(Another short story begun a while back and recently completed. Another pastiche/mash-up, this time H.P. Lovecraft meets William Burroughs. This one contains drug use, violence and bad language. Please leave a comment!)
Dix is dying slowly on the mattress. Skin yellowing and covered in sores that resemble miniature volcanoes, pus seeping like lava across his skeletal frame. The track marks cover his flesh like strip mines into raped soil, his body clear of virgin veins. His feet are the only safe place to inject now, the gaps between his toes crusted with dried blood. Dix pauses to vomit into the tin bucket previously filled with sand and used as a fire precaution in the corridor.
We’d sold the bed frame a few weeks previous, broken it down into rods and concealed it under our jackets so we could smuggle it past the landlady of the Mason Street flophouse that has been our bolthole since we left County. Like every other junky we came to The City – there’s nowhere to score in the dustbowl of farms and diners surrounding the prison where we’d been cell and needle-mates.
The only other furniture is the chair I sit in, picking at the scab on my hand. Then there are the old newspapers and rags I use to ease Dix’s pain by wiping him clean of sweat and muck from time to time. Everything else has been pawned or sold to pay for fixes. Apart from the works and the needle I’m saving for Dix’s last hit.
‘I’ve got some money’ says Dix, rolling over to me. I can hear skin breaking and cracking like dried paper as he does so. He half opens his eyes and reaches a hand around to his ass. I knew he had a last reserve, but I hadn’t found it, even when Dix wasn’t bedridden and I had time to search the room when he was out. ‘Just a bit, but it’ll do for one last fix’. His last maybe, but not mine. He’s on his way out, corpus diseased, mind fucked. He kept me awake last night as he mumbled in his sleep, drowning out the street noise and cries from other rooms with tourettes-like ramblings.
His hand moves and I can tell he’s sticking a finger into his ass-crack, the one place even a junk-crazed addict like me would never dare to pry into. He pulls it out – two ten dollar bills wrapped in plastic film. The green portrait of The President is stained brown due to his imprisonment in Dix’s anus. Limply he throws the anally concealed rainy-day-fund at me, the bucks landing on the floor next to the spoon, candle, needle and ashtray. Do I dare pick it up?
‘We’re barred from the joint, you know that,’ I say as I cover my hand with my sleeve and pick the cash from up from the floorboards. Dix got physical with a broad there a few months back, before he got turned into a leprous scab from the sickness. Broad turned out to be a girlfriend of the owner – a man known to resolve such situations by weighting the other party down and throwing them into the river. With a touch of diplomacy I made sure he got away with a good beating and the loss of his wallet. Still, we’re barred from the joint, the closest place to score some junk or a reasonable substitute without prowling the City streets for a dealer.
‘Wharves’ croaks Dix, spitting a lump of his black lungs out of the open window he lies under.
‘What about them?’
‘Guy there deals. A nip or something’.
‘You think of anyone?’
The answer’s no. Billy Burger got caught last week dealing out of the local diner. Tried to peddle some goofballs to a chick who turned out to be Narco. Never got to finish his tenth cheeseburger of the day. Phil’s out – he’s doing a ten stretch for statch rape. Customer couldn’t pay for a big bag of the good shit, so he gave his nine-year old daughter to Phil as payment, knowing his proclivities for the younger female. Said customer then informed the pigs who busted Phil just as he was about to get his thing on. Fucker still managed to keep the bag though – shame it was cut with Drano. Every other source is either dry, out of The City or on rehab courtesy of law enforcement.
I wash the bills under the tap, the cold brown water washing away most traces of Dix’s faecal matter. The Wharves it is then.
Trench coat’s on, autumn rain’s back, leaving the streets slick with an oily sheen. Ten bucks, seventy cents, a knife, three Lucky Strikes and a Zippo to keep me company. I dodge the landlady as I traverse the stairwell; we’re three weeks late on rent, not bad compared to the Blacks on the fifth landing who haven’t paid in four years according to Dix. Apparently they’re the reason the landlady now walks with a limp and lost an eye. Violence ain’t my style, and unless Dix croaks and has a couple of family heirlooms up his ass I’ll be out on the street soon enough.
Mason Street doesn’t wake up till around ten at night, so the only people out are the scrawny urchins playing baseball with a frog and pissing in doorways. The Hobo who dwells in the alley scowls at me as I wait at the bus stop. Dix reckons he’s a Fed. I tell Dix I’ve never seen a F.B.I. Agent remain undercover for three months without having a least one bath. The Hobo drains his quart of piss-coloured booze from the bottle and hurls it at the three-legged cat that lives to annoy him. The cat doesn’t flinch, just rolls onto its side, cocks its remaining leg and sends a spray of feculence onto the Hobo. No Fed could stand that, I think as the Number 33 pulls up, spraying my worn-out brothel creepers with puddle-water.
The bus driver’s high, there’d be no other way to do the job otherwise. His jaw clicks as he chews, the floor beneath a mass of myriad colours of dried gum and spittle, his breath a mix of peppermint and amphetamines, rotting teeth a sepia rainbow of plaque and decay. He grunts. I offer ten cents. He passes me a ticket. If only scoring were this easy. I take a seat near the front, one not ripped by knives or stained with food, drink and shit. Rain water dashes against the glass, forming rivers and deltas running down the pane and the drunk a few seats back sings an incomprehensible song known only to those who can stomach paint stripper for dinner.
My guts knotting and I can feel the sweat staining my shirt as the junk oozes from my pores. Need a hit, need a hit, need a hit. Last one was yesterday, the boilings from the silver spoon originally stolen from the diner on the corner. Just enough to whet the appetite but not nearly enough to sate the monster that courses the veins. I light a Lucky to quell the taste of bile and vomit that sticks to the roof of my mouth. The Driver glances back, jittering, eyes wide. I blow smoke in his direction as I draw up my collar, watching the rain water seep through a crack in the window.
The 33 takes forty minutes to reach the Wharves, leisurely crawling through The City, along Dunwich and Jefferson, Arkham and Washington, through the centre where the stiffs in suits gather under umbrellas and fill the seats with the financial sections and leather briefcases.
They get off at Central Station, leaving me with the other dregs heading for the riverside, looking for work, drugs, a warm body for the night or all three. I pick at the scab on my hand, the pink raw flesh giving up blood which I wipe on the seat. The drunk has stopped singing now; instead he dozes against the window with his bottle dangerously close to being dropped. I consider rolling him for pocket change, but it’s not worth it.
The bus rattles as it comes to a halt by the kerb, the Driver muttering something under his breath as he takes out a snuff box and snorts its contents up his nostrils. It’s past dusk now, the moon and the streetlamps doing little to illuminate the dark hulks of warehouses, flophouses and whorehouses I can make out through the rain.
I exit, crossing the street, following the poor directions Dix gave to me before he passed out in a stupor. ‘The House of Jade’, he said. Fucks knows if it’s a restaurant or some Chinese drinking dive. All I know is it’s a source, and right now all I need is a damn source. Whores cackle from shadowy alleys, leathernecks on shore leave pass by with over-spilling pitchers of weak beer, hollering at each other and the girls they’ll be fucking later. As I wander the darkness of the bay is lit by the arc-lamp of the lighthouse, its beacon turning perhaps only to warn ships away from the harbour rather than to guide them to it. Sickly fish lie piled on the docks, caught by the fishermen who look as pale and out of place as their catch. The stench assaults the sense, rotting seafood, sewerage and the overwhelming scent of brine. Someone shouts my name and I turn to see Thommy Ricks, a whore on each arm, sipping from a bottle of bootleg gin. ‘You holding?’ he asks.
‘No man, I’m looking for a source.’
‘Shame. I got bennies and a few speedballs, but no H.’ he says, rustling inside his red leather jacket for a pick-me-up dose. ‘You in?’
‘Need the mainline hit, Dix’s got the sickness, he needs a last skinpop.’
‘Shit. Dix is okay. For a fucking junky, I mean.’ Coming from Thommy that’s as ironic as you can get. Pimp, burglar, sometimes rapist and all-times slave to the junk. ‘Well, if you score, gimme the nod. I need a new source man, this cities drying up.’ He waves adieu as Whore #2 frenches him and drags him into an alley, for some good times and the contents of his wallet. And I still can’t see ‘The House of Jade’.
It takes me a good hour of trawling back streets and warehouses before I find it, dodging sailors, drunks, hobos and the occasional pig looking to test out his nightstick on some poor unfortunate. I’m about to call it quits and try and hook up some speedballs from Thommy when I see it. A poorly painted sign of a dragon on the side of an alleyway between a bar and a porn shop. An arrow beneath with some Chinese letters mark the way. I’m not judging this as a good sign, I wish Doc. Cedric still made out prescriptions in exchange for sexual favours and the proceeds from burglaries, but the Doc.’s out of commission and this is a source. It’s a fucking freaky source, but shit, junkies can’t be choosers; we lost that the first time Big H came sniffing around and introduced itself to our naive and innocent bloodstreams.
The alley’s full of trash and puddles of collected rainwater, but a trail leads through to a dimly lit door at I can just about make out. Stepping through I’m stopped as an arm lunges from the shadows. Its owner is short and Chinese, pockmarked face and no eyebrows, breath smelling of liquor. The lookout sizes me up, standing there in a wet green robe that was probably fine silk a few decades ago.
‘You want hit?’ he proffers, sensing my hunger like a bloodhound and the fact that my clothes are worse than your average undercover Narc. ‘Opium? Cocaine?’
‘Horse’ I clarify, ‘H, Heroin’.
‘Heroin, yes, good.’ His voice is soft, a smile raise revealing brown teeth. ‘Take the door.’
He shifts back into the shadows beneath a fire escape, waving me on. The door is wooden, another crude dragon painted on in dark green gloss. The spy hole slides open and an Oriental eye peers through, passing over me. A voice, cracked and broken, it’s accent also Chinese passes forth.
‘You have money?’
‘Yes’, but I’m not showing it, unsure if the lookout will sneak behind with a cut-throat. I glance back to make sure, it’s cool. The door creaks and deadbolts grate as the door opens. Another Chinaman stands there, taller than the look-out, skin pale and tight on his bones. He must be at least sixty, maybe more. His robe’s green like the lookout, silk shimmering in the light provided by a paper lantern hanging over the hallway. The walls damp and slick with mould, a rickety wooden staircase leading down. I can smell opium in the air and other scents in the haze that rises from beneath. Thank god. I’m close to the DT’s, skin clammy, vein in my temple pounding like the woman who lives downstairs at the flophouse who bangs the ceiling when Dix has a vomiting marathon.
‘You want heroin?’ says the Old Man, treading delicately down the wooden staircase, ushering me to follow.
‘Your man said you were holding.’ I sincerely fucking hope that’s the case is my unspoken second sentence. He just smiles and walks further, the staircase widening into a long cellar.
Dim green light oozes from paper lanterns, casting flickering shadows onto a dozen mattresses laid by the moist brick walls. I almost choke on opium and cigarette smoke, covering my mouth with my sleeve before my lungs catch up. Sailors, fisherman, junkies and the rest lie upon the mattresses and threadbare rugs, smoking from ornate wooden pipes lacquered with green, eyes either wide in rapture or half-closed as they inhale. Some giggle, some groan, many remain silent as they enjoy their ride. A curtain at the back twitches as another Chinese man wanders through with an ornate box carved from dark wood, heading through the narcotic fog towards us. Through the twisting haze I can make out a young couple fucking in the corner, either ignorant of or enjoying the stares of other patrons as they climax and collapse together.
‘What do you wish?’ The Old Man looks at me, a glint in his eye as his companion steps up to us. I realize I’ve been staring at the mating couple, second-hand opium smoke tends not to improve my attention span. The Old Man takes the box, I notice for the first time his long, thin fingers, nails unclipped, like talons. The box he holds is ornately carved, a million times better than the carpentry I was forced to learn during my stay at the government’s pleasure. The lid shows an expanse of water writhing in turmoil, shapes twisting beneath, half-glimpsed; images of fish, snakes and ominous things that seem hard to define in the half-light and smoke. I wipe my eyes and peer closer, just as the Old Man lifts the lid to show me the treasure within. Small, neatly wrapped parcels of rice-paper, each marked in green ink with a dragon symbol.
‘Five dollar.’ A damn good price, if this is H and not some Yen Pox shit, the ash of dried opium that’s only good to quell the slightest tinges of even a small habit.
‘Can I check it?’
‘Go ahead, brother.’ I take a parcel, fumbling the rice-paper. I can feel it dampening from the cold sweat running from my hands. It takes a few moments and then I see it. A sticky lump of heroin, brown and tacky. A good size lump, at least an eighth, ripe for more than a few days, a week maybe if Dix dies after a mercy hit like I think (and hope) he will. I take a ten buck note from my pocket and make the deal. The Old Man already has a five in his hands, passing it to me.
‘Good,’ he says, snapping closed the box and passing it to his companion who disappears into the opium haze. I wrap the lump up, not bothering with the origami shit.
‘You wish to stay?’
‘Nah. Take away,’ I reply, already inching to the staircase. He waves his hand, still smiling as I turn my back, tucking the parcel of horse into my left sock. I take the stairs two at a time, opening the unbolted door and stepping into the rain.
The journey back after scoring always takes far longer. The heroin seems to burn a hole in my sock, I shudder and ache for it as I sit aboard the bus, smoking my remaining cigarettes in quick succession. The rain beats down harder, the city becoming merely dark shapes seen through dark glass, refracted by the torrent falling from above. The bus is empty, save for a hooker who applies and re-applies cherry lipstick, using her hipflask as a mirror. I grip tightly to the seat in front, knowing that once I return I’ll be content in the warmth of a fresh needle.
Dix lies still on the mattress as I creep back in to our room, managing once again to dodge the landlady. I guess the practice I had avoiding my whisky-sodden father and his belt as I crept back to our failing farmhouse in my teens did me some good after all.
I don’t bother to remove my wet coat or leaking shoes, heading straight for the shooting gear, lighting the candle stump with the last of the matches and getting ready for the cook up. I poke Dix – I don’t like to touch him now and surgical gear is a luxury I can’t afford. His eyes slowly open like a cellar door; he coughs dark phlegm as he adjusts to consciousness.
‘You get it?’ he asks. I nod as I unwrap the rice paper parcel, showing him my hard worn prize.
‘Yeah. Weird place that, Dix.’
‘Worked though. Just enough for one last hit.’
I break off a lump of the H, too much in fact. It’s a hotshot, Dix’s last ride, so I intend to make it a good one. I pour a little water into the corroded silver spoon, heating it over the candle until it boils, sprinkling the junk liberally, watching it dissolve. For a moment I think it gives off the scent of brackish seawater, a light green steam rising from the spoon. I put it down to DT’s as I rise, yanking off my threadbare belt and prepping Dix’s rake-thin ankle for the shot. I find the needle we’d be saving for this special occasion, it’s filthy despite being boiled a dozen times but I’m past caring at this point.
I clean off some of the dried blood from Dix’s foot, lifting it with one hand while I try and spread his toes to find a vein. More chance of finding a pot of gold in a Denny’s mens room but somehow I find one, forcing the needle into Dix’s flesh and gently pressing the plunger until his veins are full of the wonderful poison.
He gasps like a john being blown, eyes rolling back, gentle spasms running through his body. I grip his emaciated hand, giving him some human contact before he departs for pastures new. God knows if they have heroin in Heaven. Not that Dix is going anywhere near there. Perhaps Hell is a detox clinic full of bull-dyke nurses and no hope of recovery or relapse.
I consider these things as I wrap the belt around my upper arm and cook up another hit, not using as much as I did for Dix. I may not have much to live for but I’d rather not be found dead on piss-stained mattress by an enraged landlady quite yet. I cook up, inject, again smelling seawater as the heroin washes over me like a tidal wave as it hits the bloodstream, catching me in a riptide and dragging me out into a warm ocean of opiate euphoria.
I float at first, the sound of seabirds in the distance, the eternal rhythm of the oceans waves in sync with my lethargic heartbeat, weightless in a supportive liquid like a foetus in the womb. I’m drawn down into the water, somehow able to breathe, no sense of panic or danger even though I should be drowning. I become wreathed in kelp and seaweed, drawn through clouds of green and blue algae, twisting and turning in the water, peaceful, at ease. I pass giant trees of kelp which rise like towering phalluses, fish of a thousand varieties swarming around them in worship as I begin to swim, pulling myself down into the depths with unexpected ease. It’s darker down here now, my eyes somehow adjusting, seeing shoals of millions of fish guiding my journey, their scales illuminated by pillars of bioluminescent rocks and coral jutting upwards from the sea floor. They speak to me in tongue our kind lost aeons ago, singing a song of welcome, a song of celebration and heritage, its vibrant notes and rhythm echoing within me, my body now fully adapted to the depths as I dive further feeling no fatigue. Vast pillars of living coral and towers of volcanic rock steer me to my destination, immense plumes of fire lighting my way like a vast landing strip to my ancestral home, to the arms of my kind, to the service of my master…
I wake, sticky with sweat. I’ve been out for hours thanks to the embrace of the ‘H’. My vision blurs, eyes stuck together with sleep, faint memories of a narcotic dream submerging back into my subconscious. I struggle to stand, my joints cracking, nearly stumbling over the works and small stash of heroin left on the floor, the candle long since extinguished. I look to the bed and double take, unsure of whether to trust my addled eyes. I’m not dreaming.
Dix is gone. Which is fucking impossible as I gave him a hit so strong it could kill an elephant. But he’s not there, just a human stain of piss and faeces left upon the filthy bed sheets like the addict version of the Turin Shroud. How did he get up? He hasn’t had the energy to walk for weeks, even if his matchstick thin legs could support his meagre weight. Could the cops have taken him? Doubtful, they would have nabbed me too. Besides I doubt any pig would want to struggle carrying Dix’s rank body down a few flights of stairs to the wagon.
‘Dix?’ I call out, just for the sake of it. Then I notice the trail of footprints leading to the door which is open a crack. Footprints of blood, dirt and pus. Jesus. He rolled back the stone and did walk out of here…
I creep to the door, peek out. No one on the landing. The dim clamour of TV’s and broken air conditioning the only sounds. The footprints lead along the cigarette burnt floorboards to the end of the hall. I follow them to their destination, the bathroom, usually avoided by all but the bravest tenants.
‘You in there Dix?’ No reply. I push the flimsy door, ancient wood creaking as it swings slowly open. The chipped porcelain toilet stands there, cleaned maybe a few years back, the stench assaulting my nose. But the smell is more than backed up shit and piss. I peer in closer, craning to see the bathtub. It looks like an animal has been slaughtered inside it, blood, gore and viscera staining the tub and faucets. As if someone had torn off their skin with a razor or sharp talons, huge patches and swathes of flesh lying in an inch of crimson water. I know its Dix’s. I can see a thin slice of skin under the dripping faucet, covered in black hair. I know its Dix’s – he’s the only one stupid enough to get the words ‘100% Unreformed Junky’ inked onto his forearm by a prison tattoo artist.
The scream jolts me from my state of hypnotic shock. A shrill, piercing scream from behind me. I duck back into the hallway, a Latino woman in a nightgown stands there shaking, cursing and praying in Spanish. Her door stands open, her room dim, illuminated by a few candles and a cigarette lying in an ashtray. A small child lies there on the floor, bleeding out onto a threadbare rug, his head bashed in, eyes wide with an expression of incomprehension at his fate. His mother’s still screaming, I make out a few words but I’m drawn to the open window whose tattered curtains flutter in the breeze, a heavy clanging noise reverberating from the iron fire escape outside.
I call out Dix’s name, scrambling out onto the rusting iron platform, seeing a hulking shape dropping down into the alley below. It must be the thing that tore apart my one friend and just smashed in some poor kid’s skull. I’ve never been a brave man but something ignites inside me, I rush down the steps two at a time, searching my pockets for the small blade I carry as protection.
I nearly slip on the piles of garbage, steadying myself against the wall, knife out, eyes searching the shadows. It comes for me then, bursting from the darkness with a speed that belies its bulky frame. It’s over six feet, broad and muscular, body slick with blood and mucus and the impression of greyish-green scales breaking through peeling and scabrous skin. It reaches for me with flexing hands, fingers webbed and ending in yellowed talons and I slip once again, falling back onto my ass, knife skittering from my grip as I bang my hand on the ground. The horror opens it wide mouth, tongue protruding, croaking out words I vaguely understand in a language I heard once in a dream, looking down at me with bulbous eyes set into its distorted face. For a moment I sense some kind of kinship behind its unblinking eyes before the creature mouths my name amidst the jumble of croaking, clicking noises.
‘Dix?’ I look up at my friend, my needle-mate, now this freakish mutated creature as his chest explodes, sickly green blood spraying from bullet wounds as he’s shot again and again. He stumbles back, clutching his fatal wounds as the gunshots cease, their report still ringing in my ears.
‘Get the hell away from it! Move back!’ I manage to get to my feet as Dix collapses, tongue lolling from the knife-wound that is his mouth, huge white eyes rolling back into his skull, a throaty final croak passing his lips. The Bum stands behind me, smoking revolver in one hand, FBI identification in the other. Jesus, Dix was right.
‘Back away from the creature!’ The creature? Dix, the man who taught me how to run short cons, taught me how to cook H, the man who protected me from the shivs and ass-rape of county prison. Now a, a … God knows what – lying in a stinking alley, green steam rising from his corpse, his flesh melting like a candle made of rancorous fat, stinking like a trawler …
The Fed grabs me, twists one hand behind my back and rams me against the wall. He sticks his FBI identification in my face.
‘You know what this means asshole?’ I don’t look at it. I stare at my arm, eyes fixed at my fresh needle wound, a scab growing around the track mark, the infected flesh a shimmering jade colour like the scales of a fish…
©2009 Joel Morgan