On Wednesday, Sylvia announced that she would, at the end of the month, renounce all her possessions, her boyfriend, her bra and her bumblebee-striped tights, her hair-curlers, her pilates and her Pekingese terrier, and move to Tibet to become a monk.
Everyone at the party clapped and congratulated her, and quietly seethed while formulating their own plans for one-upmanship. Everyone but Derek. His idea came to him as clear and searing as Nagasaki, and he jumped to his feet, knowing he couldn’t back away from this one; he couldn’t let it slip.
He raised his glass. “While we’re speaking of spiritual journeys,” he said, “spiritual and physical journeys, I thought I should let you all know that tomorrow I’m going to quit heroin.”
He waited for the lull, counted to three. “And, of course, you’re all welcome to watch.”
Except that, as Brightsides pointed out later, after Derek’s friends had dispersed into the night (all quietly furious that they had not thought of such a fantastic spectacle first, he was sure), Derek had never used heroin.
Brightsides was his dealer. Derek called her as soon as the party was over and she was outside twenty minutes later, propped on her fixed-gear bicycle, electro spitting from her headphones. It was eleven PM.
“You can’t fake heroin withdrawal,” she said. “It’s a bit more than red eyes and itchy fingers.”
“I quit smoking. How hard can it be?”
He’d been buying from Brightsides almost eight years now. She wheeled the streets with a backpack stuffed with pot and speed and MDMA and the occasional downer for when he needed to be especially morose. She’d once sold him a double-hit of LSD that he tongued while touring the Detroit Sweeps. That was killer; Sylvia had called him a “post-societal neo-anarchic hero,” and squirreled into his bed not once but twice, as if his neo-anarchic power would spread to her via shared fluids.
Cooper had one-upped him soon after by giving all his clothes to charity and walking the streets naked for a week, and that really got Sylvia’s attention. But for four days, those ninety-six glorious hours, he’d been king.
“I’ve seen people go cold from heroin. It’s hard. You’re gonna get a fever, get sick, get paranoid. You’ll shit yourself. You think this’ll impress them?”
“You don’t know my friends,” Derek said. “Weeb says he’ll live on a dollar a day, just to see how it feels. Cooper says he’ll manage on fifty cents. So I have to say I’ll only eat garbage for a fortnight. Enlightenment through suffering.”
“Even when you fake it?”
“Like Sylvia is really going to become a Buddhist?” Derek shrugged. “Half of enlightenment is sincerity.”
Brightsides shook her head. “You’re an asshole. Do you even know heroin lingo?” She held up a lump of grey putty. “What’s this. Come on. Ten seconds? You lose. It’s base. And this?” A baggie of clear liquid the size of her thumbnail. “Seriously? Why do you get yourself into this shit?”
He didn’t have an answer.
They arrived the next morning; Cooper and Weeb and Amy and Pablo and Sylvia trailing behind. He was sitting on the edge of his bed, in a bathrobe, legs crossed, calm.
The questions came rapid-fire. Since when did you use heroin? Six months, now. How did we never notice? I’m what you call a functioning addict. You don’t have any trackmarks. I usually inhale. Usually?
“You don’t look close enough,” he said, and rolled up the sleeve of his bathrobe to above the elbow to reveal the purple puckers of needlemarks.
“Four, five times a month, max,” he said. “The rest of the time, I snort. But it’s time to close it off, now. Time to… transcend.”
Sylvia was the only one that frowned at that; he could see the fury boiling behind her eyes. Too late now. He’d already won the game; her pathetic Buddhist retreat was moot. Derek, the new prince regent of enlightenment. They’d lick his feet for months.
“I took a hit at midnight last night.” He opened the drawer beside his bed, showed them the needle rattling inside, the blood dried black on the tip, the heat-sealed baggie of chunky-brown Brightsides had left behind. “Withdrawal will set in soon. It’ll take three to four days, and then I’ll be clear. I’ll flush everything left over. I’ll be free again.”
“Hardcore,” Weeb whispered. “Will… will you see anything? Like, visions?”
“I’ll see whatever I’m meant to see,” Derek said, and smiled his most winning smile.
Brightsides had sold Derek a mixed bag of amphetamines and downers that he’d hidden all over the room; single tabs tucked into the lining of the bedspread, or buried deep in his pillowcase. He’d let two tablets of Benzedrine dissolve under his tongue just before everyone arrived, and now the sweats were beginning. He made a show of wiping his forehead.
“They have clinics for this,” Sylvia said. She’d brought him a glass of water while the others milled, unable to stare but unable to look away. “This isn’t healthy.”
“Heroin is never healthy.”
“Then why’d you start?”
“I thought there’d be something to learn,” he said. Sweat ran into his eyes. His cheeks were flushed. The perfect symptoms. “You could try it.”
“You’re a dumb motherfucker,” she said, and Derek chose that moment to jerk and spasm. She squeaked, jumped back, hands flying up to her mouth. “Are you okay? He’s really doing it. He’s not screwing around.”
“I feel sick,” Derek said. Too much, he thought. Moving too fast. Rein it in. Slow build of symptoms, just like Brightsides has taught. “Could sure go some McDonalds right now.”
A nervous laugh that died before it could echo around Derek’s apartment. Amy shifted her weight from foot to foot and Cooper was gnawing his knuckle, not daring to meet Derek’s eyes. He had them convinced. You’ve won, he thought. You’ve already won. The next three days is just the parade.
“You want to know about enlightenment?” he said. “You can’t just buy it at a retreat. You have to earn it. You have to throw yourself into the well and climb back out.” He grinned through gritted teeth. “Put those down as my last words. I don’t think I’ll be talking much over the next few days.”
Sylvia rolled her eyes but the others were silent.
By afternoon he had the shakes. Cooper asked nervously if they should put a rag in Derek’s mouth to keep him from biting his tongue, and he filed that away as a perfect day-three symptom. He bucked and rolled and made the bed shake so hard the headboard dented the plaster wall. He spat foam. He moaned and gasped and dribbled.
Then, just after the clock on the wall read eight, he relaxed into the tangle of sheets. “It hurts,” he whispered. “I feel so sick. I need to piss.”
It was Sylvia who finally helped him to his feet and walked him into the ensuite, where he slumped against the wall and slapped weakly at his belt buckle. He hadn’t had a drink in six hours and the amphetamines had left his mouth dry as terracotta. He feigned clumsiness until Sylvia sighed and yanked his pants down around his knees. “Better?”
“Thankyou.” Most of it went in the bowl. “Oh, God.”
“What now? This isn’t funny any more. You see me laughing?” She crossed her arms, glowered. “Okay, I get it. Me and Cooper get close, so you ruin my Buddhist idea. You win. It’s over.”
Derek grinned through dry lips. “Not over. Three days.”
“Oh, fuck off. You’ve never done anything harder than ecstasy. You wouldn’t have the balls to inject.”
“If you say so.” Derek spat. His head hurt. His cheeks hurt. But it was nothing compared to the real pain of withdrawal, and that made things a little easier. And it was nothing compared to the pain of losing.
He tripped on the way back to the bed and made sure to tremble on hands and knees until Weeb finally helped him back under the sheets. He clutched his ribs and wailed. “Oh God,” he said. “It hurts, it hurts!”
They watched him until late, and whispered among themselves, and he squeezed his eyes shut and hissed in imagined pain until the lights clicked off. He was alone.
He cried a while longer, just to make sure.
Their footsteps on the stairs woke him; he downed a glass of water and two dexys and curled up in the foetal position.
He heard Sylvia tut. “He’s still trying? Pathetic.”
“Shhh.” That was Amy, sweet miniskirt and cardigan Amy who played the ukelele to her cat and swore that psychoactives made her poetry pure. “This isn’t easy for him.”
“What? His performance?”
Derek made a choked noise, one he hoped resembled a drowning puppy. His hands trembled against the bedspread. He whispered, “P-please…”
“He’s not even a good actor!”
“Please,” he said again, and then, “Go away. Go… go away. Ah! Ah! Ffff-” He tensed his gut, relaxed, tensed again, until everything below the ribs was a mass of splintered pain. “Uh-uh-uh. Uh. Oh God.”
“Can’t you see? He’s never even done heroin – ”
That was when Derek tensed one last time and vomited down his chest, and Amy keened like a cat and rushed across the room to lift him and comfort him, and he was glad the pain in his stomach masked his smile.
He kicked off the sheets. He dribbled. He swore and sobbed and spoke of colours and darkness and men plunging knives into his heart. He rolled his eyes back in his head and said, “I see you. You’re so bright.” Across the room, Weeb squeaked.
They lapped it up.
At four PM there was a moment of lucidity. He opened his eyes wide, stretched his fingers, and said, “I’m dying.”
Pablo was by his side. “You’re doing fine. You need anything? You need water?”
Pablo had never done anything special. He’d never been king. Derek didn’t need anything from him and told him so. He let himself slip back into an approximation of madness and continued that way until sunset.
They left long after dark. Derek lay alone, waiting for the strength to return to his limbs. The thirst pounded in his skull, digging nails into the roof of his mouth. He hadn’t had a drink since morning.
Slowly, he stood and shuffled across the cold wooden floor to the ensuite.
The chemical light reflecting off the bathroom tiles turned his reflection into a corpse. His eyes were sunken and the skin of his cheeks was bruised almost black. There was vomit dried on his chin and in the whiskers of his upper lip. His hair was matted and filthy against his forehead. With a few scabs on his neck he’d be a perfect leper.
“You win,” he said, so quiet he couldn’t even hear.
His lips were so dried and numb that at first he couldn’t tell whether the water was running at all. Then the first drop slipped through and hit his teeth and the shock of the cold made him tremble. He tongue was cracked deep like desert soil and the water rushed around the root without taste, without weight, until finally the dead nerves responded and he slurped and sputtered until the faintness passed.
Not too much, he reminded himself. In a day, he could drink all he wanted. But for now, for the next twenty-four hours, he was in withdrawal. He had to look the part.
Back to bed. Back beneath the stinking sheets. The headache echoed and scraped, steel on steel.
I win, you fuckers. I win. I win.
“I don’t think he’s going to make it.”
That was Weeb, he was sure. Their voices were blurring. He regretted not eating during the night. A hand on his shoulder. He didn’t react.
“Should we call a doctor?”
“He’d kill us if we did.”
“And if he dies?”
“He’s not going to die. He’s too much of a bastard.”
That was Sylvia. He stilled the urge to laugh. Even her, now. Every one of them, so gullible.
He wondered how easily he’d been fooled in the past. Whether Cooper had really given away all his clothes. Whether Weeb had really given road-head to the Mayor. Because that’s how it is, he’d said, wiping his mouth. Fucker didn’t even say thankyou. That’s government.
How many lies had he eaten?
“We should watch him,” Sylvia said. “Just in case. This is the hardest day. I read about it.”
Derek counted to three, and had a fit.
He had two more fits that day, thrashing until they had to hold him down on the hard floor and jam a sock in his mouth to stop the screams. He coughed until his throat ached and when Amy leaned in close he whispered, “I need a hit I need a hit I need a hit, ple-e-ease…”
They carried him back to the bed and wiped his face, and Sylvia ran a finger over the needlemarks in the crook of his left elbow. “They’re real,” she said. “I didn’t believe him.”
“He looks awful,” said Cooper.
“I hope he makes it,” Cooper said, but Derek didn’t miss the sharp edge in Cooper’s voice. That note of bitterness.
Missed your chance. Only one king. Fuck to you.
“I could’ve been in Tibet by now,” said Sylvia.
“You can always go next week. He’ll be out of it by then.”
Derek cracked his eyelids open the barest fraction. Through the blur of exhaustion, he could just make out that Sylvia and Cooper were holding hands. There was fire in his gut, fire in his bones. He hated so hard he could taste it.
“One more day,” Cooper said, and Derek could hear his smile.
He shit the bed. Derek one, Cooper zero.
He slept a while, and woke to see six sets of eyes reflected in the darkness. The clock on his bedside table read four am.
He heard Weeb say, “This is the coolest thing I’ve ever seen.”
“The stupidest, you mean. Should’ve just checked into rehab.”
“We’re his friends. Of course he came to us.”
Then Brightsides spoke. “If he’s made it this far, he’ll be okay. Day three is the hump. Just keep him hydrated.”
“Why’d you sell him H in the first place? You know he’s too stupid to manage anything like that.”
“The man asked,” Brightsides said. “He pays, I provide.”
His lips were too dry to grin but he felt it inside. Of all the people to have his back, he’d never expected it to be his dealer.
“Over the hump, you say.”
“Yeah, by now.”
“Thank Christ,” Sylvia said. “About time.”
And then darkness again, and sleep. There were no dreams.
And then the cutting glare of morning. He moaned, just in case there were people watching.
There were. All of them lined up, staring as he blinked and licked his lips. Weeb with his hands in his pockets, his pupils tiny, excited points. He said, “Hey man. How you feeling? Better? Over the hump?”
He raised one hand and five pairs of eyes followed. He let it drop and five pairs of eyes traced the arc through the air. I’m not just your King, he thought. I’m your God. If there was ever a game I’ve transcended it. This room stinks of shit and you still worship.
“Need water?” said Sylvia. “Need food? Come on, up with you.” She grabbed him under the armpits. “You’re almost done. Past the hardest part.”
He tried to say no but his lips were too tired. He waved weakly. His wrist was so thin he could see the jag of bones. Who knew withdrawal burned so many calories?
Water was at his lips. He tried to swallow but couldn’t, and it ran cold down his chest.
“N-no,” he managed. “Hurts.”
“Of course it hurts. Over the hump, now. Only better from here.”
Against the wall, Cooper and Amy and Pablo were standing mute, waiting for something. What? Faces were a blur. Maybe they were speaking and he couldn’t hear. Waiting…
Waiting for him to stand. Waiting for him to say, I’m cured. I can walk again. Waiting for him to thank the Lord for giving him strength.
That wasn’t rapture on their faces, he realised.
It was boredom.
They watched while the game was on, but he was over the hump and they were already eyeing his crown. Because he hadn’t cared whether Cooper escaped the police when he ran naked in the streets. He’d cared about Cooper being cold, and the ice riming between his toes as he stamped in the snow. Nobody had given a damn about Sylvia’s enlightenment. Only the scratching of the woolen robe, and the bare Tibetan monastery cell, and the stone floors, and the silence.
Derek thrashed, and the glass fell from his lips and exploded against the floor. He threw his head back and cracked it on the concrete wall. He gagged. He twisted like a dervish.
“Hold him down.” Cooper spoke in monotone. Ambivalent. He’d seen it before. There wasn’t any way to improve upon shitting the bed. “Just grab his arms-”
Derek swung. His fist caught Sylvia across the bridge of her nose and she fell back, shrieking. Cooper was rushing in, but there was time enough. He yanked open the drawer on the bedside table and snatched out the plastic bag.
They were shouting. He didn’t care. This was theatre. This was the final audition. He had his lines.
He said, “It hurts need a hit need a hit oh God oh fuck it hurts gimme a hit.” He’d heard those words once, from a junkie in a cop show. They’d sounded good, then. He hoped they sounded as good now.
He tore the bag in half, crushed the base between the heels of his hands and inhaled.
The fire wasn’t just in his bones. It was in his eye sockets and in his skull and in the tips of his fingers.
The yelling had changed. It was applause.
He felt invisible hands lay the crown upon his head.