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A sewer vent belched a putrid smell, hidden in the corner of a stoop and an old brick building. Rotten, viscous fluid left marks along the bricks under five sills, born of unfinished locus planks and acid rain. Mortar in the stoop gave way to the same century of rain, leaving some bricks to lay upon the ground, crushed. The wooden door held remnants of a green paint, but now looked like a sad, tarnished copper chimney cap, complete with rusted nails driven through the other side with their tips bent back toward the door, holding a harness of 2x4s that secured the door on near-ancient hinges. And on that door in black spray paint was a symbol: a thick outline of a circle with an arrow-tipped lightning bolt that traveled through it, from bottom left, to top right.
Andrew returned from the pharmacy with a plastic shopping bag in hand and gently pulled the door open. The door cringed to the squeak of its hinges. As he stepped into the dim light and onto the linoleum floor, he could hear shuffling in the adjacent room. A figure appeared in the empty door frame opposite the front and said “Was there any left over?”
“Yeah, just a few dollars. Thanks Layne.” Andrew responded.
Layne took a seat at the only table in the room. The chairs were mismatched -- all probably stolen from restaurant patios -- and the table was plain Formica nailed to a tarnished but sturdy metal frame. Function takes precedence over form every time. Scratching the back of his hands anxiously, Layne watched intently as Andrew poured out the contents of the bag. Inside were two sterile needles, a small bottle of rubbing alcohol, and a container of baking soda. With no hesitation, Andrew pulled out a small resealable bag filled a quarter of the way with an off-white powder and placed it on the table, begetting Layne’s attention.
Without exchanging words, Layne fetched a tiny oil lamp and an egg pan from the wooden trunk against the wall just behind him. While he poured the alcohol into the lamp, Andrew dumped the last of his bottled water into the pan, along with the off-white powder and generous baking soda. The powders settled on the bottom.
Layne lit the lamp with a stolen stove lighter and held the pan just an inch over it. At first he mixed the brew with his finger, but the pan become too hot, so he switched to a metal spoon. Andrew sat and watched the operation in front of him, waiting for the powders to dissolve. When they disappeared, he fetched the needles and filled them both.
Andrew’s year and a half in medical school had done him well, in his eyes, but was also a source of trouble. When he dropped out, his parents shunned him, refusing to house him or lend him any money. Since his junior year in college, Andrew struggled with paranoid-type schizophrenia. He was never formally diagnosed, fearing that antipsychotics would tear his personality from him. As a result, he struggled to hold a job and complete homework. After a month of intense visual hallucinations, Andrew removed himself from school, too stressed about his own condition to even attend.
The needle lay parallel to Andrew’s forearm, sterilized with the alcohol from the pharmacy. He always hesitated, thinking “this should be my last time.” Nevertheless, he drove it in and slowly emptied the syringe.
“Jesus, finally.” he heard Layne whisper.
“Finally is right,” Andrew concurred in his head. Finally, his heart beat quickly again, his joints felt limber again, and the fog was removed from his thoughts. The lights in the room glared in his dilated eyes as he breathed a sigh of relief, one that was reciprocated by Layne.
The front door swung open not a minute later. Two men and one woman walked in screaming greetings to Layne. Andrew sat and stared as they all filed into the room from which Layne had first appeared.
“I found a new deck.” Layne announced as he lead them in.
Andrew still sat and listened to a cacophony that projected through the door frame and resonated in the walls. Chairs scooting on a wood floor, cards being shuffled, coins being dumped on a table, and muffled chit chat. And soon, the clanging of glass bottles and the scratching of Bic lighters.
Andrew finally snapped from his daze and noticed the paraphernalia still lying on the table. He rose his voice, “Layne, aren’t you going to help clean up?”
The chit chat froze. “I’m not your f***ing maid, just do it yourself.”
A quiet chuckle from the woman broke the silence and the cacophony began again. Andrew looked down at the mess and saw the alcohol lamp was still burning and the last of the brew was lightly steaming. “You didn’t even blow out the lamp!” His words failed to break the conversation this time.
Not letting good medicine go to waste, Andrew refilled his syringe with the remaining fluid, capped it, and pocketed it, along with the alcohol. Barely wiping the rest of the tools down, he dumped them back in the trunk and moved to the opposite room of Layne and his friends. He shut the door behind him and stared into the near empty space.
The floor was dark hardwood, contorted and sinking, growing mold where furniture scratched away the finish. The paint, an off-white, was peeling off the wall in some spots, but stained or dirtied everywhere. The molding along the floors, probably once bright white, was stained with spilt whiskey and vomit and some unaccountable activity left it chipped or completely dislodged in areas, where wood shreds would accompany. The crown molding, high up against the 9-foot ceiling, remained totally intact, if not for dust. It was an artifact of a once model New York City rowhome.
Against the back wall, opposite the only window, was a single, worn couch. It’s floral fabric was faded and torn and mildew grew on the foam inside. Andrew took a seat there and peered out the distant window. A grid of thick, ribbed, black iron bars secured it shut. It was a miracle the glass was only cracked. If the glass did break, the dust might fall and the outside might finally be visible. Andrew slouched and pinched the bridge of his nose. The light in the room dimmed as the sun began to set. He sat, contemplating, “This next one will be my last.” The street lights flicked on and filled the room with the shadow of iron bars like a prison cell.
Andrew reached into his pocket. His hands were sweaty but he could still feel the denim. He removed the syringe and popped the cap off. Beneath familiar, translucent orange polyethylene was his means to an end. The cap fell to the hardwood and clicked like a high temple block a few times before resting.
Andrew stared at the needle, but really looked past it. “This should be my last one.”
He rested it upon a vein once again on his left arm. His joint was cluttered with purple abscesses, ready to spill pus on adjacent, collapsed veins. On his right arm, the veins were light blue tracks that wondered around his fare skin. But on his left, the swelling left all but a few impossible to find. Andrew withdrew the needle from his vein to wipe his arm down with alcohol, fearing infection. That ritual was an artifact of a once model New York City premedical student.
Finally, this time without hesitation, he drove the needle in and emptied the syringe with haste. He could feel it coming.
His heart raced and his muscles tensed. He cackled as he relaxed into the couch. Pharmaceutical energy pumped like syrup though his veins, spreading farther with every heart beat. Two years of tolerance and he could finally feel it again.
And it wouldn’t stop. His heart kept beating faster, his pupils pushed the boundaries of his irises, and his breaths were quick but small. He began to sweat and fidget. His thoughts stopped dead in their tracks.
A symphony of voices filled the room. Andrew struggled not to listen. He buried his face in his hands and plugged his ears with his thumbs. They were loud, male, and commanding, but he knew not what they were saying. He had not heard voices like these in a few years.
His throat clenched and his mouth filled with saliva. He swallowed once every second, resisting the urge to vomit. The voices became louder, but not louder than the low drone of his heart each time it beat. He tried to focus on the rhythm. He clenched his jaw harder and harder, squeezed shut his eyes tighter and tighter, and yet they only because louder and louder.
And with a deep breath, they were gone.
Andrew still rested in his hands, confused. His heart was beating faster than ever, but he barely noticed. He was still sweaty, but his anxiety was replaced by bewilderment. He lifted his head from his hands and open his eyes. The room was bright, but outside the window was a mysterious fog. He paid no attention and headed straight for the door. It was completely silent, save his foot steps. He gripped the doorknob, but his hand slipped; it was too sweaty. Hastily he gripped the knob again through his shirt, but it would not turn. It was locked. There was no locking mechanism on the door, but it was locked.
Once more Andrew could feel his heart beating against his ribs. He rested he body against the door and called, “Layne!”
There was no response. Only silence.
No coins, no cards, no whiskey bottles, and no idle chatter.
His voice cracked.
Andrew turned around and rested his back against the door, sliding down to the floor. His pulse was nearly bursting the veins in his wrist, or so it felt. He looked up and blinked. The room was different.
There was no crown molding. No hardwood, no chipping paint, no decrepit sofa. The walls were concrete, as were the floors and the ceiling, but the iron bars remained. He could hear coins clashing, and cards being shuffled. Again, there was conversation, and whiskey still passed around. His heart sinking into his stomach in a frenzy, he gripped the iron bars and saw Layne’s poker game beyond the window. It was surreal, covered by a haze of cigarette smoke.
They payed no mind, Layne and his friends. It was as if they could not hear him and were oblivious to his prison cell observatory. Andrew dropped his forehead to the bars and said once more in desperation, “Layne?”
He dropped to his knees and let the walls cradle him. His heart beat faster still. He gripped his chest in pain and breathed deeper. The pain increased and his eyes began to water. His legs curled and his arms hugged his body tighter. His mouth tasted like aluminum, wide open to let in as much air as possible.
It was unbearable. Andrew, in pain, choked on his own breathe. He felt just yards from Layne, yet totally alone, isolated in his prison cell. His vision faded to black, and his muscles relaxed.
“Where the f*** did Drew put the alcohol?” Layne said to himself the next morning as he rummaged through the trunk. He emptied his pockets onto the table. A baggie filled with off-white powder again, sat beside an empty lamp and an egg pan.
He trekked back to one of his friends, nearly passed out next to an unfinished game of poker and a pack of cigarettes. The room smelled like liquor and menthol. “Where did they go?” he said to his companion. The drunk scratched his eyes but made no response, situated face down on the floor. Layne bent down to pull the last cigarette from the pack and lit it with a match left on the table. He picked up a bottle of whiskey and brought it back to the lamp.
Hesitant to pour whiskey into the lamp, Layne peered around the room one last time for the rubbing alcohol. Suddenly it occurred to him that the door across from him had not been closed the night before.
“Drew, you in there?”
Without waiting for a response, he pushed the door open. The room stunk of mildew and mold. Without the usual ventilation, the closed room was a pressure cooker for stenches.
Across the room was Andrew, sitting on the couch limp with a needle still in his arm. Layne stared motionless. Without a change in expression, he turned in place and closed the door behind him. He shook his friend in the other room until he began to get up.
“We need to get rid of a body.”