A Short Story by Eric Knowlson
The bedroom walls were adorned with loud punk-rock posters. The vanity on the right held a large mirror that sat between an impressive collection of make-up. The mirror reflected a blackened spoon, lighter and a few orange syringes. A fan buzzed in the corner dousing Setti and Easton with bursts of dry air. They sat on the bed, swinging their legs and watching the closed bathroom door. Sweat dripped from Easton’s forehead. He looked over at Setti, she rolled her teary eyes before readjusting her position in a slow and deliberate motion.
“I hope she hurries up,” Easton sighed as he rubbed his arms.
Eventually, the bathroom door swung open with a waft of perfume. They watched as Le (pronounced like Ley) strolled into the room. She was a tall girl clothed in a careful mishmash of attire. Her skirt dripped with Harajuku bubble-gum while her studded belt, and leopard-print top hummed a forgotten punk song.
She had a round face, creamy almond skin and straight black hair. Her haircut framed her cute features —which were further accentuated by her perfectly applied makeup. The only cracks in her image were pricked pupils that seemed to disappear into her iris.
“Sorry,” Le said. “You guys got here earlier than usual.”
Easton couldn’t help but feel an air of inauthenticity radiate from the bright medley of make-up and mannerisms that Le paraded in front of them. He looked over at Setti and winked.
Setti smiled, she gathered from his amused face that he was contemplating the absurdity of Le requiring fully done hair and make-up to sit at home and sell dope, especially to her friends.
Setti softly chuckled at Le’s expense before feeling guilt for not putting on such a flawless front herself.
Le was fiddling with something on her dresser but looked back at them with a raised eyebrow. “So, what can I get for you today?”
“We were hoping to do the same as yesterday. A front and then we’ll pay you back tonight.”
Le paused and then averted her eyes, “Sorry, I can’t today.”
“Why not?” Setti asked. “We always pay you back.”
“Have you guys?” Le feigned ignorance shrugging her shoulders.
“Of course, we have,” Setti replied.
“Really?” Le swung her palms open and raised her eyebrows. “Honestly, I can’t keep track, I have so many customers,” she paused and squinted her eyes, before continuing, “I remember doing it a few times, but not every day. Besides, Nautic told me that I can’t do anymore fronts.”
“Can’t you just do a dub?”
Le shook her head no.
“How many times have we helped you? Huh?” Setti quipped. “This isn’t cool.” She was angered Le would do this without warning, allow them to drive to her house, wait an hour while she got ready and then deny them.
Yet, Setti was more hurt by Le’s seemingly flippant disregard for their friendship. Before this period the three had been included in a close circle of friends. Le and Setti had been inseparable, people even mistook them for sisters. But that was then. Now that their clique had been dissolved and dispersed, like powder in a spoon, they were only left with faint traces of what used to be.
Easton stood up and glanced at the two girls, who were staring fiercely at each other and decided to fix his gaze on Le.
“Well, thanks anyways,” he said in a dejected tone. “Let’s go Setti.” Setti shot Le a malicious glance before storming out of the room. Easton slowly followed, stopping in front of Le. He wanted to affirm that there was still something left from their past friendship, but he couldn’t think of anything to say. So, he gave her a weak smile instead, before frowning again and walking out the door.
Outside, the Albuquerque sun was already starting to bake the ground. Despite the warmth, they shivered as they made their way to the car.
“She’s a fucking bitch. I’m done with her.”
“Yeah.” Easton thought for a moment, “But she is our friend after all, maybe Nautic really…”
Setti cut him off, “No, you believe that? You’re so gullible. She’s lying, I know she remembers. It was only yesterday for god’s sake!” Setti stiffened her body and hit Easton, “I wish you would take my side. I know she has something against me and did this on purpose.” Setti knew this because it’s something she would do. Now that the girls weren’t close, perceived slights, no matter how small, were met with passive aggressive behavior.
“I am on your side. I’m out here with you, aren’t I?” Easton hated this argument. “We’re about to get really sick. It’s not worth arguing about.”
“Okay then, what do you propose we do?” she growled and kicked the gravel in Le’s front yard, spewing rocks all over the street. “Fuck!”
“Let’s just forget about Le.”
“I’m not going to just forget about her,” Setti said mockingly. “Once we get money, I’m never buying from her again. She’s not our friend, she only wants to make money.” Easton sighed and agreed. He felt a tinge of guilt, but he had to admit Le had changed. They all had changed. He knew Setti was (mostly) venting but he wished she would let things go.
He changed the subject, “How are we going to get well?”
There were no more money or valuables left in either of their parent’s homes, or some of their neighboring homes, for that matter. They didn’t feel like they had parents anymore. Both had been disowned due to their parent’s shame. Easton remembers his parent’s reaction, a great wail followed by anger and tears. He tried to comfort them but they didn’t want to hear it. They said becoming a heroin addict was the worst thing he could have done. Just leave, they said.
Setti’s parents had been worse and gotten violent with her. Easton remembers her frantic phone call, later dodging blows from her dad and haphazardly carrying a bleeding and crying Setti to his car. After their parent’s reactions, it felt unsafe to tell anyone.
They didn’t have insurance. There was no one to help them. They were stuck using. Ostracized from society and on their own, they had to adopt new rules. Neither of them could have conceived of stealing from their parents before this, but being told you are scum has a weird effect on you.
“We could steal records or clothes.”
“We just did that.”
“Maybe textbooks or a laptop but…”
“No.” Setti waved her hand. “It’s too much work.” Despite their cold facade, they both felt guilty when they stole from actual people. They didn’t mind big stores or corporations. She nervously paced back and forth. “What about the other day when you had that money?”
“Laura and I burrowed Max’s car. We did the gas scam with his license plate. Made like three hundred each.” Easton smiled with momentary pride, “all within an hour but…” he scratched his head, “but my car’s a piece of crap and has a NM plate. Plus, Laura is a blonde white girl. People felt sorry for her.”
“I wish I still had money. It went so fast.” Setti sighed. She had received a large scholarship disbursement at the beginning of the semester but that was long gone. Still, the thought of it made her smile. She took pride in her ability to keep up with school, especially with all the chaos surrounding her.
“I think we have to go to Wal-Mart,” Easton shook his head.
The Walmart parking lot stretched on interminably, while the sun created mirages of water on the distant asphalt. Setti or Setareh (her given name) wore light but delicately applied makeup that was beginning to run. She flipped her black straightened hair back, attempting to keep it away from the beads of sweat forming on her bronze Persian skin.
“I hate being sick in the summer, it makes my hair turn curly again.”
“I love it,” Easton replied.
“It looks like shit to everyone else.”
“For real! It’s like a lion’s mane. Majestic,” he laughed.
Setti allowed herself a smile but didn’t reply. The word majestic spawned a myriad of thoughts. She believed she was a princess in her past life and it was no coincidence she was born under the star sign Leo. She was a glowing star trapped in a frail mortal shell. Easton seemed to intrinsically grasp this. He understood her, probably more than he knew. She looked over at him with wide teary eyes and a thankful smile. But he didn’t see her. She frowned.
Easton was distracted. He rubbed his arms again; goose bumps were forming on his milky white skin. “I’m starting to get pretty sick,” he complained as he wiped away tears and snot from his face.
“I know! You don’t need to keep reminding us,” she hissed. “Let’s just get this over with.” She pointed towards a small xeriscaped median in the parking lot, “go that way.”
They walked in separate directions, staring at the ground.
A receipt blew in the wind, he picked it up, examined it, and threw it back down. He found another and briefly looked at it before crumpling it and littering it on the sidewalk. He looked over at her, she was looking at another receipt. He watched her study it for longer than usual. “I got one!”
He jogged over.
It had multiple items listed; socks for 3.95, toilet paper for 8.75, laundry detergent for 21.76 and a utility ladder for 58.99.
“So, the detergent and the ladder?”
“Yeah, I’ll do the detergent. You do the ladder. Here put this item number in your phone.”
As they entered the store the bright florescent lights strained their eyes. They split up and went different directions. He headed for the home and garden section, stopping at every type of ladder. He compared the last four digits of the barcodes to the number in his flip phone. After looking at a few different ones he found a match. It was a large stepping stool ladder that could extend up to a few feet. Carrying it took both hands. Just as he picked it up, she appeared around the corner carrying a large bottle of detergent.
They smiled at each other. Something about the absurdity of this scan amused them.
They decided with some consternation that it would be better to take the items to another Wal-Mart rather than trying to do it here.
“This would be a whole lot easier if it wasn’t for Le. Does she know how hard it is to hustle while sick?
“Yeah, she does. She just didn’t care.”
“Karma’s gonna get her.” Setti’s eyes narrowed, “She never has to be sick because of Nautic, but one day her luck will run out. We are out here hustling every day —sick too. I’ve seen her sick, and she can’t handle it.”
“That just proves how strong you are.”
“Ah, shut up.” Setareh blushed Lightly.” She took Easton’s hand, “Let’s go.”
They held the items and walked to the front of the store. They casually walked past a register making their way towards the bathroom. He sat down on a bench with the items while she used the restroom.
She looked in the mirror and frowned. Her face was flushed and red, her eyes wide and alert surrounded by smudged makeup that gave her racoon eyes. She thought about Le and how she had all day to put on a full face of makeup. It wasn’t fair, she was supposed to be the glamorous one. She’d seen better days, but she consoled herself that it was okay. She was Heroin Chic. She pulled a pair of large bug-eye sunglasses from her purse and put them on. She watched herself toss her hair back and look over her shoulder at the mirror.
The motion made her dizzy, she leaned against the counter top for support and let her head droop. Life wasn’t supposed to be this way. She was a straight A student. She did everything her teachers and parents asked. She did everything right! Yet somehow, she found herself detoxing in a Walmart bathroom on a Wednesday afternoon. The absurdity made her chuckle.
She flipped her hair again, this time more slowly. She dabbed her forehead and lower back with a paper towel, threw it on the ground and exited the bathroom.
She picked up the detergent and he grabbed the ladder. His heart beat quickened. He scanned the store and to his relief it seemed everyone had forgotten them. But he couldn’t be sure. Feeling the danger served to focus him. He strolled towards the exit, behind Setti, ignoring his churning stomach that urged him to walk faster.
She held the old receipt visibly in one hand and the detergent in the other, he followed behind using both hands to carry the ladder. She walked past the greeter first.
“Have a beautiful day,” Easton smiled with a hint of irony.
The greeter nodded.
The summer heat, past the sliding doors, was a welcome relief.
“Another flawless escape!”
He loaded the items in his car and took a deep breath.
A few miles away, at the next Walmart they talked to a new greeter, telling him they needed to return some items. He stamped an orange sticker on each product and they proceeded to wait in line at the returns counter.
Easton’s legs bounced up and down.
“Don’t worry, we’ve done this hundreds of times.”
“I know, that’s what makes me nervous. They must recognize us by now.”
“Who cares? It’ll be fine. I just hope we don’t get that beast of burden,” Setareh pointed with her eyes towards one of the women working behind the counter. She had much too bright of makeup, especially for her worn-out Walmart uniform. Rather than making her look better, the makeup made her look worse. Her drawn on eyebrows sat in a state of perpetual exclamation that didn’t match the dreary countenance that seemed to afflict her and all her fellow Walmart employees. Her uniform also appeared to be two sizes too small. Her looks weren’t the reason they didn’t like her though.
“Next,” she squawked.
“Of course,” Easton laughed quietly.
Setti smirked, and they dropped the items on the counter.
“We need to return these items. My senile aunt bought the wrong things.”
“Well, I can do an exchange for you,” said the clerk. She eyed them suspiciously.
“Oh, no that’s okay, there is nothing wrong with them. She just buys stuff we don’t need, my mom has me return it for her.”
“Uh, huh,” said the clerk unbelieving of Setti’s story. She picked up the receipt, “I see they were purchased with a debit card. Do you have that on you?”
The clerk knew they were up to something and wanted to try to make it difficult.
“No, my aunt has it. My mom puts money in her account. Why? I don’t know.” Setti flipped her hand in a dismissive gesture, “Oh, crazy aunt Ingrid always buying useless stuff. We must keep an eye on her, ya know? If we didn’t there would be no room left in our house. Have you seen the show hoarders? That’s Ingrid for you.”
Setti was trying to keep from laughing while she spun her tale, she liked using outdated names that she dubbed, old white people names. The fact that she wasn’t white and was using the name Ingrid to describe a relative made it even funnier to her. “Oh, our Incompetent Ingrid,” Setti sighed and shook her head to mimic bewilderment.
Easton could barely keep from laughing too, he wrapped his arm around Setti’s shoulder and chimed, “it’s true.”
A look of confusion came over the clerk’s face, for just a few seconds, before she reclined back into her previous Walmart face.
The clerk grunted. The couple could almost see the gears turning in her head, she was trying to think of a way to refuse them, yet she knew she couldn’t. They didn’t need the card. They knew Walmart’s policies better than the workers did.
She scowled and eventually pushed a button. The register plopped open. “Sign this,” she pushed a proof of return slip towards Setareh. She signed as Le Nhan, slid the paper back and chuckled.
The clerk threw the 86.40 at them and yelled, “Next.”
“She really doesn’t like us.”
“It’s just because she is exploited by Wal-Mart. I honestly feel bad for those employees. They don’t understand that we are just doing a different kind of work.” Setti brushed back a few strands of curling hair.
“Work with higher risks,” Easton added. “Did you see how everyone stared at us? We are just trying to get by. We’re not doing anything wrong for once.”
“Well technically, we’re stealing, but it’s from Walmart so who cares?” She paused, letting the strands drop before flipping and shaking her hair back in a regal gesture. “If people had any idea what being addicted meant they would show more compassion. We’re not lying in bed all day nodded out, like some stereotype. No, we are out here from dawn to dusk running missions, just to be able to function. Tell me that’s not dedication.”
Easton laughed. “Any job would be lucky to have us.”
“Yeah, if we could get jobs. You know, not having to steal to survive is a privilege. Most people don’t realize that.”
“Hmm, I never thought about that before…”
“It’s tragic times we’re living in.” She coughed. “But I’m getting delirious.” Setti shook off her thoughts, beamed and lightly jabbed Easton, “Call the Mexicans already.”
Easton dialed a number labeled The Mexicans. On the third ring a voice answered, “Bueno…”
“Hey, can we meet?”
“Si, Podemos. Vas a la calle de San Mateo y Candelaria,” he then switched to thickly accented English, “one East on North side.”
“Twenty minute. Hasta pronto.”
Once at the intersection of Candelaria and San Mateo they turned to go east and then looked for the first side street that headed north.
They took a left turn. It was a sleepy neighborhood that led to a park. They pulled up and let the engine idle under the sparse shade of a park tree.
Easton called again
“How long did they say?” asked Setti.
“A couple minutes.”
“That could be hours, they are horrible judges of time.”
“Yeah, I hope they don’t take too long,” Easton yawned, “when they give an exact time you can usually trust that.”
Setti bobbed her head in agreement and asked Easton to roll down the windows. Already the car was beginning to get extremely hot. The air-conditioner was running, but to no avail. Both their shirts were soaked in sweat. Their legs bounced up and down with restless energy. Their chests and stomachs vibrated with a creeping anxiety that had steadily increased since they left Le’s house. By now, the word anxiety was much too benign to portray what they felt. Their eyes were wide and wet, their bodies moving, shaking, sweating and changing positions. About once every minute one of them looked in the rearview mirror to find nothing but an empty street and worried thoughts.
“I’m starting to get the true terror,” Easton exclaimed. A phrase he previously coined to reference the overwhelming dread that eventually crept in during the sickness.
“How long has it been?”
“About five minutes,” he careened his head around to glance out the back window but saw a black SUV drive by. He quickly glanced forward to watch from the mirror again. He needed to watch for undercover cops.
“Fuck! Five minutes, those assholes said a couple minutes. It’s been like 24 hours since our last shot. They need to hurry up,” Setti reached into her purse and pulled out a red pack of Pall Mall cigarettes and shakily lit one. As she dragged it, the smoke burned her throat, but she held it in. Her chest vibrated with more anxious energy, but the cigarette mildly soothed her thoughts. She took another drag and started coughing violently, the cigarette flew from her mouth onto the floor. She reached down to pick it up and her coughing morphed into a quick succession of six sneezes with no space in between. Her head resurfaced with the cigarette between her lips, the filter soaked from spit and snot.
“Let me have a drag,” Easton looked over and held out two fingers but when she handed it to him, he dropped it. “God dammit,” he reached down fumbling beneath his seat, following the trail of smoke.
Setti hit him, “forget about it, He’s here! Let’s go!”
A brand-new gold SUV drove by. Easton put his car into drive and followed it as it snaked its way through the suburban neighborhood. He used his left foot to try to blindly stamp out the cigarette.
“Did you see who was driving?” The person who answered the phone was never the driver. After receiving a call, he would use a walkie talkie to radio the driver who was closest. Because of this they never knew which driver they would get.
“It looked like Jolly Poncho.”
“Yay,” Setti exclaimed while clapping her hands.
Jolly Poncho was a moniker that Setareh had made. The man had claimed his name was Poncho, but she felt he was lying to protect his identity. So, she decided to make up a name for him. She dubbed him Jolly Poncho, or Jolly for short. She thought it was clever because jolliness was indeed Poncho’s defining trait: he was always smiling, he was always happy to see them, and he had a jolly buddha body. Setareh knew more Spanish than Easton and always enjoyed talking to him.
“He’s like our Santa Claus. Jolly Poncho! Bringing the presents!”
Easton laughed and continued to follow Jolly’s SUV until it pulled up to a curb in front of a neighborhood house. Setti grabbed the wadded-up bills from the middle console and jumped out, accidently slamming Easton’s car door. She skipped up to the front passenger side of the SUV and got in. Easton finally retrieved the ashy remainder of the cigarette from the floor and inhaled its last spark of life.
Again, the SUV meandered forward, and Easton followed behind. They turned down a few more streets until Jolly stopped in another seemingly empty neighborhood. The mid-day summer sun was the perfect cover as it confined most of Albuquerque’s population to humid, swamp-cooled living rooms.
The transaction was made, and Setti jumped out, a large smile gracing her face. She climbed back into Easton’s car. She displayed two water balloons that had been tied and stuffed with two marble sized objects.
“He gave us two Gs.”
Easton waved to Jolly. Jolly smiled before he sped off in an opposite direction.
“Let’s do a mother fucking shot,” Setti exclaimed.
“Yes, lets,” Easton sighed with relief, “I’m just going to go over to Comanche. I know a good place we can fix.”
“Okay, just don’t take too long. You always take forever to find a place.”
“I already know where it is, calm yourself.”
Setti slumped back into her seat and reclined. “So, hey! When I was in their car, I told Jolly, Thank God for this, but then he shook his head and got all serious. He said, No Senorita, thank El Chapo.”
“Ha! El Chapo? Isn’t he that drug lord?”
“Yeah. I suppose this is his cartel.”
“I’ve always wondered…”
“Yeah, you don’t want to fuck with these guys, they’ll kill you. Like what’s his name, he talked to the cops and then later he was found decapitated.”
“Yeah…” Easton trailed off before enthusiastically adding, “but I can’t deny they have great service.”
“I know, I love them.”
The two laughed as they thought about this. They had learned laughter was better than the alternative.
Setareh turned on the radio. An overplayed pop anthem blared through the speakers. It was a song by Miley Cyrus called See You Again.
Easton felt the song was cheesy and reached to change it. They usually alternated between his underground punk tapes and Setareh’s various Lou Reed and Elliot Smith CDs. Setti’s hand grabbed his and said, “Wait!” Her fingers tenderly curled around his, she squeezed once and let go. “Let’s just listen,” she said.
The words, I feel like I must have known you in another life felt prophetic. The two intimately stared into each other’s eyes before Easton looked back at the road and swerved to avoid hitting a car.
This caused Setti to laugh. “I love you so much baby.”
Easton laughed too, smiling back at her. Then he began to shiver and sway to the music. “Damn, it sounds so good when you’re sick. I can’t believe I’m admitting this, but I’m actually enjoying this song.”
“See, I told you we shouldn’t change it… Except it’s making me all emotional. Le had this as her ring tone, do you remember?”
“It reminds me of all the good times we had at her house with Krista, Braeden and everyone else. Before the junk, back when Le and I were friends.” Setti paused and then melancholically added, “I miss the old her.”
“Me too,” he mused. “but mostly, I miss the old us… Those times were special, it felt like anything could happen. We were so in love, we had friends, families. It wasn’t just us against the world, like it is now…” Easton readjusted his seat and involuntarily twitched a few times; his hands tightly gripped the sweat-soaked steering wheel. “This is intense, it’s like when you hear a song and your hair stands on end, except I’m feeling that sensation everywhere.”
“As much as I hate being sick, I sometimes like being sick. Everything is so magnified.” She then turned up the dial and began singing along, “My best friend Leslie says, Oh she’s just being Miley.”
Easton sang too, except he said, “Oh, she’s just being SETTI.”
She looked over at him and smiled. Tears were forming in the corner of her dark almond eyes. Seeing this, Easton began crying. He shook and balled while still choking out the lyrics to the song. Setti glanced at him again, this time with concern.
“It’s not because…” He wiped his large blue eyes, half laughing, half crying with tears continuing to flow. “I’m not sad, I’m okay. it’s just, it’s just… So beautiful.”
She had never seen him cry before. She looked out the window to gain composure, the blue sky seemed mammoth and the heat felt like a thick blanket wrapping the world tightly in its embrace. The huge purple mountains appeared ancient and wise. She could feel them watching her, not in judgement but in acceptance of all that she was. And the music, oh the music. It was like wind that fluttered her emotional butterflies up, up, upward to her eyes. Easton placed his hand on her shoulder, and she realized that she too was crying.
They continued down the road; in this unique moment they felt a reprieve from the war that had become their lives. They laughed at the absurdity of the moment, two hardcore junkies crying to Miley Cyrus. For the first time in a long time they felt happy.
Yet, they instinctively knew, like all good things, this moment was only temporary. A realization that brought more tears and a fresh gash of sorrow.
“I never knew life could be this hard. I wish we could… I wish we could quit and go back to how we used to be” Easton babbled out. “It’s like I just woke up one day and everyone I knew was addicted to heroin.”
“Yeah,” she wiped her eyes. “It happened so fast. Everything…” Her voice shook. “And everything was gone. I miss my family. I wish I still had a family. Besides you I’m so alone.”
Their feelings continued to overflow and spill from every emotional nook and cranny. Joy and sorrow released themselves in poignant bursts of tears and shivers. They remembered the good times they’d left behind. They remembered friendships past. They remembered the friends that had died. They remembered who they used to be. Maybe one day they would see their happy selves again.
Setti suddenly felt empathetic towards Le. Yes, she had fucked them over. But they had done fucked up things to her too. They had done fucked up things to everyone they knew. Even their parents, who weren’t bad people —they just didn’t understand.
Their tears seemed to purify the monsters inside.
They smiled at each other, clasped their clammy palms together, and tried to hold the moment a little longer. The line, I can’t wait to see you again, took on new meaning. Miley had intended it to refer to her crush, but for the couple it was an ode to the transient moments in life.
Easton asked, “Is it possible to feel nostalgic for a moment that hasn’t yet passed?”
Setti didn’t answer but gripped his hand tighter attempting to hold onto the feeling.
“We can be in love again.”
“We don’t have to use.”
“Life can be fun again.”
Despite their words, there was another force at work. Easton was driving, but something else was driving him. Something base, something reptilian was in control. It steered the wheel and guided them into a quiet neighborhood. As a passenger in his body, he parked the car by a wall between two houses.
She looked over and said, “I don’t want this to end. I think we could do it. We could be sober together.” Yet even as her lips uttered these words, her hands were pulling out the spoon, syringes and balloon.
“I think…” She tore open the balloon with her teeth
“everything…” She placed a black rock into the spoon
“is going to…” She cooked the liquid and drew it up.
“turn out…” She slid a syringe into her arm and pulled back to reveal a crimson steam.