that the ‘freak’ who’d poisoned his family over the weekend had been local, but not terribly so. There were always sickos out there and it wasn’t the first time something like this had happened close to home. It seemed to be the main topic of interest around the shop that day however, and justifiably so. In an ordinary world full of ordinary people running about doing ordinary tasks, something like this happening so close to home was big news. It was human nature to pick items like this apart.
“Two little kids,” one of the burly welders grunted. “Close to my grandkids’ ages. Sick fucker.”
“Maybe his wife was cheating on him?” Joe heard another welder suggest.
Joe thought that seemed as likely an explanation as anything. Last spring there’d been a man a few doors down from Joe’s that had blown his own brains out in his truck after finding out his wife was cheating on him. The man’s suffering had been understandable, but the brilliance of doing it out front of the house – where school kids passing by on their way to the morning bus had plain view of the carnage – was not.
“Ya, sure,” scoffed the first welder. “Kill himself over that kind thing… fine. Hell, I’d be more apt to kill the bitch… but the kids? What kinda sick fucker does something like that to his kids?”
Joe had to shrug; he didn’t know.
Another day came to an end and Joe found himself at home, relaxing on the couch beside his wife and daughter. He was about to put in his favourite game and drift away from reality for awhile, when a final click of the remote brought him to the evening news. From the top right corner of the screen, a familiar face stared back at Joe.
With a sudden – and all too familiar – chill washing over him, Joe fingered the volume up a couple of notches, and motioned his wife and daughter to hush. As Joe stared at the TV in disbelief, Tammy and Alexia stared at him in a similar manner.
His mind went back – momentarily – to Friday evening in the convenience store when the ordinary man standing in line behind him with a carton of milk and two Mars bars had instigated something close to panic within him. Another chill rushed through Joe’s body.
The robot-like newscaster explained – without the decency of emotion – that the man in the picture – Paul Rolands – had returned home from a typical day at the office the previous Friday to be greeted by his loving wife and two young daughters. He quickly set himself to the chore of preparing them giant Mars-bar-flavoured milkshakes as a special treat. They’d snuggled up together on the couch to watch the latest instalment of their favourite TV show as they sipped the delicious shakes, and that’s exactly how the police detectives found them early Sunday afternoon.
The detectives claimed that the poison was quick acting, and that all had died peacefully – never aware of the plot against their lives – just enjoying a quiet, eventless evening at home.
All that stood as an explanation to the tragedy was a simple note posted on the fridge with two, bright-yellow, happy-faced magnets that read: I will not suffer the ones I love, to live in a world without compassion. ~ David Wittenburg ~
In the beginning I tried to keep in touch with my friends and family. I’d call my parents once a week or so to let them know that I was okay. My mother would cry and beg me to come home. My father would give me words of wisdom and beseech me to question my choices. He would tell me that it was not too late to fix things and that I would always have a home.
It was the same with Claire and Amanda; they both tried to be supportive, but they were of the same mind as my parents. They were all convinced that Dean was the devil come to lead me straight into hell.
Over time I began to resent their judgments. They didn’t know him like I did. They didn’t even really know me.
Soon Dean grew to dislike their influence over me and the mental state these calls would leave me in, and so the calls grew more and more infrequent. In time, they all but stopped.
The drug use got heavier, and at some point became more necessity then recreation. I didn’t even notice.
One night, Dean came home with a swollen lip and bloody knuckles. He was in a frenzy; completely out of control as he smashed around the apartment looking for something that he would not explain. “Pack up your shit,” he ordered me. “Everything. We’re moving.”
I didn’t question him; I rarely did. I did a couple of bumps and did as I was told.
We stayed in a hotel on Granville for a few days, and then we moved into the tiny apartment on Hastings. It was a far step down from the old apartment, but I didn’t question it. I didn’t really care. His decision to move us into the worst part of the city barely even phased me.
He explained that we’d been doing too much of the dope; having too much fun; and he owed some money to a few people. The move, he told me, put us closer to people he could count on to have his back. Besides, the rent was a lot cheaper and potential business a lot better.
That’s all I needed to hear.
It wasn’t long after that that I was awoken one night – after finally sleeping off a particularly heavy binge – to find a strange man hovering over me. He was pinning my arms to the bed, leering down at me, licking his lips.
In a panic I started screaming Dean’s name.
The stranger put his hands on my throat, squeezing just tight enough to slow my breath and still my screams.
Gasping, my voice hardly loud enough to even be considered a whisper, I alternated between calling out for Dean and begging the man to let me go.
He smiled down at me. “He’s not coming to save you princess. Consider this your chance to save him.”
I tried to fight, but he overpowered me. He tightened his hold on my throat, he forced my legs apart and he raped me, right there in my own bed.
When it was over he left without a word.
I curled up in a ball and cried and cried and cried.
When Dean finally came back I started to tell him what had happened, but looking into his eyes, a terrible realization hit me like a hammer; he already knew.
He was so apologetic – his eyes misty with unshed tears – as he explained that the stranger had been one of the men he’d owed money to and now; thanks to me; the debt was clear.
For the first time since we’d been together, I couldn’t even bear to look at him. The anger bubbled up inside me tearing away all of the pain and humiliation. Like an animal, I threw myself at Dean, scratching and clawing and shrieking accusations in his face. I wanted to scratch out his eyes so I didn’t have to read the guilt written in them.
That was the first time he ever struck me, and later I would somehow convince myself that I deserved it.
It was a closed knuckle punch that sent me stumbling backwards. I tripped over the foot of the bed and went over, headlong into one of the dressers. Gore ran down my face from a gash at my hairline. It ran into my eyes, momentarily blinding me. I’d bitten my lip and I could taste the blood; salty and metallic; in my mouth. It sickened me, nearly made me vomit.
I didn’t try to get up; shock had yet to turn to fear. I just lay there awhile, staring at him, stunned.
The anger left his eyes and his expression softened. He came to me, lifted me up, cradling me in his arms like a small child. I didn’t struggle; all the fight had gone out of me. He laid me on the bed and sat beside me. He kissed the corners of my mouth, my cheeks, my jaw.
The sadness scrawled on his face broke my heart. It made me feel responsible for what had just occurred.
It made me forget.
I’d know Dean to do it himself from time to time, but that night I let him inject the meth into my arm for the first time.
I felt the bite of the needle and then I felt the venom work itself through my veins. After that I drifted in a sea of blurring thoughts for hours untold. It took the pain away and gave me peace in exchange.
Like so many other things between us, the injections soon became regular habit.
It happened again, and then again; in exchange for money owed, Dean offered up something that was never his to give. The men always came when I was in the midst of sleeping off a binge. Maybe Dean planned it that way. Maybe, in some warped way, he saw that as a tiny act of mercy.
When it was over, Dean would come back to me and we would fight. Inevitably he’d hit me, call me names; whore seemed to be his favourite; and then, once the fight went out of me, he would soften. Sweet words would drip from his tongue.
It would never happen again, Dean would promise.
He loved me more then life, he’d insist.
And then he’d feed me the poison I’d come to so badly crave; the magic elixir that took away all of the pain and doubt and fear. And once more, I would forget.
One morning I woke up alone in our apartment. It seemed I looked into my own reflection for the first time in ages and I loathed the creature I saw staring back at me. I smashed every mirror in the place, gouging bloody strips of flesh from my hands as I carried out my tantrum.
I filled a garbage bag with my things and left.
My father came for me. Obviously horrified by my condition, he was nonetheless elated to squire me home. Up until that point, my parents had known nothing about the drugs. They’d had no idea how far I’d fallen. But I was their daughter and they loved me. They saw that I was in trouble and they adapted as quickly as they could.
I started detoxing the next day. By the third day I’d become so violent they’d had no choice but to lock me in my room. I remember a barrage of faces hovering over me in those days; some I knew, some I didn’t, one I’m pretty certain was a doctor.
I don’t know how long that torment went on. At times it felt like months –at others it felt like years– but eventually my misery did subside. The screaming pain was replaced by a depression so dark and deep I thought I would never climb up out of that pit.
No one would really talk to me; not as though they were talking to a person. They spoke to me as one speaks to a child, or sooths a wounded animal. They watched my every movement.
I was wracked with guilt and torn by shame. I knew that I had bought their mistrust with my actions.
In the beginning it seemed like I was sleeping nearly all of the time. When I wasn’t asleep, I was crying and wishing that death would find me. Slowly though – with the loving support of my family – the drugs started to relinquish their hold on me. Soon I was eating on a semi-regular basis. I actually began to believe that things could get better.
And then Dean showed up.
My mother attempted to chase him away, brandishing a broomstick and threatening to call the police. I watched the scene unfold from my bedroom window. He glimpsed me there from the street and turned his tear stained face up at me. There was so much pain in his eyes that it weakened my resolve more then I would have ever imagined possible.
God, how I loved that man. He was the only one that had ever truly understood me; the only one who could see right to my core, and who stood by me no matter what.
Or so I told myself at the time.
I went back to him within a day, stealing everything of value I could carry when I went. In time I would do this to my parents twice more. The fourth time they would offer to pay for detox, but I was no longer welcomed in their home.
Soon I just stopped calling.
The days blurred together just as time had begun blurring from the first moment that I’d met Dean. The drugs were never ending. It took more and more to achieve anything close to the past euphoria; sometimes mixing near lethal amounts of chemical together just to reach that desired high.
There were other men. There were more beatings at Dean’s hand. There were more weak apologies and of course there were always more drugs.
Somewhere along the line my life had become a joke and I was willingly playing to the punch line.
The harsh florescent lights hummed and flickered.
I reached out and touched my reflection.
I’d met Dean on June third –two months after my seventeenth birthday. It was September now, and I was twenty-three.
Six days ago I learned that I was pregnant; I was going to have Dean’s child. In an instant, everything changed. I spent the following two days begging Dean, desperately trying to convince him it was time to give up the drugs. It was time to clean up our lives and get away from here. We could start over.
I didn’t tell him about the baby… I wasn’t ready for that. More so, I didn’t feel like he was ready.
At first he humoured me, but I realized soon enough that he wasn’t even making an attempt to cut back on the dope. Instead he just kept pressuring me to do more. It was so hard, but other then smoking a joint to take the edge off, I didn’t touch anything in those two days. Finally he grew annoyed and his annoyance turned to anger. He got paranoid and accused me of sleeping around. The beating he laid on me that night was the worst yet. When he came to me later with his apologies, I looked him coldly in the eyes and told him I was done. I was leaving. When he came to me with the syringe; promising things would be better –he would be better– vowing he would change, and that he’d make me happy again; I knocked it from his hand.
He beat me again, and this time it was somehow even worse then before. I did my best to shield my stomach, letting most of the blows fall on my head and arms and torso instead. And then, as I lay there on the floor afterwards slipping in and out of consciousness, I felt him press the poison into my arm.
I don’t know how long I lay there drifting in that strange sea. I didn’t know what time or even what day it was. At some point I heard the apartment door slam shut and knew that Dean was gone.
I was half out of my head and more terrified than I’d ever been before in my whole life. Every inch of me hurt, ached, throbbed… but I knew I had to move. My mind was set. My life was no longer mine alone and I knew I couldn’t bring another being into that self-created hell.
Somehow I managed to get to my feet. Barefoot and barely dressed, I climbed down the fire escape for fear of running into Dean in the hall.
I scooted through alleys, clinging to the darkness in part to avoid Dean and in part because I was just that messed up. I was trying to make my way to the mission up the street… it was the only conceivable refuge I could fathom. It was closed of course, being after midnight; closed and locked up tight.
It’s the most sensible things in the world that often elude the junkie’s mind.
I nearly called my parents then but the guilt and shame was far too great. I had burned that bridge to ash a long time ago.
I had nowhere to go.
I was still so high.
I walked the streets, just biding time.
I stuck to the shadows as much as I could.
I tried to think but couldn’t focus.
The sickness kicked in not long after, and my body and mind went to war with one another. I knew that if I went back to the apartment I could get another hit; just a little one, just enough to take the edge off…
… I knew that if I went back I might never be able to leave again.
To be continued…
I wandered around in little circles until I caught a glimpse of him across the dance floor. I took three quick steps and knocked into an outlandishly tall blonde. The impact caused her to spill most of her drink on her top.
She spun around, glaring at me, “Watch it b…” Her lips twisted into a humourless grin, “Laney,” she snickered. “Of course.”
I tried to offer some kind of apology, even as I pressed to move past her. She smacked me, hard, the palm of her hand connecting solidly with my right cheekbone. I fell back a step; more shocked then hurt really; my mouth gaping. I was staring at her in awe thinking that there was something familiar about her… something…
She drew back and splashed what was left of her drin k in my eyes. With a snort of disgust she turned her back on me and sauntered away.
Still a little in awe, but relieved to see her leave, I turned and hurried off towards the bathrooms. I needed to do something about the burning in my eyes and the juice dripping down my chin. The harsh overhead fluorescents were horrid, but at least the room was unoccupied. I half-scurried, half-stumbled to the counter, turned on the faucet and began splashing handfuls of cool water on my face.
That’s when the inevitable finally happened.
I looked up…
… into the mirror…
… at my own reflection.
It wasn’t me on the other side of the mirror. It couldn’t be… could it? Could I really have aged so greatly in a week? Could my ordeal over that short period of time really be responsible for stealing so much of my youth?
My face was too thin, as though I’d recently known famine. My skin was too taut, drawn firmly across my bones. My hair seemed too wispy, the brown of it too dull and those electric blue streaks too gaudy and surreal. My complexion was wrong; almost greyish; sickly. My eyes were sunken, their shade too pale, and there were thick, black, greasy-looking rings beneath them. There was a scar that arced from the tip of my left eyebrow halfway to my chin. It was remarkably thin, as though it had been drawn along my flesh with a razor. It was the remnants of a long healed wound, and yet it was as red as fresh, ripe raspberries. Like the rest of my body, my face was a canvas of bruises, but I knew in time they would fade. What they’d leave behind though, was hardly a consolation.
My past and present bent, blurred and twisted together until one was hard to tell from the other. Time spun up and away from me. It took on a life of its own as it hurled me backwards, forcing me to see… to know… to accept.
It was Claire’s idea.
Amanda was hesitant, as per usual, and I’d just dropped off into thoughtful silence, as too was quite typical. I sat quietly weighing the positives against the negatives in what Claire had suggested. Claire, in her characteristic exuberance, was insistent. She was completely in love with her plan.
“My dad will take my car away if we get caught,” Amanda reasoned. “I just got that car. Claire, I love that car.”
Claire rolled her eyes and giggled. “Then we won’t get caught. Tina said she’d cover for us; for all of us. We just tell our parents we’re going to her place so she can help with our history project. She’s a history major… it’s the perfect plan.”
“It’s a school night,” Amanda countered.
“But the project’s worth 30% of our overall grade,” Claire insisted. “And it is very generous of Tina to offer up her own free time to help us out.” She winked.
“God Claire,” Amanda sighed. “We finished that project three days ago.”
Claire smirked. “Ya, but they don’t need to know that, do they?”
It was me that tipped the scales. That usually seemed to be my roll in our little group; I’d just let them argue things out until my mind was made up. “It’s really only a little lie, Amanda.” I said. “We say we’re going to Tina’s for help with the project. We are going to Tina’s. And… if it makes you feel better… we can even take the whole stupid project with us and get Tina to just kinda, you know, look it over. For her… educated opinion. That way, really, it’s barely even lie at all. No big deal. C’mon… it’ll be fun.”
Two against one; majority rules; Amanda caved.
The party was a lot of fun. It wasn’t the first time any of the three of us had drank; we weren’t little children after all; but it was the first time we’d ever drank with college kids, and the first time we didn’t have to get home to at least one of our houses at the end of the night. Infinitely cool, Tina had made arrangements for us to spend the night at her apartment, promising to get us all to class in the morning.
We clung mostly to ourselves at first, as was our way at social functions. We’d been inseparable since kindergarten… friends for life. We’d been talking about the new guy in school; some kid from Toronto with a major chip on his shoulder, but a hell of sexy way –we all agreed– of carrying it around.
That’s when I first saw him standing on the patio.
He was tall and well built. No overly bulky, just lean and shamelessly sexy. His brown hair was tussled by the mild breeze; slightly messy, somewhat boyish. He had the most perfectly masculine bone structure and that slow, lazy grin.
My breath caught in my lungs. The air around me seemed to grow warmer by the second. My heart pounded furiously in my chest; the fevered rhythm of it filling my ears until I could barely hear the music and the voices around me.
He’s too old for you, Tina warned.
Yes, I thought, too old for me. At least three years my senior, maybe more.
And then he’d looked around and caught me staring at him. Our gazes locked and for just a moment it felt as though nothing else existed on this earth but those brilliant blue eyes.
There was that seductive way his lips curled into a smile… a smile just for me… and then he was coming inside.
I felt my cheeks flush. I chewed nervously at my lower lip.
He glided right up, confidant, almost arrogant and seemingly unaware – or at least uninterested – of anyone else in the room. His voice was deep, soft and entirely enthralling. From the moment he spoke his first words to me, his simple introduction, I was lost. I was instantly, utterly and completely in lust.
Dean had invited the three of us outside to smoke a joint and we’d accepted.
I could see Tina peering at us over her shoulder now and then, looking a little concerned, but she didn’t interfere.
Twenty minutes later, Amanda was giggling in the corner as a fat, orange cat clumsily tipped over someone’s beer. Claire had grown disinterested and had gone back inside to play on Tina’s computer. There were a few others still loitering near us, but I was barely even aware of them. Dean and I sat side by side on the porch swing, chatting idly about nothing really, just the usual getting-to-know someone shtick. For just a moment we fell into silence, and he was quick to produce a small, brown vial from the inner pocket of his jacket.
“Hey,” he said. “Have you ever tried ecstasy?”
I hadn’t and I told him as much.
He raised one mischievous eyebrow and grinned. “Wanna?”
By the time the drugs had started to work their magic, we’d managed to sneak away from the party.
It was so out of character for me. Claire was the boy crazy one; not me. Claire was the impetuous one; the spontaneous one; the sometimes carless one. I’d never been what one would consider reckless a day in my life. Yet there I was, sneaking off with some guy, not even telling my friends I was leaving, let alone where I was going. There I was so intoxicated by Dean’s presence that it never even occurred to me to worry about the choices I was making. I was under a spell. Hormones and lust had taken control of reason.
We sat alone beneath a small grove of trees. I kept sighing. It was as though, for the first time in my life, I was truly and completely alive. I was connected to everything. I understood everything.
He kept stroking my hair, my neck, my arms; it sent little shivers of pleasure rushing through me. It wasn’t sexual really; it felt deeper and more meaningful than that. It felt amazing.
I wasn’t even aware of the moment when lust gave way to love, but that moment came and went and left me its helpless victim. The rest of the world had ceased to exist. There was only me and Dean and nothing else mattered.
There was no topic we didn’t broach, and the conversation flowed with ease. We talked about our pasts, our futures, our fears and dreams. I asked about the tattoos on his arm and he regaled me with amusing anecdotes about how they came to be. I asked about the little star below his eye, and his answer made my feelings for him grow deeper still.
He said, “It’s to remind me now and then to come in out of the dark. When things get bad, or I lose my way, it’s there to remind me how to get back home again.”
I gave myself to him that night, right there on the soft grass beneath the trees and the stars. He was so gentle. He kept brushing little kisses along my jaw line, whispering sweet things in my ear; telling me he’d never met anyone like me, that I made him feel things he’d thought himself incapable of feeling.
The drugs had started to fade as the sun came up. From his magic pocket, Dean produced a little flap of white powder. It was the same as the ecstasy, he told me, just clearer; purer. It would help us hold onto the feeling a little longer.
I didn’t think about my friends, or my parents. I didn’t think about my father’s lectures on the choices we make in life. I didn’t think about how much trouble I might get in, or how much trouble my actions might bring on others. I just wanted to hold on to that wonderful feeling forever; I wanted to hold on to Dean and the idea of leaving his side seemed both terrible and insane.
I was hardly an experienced drug user, and I’d never had any intentions of being. I’d smoked a little pot in the past, and I’d done mushrooms twice with my girlfriends, but I’d never even considered chemical intoxicants. Yet somehow, in the course of that one evening, I’d graduated from swallowing a couple of capsules to snorting white powder up my nose.
And Dean was right; the feeling did hold.
It was Sunday morning by the time I made my way home again.
Out of concern for me, Amanda and Claire had come clean, confessing everything. The police had been notified of my disappearance and Tina had passed on what feeble information she had about Dean.
When I stumbled in on Sunday morning my parents had been furious, but their anger was overshadowed by their obvious relief to have me home; to have me safe.
A myriad of lectures accompanied the month of grounding I was given as punishment for my actions. It was clear that I had worried everyone. It was obvious that I had disappointed them too.
I could hardly be bothered to care; I was too busy thinking about Dean, moping around and missing him; wondering when and even if I would see him again. I fell under a heavy fog of depression. I moped around, moody and sullen, and completely uninterested in life. On top of that, I was sick for days.
A week Tuesday, just when I’d begun to think I had made a terrible mistake; as everyone kept insisting I had; Dean showed up at my school. I cut the rest of my classes to spend the afternoon with him.
He’d missed me, he said.
He loved me.
He wanted to be with me always; to take care of me.
He didn’t think he could live without me.
I ran away that very night, leaving behind only a short letter of apology and the feeblest explanation for my actions. With the few belongings I deemed most important and packsack full of clothes, I moved into Dean’s apartment on Homer Street.
The powder, the ecstasy, the weed; it ran freely and I couldn’t seem to get enough. Dean sold the stuff to maintain (as he said) his quality of life, and so it was always available in abundance.
For awhile, things were beyond good. We spent every waking moment together and he was true to his word; he did take care of me.
We’d go to great, sprawling parties, so far removed from the high school gatherings I once attended. The shy, sometimes withdrawn girl that I had once been began to melt away. In her place was this new, fearless girl that refused to shy away from anything; that reached out to grab great, heaping handfuls of life.
I felt daring.
I felt beautiful.
I felt special.
To be continued…
It struck me from behind with all the force of a freight train, distributing a jolt through my skull, and sending me reeling along the slick pavement.
I tried to retain my balance, tripped over my own feet and stumbled forward. Pain shot through my body as I went down, on hands and knees, to the pavement.
I started to stand and a second blow caught me hard between the shoulder blades. The air went out of me in a whoosh, and I bit my tongue.
Instinctively, I started to scramble forward on all fours; I needed to put some distance between me and my unseen assailant.
I felt fingers twine through my hair. I felt a new shock of pain shoot down through the muscles of my neck as my attacker used his grip on my locks to yank me around.
I flailed desperately.
A second hand closed around the back of my neck. I felt myself being pulled off the ground. I felt a blazing along my scalp as chunks of hair yanked free.
I might have screamed; I’m not certain.
He pulled me up simultaneously yanking me around, and shaking me like a rag doll.
He was grunting like a wild animal, almost growling.
I was kicking and thrashing, I was trying to claw at him with my fingernails.
This seemed to amuse him some.
He half shoved me, half threw me backwards and I hit the pavement hard, jarring my elbow in the process.
I scrambled back a few feet in a crab walk. He took a few easy steps until he stood directly over me.
Suddenly terrified that he would kick me in the stomach, I pulled my legs up and wrapped my arms around them, trying to turn myself into as small a target as possible.
He stood there, glowering at me under the flickering streetlamp. Anger, amusement and disgust seemed to warring for control over his facial features.
“Where the fuck have you been?” He demanded.
I blinked dumbly at him.
He was so much bigger then me; I didn’t stand a chance and he seemed to be all too aware of this.
Tan cargo pants, black muscle shirt embossed with some sort of Asian symbol. Tattoos strangled most of his left arm, disappeared under his shirt and re-emerged on the lower part of his neck. Just under his left eye was another tattoo… a tiny star… there was something so familiar about that star…
Ice blue eyes. His eyes…
And then I knew that I knew this man.
He’d been there at Claire’s cousin’s party. I remembered eyeing him for the first time. He’d been on the patio surrounded by a small group of people who seemed to hang on his every word.
I remembered… he’d been smoking a cigarette.
I remembered my breath catching in my lungs as I examined him.
I remembered Claire’s cousin leaning close to me as she whispered, “He’s too old for you.”
“Answer me you little bitch!” He ordered, baring his teeth at me in an expression that fell somewhere between a sneer and a grin.
His name was… Dean. Yes… yes I remembered that much.
I looked up at him, shaking like a leaf, my heart pounding so hard I could hear the panic of it in my ears. I stared up at this man and felt wave after wave of emotion pulse through me. Fear, lust, hatred… panic, desire and contempt.
The fear and panic made sense; he’d attacked me out of the blue and the look in his eyes suggested he was far from finished.
The hatred seemed logical enough as well… he was a part of the last memories I held claim to before slipping into a week long oblivion. Undoubtedly I hated him for whatever part he’d played in the horrors inflicted upon me in that time.
The desire, however, was baffling. Though he was gorgeous; albeit in a very dark and dangerous kind of way; how could I possibly be attracted to him given the circumstances? It didn’t make any sense. It was completely illogical.
He’d cocked his head and was looking at me with a new expression on his face. Curiosity seemed to blend with something like concern. The tension went out of his body and he took a few steps back.
I took the opportunity to scramble to my feet; he didn’t move to stop me. I stumbled back a few steps, dusted myself off, and absently started to scratch at the flesh on my arms again.
The attack had left my skull, scalp and shoulder blades throbbing, but these new pains were nothing compared to the cramps knotting up my guts.
With those intensely blue eyes, he peered right into me. It made me feel naked, and exposed, and dirty.
I felt a terrible crawling sensation under my skin. I scraped at the meat of my arm with new abandon.
He made to move towards me again.
I glared at him; my insolence stilling him in his tracks. “Laney? What the hell’s wrong with you?”
Ah, if only I could have answered that question. But as I stood there with every inch of my body aching and agonized; as I stood there listening to the panicked strumming of my heart; as I stood there replaying all the moments of that awful, confusing day; I grew ever more certain that he was the only one that could answer that question for me.
Anger bubbled ferociously in my depths. I was transformed by a rage unlike anything I had ever before come close to knowing.
I glared definitely at him. I bared my teeth. “Fuck you,” I spat. “What the fuck did you do to me?”
Any traces of hostility that had still been in his eyes and expression disappeared. His brow creased and he looked as though I had reached out and physically stuck him. He took a few uncertain steps backwards, further widening the space between us. I could see a vein in his neck begin to throb. I could see the corner of his mouth twitch ever so slightly.
He had the look of a trapped animal and I realized that I liked seeing him like this. It threw fuel on the flames of my rage, and it served to further boost my new found courage.
I took a deliberate step forward. “Answer me, you piece of shit,” I hissed. “What the fuck have you done to me?”
His eyes went wide making the blue of them seem more intense. “Laney,” he said. “I didn’t do anything to you. I was… I was so worried. You haven’t been home in days. You’re a mess… it’s not my fault.”
He took a step towards me. I growled at him; I literally growled. He stopped in his tracks.
“Laney,” he pleaded. “Just let me take you home. Okay? Enough of this… you’re sick, ain’t ya? That’s all it is.”
I was. Whatever poison was working its way through my system felt like it was systematically attacking each of my internal organs before coming back around for another lap.
Tentatively, I nodded.
“Okay.” He said. “Okay.” He slowly closed some of the distance between us. He kept his hands out, palms forward in a display of submission. “Let’s get some medicine in ya, huh? Let’s go home?”
Salvation from this agony; home; yes, that is what I wanted more than anything in this world. I almost took a step towards him. It was the most ludicrous reaction imaginable, but I nearly did. I stopped myself at the last moment and stepped back instead of forward.
This man could not bring me home. Even if he could, I was apparently no longer welcomed there; at least for the time being. This man had hurt me; he was quite capable of doing it again.
I saw him again in my mind’s eye.
He’d been there at Claire’s cousin’s party. I remembered eyeing him for the first time. He’d been on the patio surrounded by a small group of people who seemed to hang on his every word.
I remembered… he’d been smoking a cigarette.
I remembered my breath catching in my lungs as I examined him.
I remembered Claire’s cousin leaning close to me as she whispered, “He’s too old for you.”
Just then he’d looked around, and our eyes locked. A slow, seductive smile curled his lips.
Yes, I thought, too old for me.
And then he was stepping around a patio chair, coming inside, his eyes unwilling to release my own.
I remembered… Clair giggled and elbowed me softly in the ribs.
I remembered… Amanda turned her back to him and mouthed the words oh my god.
Two feet away and closing the gap.
The bridge between past and present dissolved.
Without thinking I bolted forward, crashing into his right side, catching him off guard. He was at least twice my size, but I struck with the element of surprise and the shock of it caused him to stumble.
I took off running. I didn’t allow myself to look back.
It was full dark by then, and yet the street was still alive with activity. If anything, it had gotten busier.
Without point or plan or purpose, these damaged souls lurched on. I thought, the walking dead, for I was reminded of every zombie movie that I’d ever seen.
I ran passed them as though they did not exist; and to me, they barely did; just like everyone else in the city had done every day for years.
This was their life.
This was their place.
It was not mine and they did not matter.
I ran until the aching in my innards became too intense to further ignore. I darted around a corner and found myself in a dirty alley. There I was again amidst the trash, lost and alone, confused and sick and surrounded by filth.
Things have come full circle, I thought grimly.
The nausea I’d been fighting all day finally won over. I leaned against a dumpster and heaved until even the bile was depleted. Sweat poured down my forehead, tears seeped from my eyes. I was shaking all over and my throat was raw, but otherwise I did feel at least somewhat better.
I pushed away from the dumpster and smeared my greasy hands across an indifferent Betty Boop.
I walked to the mouth of the alley, careful to remain in shadows, and surveyed the street. I had no interest in a second confrontation with Dean.
He had seemed sincerely concerned, and he had offered to help me… but he’d also struck me twice; that I could remember, and possibly several other times that I could not. He’d also been at that party… he was the last thing I could remember before the mental blackout… and it seemed quite likely that he was somehow the key to this entire nightmare.
That was enough to convince me that whatever help he could have given me –whatever answers he might have supplied– would likely come at too high a price.
No, I decided, I don’t want anything to do with that man.
With what might have passed as a smile, I thought about the one, tiny silver lining in that suffocating abyss of a day; Katie. She would come and see me the following afternoon. Likely she’d bring news that my punishment was over; my lessons considered learned; and then mom or dad would pick us up and drive us home.
Okay, I told myself. I just have to make it through the night and everything will be fine.
From the shadows, I further inspected the street. Finally, satisfied that Dean had moved on, I scurried out of the dark and started up the street.
The burly man –Mort– had offered me kindness that day. I decided to seek him out in the bar where he’d promised to wait for me, and see if I could push my luck for just a little more good will.
The place was a dive, and the dive was loud. As I approached from the street I could already hear the blaring music and the mingling of voices. The din served to renew the pounding in my skull. The pounding brought back the wooziness.
I gritted my teeth and pressed on.
I was certain the beefy doorman would ID me, but he barely seemed to notice as I passed by.
I surveyed the bowels of the place, looking for Mort but there were so many people… so much noise… there was a coloured strobe light hanging from the ceiling, and the pulsating light amplified my discomfort and prodded my anxiety. I was glad to have purged the contents of my stomach in the alley, for surely had I not, I would have done so then.
I shook it off and moved deeper into the horde.
To be continued…
I wanted to see my sister Katie, desperately in fact, and muss her hair. Thinking of her made me even sadder and more homesick. Mostly all she’d ever done was follow me around, take my things and drive me crazy, but what I wouldn’t have given just then to see her silly grin. I made a silent vow to never again take what I had for granted, and that vow extended to my little sister.
Of the three dressers in the apartment only one was full of men’s clothing. The other two – as well as nearly everything in the small closet – clearly belonged to a woman.
Most of the wardrobe was quite feminine, and though not really my style and not nearly as fresh and new as I was used to, some of it was quite pretty. Again I felt a little guilty at rifling through someone else’s belongings, but I was able to find clothing my size.
I dressed in a simple pair of jeans and a black t-shirt embossed with the ever-flirty Betty Boop. I found sneakers in the bottom of the closet that were also – fortunately enough – my size. I slipped them on and laced them up.
I left the little apartment, locking up respectively as I went.
At the street, rather then crossing to seek out Mort in the bar, I went left. Less then three blocks down I found what I was seeking; a payphone in working order.
My joy was destined to be short lived, however, interrupted by the blaring reality that I was completely penniless. I might have given up then; broke down and bawled until they took me away in a straightjacket; had I not caught a shard of slivery light glinting under the streetlamp.
I have never been a religious sort of person, but as I write this now, thinking back on that moment, I have to pause and wonder if there’d been a higher power reaching out to me that night. Fate, luck, or divine intervention – call it what you will – something miraculous appeared to me that night, and it chose to show itself in the form of a humble quarter.
I nearly fell over myself in a rush to get to it. I scooped it out of the muck and stared down at the treasure in my hands as though it were the most amazing thing on earth. Beaming, I wiped the coin on my borrowed jeans and deposited it into the phone slot. I dialled the number to my house cautiously, all too aware that if I screwed up in my excitement, a second quarter was unlikely to fall into my lap.
The receiver lifting.
My mother’s voice reached softly out to me. “Hello?”
I lost all control at that point. I stood there sobbing like a fool into the mouthpiece. I knew how hard it must be for her to make any sense out of what I was saying, but I could no longer hold myself together. “Oh god mom!” I wailed. “Mommy I’m so sorry I lied. I’m so sorry… but I’m okay. I’m okay and I need you. I need you to come and get me.”
A short silence and then I thought I heard her sob. Finally, in a tone as cold as ice, she said, “My daughter is dead.”
The words burned through me, crushed me, and hollowed me out until I almost believed that I was dead. Confused I stammered, “n-n-n-no mom. No, it’s me.”
There was a rustling on the other end. I heard murmurs. I heard a click and for one brief but terrifying moment I thought she’d hung up on me. But then my father’s voice came across the line.
He was as calm as he always was, but there was an uncharacteristic sadness in his voice. “Laney-Jane?” he asked. “Is that really you?”
“Yes daddy,” I sobbed. “I d-don’t know what happened. I don’t know… daddy? I’m in trouble. I’m so sorry I lied, I really am. I need you dad. Can you come and get me now? I just want to come home now, please?”
He was silent a long time but I could hear his faint breathing so I knew he was still there. He sighed.
“Laney, honey, I wish you could come home too. I really do. If I thought… if I believed for one second you were ready to get better I’d come and get you myself.” Another sigh. “But Laney? I just can’t go through all this again. It’s too hard. It’s too much for you ask.”
I lost control again, sobbing like a child. Oh, I couldn’t even imagine the kind of hell I’d put them through this past week. I knew how worried they must have been. I knew how much I must have disappointed them… what I didn’t understand was their unwillingness to help me now. Wasn’t it obvious that I had learned my lesson? Couldn’t they hear that much in my desperation? Wasn’t it clear how much I’d suffered?
I choked out another apology. I begged again that he come and get me. I pleaded without shame as I stood there on the exposed street corner for anyone to see.
“Listen Laney… if you need more money I’ll send you some. But that’s all I can do. You just can’t call like this out of the blue… it’s too hard. It’s too much Laney.”
Great heaving sobs wracked my body, making it difficult to breathe.
“Do you need money Laney?” My father asked in a flat tone.
“No. Dad… I just… I just want to come home now. Please.”
More sighing. “I’m sorry Laney, that’s just not possible. Goodbye honey.”
I heard a click.
“Daddy?” I wailed.
Hesitantly, “Laney?” It was Katie. Just like my parents, her voice sounded strange and out of character, but it was definitely my baby sister.
“Oh my god, Katie! I thought dad hung up on me.”
I was stunned. I knew they had every right to be mad at me for lying, but I’d been missing for a week… weren’t they worried about me? Shouldn’t the worry outweigh the anger at this point?
To Katie I said, “I didn’t mean to make them so mad at me.”
I could hear her breathe as she struggled to find the right words. “It’s been really hard Laney, on everyone. Especially on mom, you know?”
Katie sighed. My existence seemed to be causing an awful lot of that, I mused.
“How are you Laney? I miss you.”
“Horrible,” I sobbed. “Katie, I’m horrible. I’m hurt. I’m like sick or… or something. I really just need to come home. I need mom and dad.”
“Where are you?” She asked. “Can I come and see you?” And then, “Well… not tonight… I’d never get passed them tonight. Maybe tomorrow? Can I come and see you tomorrow?”
I didn’t want my little sister coming down to this hell for anything. But I missed her so much and I was far too weak a person to deny myself her company. God, how I wanted to see her.
I told her as much.
“Where are you?”
I glanced around at my surroundings. “I think I’m in hell,” I snivelled.
The cramps and queasiness were making violent return. My skin itched. My head throbbed. I couldn’t think straight.
Beyond that, my insides ached from the blow of abandonment. It was different than the physical pain; deeper and more absolute.
Suddenly I felt all too defeated. I wanted to sit down and cry ,and cry, and then cry some more. Preferably away from this filth but right in the middle of the muck if need be.
“Laney?” Katie pushed. “Tell me where to find you and I’ll come tomorrow.”
I looked around for some landmark that would be easy enough to remember. “Um – God this place is disgusting – um… can you meet me down on East Hastings… there’s a bus stop… in front of the… Asian Pearl… it’s a restaurant I think”
“I know it.”
“Katie? What time? What time will you be coming?”
A pause. “Noon. I’ll cut class and come down around noon. Okay?”
“Okay,” I muttered. “See you then.”
“Don’t forget, okay?”
“I won’t. Noon.” I hung up.
I stood there weeping, wondering how it was physically possible for one body to produce so many tears in a single day. I cried until I was certain I would throw up and when I didn’t – after I leaned against the wall retching for a time – I just cried a little more.
It was a busy little strip of hell and I was standing completely exposed in the center of it. I’d always been a little shy, a little uncomfortable with public displays of emotion. It should have bothered me that people were all around. It should have troubled me when they looked my way, peeking out from their corners, from their own little patch of this nightmare world.
It didn’t bother me; I didn’t care.
I hated them all. Without want – or need – to know them, I just loathed these people. I hated their dirty clothes and their sunken eyes; those dark-ringed portals to their broken souls. I hated their need to cling to their oh-so-important treasures; their trinkets of scavenged trash. I hated their filth and their addictions. I hated their very existence in a world that clearly didn’t want them. Most of all, I despised them for their part in the creation of this dark, ugly sub-culture.
They were all beneath me.
I did not deserve to be left here to drown in this sea of human waste.
I was just a kid; an innocent victim; and I belonged in that place no more then a guiltless man, wrongly condemned, belonged to be waiting on death row.
And that’s what my parents abandonment felt like; a death sentence.
They’d enrolled me in ballet lessons when I was little, guitar lessons when I was older. They’d encouraged me to join the debate team and the basketball team. They’d taught me to be polite and they’d taught me how to ride a bike… but they’d never given me the skills required for surviving this madness.
Without a lick of street smarts I would die out here; that was the inevitable reality. If I got lucky death would come quick and easy and not at the hand of some psychopath… but I couldn’t help feeling that my luck had run out.
I wiped at my cheeks with the back of one hand. I attempted to take stock of the situation from a more clinical standpoint.
Yes, I allowed, things had gone terribly awry but I didn’t have to take it lying down. I could figure this out. I was on the honour role for Christ’s sake – clearly I wasn’t stupid. I could work through this.
I told myself that my mom and dad loved me; that they’d always been there for me. This neglect on their part couldn’t be real, they wouldn’t just abandon me; not truly; in my hour of need.
No… they were trying to teach me some kind of lesson, as absurd and misguided as it might seem.
I smiled then, certain I’d hit the nail on the head.
My dad was big on teaching Katie and I that there were little life lessons in everything; he saw every new experience as a learning opportunity. That was what this was; obviously.
I didn’t know how I might have missed that before, but in my defence I was having a very bad day.
Still smiling, I bobbed my head up and down in eager agreement with myself.
All I had to do was make it through this little test, learn whatever lesson dad was trying to teach me, and then they’d come and get me and take me home and everything would go back to normal.
I’d find a quiet place to hunker down for the night, meet with Katie in the morning; and surely she’d have some clue as to how long this stupid lesson was meant to last; and then maybe I’d call Claire or Amanda and maybe…
… and then something far more insistent than my childish plan hit me.
To be continued…
Finally I was going home – just as Mort had promised – and soon everything would be fine. The cramping in my guts refused to ease up but now that I could see the end of this ordeal in sight, the pain seemed less important.
The street had gotten busier while we’d been in the diner. The night had thickened and the sky had taken on an oily quality. The filth that I’d woken up in earlier was everywhere in this place, the litter and degradation seemingly without end. The horrid stench of hot garbage and urine prevailed, resulting in a new bout of nausea. Stubbornly I clinched my teeth and did my best to put it out of mind.
Miraculously no one else seemed to notice.
Maybe they just didn’t care.
These people terrified me. Whenever someone got too near I pulled all the closer to Mort’s side. The idea of being touched by one of these creatures disturbed and disgusted me. And that’s when it hit me; I knew where I was.
The summer previous, my by best friend Claire had gotten her drivers license. We; Claire, myself and our third constant –Amanda; had spent an entire Saturday just cruising around the city, enjoying our new-found freedom. We’d been in her mother’s Volvo –not exactly the epitome of cool but to three sixteen year old girls, free in the city for the first time without needing a bus pas, it was about as cool as things got.
Of course we’d all been down this strip before. Living in Vancouver, no matter how badly one might want to forget about the existence of the lost souls down here, you’d inevitably find yourself out this way on occasion. That afternoon, however, was the first time any of the three of us had seen it beyond the safety of a quickly passing vehicle.
The Volvo had sprung a flat –not all that far up the strip from Charlie and his greasy dive – and we’d had no choice but to pull over.
It was in the midst of summer so even at nine the city was clinging to that blanket of twilight that seems to stretch on forever in the warmer months. If not for that lingering light, I don’t think the three of us would have been near courageous enough to venture out into those alien surroundings.
We couldn’t find a single working payphone in the area. Most had been destroyed by vandals. Others had been entirely removed from their posts. As we searched we were approached by at least half a dozen people; none of which my mother would have considered desirable. The area belonged to drug addicts, drunks, hookers and the mentally unstable.
Later the three of us would sit around giggling about the adventure, but not one of us could claim to have been without terror in the short time we were stranded down there.
It was an ugly place.
It was a desperate place.
It was the place where hope went to die.
Amanda managed to convince a cashier in a corner market to let us use the phone. I think he must have pitied us some, or maybe he was just concerned with how obviously out of place we were there. Regardless of his reasoning, we were able to call Claire’s parents and the cavalry arrived twenty minutes later. Mr. Kolten had found us inside the locked Volvo with all the windows rolled up tight despite the heat.
Later that night my father said to me, “Laney, East Hastings is never a destination; it’s the place where people end up when their choices have left them no where else to go.”
“It is not a place for good girls from good homes,” my mother tagged on. “It is certainly not a place for you, Laney-Jane.” She’d punctuated this with one of her squishy-nosed, squinty-eyed looks of distaste.
I had had every intention of heeding their warnings, and yet there I was again. There I was following some strange man down a strip of road I had no right to be on. There I was amongst the waste and the filth and the great unwashed. There I was missing an entire week of my life, sick as hell and – if the aches and pains and cuts and bruises were any indication – I was in pretty bad shape.
I’d gotten so caught up in my thoughts that I nearly collided with Mort when he stopped in front of the old, brick building.
Oblivious to my lack of grace, he hit a button on the intercom pad.
A moment later a woman answered, “Ya?”
“Hey Charlotte,” he said, speaking into the grill. “I got Laney here. Buzz us up, would ya?”
The woman heaved a long suffering sigh.
A buzzer sounded and the door lock disengaged.
Mort held the door open for me and motioned me inside.
The stench of the street –while not entirely abated – was a deal less intrusive inside the building. I was grateful for that much at least.
The lighting was dull but I could see the stained, maroon carpet that covered the floor well enough. I noticed the peeling wallpaper; yellow with little pink roses; and tried to imagine this building in better times. I couldn’t.
My anxiety level began to rise again.
“Come on,” Mort urged.
I didn’t know why, but I once more did as I was instructed to do. I followed him down the hall, through a door and up two flights of steps. By the time we reached the top, the aching in my limbs had become almost unbearable, but at least the cramping in my guts had subsided some.
Just beyond the stairwell a door opened and an attractive, albeit tacky, redhead stepped out. She grinned at us while intentionally pushing out her more then ample chest. She winked at Mort and licked her lips. She reminded me a little of the mom from that sit-com about the horribly dysfunctional family. You know the one where the dad works in a shoe store and can never seem to catch a break? Only… there was something about her grin that reminded me more of the Cheshire cat. It was a little unnerving.
I instantly decided that I did not like this woman, and I liked her a whole lot less when she addressed me by name a moment later.
“Where the hell have you been Laney?” She snorted. “Dean’s been outta his mind looking for you. I keep telling that boy that he needs a real woman,” she rolled her eyes. “But love is a blind old bitch, ain’t she?”
I stared blankly at her.
I might be missing a bank of memories but it was quite clear that I’d made an impression on at least a few people in that past week. It was a very disturbing notion.
“Cut it out Char,” Mort said. He spoke firmly but without menace. “She’s been through a bit of a rough one. Can you just get us the keys?” He added, “Please,” and punctuated it with a little smile.
Charlotte pulled a ring of keys from a hook inside the doorway. She held them up to the light to get a better look, and then pulled one from the loop and handed it to Mort. “Anything for you darling,” she said with another wink. And then she stepped back into her apartment and shut the door in our faces.
When she was gone I followed Mort up the hall and around the corner.
Room 313; something about that number made me nervous. I started scratching at the skin on my left forearm again.
Mort used the key he’d taken from Charlotte to unlock the door, and then moved aside to let me pass.
I stared at him. “I want to go home,” I said.
He sighed again.
“Okay kiddo, I know,” he said. “Now just listen to me okay? You go on inside. Have a bath, take a rest. Find yourself some clean clothes. When you’re done you come on downstairs. I’ll be at the bar across the street okay? The Red Eye? If you still need me, that’s where I’ll be.”
“But…” I protested. “I just need a phone. I want to go home.”
He silenced me with the saddest smile I’d ever seen. “It’s okay Laney. Everything you need, you’ll find in there. I’ll be right across the street like I said. Okay? I promise.”
I had never been one to just do what I was told without question or dispute. I had never been content to follow the flow unless I understood exactly where it was going. I couldn’t comprehend why, on that day of days, I kept doing as I was instructed when I knew what I really should be doing. I should have shaken off Mort the second he failed to lead me to a phone. I should have gone off on my own and found one, or walked down to the cop shop a few blocks away. Instead I stepped into the strange apartment and watched as Mort pulled the door closed. After he was gone I stood there for another five minutes, just staring at the door without really seeing it.
My silent daze was rudely interrupted by another bout of cramps. This time they were so intense that I was actually fallen in my agony. I dropped down to my knees on the threadbare carpet. The nausea bubbled and boiled and I was barely able to hold it back.
I don’t know how long I knelt there in pain, but it felt like an eternity.
Wave after wave of agony and sickness washed through me. I felt dizzy and on the verge of fainting. I think I might have welcomed the sweet bliss of unconsciousness in that moment, if only to briefly escape my torment. Eventually though the cramps once more began to subside and the queasiness ebbed. I regained control over my limbs and found the strength to push myself up to my feet. I stumbled forward and engaged the deadbolt at the top of the door. I sat down on the twin bed, just for a moment. Just long enough to catch my breath.
Who lives here? I wondered.
Who’d want to? Countered an inner voice that sounded suspiciously like my mother.
The entire expanse of the apartment would have fit into my bedroom at home with room left over. It was a dump really, with that same peeling yellow wallpaper and the same worn carpeting I’d seen out in the hall. There were brown stains across the ceiling, and even more water damage evident beneath the two small windows.
It was barely more than a hovel, and yet someone called this home.
It was kept fairly neat, however, and it was hard to miss the slight – but definite – feminine touches; little knickknacks and the odd stuffed animal, a coloured scarf draped over one lampshade. There was a history there, insignificant as it seemed to me, and I felt a little guilty about being so judgmental.
My life had been blessed from birth and this was a lifestyle that I was never meant to understand. Had it not been for some cruel twist of fate bringing me down to this place I would likely have lived my whole life without wasting as much as ten minutes contemplating the poor souls that resided over here on the other side of the looking glass. I couldn’t imagine how it must feel to be so lost and alone in the world that this ended up being your reality.
I stood up and made a quick search of the apartment but found no phone. I couldn’t even find a jack.
Frustrated, I went into the bathroom and found more signs of femininity; a little dish of cheap jewellery, a makeup box, a little oyster half-shell filled with dusty potpourri. There was a vase of glass roses sitting beside the sink that was quite similar to one I had at home.
There was no mirror in the room – just the void where one had once been – and I was a little grateful not to have to face my reflection.
I searched the cupboard below the sink and was rewarded with two sadly worn; but thankfully clean; yellow towels. I dug around a little further and managed to produce a fresh bar of soap and some scented bath oils that I rather shamelessly helped myself to.
I ran the water as hot as I could stand it and added a few drops of the rose oil. The scent that filled the room reminded me of my grandmother. On any other day, in any other place, that scent might not have been half so pleasing, but right then it comforted me greatly.
I noticed that I was scratching my arms again as I slid into the tub. I’d been raking at the flesh hard enough to leave ugly red streaks. I forced myself to stop as I sunk into the hot water. It felt luxurious. Even the aching in my muscles and joints began to melt away.
By the time I stepped from the tub the water had grown grey and tepid, but my skin felt soft and blissfully clean. The filth I’d woken in that evening had finally been washed away and it felt good.
Not even remotely comfortable with the idea using someone else’s toothbrush, I smeared a little toothpaste on my finger and did the best I could to erase the lingering flavours from my tongue.
I found a pack of fresh combs in a drawer and pulled one from the plastic. With some effort I was able to work through most of the knots in my hair. As I went about this chore I noticed bits of electric blue in what should only have been chestnut locks. This confused me but I was not overly daunted by it; it was far from being the most disturbing discovery thus far on that strange, strange day, and it was nothing that couldn’t be easily corrected once I got home.
I found it funny really, when I actually stopped to think about it. The previous fall I had begged my mother to let me dye my hair – she’d of course refused – but now that I finally had the funky colouring I’d been so hung up on, all I wanted to do was get it out.
Whenever I managed to get back to my regularly scheduled life, I wanted no reminders of this day. A very large part of me had already decided that that I never wanted back the missing pieces of the last week. What I didn’t know couldn’t hurt me, couldn’t haunt me, and couldn’t keep me up at night.
I just wanted to get home. I wanted to sleep in my own bed, eat breakfast with my family and forget that any of this had ever happened.
To be continued…