by Norman Crane

Procter first saw her near the bus station in Brown Hill when it was bad but not as bad as it is now. He was sitting on the bench coming off a high. She had the cleanest hair he’d seen in weeks. It was sitting beside him, shining. He didn’t think it was real until she spoke and her voice cracked, and she said, “Vin Procter?”

The bus came. People got off. He didn’t get on. Then the bus went and he nodded his head, all the time hearing things like under water, even his own voice: “Vin Procter, that’s right, what’s it to you, you Kenny’s?”

“I’m sorry to meet you in public like this,” she said. Her hands were shaking. “But that’s the way for first times. Later, we’ll see each other everywhere.”

They were alone in Brown Hill. Only the wind blew garbage across the street. The garbage stuck against the curb. Plastic cups and paper fast food containers and other dirty unidentifiables. She reached out a hand and put it softly on his. It was warm and wet as the insides of his head. “Who are you?”

The words bubbled.

“I’m your addiction,” she said.

He got up before it got dark and she followed him home.

Vince Procter lived in an abandoned building on Merryweather Street. In the winter he moved elsewhere, but it was late September and not cold yet. Addiction followed him through the front door and closed it. When he opened the fridge, she looked over his shoulder. He wasn’t hungry. He looked around. His furniture was damp, dusty and unappealing. His drug paraphernalia stood on a silver platter on the worn carpet. He curled up on the floor next to it and went to sleep.

The afternoon light burned his pale skin so that he flinched, then pulled opened his lids and he gasped. Little sound came out but his eyes bugged. He ripped the blanket off his body and stared at the woman in the kitchen. His brains were arid now. A train went by somewhere and the paraphernalia shook on the platter. He smelled fried eggs.

“You’re up,” she said without looking at him. “You slept for a long time. I made breakfast but it cooled and I ate it for lunch. I’ll make another egg in a few minutes. Maybe you’d like coffee first?”

He crept toward her.

She continued, “I bought eggs and coffee, and milk. You had milk but it was old. I poured it out. Your toilet doesn’t flush properly.”

The heat radiated from the stovetop. He thought about heating his spoon, but the woman was stressing him. He rubbed his knuckles into his eyes.

“There was money in the tin in the cupboard but I didn’t use it,” she said.

For a second he was searching frantically through the containers under his bed where he kept all his stuff, maybe she’d taken it, thief, then the mellow came with the egg smell again and the woman said, “I didn’t touch anything else.”

She cracked a shell and poured the contents onto the burning butter on the frying pan. The white sizzled and turned hard. She did another, then tossed both shells into the garbage. Procter had forgotten he had a garbage. He never took it out. The raccoons snuck in and got it sometimes and he hit them with the broom handle but not hard enough. The raccoons scampered out. Sometimes he thought about eating one.

“Who are you?” he asked.

She finally turned to look at him. “I’m your addiction. We met yesterday on the bench in public. I’ll be living with you openly now.”

The eggs finished frying and she slid them onto a plate that she set on the table in the kitchen where a fork was already lying. “Sit.”

He sat and ate quickly with little chewing. After licking the last moisture from his finger, he asked, “What do you do?”

She laughed and spun her head such that her hair sparkled round her face. It was clean and shiny, Procter thought. “I take over your life,” she smiled. And he smiled, too. It had been a long time since he’d had a woman and it was good to have one. He could start a new life now. He was happy. The stress was gone. The shakes were gone. He wished he could shower but the water was turned off and he said, “You can wash the pan and dishes in the yard. There’s a little hole I dug to catch the water. There’s always a puddle in it.”

When she went outside he whistled and sat with his back against the sofa. He picked up the silver platter and put each piece of paraphernalia carefully on the carpet. He wasn’t wearing a belt but pulled a spare from under the sofa. The flint clicked. The flame from the lighter was nice, not like the light from outside, which made his eyes narrow and skin hurt. He pulled his sleeve up to where the inside of his elbow was polka dots and heated the stuff and then pricked himself until the world rolled back into his skull.

The world rolled in dark, with crickets.

Addiction was sitting in a chair reading a book by candlelight. He stared at her until he coughed and she put the book down and said, “That’s the last time.”

Procter nodded to sleep.

He woke up with a headache and the shakes. The stress was back bad. Addiction was gone and Procter rummaged through the tins in the cupboards where he kept his money. But there wasn’t any so he threw the empty tins across the room, then slid onto his heels and bit his fingernails till they bled. He had a woman now, he thought, he had to support her and love her and be the man for her. It was a family. He determined to get a job. He crawled to the sofa and took out his stuff. There was enough left. He’d sell part of it. He didn’t want to be a deadbeat anymore. From now on, he would be responsible. He picked up all the pieces of paraphernalia scattered on the carpet and placed them on the silver platter. Tomorrow—he set the alarm on his watch—he would sell, then they’d have a baby and the crib would go in the other bedroom where the raccoons sometimes slept.

The alarm beeped.

He felt lips against his cheeks. She was back. She smelled good, like not at all. Her face was close to his but her clothes were different. “I’m going to work today,” he said.

But when he got to his feet his knees seemed to crumble and he dropped to the carpet. He needed his stuff. He started to crawl but a reflection pushed him back. He shied away and saw her put the silver platter at his feet. He loved her more than he’d ever loved her as he put his things in order and heated up the stuff and pricked deep into the polka dot spot, letting his thumb press the receding world into him.

Someone slapped him before the world came back. And then it came back firm like the time Kenny pushed his face into the highway. He checked his nose for blood but there wasn’t any. There was just the woman in front of him. She slapped him again. And again, until he lifted his legs and wrapped his arms around them and the blows hit only the outside of his body. He tried to close his eyes and hum a song but he couldn’t get the feeling back. He was stressing out. He was afraid his mouth was going to foam. Then cold water hit him. It flowed onto his tongue and he knew the taste of his own puddle. “Up,” she said and he obeyed. But when he stood he stood on the needle. His foot hurt and the needle cracked. He cursed. He would have to get a new one from that place.

He threw a coat over his shoulders, put a pack of the stuff under his arm and went out through the front door. She followed him. He meandered until people thickened, which meant he was closer to downtown where the place was. Eventually he got there. The sign said “Cole Recovery Centre”. He went inside and cried until the people gave him a new needle and a card with phone numbers on it. He had to be careful. The stuff was still in him and his eyes wanted to give along with his balance, which meant he almost dropped the stuff onto the floor.

Outside, the breeze was picking up and his nostrils opened to let it in. The woman smiled at him. He smiled back. He wanted to use the new needle but he had a family now. He felt responsible. He knew the best place to sell. He’d been going there for months and had never seen a dealer. It was open territory. He walked in long strides with no shuffling of the feet, hands buried in his coat pockets, knowing the woman would be proud of the money he’d make.

The very young ones he wouldn’t sell to, but the older ones had money and they could steal more. It wasn’t right in the schoolyard, either. He wasn’t unprincipled. It was behind, by the chain link fence, where the older ones went to smoke cigarettes. One was there now, in jeans and a baseball cap. Procter banged on the fence with his fist until the kid saw him and came cautiously nearer.

“You wanna buy some?” Procter wheezed.

The kid stepped closer. He made sure no one was watching. He had a tough face and an earring and smelled like smoke. Procter knew the kid wouldn’t ever be anybody.

“What you selling?”

The kid’s voice was strong and he kept his eyebrows slanted inwards like he was angry all the time. They straightened only for a second when he saw the woman when she moved closer to Procter.

“Stuff,” Procter said.

He took it out from under his arm and held it against the fence where the kid could see it and smell it and touch it through the chain link.

“How much?” the kid asked.

“However much you got,” Procter said. “You don’t got enough for the whole.”

The kid’s voice cracked just like the woman’s had done in Brown Hill. He said, “Fifty,” and fished through his pockets to gather up the bills. When he had them, he crunched them into a ball and raised his voice, saying, “Give me the stuff first, then I’ll give you the money.”

But Procter only laughed and the kid lowered his eyes to the ground.

“Cash first.”

As the kid moved close enough to put the fifty dollar ball through the chain link, the woman leaned in and whispered close to Procter’s ear, “Are you sure you want to sell that? Won’t you miss it tonight on the carpet?”

Suddenly the shakes returned and Procter grabbed the fence and made it rattle. The kid dropped the fifty and jumped back. Procter was abruptly aware that the kid and everyone else but the woman was trying to cheat him of his stuff. The muscles in his body tightened so bad he couldn’t get his fingers off the fence so he kicked at the fence until the muscles relaxed and he pulled his hand free. Then he laughed again almost like a howl and put the stuff back under his arm. The wind was picking up and it started to drizzle. As he and the woman walked away the kid was on his knees trying to put his hand through the chain link to pick up the money but his wrist was too thick and he couldn’t get it through but pushed so hard the skin on his hand started to raw.

When they got home Procter sat with his back to the sofa and heated up his spoon. But every time the heat was good the stuff fell off and Procter got angry. He realized it was the woman knocking the stuff off. “What’s the idea?” he moaned, though she just knocked it off again and told him he wouldn’t have it easy anymore.

In the morning it was the same and in the afternoon the silver platter kept moving and he couldn’t get a solid read on it. By the evening the foam was starting in his mouth, his teeth were itchy and all the woman did was sit in her chair and read her book and wait for him to try to get at his stuff, which he couldn’t do because he couldn’t remember where the silver platter was and the spoon had a big hole drilled in it.

He hated her now like he’d never hated anyone.

“What’s the idea, what are you, get out of my house!” he screamed at her.

“I’m your addiction,” she answered.

Procter wasn’t an addict, though, that much Procter knew, so he screamed, “You’re not real,” and asked everyone who was around whether they could see the woman. When no one answered he said, “See, you’re not real,” and went to the kitchen to pick up the frying pan that the woman had fried eggs in and swung it hard at her head until she fell and the sound of the pan against her head was dull and she didn’t move anymore.

He was sweating so he went outside and washed his face in the puddle. When he came back in, he heated his stuff on the red frying pan and pressed the plunger of the new needle into a pulsing vein.

The light that woke him was worse than the light from outside. The stars were out. Someone had taken the belt off his arm and shrunk his house. He was on the sofa. There were men and windows all around. The lights flashed red and white. Someone knocked loud against the glass and Procter looked and there was a flashlight shining into his face. He closed his eyes and brought his knees high and wrapped his arms around them.

“Junkie,” the flashlight said through the window—

Then shut off.

Stephenson and Hughes ordered two coffees and a muffin each at a small diner off Belmont. They sat by a window. Their squad car was the only car in the lot. The sun wouldn’t come up for an hour.

“Poor girl,” Hughes said. “Pretty, too.”

“Pretty and messed with the wrong guy,” Stephenson said.

“Probably messed up herself. In the head, I mean. Most of them are.”

“Didn’t have the marks on her.”

“It’s not always about that.”

“Maybe she was just lonely. No family, no friends. That can get you good as anything.”

“No job.”

The waitress came with their order. She looked tired. Her shift was almost over. Hughes thanked her and took a bite of his muffin. Blueberry, but not very fresh. Stephenson sipped his coffee. The steam rose into the slow-turning overhead.

“She had a job.”

“And quit it. The lady at the clinic said she didn’t know why. She just came in one day and gave notice.”

“You work at a place like that and it must get to you. One morning you just can’t take it anymore seeing the same faces day in, day out—the same problem.”

“So you shack up with one of them? Doesn’t make sense.”

“Maybe she thought she could help. That priest said she was a regular at mass, same pew every night. Identified her right away. Sometimes she lit the candles they have by the altar, he said.”

“Bible thumpers. Think they can help, then we have to clean up.”

“Or maybe she wanted a kid. They saw her round the schoolyard more than once, thought maybe one of the kids was hers but not officially. Said she looked night and day from the usual lowlife types they see. Certainly wasn’t a pervert.”

Stephenson eyed his muffin.

“Facts are she’s dead and he’s getting locked up. He won’t make it out. Who cares why?” He eyed his muffin. “I don’t think I want this. The cherries look dry. Want it? I’ll sell it to you for half.”

The radio in their squad car buzzed, a voice came in indistinct. They could hear it through the window. The window in the squad car was rolled down.

“Think we should get that?” Hughes asked.

“To hell with that. I’m asking if you want this muffin for half price.”

The voice said something more.

Then static.

Then the radio went quiet.

“I guess someone else will take it,” Hughes said. “And, sure, I’ll buy that for half.” He took out his wallet and picked out the appropriate change, which he slid over to Stephenson’s side of the table. Stephenson counted it with his fingers before picking it up. “In the end, I guess we’ll just never know what preys on people.”

Hughes drank his coffee.