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YOU’RE back home for the summer from college, your suitcase still unopened. Your parents are in Spain. Earlier that year, your mother had explained over the phone that they would not be there when you arrived: “It’s just the timing of these things. You know.” As if you too were a surgeon’s wife struggling to make time for a European vacation, and not her youngest son.

In their absence you have the house to yourself, besides your ancient dog Georgette and your older brother, Paul. Georgette is downstairs, wheezing out her breaths on the living room couch. She is fourteen, a mutt you picked out from the shelter when you were eight. The couch had become a near permanent spot for her.

Paul is at work. You and your friend Nicole are in your room, sitting on your bed. She holds out a little square bundle held together by a rubber band.

“It’s called Red Devil,” she says. “Here.”

Inside the rubber band there is a razor, a piece of drinking straw cut shorter than your pinkie finger, and four stamp bags of heroin. The bags are made of wax paper, you rub them against your fingertips.

“We need something hard and flat,” Nicole says.

Someone gave you the children’s book, Make Way for Ducklings, as a graduation present this time last year because you go to college in Boston, where the book takes place. The gift bag you pull it from has been sitting in a corner of your room this whole time.

“Perfect,” she says.

You and Nicole were close in high school but communication dwindled during your first year away. She no longer mentions anything about saving money to go to school herself.

You sit across from each other on your bed with the book in between. On its cover, a mother duck carefully tends to her babies against a dark green background.

Nicole lays the bags on top of the book. Each one has a red stamp on it, portraying a dark-haired, suavely grinning man with horns, like the kind in the cartoons where an angel whispers into one ear and in the other whispers a devil.

This is the second time you’ve done it; your first was with Nicole as well, in the bathroom at a party during Christmas break. You’d both laughed at all the other kids outside drinking their spiked punch. In the couple of phone conversations you’ve had since then, her voice was slower. She is thinner now than when you last saw her.

Nicole slices one of the bags open. The tiny mound of brown dust that pours out makes you think of the powder for chocolate milk.

From downstairs you hear Paul come in the door. His room is right next to yours and moments later you hear him through the wall, the sounds of his computer game. Mostly it’s background music, soft enough that you can’t really make out the tune. This peace is marked unpredictably by sounds of warfare. The slicing of flesh, the piercing of arrows, guttural last breaths. In the game, your brother is a large blue centaur, armoured at the chest and wielding a crossbow as he stalks digitally rendered medieval villages.

Nicole uses the razor to separate four lines from the pile.

“Two for me and two for you,” she says.

You take the straw from her and do both lines. While she does the same, you stretch out on the bed, your legs dangling over the side. A comforting heaviness moves into your head, as if someone has tucked your brain into a blanket. There are crickets chirping outside and a breeze flutters through the room, bringing in the smell of the back lawn. For a moment you feel blades of grass between your fingers. You imagine you are in a place of lushness, of growth.

You and Nicole move dazedly in and out of conversation but stay mostly quiet. Movements are sparse and purposeful: one of you gets up and retrieves the bag, the other empties it and separates the lines with the razor.

“Dopamine,” Nicole says.

“Dopamine,” you say.

You wake up in the first hours of the morning. You and Nicole finished the first bag and made it halfway through another in the night. You walk quickly down the stairs to see Georgette. Kneeling, you rest your head next to her belly and scratch behind her ears.

“Georgie girl,” you say.

The tan spots on her fur have turned nearly as white as the rest of it. You think it makes her appear wise, sage-like. Her mouth opens and closes, the sound is slimy.

A photo of your mother hangs on the wall outside your room. A black-and-white from when she was a dancer in the ’70s. She is rail thin and wearing a black leotard; one of her arms is stretched high, her hand curves elegantly inward. Her then-platinum hair is fixed in a simple updo. She doesn’t look at the lens. Her eyes, the lids painted dramatic black, look up. The photo was taken before you existed and there are no other family photos in the hall. You feel like you have wrongly found your way into a stranger’s house.

When you get back in your room, you dump out the rest of the second stamp bag and inhale most of its remaining contents. You slide Make Way for Ducklings into the shadowy space under your desk and curl up in the bottom half of the bed.

“We’ll have to boot you up next time,” Nicole says in the morning.

“Yeah, maybe,” you say.

You pay her ten dollars for one of the leftover bags. She leaves.

Upstairs, your brother has just woken up and turned on his game. You knock on the door.

“It’s open,” he says.

You open the door and lean in.

“Hey,” you say.

“Hey,” he says.

• • •

On a Saturday afternoon, your parents return. Your mother makes everyone sit on the couch to look at pictures on her laptop. Most of them are of her in front of fountains or churches but there are some of both of your parents, many taken by waiters at restaurants. If you weren’t looking for it, you wouldn’t be able to see the care your mother took in making sure her left hand wasn’t in any of the pictures The hand was afflicted by arthritis and had become twisted and bony, it had barely seen the light of day for three years. It’s hidden by her side now, as she flips through the pictures.

“The way those European waiters will flirt with you,” she says. “Just to get you to order more wine, of course. I must’ve gained at least ten pounds. All that delicious food,” she says.

She is as thin now as she always has been, as she is in the photo in the hallway.

The pictures blur into one another and a tracker on the bottom of her screen indicates that she’s only halfway through. Paul glances towards the stairs repeatedly, anticipating his escape.

You think of the arguments that used to take place between your father, now seated in a jet-lagged haze at the other end of the couch, and your brother. Starting when your brother was twenty and you were fourteen, it seemed that when your father was home, he was fixed to the foot of those stairs, screaming up at Paul. Always with your mother behind him, speaking to him in a spitting whisper.

We pay the bills that keep that computer running, we pay for the goddamn games. Tell him we’ll cut it off. We’ll cut it all off,” she would say.

“WE’LL CUT IT OFF,” he would yell.

During the fights, you cowered with Georgette and spoke softly to her.

“You don’t get that it’s an online game,” Paul would yell. “I have friends on here.”

His voice would usually crack over his shouting when he said something about his friends. Hearing your older brother almost cry gave you goose bumps.

“Roger,” your mother says to your father, “I didn’t even know you took this.”

In the picture, your mother rests her head on her right hand. Her other hand is in her lap. It looks stiff and a couple of the fingers are curled a little but you’ve seen it much worse. She is sitting at the desk of a hotel room with her eyes closed. She looks haggard from travel but there is a smile on her face so unintentional you can barely make it out and her eyebrows are lifted the smallest bit, perhaps remembering the prettiest statue or fountain she saw that day.

“Terrible angle,” she says.

“I like it,” your father says.

“Me too,” you say.

Your mother deletes the picture. Your brother isn’t moving his eyes from the stairs. You wonder if he’s thinking of the fights too. Georgette dozes on the floor nearby. There’s a smell that seems to rise from her now, like rotting fruit.

After dinner, both of your parents claim travel exhaustion and go to bed. While she gets ready in the upstairs bathroom, you tell your mother through the closed door that you’re going out, you probably won’t be home until tomorrow.

“Okay,” she says.

You imagine her inside, searching her face for traces of the young dancer. You wonder if she’s taken her Vicodin yet.

“But be back tomorrow, for sure,” she says as you are already walking down the stairs.

• • •

You and Nicole are at her apartment, seated on the floor between her couch and the flimsy coffee table where all of her works—the needles, the spoons, the hardware of getting high, are spread out. A grayed shoelace is wrapped tightly around your upper arm and your fist is clenched. Nicole holds a lighter to a spoon that’s bottom is already burnt black. As the water and heroin boil there is a fleeting, chemical smell.

She sets the spoon onto the table and drops a tuft of cotton into it. The cotton, fluffy and white, looks out of place in the whole procedure. Even as it fattens and browns with the dope you can’t help but think of a toasted marshmallow.

“Don’t worry,” she says, dipping the needle of a syringe into the cotton. “They give you clean needles for free at the clinic.”

“I’m not worried,” you say.

The search for a vein is tough at first. Nicole slaps at your forearm. Spots of your skin begin to go purple.

“Sorry,” you say. “This is a problem if they ever try to take blood at the doctor’s. Try the back of my hand.”

“Perfect,” she says. The veins on the back of your hand are bulging, thirsty. “Just let your hand go when the needle is first in.”

For a split second when the chamber of the syringe clouds with your blood, there is fear. She pushes down, and the fear drains away, like you might look down and see a puddle at your feet. The sensation is of being hugged from the inside out, and the thought that you wouldn’t care if you or anyone you knew lived or died. That you could be alone in a room forever and still feel loved.

• • •

Your father is in the dining area, which is in the same large space as the living room. He’s looking at papers he has spread out on the table. You sit on the couch with Georgette. Your mother is seated in an armchair across from you. Since the last time at Nicole’s, a couple days earlier, you’ve started doing bumps of heroin during the day, still off of Make Way for Ducklings, and then shooting up before bed.

The three of you are assembled together like this because your mother and father have “something to tell you.” Your mother clears her throat.

“Why can’t we just wait for her to go on her own,” you say before anyone else has the chance to speak. It feels wrong to talk about this with Georgette in the room. How could she be present and not understand you were all speaking about her death?

“She’s in pain,” your mother says. “We’re doing it for her.”

“We have to do it,” your father says. “A vet is going to come to the house day after tomorrow. They just give her a shot and that’s it. It won’t hurt her.”

“Only kill her,” you say.

The last time you cried in front of your father was in junior high school. You’d begged him not to make you go to school that day. You can’t remember any reason, just that you hated it. You missed the bus on purpose, but he made you get in the car and he drove you on his way to work.

“I haven’t been late to work in five years,” he said through his teeth while he drove. You were reaching hysterics by then.

“You don’t even care, you don’t even care,” you wailed to him in the school’s parking lot.

“Why do you have do be so goddamn sensitive?”

He slammed his hands on the steering wheel for the last two words.

This time, you go to your room before tears come. You wish Georgette wasn’t too feeble to climb the stairs with you. You pull out the book from its new home in your desk drawer. Two stamp bags, one of them open and half-done, lay on its cover. These ones have smiley faces on them. You dump the rest of the open one out, roll up a dollar bill and inhale.

Paul has been at work all day. Your parents’ one minor success with Paul was forcing him to get a job. He works for a mobile computer repair company and five days out of the week a van with GADGET GUYS painted on the side picks him up in the morning and drops him off in the evening. You curl up and close your eyes. You can picture as vividly as if you were sober and outside of your room the scene that will occur, as it always does when Paul gets home.

Paul comes in and your father greets him. Moments of silence pass, you know that Paul is preparing food in the kitchen. After the brief silence your brother climbs the stairs, followed predictably by your father. You turn over in bed, hoping you might be able to listen to them in the next room. The sounds of the game turn on.

You know that your father will try and talk to Paul, maybe ask him some questions about his day. Paul will stare at the screen, continuing whatever it is his mythical avatar was doing the last time he played, probably in the early hours of the morning before work. Paul’s responses to your father will be delayed and short.

A few minutes pass and you hear your father’s footsteps heading down the stairs, heavier and slower than when he came up.

• • •

Tomorrow, the vet will come to your home to euthanize Georgette. Your parents agreed to keep her alive for another week. In that week, you’ve barely been home. When you are, you sit with Georgette as much as you can, petting and consoling her. The rotting fruit smell is stronger and you feel a constant draw to your room.

An ’80s horror movie that you and Nicole put on is playing on her TV. The ghost of a woman’s dead sister screams at her You killed me! You killed me! The woman who’s being attacked by the ghost looks kind of like your mother, and you’re struck with a memory of her.

She reads a magazine on the couch while you play with Georgette a few months after bringing her home from the shelter, before your mother’s arthritis. You had a plastic crown on your head with big plastic jewels in it and you were trying to wrestle another one onto Georgette.

“What are you doing?” Your mother asked, glancing up from her magazine.

“I’m the prince and Georgette is the queen!” you said.

“Honey, maybe that’s a game best played in another room,” she said.

You shot up forty-five minutes ago but the erasure of feeling you’ve come to expect will not take hold. You eye the spoons and needles on the table.

“I want to go again,” you say.

“But we don’t have that much left,” Nicole says. “I’ll need more money, or we’ll have to dip into the stuff you bought today.”

You know there is more, under a lamp in Nicole’s bedroom. But protesting wouldn’t change anything. Coming down after shooting up makes you cold, because the cooked heroin warms your body up. When you close your eyes, you picture your insides as arctic caves. Stalactites covered in chemical ice drip from the roof, something black and bubbling like tar forms a creek beneath them.

You and Nicole kneel down in front of the coffee table.

A few hours later, Nicole’s headlights split the darkness of your street. It’s two o’ clock in the morning. You told your parents you’d be home that night and here you are. Nicole is nodding off when she says goodbye to you. After you get inside her car remains on the street for a couple minutes until she wakes up and swiftly drives off. You lie down on the couch, grateful for softness. Heroin makes even Nicole’s linoleum floor feel like a bed of fleece; a couch is heaven.

You touch Georgette to feel her breathe. Her fur feels bristly. You press against her skin. You feel the body but you do not feel breath. You rest your head on her belly for a few seconds. You remember watching a show about hunting at Nicole’s house a few weeks ago, how thermal video footage showed the body of deer grow cold, blue. You imagine yourself and Georgette through the same lens, except it is both of you who lose the reds and oranges of the living.

You get up and bend towards Georgette. Sliding your arms underneath her, you lift. When you reach the back door you lay her down for a moment to open it and think you might falter but take a deep breath and lift again. Guided by the amber light of the streetlamp behind your house, you step through the backyard and lay her down again in the dewy grass. You get a shovel from the garage and begin to dig next to Georgette’s body.

The earth is soft at first. The shovel sounds like a blade cutting cleanly. But the sound soon changes to a clink. Gleaming amidst the dirt are thousands of little gray rocks. Gravel from when the backyard was a driveway, before the garage was built. Every time you spear the shovel in, the gravel simply avalanches back into the hole.

“Fuck,” you say.

You throw the shovel to the ground and leave it and Georgette’s body in the backyard. Once in your room, you pull out the half-stamp bag you have left.

The next morning, you sit in the kitchen across from your mother. Georgette’s body is now in the basement. Your mother had asked you to put her in the large freezer there, but the best you could do was place her on top of it.

“Were you drunk last night?” she asks.

“I had a few beers at Nicole’s,” you say.

She tells you someone will come later to take Georgette. That they will have her cremated.

“We can keep her ashes if you want.”

You wonder if your mother’s noticed that her bottle of pills is still sitting open next to the coffee maker. Usually she hides them away in a cupboard or drawer right after taking them. You wish you could see where she was going to put them so you could snag a couple later. Your gut churns and sweat starts to drip from your temples.

“I’m going to my room,” you say.

In bed, you cradle your stomach in your hands. When you feel a violent squeezing over your intestines, you hurry to the bathroom, nearly collapsing onto the toilet. Nothing comes out, but the chilly porcelain provides a tiny solace. With your face in your lap you stay there for awhile. No one comes up the stairs and quiet of the house seems to echo.

You remember what your mother said after the first time the Gadget Guys van came for Paul.

“It’s just so much more pleasant without all that noise around here, isn’t it?”

“I guess,” you said. You didn’t tell her that you knew the quiet would really come from the end of the fighting; that it was just a sign everyone had given up.

Hope suddenly strikes you, pulls you from the toilet and into your room. You pull out the desk drawer and retrieve the copy of Make Way For Ducklings. The lamp on your desk is flicked on and you place the book directly under it. You start searching its cover.

Using your old high school ID card you scrape together the stray specks of heroin that were cast off when you had a full stash and didn’t care. Twenty minutes later, a line of dope more meagre than you’d hoped for but still heavy with salvation stares up at you, positioned right above the head of the mother duck. The release is small, underwhelming but you thankfully drift into sleep.

When you wake up to the sound of someone coming in the house you assume it’s your father, home from work, but it’s 6:30 PM, too early for him to be back. It’s whoever’s come for Georgette’s body. For a second all you can see is the gravel piling back into the hole you were digging. Sickness comes back too. Heat and cold spread throughout your body and you shiver.

• • •

Downstairs, your father is working at the dining room table again. You tell him you’re going to go out.

“You look like shit,” he says.

“He’s just got a hangover,” your mother says from the couch. “You’ve had the same look plenty of times, Roger. We should be encouraging him to get out of the house, if anything.”

Your brother is upstairs, you wonder if he can hear what everyone’s saying.

“He doesn’t need to get hungover again. Not after what he pulled last night,” your father says.

• • •

The next day, you are back at Nicole’s. You’ve just shot up a whole stamp bag at once. A first. Once again you’re on the floor with your back against the couch. Your head drops back onto the cushion and your legs are splayed out beneath the coffee table. You rub your nose, wiping away dried mucous. Even when you shoot it, heroin finds a way into your nasal passages, makes them drip. You imagine your whole body crumbling into dust and getting carried all around the world, breeze to breeze.

“Just a little more,” you say. Nicole’s eyes flutter open and shut.

“Five bucks,” she says.

Nicole’s decline is accelerating. She’s been saying that “things are drying up.” You know what she means is she isn’t buying to enough to sell you any and have enough for herself. When she answers the door of her apartment, she doesn’t say anything before letting you in.

You give her the money and shoot up. A few minutes later you’re in the tiny kitchen, totally unsure of how you got there. You’re heaving something acidy and yellow into the sink over Nicole’s few dishes. She’s behind you leaning on the doorway yelling at you about them. Black starts to creep from the corner of your eyes until it’s all that’s there.

A cold stream of water on your face revives you but you take a big accidental inhale of water and cough it all back up and puke a little more onto the shower floor.

“I’ll be—,” you say. “I’m okay.” Nicole turns the water off.

“I’m going to have to clean all this shit up now,” she says. “Why don’t you just go?”

Nicole’s apartment is two miles from your house but you can’t imagine getting on a bus and she was your ride, so you walk. Your clothes are still drenched from the shower

Halfway between her place and your house there’s a park that you used to go to when you were little. You stop at the park’s entrance without meaning to and realize how good the sun and the breeze of the morning feel against your wet clothes. Passing through its gate, you walk to the patch of trees you remember most clearly and sit just outside of their shade. The grass is warm and dry between your fingers.

These trees are special because for a few summers some of them were populated by bats. After the first sightings of them your parents took you and Paul and Georgette there around dusk.

You insisted on being the one to hold Georgette’s leash and you kept her close, even though your mother kept telling you she wasn’t going anywhere and to give her some room. Your father was armed with a canister of tennis balls.

“If you throw these up in the air by the trees, the bats will use their echolocation to follow them down. Try it out.”

Young enough that you still revered your older brother, you waited for him to throw one before doing anything. Georgette thought Paul was playing fetch with her so she galloped and jumped after the ball. She stopped short at the sight of a dark body, little and winged, careening from the trees.

You tossed your own ball beneath the leafy silhouettes. A bat dove after it. The ball landed and the bat paused over it for a split second before flitting away. Again and again you threw the ball into the air. This became a regular activity for a few summers, before Paul started playing his game and you lost interest too. The bats have long since disappeared.

You get home and are driven by instinct to the couch. You feel the cushion that Georgette had made her final home. The fabric is cool. There’s clinking coming from the kitchen and the rest of the house seems silent, so you know it’s Paul.

When he comes out holding a plate with a sandwich and some chips on it he stops for a second. The look on his face is sour, reproachful. Like you were an unexpected mess he now had to clean up before getting on with his day. You try to connect this sallow face, so frequently fixed on a computer screen, with the one that had been the first to throw a tennis ball into the air.

“You look like shit,” he says.

You don’t say anything until he’s about to go back up the stairs.

“Do you think dogs have memories,” you ask.

“I don’t know. Does it really matter?”

“I hope they do,” you say.

You go to the park again several days later to spread Georgette’s ashes. You reach in and out of the black velvet bag with her name embroidered on it in gold, scatter them over the grass. They feel gritty. You don’t stay for long.

As you leave the park, you close your eyes and run your hand along the chain link fence that surrounds it. You try to imagine what echolocation is like, to know your way home in darkness, by signal instead of sight.


Jimmy Newborg's work has previously appeared in drafthorse: a literary journal, Little Fiction, and NYLON Guys magazine. He holds an M.F.A. in fiction from the Bennington College Writing Seminars, and was a MacDowell Colony Fellow in January 2015. He lives in Brooklyn. 

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LF #080 © 2015 Jimmy Newborg. Published by Little Fiction | Big Truths, April 2015.


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