I look out the dirty, cracked window toward the road, hoping to see her there; her slim figure, bundled and shivering, hurrying home. But the road is empty save for the brown leaves carried by the wind across the way. Honey’s been gone for three days. That’s unlike her. A pickup doesn’t take three days. I lay back on the hard floor; the air is cold and seeps through the cracks in the windows. The walls are marred with graffiti. Honey and I added our own names to the collection of red and black obscenities and drawings when we found this place, ‘Oscar ♥ Honey,’ big and sloppy, smeared over the wall’s cracks and chips. I look out the window again, squinting to see if I can make her out in the distance, but no one is there.
The headache had started earlier in the morning, subdued at first but slowly growing into a pulsing, a pounding. I’ve stood watch at this window since Honey left, I expected her to be back quickly. She would’ve come home and collapsed on the couch before emptying her pockets of cash and the small bags of dope. Well, some call it dope. I call it my medicine. I look down at my arms, the red punctures like a rash spreading up to my shoulders. I bite my nails. I’m coming down. It better be some good shit.
The wind is still and the leaves crunch beneath my feet. Northport’s a dead, little town. The dreary gray sky brings in the clouds, low and dragging themselves across the dead earth. I can feel the mist from the lake. I grew up in and around Northport, I’ve been here all my life, but let it sink into Lake Ontario. I’m sure it was a nice town when manufacturing was still here, but now it’s just a shell, the jobs having moved to China, India, the South. The houses around me like old trees, cut down, leaving only their rotting stumps behind. I look at them as I pass, their faded siding, cracked brick; some houses are boarded up, some still have owners. We’re segregated; the scavengers, delinquents, and junkies in our own little world just down the road.
“Have you seen Honey?” I ask.
Ada shakes her head as she lights a cigarette. She’s done up, she usually is. She may have a date. Red lip, her concealer nearly masks the scratches and scars on her face; some old, some fresh, like trenches forcefully dug deep into the dirt. “You haven’t seen her?”
“Not since Thursday night… no.”
She shakes her head. “I saw her Thursday night on South Elm, you know, the usual spot.”
“Did she go home with anyone?”
“Fuck if I know.”
I pace a bit. This could be serious but I don’t want to panic. South Elm at night is always filled with creeps and perverts and young girls needing money.
She exhales her smoke quickly and it spins in the cold air, floating up into my face. “You know, she did mention getting clean… maybe she ran off?”
“We talked about it… going to Clear Meadows eventually but I don’t think she’d go without me… And she has all the money.”
“That or the police got her.”
I don’t want to think about that.
She looks at me, I’m not sure if it’s pity. “You haven’t shot up since Thursday?”
“She left some for me but I finished it up yesterday. Stupid. I should’ve waited some more. Do you think you can—”
Her laughter interrupts me, “Go home, maybe she’s come back already.”
It was worth a try. No one is ever going to just give it up for free. I go back to the house. She still isn’t there. If Honey’s at Clear Meadows, she’s lasting longer than I thought she would. She’s tried many times, so have I. But sobriety is like walking a tightrope with a weight tied to your foot; I always end up back here, maybe even further gone than I was before. I hope to get clean someday, I do. To live a normal life, but I don’t know how to be normal anymore. I used to ask Honey all the time what she wanted to be doing in a year, where she wanted to be. “Hopefully the cemetery,” she’d say.
“Come on, Honey.”
“I wanna be a shrink, or something. Help people.”
I lie back again and stare at the ceiling; the beams of the floor above collapsed a bit before we came, exposing their wooden frames and jutted plates; they spin around me. I can hear sirens, I think of my parents. I was young then, just a teenager; my father was driving, I was in the front seat. If back then, I could’ve imagined where I’d end up. I know how this all seems. I’m just some Northport junkie. I get that. People see me downtown and they wonder what I must’ve done to get like this. Begging for money so I can get dope in my veins. Pimping my girlfriend so I can get dope in my veins. Living in this dump left to collapse in on itself without anyone noticing that I’m buried in the rubble. I don’t know what I did – I guess I deserve this life. I don’t know.
The muscles in my stomach cramp and constrict, turning in tight knots under the skin. My fingers sink into my shirt, pressing on my abdomen, my brain bouncing against my skull. I roll into the floor, slowly rocking against the old floorboards creaking beneath me. The ceiling is still spinning and I roll onto my side and it spews from me, the liquid clear and light, falling to the floor.
I step outside and try to get some fresh air to help the headache but it does no good. My mouth still tastes sharp and acidic. I sit by the junk left on the side of the road; a broken TV, a rusted bicycle, a crib, clothes and trash. I breathe in slowly and try to relax.
I wonder if my mother thinks of me and where I am. She doesn’t live far; in Walcott, just a town over. It’s nicer than Northport, suburban and quiet. She still lives in the same house I grew up in. Or at least I figure she does. I haven’t seen my mother in over a year. I grab the bicycle and push it a few times; it’s a bit wobbly but the wheels are still good. I could probably bike to Walcott from here. I can go see my mother, let her know I’m still alive, and maybe get some money to hold me over. Easy. I get on the bike and balance myself and quickly, I’m gone.
The road to Walcott is winding but thankfully there aren’t many cars. Some get too close and I stop and let them pass, allowing myself to catch my breath. Just outside of Northport, I have to stop and keel over on the side of the road as the cars occasionally pass behind me. I gag into the grass and dead leaves until my stomach calms and I head off again.
It isn’t long before my surroundings start to become less urban; the beat-up buildings of Northport fading behind me, civilization more spread out now, small houses dropped in their sprawling plots among empty fields of tall grass. I pass an old barn with its chipped red paint and looming silo and I know I’m out of there. I get to Walcott before dark; it’s a quaint town with one main street. Not much has changed here since I was a kid.
I turn off Main Street and back into the dark, twisting country roads. I used to bike here. I’d race my friends to see who could get to town and back the fastest. I never won. As I get closer to my old neighborhood, I feel the wheels beneath me whiz, their high-pitched screaming ringing out to the empty road as I make my way to that house. The wind is crisp and sharp, lingering on my skin and seeping through my hair.
From ways away, I can make out the green sign with its white lettering. Chestnut Circle. It’s been a while but I’m home. I turn onto the street and see the homes, still with their Halloween decorations. Inside surely, parents are cleaning up after dinner, their kids finishing up their homework. I pass quickly by the trimmed, raked lawns.
Where I grew up used to be a white ranch but they’ve painted it gray since I was last here. There are a few flowerpots outside, now emptied, pumpkins; they’ve put a smiling paper ghost on the front door. I walk up and see that the lights are on through the side windows. I ring the doorbell and it echoes, vibrating through my bones. I’m shivering with the cold and my dry tongue scratches at my mouth. There’s a figure on the other side; he opens the door slightly, one eye peering out.
“Oscar…” he says.
“Juan… can I come in?”
He opens the door and the inside is exactly how I remembered it.
“Sonia,” he calls up the stairs and I can hear my mother stirring. When she sees me, she hugs me, shaking slightly in my arms. She steps back; she looks so old and so small. Her eyes water; she sees my track marks and my matted hair, how I’ve lost weight and how my eyes are bloodshot. I know she’s trying to ignore it but I can feel her eyes glaring over me. We pass by family pictures on our way to the kitchen; my sister Octavia’s senior portrait, my brother Osmel’s, and mine. I wasn’t sure it would still be up; I would’ve understood if it hadn’t been.
I sit as my mother makes coffee. Juan sits next to me, studying my face, counting my scars, probably astonished there are so many. I pretend not to notice his ogling.
“It’s been a long time,” I say.
I can hear my mother shuffle from behind me.
I continue, “I wanted to apologize for… for not coming by more often.”
My mother grunts to herself.
“Are you okay?” Juan asks me.
“You have something in your beard.”
I quickly wipe the vomit onto my pants. My mother brings the coffee over and sits beside me.
“What brings you here, Oscar?” she asks.
“Are you not happy to see me?”
“Of course, I am. I’m just surprised is all.”
“I’ve just been thinking about you a lot lately. It’s been too long.”
“Yeah, a year.” It hurts to think about that.
“Over a year. I pray for you, I really do,” her voice breaks.
“Mama, I’m fine.”
“Look at yourself, Oscar.”
She’s crying, her voice trembling. Juan moves closer to her and puts his hand on her shoulder. “Haven’t we been doing this for long enough, Oscar? Why punish yourself after all this—”
She interrupts him, “How do you think your father would feel if he saw you like this? Is this what you think he would’ve wanted?”
“I don’t know.”
And that’s the truth. I honestly don’t know. But what does it matter, really? He died. In the wreckage, the twisted metal, the fire, he took his last breaths and died and I was pulled out barely breathing but alive.
“I’m sorry,” I say.
She wipes the tears from her face. I see the same face I saw from the hospital bed, through the bandages and the drugs, as she told me that my father didn’t make it. The agony of my entire family, my brother and sister wailing in the hospital room there. I’d wished it had been me instead. I still hear them sometimes; late at night they reverberate toward me, echoing against themselves in the dark.
“Are you happy, Oscar?” she asks me. “Really?”
I look across the kitchen toward the empty hallways leading into the dark. I guess this is what I want, to be left alone in the ruins of Northport with my dope and my Honey. To waste away with her there until I melt into the floor. But I also want to be happy and clean and a part of the family, not just the absent junkie son. I love my mother, even after all this time, but not this headache.
“Mom, I need some money,” I blurt out.
Juan rolls his eyes. “Oh, Oscar.”
“A year, and you come all this way to ask me for money?”
“I wanted to see you.”
“So you could ask me for money.”
She looks down at the table, her coffee now having grown cold. She nods to herself and slowly walks out of the room. I look at Juan who shakes his head at me.
My mother returns and stands over me, “Twenty. Forty. Sixty. Eighty. One hundred.” She drops the money on the table. “There, that should be enough for you to get what you wanted, no?”
She isn’t wrong. This money will buy me enough dope to make it until Honey comes back. My headache nearly subdues just from the thought of it. I stuff the money into my pockets. I look up to her for a moment and she looks away, pacing toward the kitchen. “I think it’s best that you go now.”
I nod. I’ve probably done enough here. As I make my way toward the door, I hear her calling out to me. I turn and see her standing in the doorway. “If this is really what you want… don’t come back again in a year. Don’t come back.”
“Okay,” I say. “I…”
I can’t bring myself to finish the sentence.