It went off like a gun. My eyes glazed in the muzzle flash, my ears deafened by the sound; now it’s just me in the darkness. The last gasp of breath escapes my body. I can feel the heavy, grinding agony of a weight in my chest struggling against the draw of my lungs; I choke on the absence of oxygen. I had never wanted to see the truth and now it has blown a hole through me. I feel panic as the cold climbs up my spine, the warmth pours from my skin into the crimson bloom on my shirt. Someone is dying. The seconds that follow unfold as a decade of lies falling to pieces. Like a staggered animal I search through the madness and confusion, my panicked eyes looking for cover. The denial had felt good, it wasn’t like that, my mind claws at the remains, you aren’t the same as him, it’s trying to put it back together. Seeking some scrap to hide in, he is killing them, hoping it will shield me from the image I am now faced with. I’m holding the gun. He is the mirror I hadn’t wanted to see. You’re not a killer. I want protection from the truth. I pulled the trigger first, but his shot hit true.
The venom and bile I held turns on his words, I am devoured by my own hatred. Sitting in the silence, I had believed that we were so different; he saw that we were the same. He is right. I hadn’t wanted to see it, I hadn’t wanted to know. But there it was the whole of my deceit unraveling, we are the same. To our friends we were anything but, we manipulated and deceived, we used twisted words as shallow truths, we lied, we poisoned; I poisoned. My friends were addicts and easy, I used them to feed my own addiction. When they were out of money I left them; I was too busy looking for people who were better funded. I am evil. In this moment I see it. The silence drags on, Mark keeps talking but I’m not listening anymore, even in the driver’s seat I’m somewhere else. In one sentence he tore my whole world apart, he doesn’t even realize it. But now, part of me is dying and my world is collapsing; I’m trying to figure out where the pieces are going to fall. Through the haze his words echo like a gunshot, they amplify how much I hate him; by showing me how much I hated myself.
Of all the people that had said it, only Mark had that affect. There’s something deeply personal about that kind of hatred. Almost like seeing a long lost friend from the gutters of addiction, there’s a glance of the person you were and the person you’ve become. Mark was the sleazy peddler of ill gotten gains, poisoner of my friends, manipulator of the innocent, violence prone, thief, a cheat, meth dealer, in a word: evil. He liked to hype people; he wanted everyone think they were his best friend.
The first time I met him was several months earlier, we were in lockup. Sitting in an orange jumpsuit and oversized rubber slippers, I had never been to Blaylock or any prison for that matter, I had no idea what to expect. In the narrow six by ten holding cell were three other people, waiting to be taken to our respective blocks.
Staring at the concrete you can’t help but talk to the people around you. An old hick with a knack for writing bad checks, John had been passed around the state from municipality to municipality, his family following him in a pickup truck paying his warrants at each stop along the way, Blaylock was second from the last on his three week tour. A ghetto gang banger headed for isolation, Little B had been this way before. He was ready for C-block and a cigarette and didn’t say much that wasn’t cursing the cops for catching him. I shared the sentiment, we all did.
Then there was Mark, I knew his name before he said it, he knew mine without asking. Introductions aren’t needed in a world of reputations and drugs. He sat there with the goofy grin of a person who knew he had done something horrible, but also knew there wasn’t enough proof to make it more painful than a restraining order. I hated that grin, I had hated him then, I’ve always hated him, even before I knew him I knew I would hate him; his reputation explained it in advance. Mark sold shards and crystal meth was among the few drugs that I refused. The short list of chemical imbibes that I declined was populated with things that I despised. The list held the worst of the worst, the life stealers as I saw them. We were shipped to different pens and seventeen hours later an overnight stay didn’t seem like a big deal. I forgot about Mark, I never intended to meet him again.
It had been Melinda’s fault that we had been reunited. Mel was a bombshell blonde with a body that could melt cold steel; she was the apple of my eye, or better: the pill in my pocket, for more than a moment. Ecstasy was the worm, we were the birds. Loitering in abandoned malls or overlooking the Flint River on a Sunday afternoon, I was happy there with her, but for her it was always about the drug. In the end she was attracted to the life and I was a sheep in wolves clothing. When she saw me for what I was she was over it before the engine stalled. She ran from our affair to Mark’s arms and onto his drugs. The only thing that had irked me more than seeing them together was seeing her on meth.
Foolishly I had followed her; she moved like a glow stick in a dark room, I couldn’t take my eyes off of her. I was still in shock and the dust of our affair was settling. I had been crushed, but it was not enough to keep me away. I had hopes of winning her back, of saving her from this wretched life. Mark didn’t mind, he liked having me around. I was a heavy set guy that looked like he could do damage, I was the illusion of a body guard. It was also a good idea to keep a parallel product around for the heavy users. In the circles we ran in drug stacking was almost a necessity. We all kept a good supply of marijuana, cocaine was common place, but when it came to getting off for the night, it was e or meth; most of our clientele did both.
For a month we occupied a flop house in the middle of The County, a cluster of users flowing in and out. I sold my stock nightly. Ten pills became a hundred and fifty dollars, enough to get twelve more and have fifty dollars to spare. I never considered Mark and me of a similar cloth. He sold people a poison, I sold them a party. My clients had a good time and, though many paid for it daily, it wasn’t forced on them. Shard-tards had a different view, they needed it. It was the proverbial monkey on their back screaming for more. They needed that next hit and so every day they’d come back with cash, often stolen or conned off of some less suspecting user. I tried not to ask. They just bought mine when they could. And I conveniently forgot the condition of their cash when they did. I had spent years pretending I wasn’t paid in blood money, I wanted to ignore that people bled so I could turn a profit. I never guessed that e was as bad as meth, that I was making them pay for a poison, that I was leading them to their deaths.
The flop house had fallen; it happens a lot in a drug clique. People tend to notice when more than a dozen young people spend all of their time in one place and dozens more pass through daily. Mark and Mel had fled to her family, I had returned to my former friends, the people I thought my drug racket was a service to.
Tonight had been different, she wanted me here, I had been so certain. She had called me. It had taken me a few hours to realize it was his idea. He needed a ride and she could still get me to do anything, they had me bested. We had driven a loop, going by my friends’ houses, staying for a few minutes leaving again after some shady conversations. Eventually, we made it to some exotic location. Some place I had never been. The situation was familiar, the picture was beginning to fit. Was this a drug deal? It wasn’t until my car refused to start that all the pieces clicked.
We were inside a house. Mark had spent half an hour in a back bedroom with the door locked. I couldn’t get a straight answer from anyone and Mel wouldn’t even look at me. Not only was I bored, but the one person I was interested in seeing was giving me the cold shoulder.
Mark enters from a hallway, “it’s time to go,” he’s addressing me as if I were his chauffer.
“Go where? We haven’t been here thirty minutes,” I say.
“Mel has to go home, curfew, ya know,” he says back to me.
I frowned at her, “ok.”
We all walk back to the car, five of us pile in, I insert the key, and I feel it, something’s different. I turn it over. The whole car goes blank, click. Nothing productive happens, I release it. The clock comes back and reads 12:00. I stare intently at it for a moment, expecting it to flash, then turn the key over and hold it. Click. Click. Click. Click. Click. The car drones, I watch the 12:00 flicker like a spastic alarm clock. Then let the key go and pop the hood.
“What is it?” Mel exclaims, with a hint of rage in her voice, like I sabotaged the car just to make her talk.
“It’s just the battery wire, give me a minute and it’ll be fine.”
“I’ve got to be home now, my dad’ll kill me if I’m late,” she screams.
I get out, open the hood, and start on the arduous tinkering to repair the battery circuit and start the car. Mark follows me.
“So, ahh, how long till we’re moving again?” He asks.
“Look man, she’ll get home as soon as I can get her there,” the measured words cross my lips.
“Oh, yeah, that’s fine, I need to get back to Brandi’s house,” he says with a bizarre sense of urgency. I see the look in his eye. I feel like a fish, having swallowed the bait, must feel when it notices the hook in its lip.
“Won’t take long, just gotta make sure the connection holds,” I tell him. It’s true, my car has a loose terminal wire, all it takes is some wiggling and creative soft drink usage and it should be running in no time. Tonight it’s making a fuss. Twenty minutes of wiggling, nudging, and dousing the connection and finally the car started. I sit back down, the passengers had bailed. Mark and Mel remained, she needs a quick ride home, and I hope that they would both get off so I wouldn’t have to deal with what comes next.
It settled in my mind now. I know what the score is and I know my part in it. He was running meth, I was trafficking it. They both knew how I felt about that, her shame and his urgency are obvious, she doesn’t want me to know and he wants to unload his product. Inside, my blood boils at every passing car, my nerves cut deeper by every intersection. I will call him on this, I think, but not with her in the car. Let her out before I break. She doesn’t need to hear what I say to him; she didn’t do this, it isn’t her fault. I fool myself into believing it. I counted the seconds.
The minutes pass and she’s home. Patiently I wait, there are only a handful of miles between here and our destination. I plot my words, I want this confrontation to be the last note in our brief affiliation. I’m ready and he’s climbing back in the car with that same dumb grin. I let my emotions settle a little bit, I wanted composure for this. I could feel the anger welling up in me. It was as if this one person represented all the injustice and wrong within the world and as if calling him in this simple act of manipulation would set that right. I could feel the sweat on my neck, I was nervous.
Miles passed in silence, an intersection, a bypass, an exit fast approaching, I’m running out of time. It’s time to pull the trigger.
“I know you’ve got that shit in my car,” the statement eased off my lips.
His dumbstruck glance, “Nah man, you know I wouldn’t-”
“No, I know Mark. I’m not dense, I know it’s here and I know who you’re selling it to.”
“Chris, I didn’t mean to disrespect-” my bitter glance catches him and he stutters for a moment, his eyes searching for something to say. The hateful words and degrading comments begin to boil in my veins, I feel control. I’m ready for this.
“It’s just my hustle,” he says, “it’s just like you selling rolls.”
If someone else had said it, it would have gone unnoticed. But here I’m facing the mirror and realizing who’s holding the gun, the shattered glass or the crumbling thug. The exit ramp comes. I decelerate.