At the age of nineteen, shortly before my life collapsed at my feet, I worked at a convenience store across from Barnes & Noble. My experience with this job can only be described as hell. But at the very least, it adds a dimension of irony to my story that I otherwise lack.

As a kid, a born-and-bred inner city slacker, highschool didn't take well to me, but somehow I navigated my way through a marijuana-induced haze to graduation. I escaped to Chicago before they had a chance to change their minds and revoke my diploma.

So I lived and breathed convenience for months on end. Gas prices, bubblegum, alcohol, cigarettes. Yes, we take Mastercard. Yes, I have change for a one. Yes, you can use our bathroom.

I saw hundreds of strangers every week, one after the other, an unending influx of them. After a while in this kind of environment, familiar faces become sacrosanct. I remember an old black man who worked at Wendy's six days a week, always came in after his half-shift on Saturday for a beer. He would strike up a conversation with me even if I was high off my mind. He pretended not to notice. I never found out his name.

There were my fellow employees, especially Luke, a hippy who looked like a werewolf and first introduced me to the wonders of LSD. A little stamp with Mickey Mouse grinning up at me from the tip of my tongue. Josef, a pale, slick little sonofabitch, the one that got me started on cocaine. Then my boss. I don't think about him much. He was shot in the head during a robbery a few days before my birthday. That's the only remarkable thing I remember about him, really.

And then there was My-Name-Is-Maret. She worked at the bookstore, had been there since before I came along, and never spoke a word to me until the night she saved my life. But she wore a forest green nametag with 'Maret' embossed on brightly below the phrase 'My Name Is,' so naturally, I always thought of the whole thing as her name. She would come in once a week or so for cigarettes and a bottle of Sobe. Marlboro and Green Tea.

She had hair the color of blood. Highly unnatural, of course. She never let it fade, it was always that brilliant crimson. She kept it tied back at all times. Her eyes were painfully green. Whenever I was caught in a particularly viscious acid trip, those eyes would flicker and pulse like a caged wild animal, and it would scare the ever-loving-shit out of me.

Looking back on it now, I don't know how I survived so long without her.

-

Rent eagerly sucked up most of my income during those first few months. For a while I actually gave a damn about the condition of my personal life; you know, hygiene, food, shelter and all that jazz. But after a few cheerful Disney stamps and countless neat-white-lines of cocaine, all that shit about food and rent... it just filtered down into a different plane of existence and stopped mattering.

-

Jobless, homeless, careless. Just as winter rolled around in Chicago. If Hell ever freezes over, it'll look and feel like Chicago in winter.

I can picture the same situation with Heaven.

One night a blizzard descended upon us, temperatures plummeted, and the city curled in on itself and fell into temporary hibernation. I decided it was as good a time as any, so I spent the last of my money on a sparkling little sheaf of Disney soaked in LSD and laced with cocaine, and wandered off into the howling storm to find a nice place to die.

Here is where my life's summary ends.

-

Through the snow, shadows slid across my vision. Animals that were humans that were monsters. I tripped and skinned my knees and palms on asphalt. I left bloody snow behind me, but felt nothing. I kept walking, though I wasn't sure why. Like an old dog. Or a wounded deer. Why do they keep going when they've been shot? I kept going. Deeper into a dark, furious winter night.

A moment later, the presence of God fell over me, and I looked up into a beam of light so pure it left me at quiet peace for several long moments. I fell onto my knees and felt no pain, but more, I felt no high, no hunger. Blessed relief.

An angel flickered into existence before me, kneeled down and took my head into her hands. The light set her hair on fire. The snow and the drugs gave her wings.

"Get in the car," she whispered.

God collapsed into a pair of headlights. An angel faded into a girl, My-Name-Is-Maret. She still had a Barnes & Noble apron curled around her waist. Long, bloodred hair framed her head wildly. Gloriously.

I got in the car and started to cry.

-

As it turns out, Maret was three months my junior. Her last name was Webber. She had three cats and a snake, wind-chimes at every window, and a collection of Icelandic music that she played more or less nonstop throughout the duration of my stay with her. She had books in every room of her apartment. Not a drop of alcohol to be found.

My first few days there remain a blur. I was slowly coming off the most intense high I'd ever experienced, I had mild hypothermia and a cold that was seriously kicking my ass. She was very attentive, and very patient with me. God knows what sort of hell I put her through, half-mad and delirious as I was.

What I remember most about those days was her cats. I hate cats. But she insisted they have free reign of the spare bedroom she'd assigned me to. She'd say, "They can help you more than I can right now. I don't speak Addict."

Sure enough, those damn creatures were catnip fiends like you wouldn't believe. You give the bag a tiny shake and they'd rip you apart trying to get at it.

Gradually I came to realize how much their behavior mirrored mine, and I stopped finding it so humorous. But at least the cats were normal at all other times. I had sold my soul to cocaine a long time ago, it owned me now, and it was on my mind every minute of the day.

-

A week or so later. Maret sat me down one evening over pad thai and gave me a brief, rare glimpse into her mind.

"Do you remember me?"

"Of course I do."

"You have a serious problem."

"I know."

"You need a place to stay."

"I guess so."

"Do you want to live?"

I hesitated at this. Then she took my hand and squeezed it gently.

"I want you to live," she said in a soft voice.

And that settled it.

-

Our relationship was very interesting. I'd had girlfriends in the past, but Maret somehow wriggled her way into my life as something new, some undefined, undiscovered companionship. She was this eccentric, maniacal little creature who loved Taco Bell more than she loved breathing, loved cats more than she loved humans. She was a mystery. A paradox.

-

As the days passed, and I started to get a little stronger, my body stopped focusing on healing itself and started demanding more drugs. Cocaine, LSD, alcohol, anything.

Maret had been expecting the withdrawal. She locked me in my room for the next month, removed all sharp objects and wouldn't let the cats in. She gave me daily doses of Tylenol, and fed me generously. I went quite mad during that time. I screamed and threatened and cried and passed out. I was weak one day and flailing the next. I gave her a black eye and apologized profusely while she laughed.

Our relationship grew more complex. All at once she was my teacher, my caretaker, my angel, and my sole source of anxiety and suffering. She became the focal point of my rage and pain as the withdrawal progressed.

-

One night, another snow storm rampaged through Chicago and the city once more settled itself into a grudging sleep. That night, we sat on my bed and watched the endless cascade of snowflakes rush past the window.

"It's beautiful," I murmured. Maret's gaze flickered over to me, then back to the window.

"You can't ever go back to it again," she said. I tensed, ready to lash out angrily at her, but she reached out and took my hand and leaned her head lightly on my shoulder and said, in a soft, almost fragile tone that I'd never heard before, "I won't let you."

I was quiet for a few minutes, staring down at the top of her head with all these thoughts running through my mind.

Then I wrapped my arms around her and returned my gaze to the snowstorm.

-

As the days passed, my withdrawal weakened, I grew stronger and Maret started letting me out of my room for a few hours each day. I still couldn't go outside. She told me I didn't have control over my cravings yet. I couldn't imagine myself darting off to harass the first junkie I saw, but I didn't put up much of a fight. She had a will of iron, that girl, and I had neither the patience nor the strength to wear her down. Yet.

She started leaving my door unlocked when she went to work, and I became acquainted with her boa constrictor, Nyoka. I'd wear him around the apartment and make the cats jealous. They'd rub against my legs and look longingly up at the snake and me, and I'd smirk and wander off into another room while Nyoka perched regally atop my shoulder.

Maret came home early one afternoon and burst out laughing when she caught me at my game. She gently unfurled Nyoka from my neck and set him down in his aquarium, and turned back to me.

"I took the rest of the day off," she said. "We're going for a drive."

-

"Watch the waves," said Maret. Her lips were paling.

"It's goddamn freezing on this beach." My plea fell on deaf ears.

"Everything works like that," she continued. "The universe moves in pulses."

Like a heartbeat, I thought. Mine shuddered in the burning cold wind. Wind that cut like knives through my jacket when she was barefoot in shorts and a ragged sweater. Fucking psycho.

I put my arms around her shoulders and wondered, not for the first time, exactly who was caring for whom in this relationship.

She let me drive home because she couldn't move her fingers. Once thawed, curled up under my jacket, she fell into a deep sleep. Matthew Good played quietly on the radio. I didn't turn him off.

When we got back into town, I didn't have the heart to wake her up, so I drove around for another hour until she started to stir.

"You don't think," she told me. "Why won't you let your mind wander?" I didn't respond. She was cranky and tired, and I wouldn't be able to accomplish anything more than aggravation with her in this state.

She made vegetable soup that night for dinner. I was allowed to wear Nyoka at the table, and the cats wove between our legs meowing pitifully. I remember, it made Maret laugh. The picture of that evening is still brightly illuminated in my mind, a perfect memory of her. A perfect memory of my time with her. My experience, my life, my suffering and my love, all crystallized in this evanescent fairytale and its maker.

-

Six, seven, ten months flickered by, and I was strong, and healthy, and thoroughly in love with Maret Webber. We would meet at the tiny coffee shop in town every evening after she got off work, and on Tuesdays she'd walk me to therapy, rehab, detox, whatever she thought I needed that week. She was too smart to think she could handle me forever without some professional help.

A year passed, and it was winter again. October, November. I told her I wanted to spend the rest of my life with her and she burst into tears.

Then on the fifth of December, a Tuesday, she took twenty-four Benadryl tablets, she went to sleep and she never woke up.

-

There is grief. There is pain and there is loss. All of your life you wait to be saved, you wait for your chance at redemption, but angels cannot survive in this world anymore, and so you are left desolate and ruined in the wake of their passing.

At Maret's funeral, I sat with her family, none of whom I knew. They said nothing of my unexplainable presence. But after they'd taken away her ashes, a young woman with pale grey eyes approached me.

"You're the one she left, aren't you?" Her voice was broken with pain, but not angry. Resigned.

"Yes."

"Someone left her, you know. Before she came up here." Her eyes flickered. "She said it was the cycle of salvation. But if that's true," she paused, looked out the church window at the flurry of snow overtaking Chicago. "If that's true, then salvation can wait."