They looked like incense burns bitten by summer insects, little pink holes that a kid had dug open even when his mom told him to leave the bumps alone. They were scattered over his forearm and the soft spot where his elbow bent inward. Most had scabbed over, the carmine crust dried and cracked, and innocent pink rims formed where parts of his skin had started to heal. Others, though, were moist, freshly opened, a pipette's worth of blood gushing out from the skin. He worried she might notice. As he heard the doorbell ring, he quickly tugged a cotton-tee over his head. He'd been wearing long-sleeve shirts a lot recently. Luckily, it would only be about 80 degrees out that day.
The slender needles, like proboscis of mosquitoes, were taped to the insides of his white cotton socks. As he walked over to look over himself in the mirror, he could feel the cold steel of the syringe press against the skin of his heel. He'd put a cap over the tip to keep it from poking into him during the night, but the Scotch tape wasn't as secure as he'd have liked. Guiltily, he jerked on his sock, hoping to ensure the needle of its privacy (and him of his secret). The doorbell rang again.
Angie was on the porch, simply glowing in a yellow halter top and blue jean capris, a glittery handbag slung over her shoulder and jewel-encrusted flip flops on her feet. She giggled as she hopped inside and flung her arms around him, the sweet scent of her perfume giving him a unique kind of high. His cheek warmed as she eagerly gave him a wet kiss. Eric was dazed as she stepped back and could only grin stupidly.
"I've been looking forward to this dance for weeks now," Angie swelled with excitement. "All the girls and I have been talking about it. I must have spent a month figuring out what to wear! (By the way, do you like the color?) Oh, all I've been thinking about is what a good time we're going to have together!" Angie gave him a smile that would have made the goddess Aphrodite herself suffer from envy.
"Uh, yeah," Eric guffawed, returning her smile with a strangled one, feeling pretty, well...lame. Angie was his girlfriend, but more often than not he just didn't know what to say to her. She was so pretty, energetic, garrulous. And while he was pretty good looking himself, most of the time he just opted to listen to her and look cool. There was a danger in opening his mouth. He hoped presence tonight would be enough.
It wasn't. As Angie looked over Eric, her smile faltered. She poked her finger into his chest and spoke to him in an accusing tone. "Are you really wearing that?"
"What?" Eric looked down at himself, feeling a rush of blood flush his cheeks. He leaned the weight on his ankle to make sure his jeans were overlapping his socks. As he felt the cuff of his sock reach above the needle, he felt a small wave of relief. Then he made a painful effort to defend himself. "There's nothing wrong with this shirt. It's perfectly clean! And there's nothing even on it. Look I understand you were mad about the Hooters tee, but-"
"That's not what I mean!" Angie huffed. "I mean, it's like 80 degrees outside. Are you seriously going to wear a black, long-sleeved shirt to a hot night club? You're gonna fry!"
"It's not bothering me," Eric said brusquely, shrugging his shoulders nonchalantly. He could already feel the sheen of sweat on his breast and his brow. As he tried to reassure Angie with a grin, he felt the room go dizzy, the lampshade posts swaggering and the couches wobbling. Angie's form seemed to undulate like a wavy line doodled on notebook paper. He tried to take a step forward, but unknowingly stumbled over. Angie's hands, out of nowhere, gripped onto his biceps; she was shaking him thoroughly.
"Eric? Eric! What the hell is wrong with you?" she cried.
Eric looked up woozily and pulled himself away from the girl. He grabbed his keys quickly from the coffee table and stepped out onto the front porch.
"Come on, babe. I'm fine. Let's go, or we're gonna be late."
Angie didn't move. She stared Eric down, like a tiger sizing up its prey... the way her eyebrows narrowed and her left eye got smaller than the right made him think she was trying to stare through him. He was unable to look her in the eye. When he tried, all he could see was the reflection of himself in the mirror, the little scabs on his arms and the needle concealed beneath his sock. Frankly, he'd rather take a bath in a pit of molten lava than get cross-examined by Angie at that momet. He feared he was going to crack.
"You've been doing it again," she said in a deathly whisper.
"No, I haven't." Eric forced himself now to look her in the eye.
"You've been doing it again," she repeated herself.
It was like waiting for the gunshot that was heard around the world all over again. Two sides, staring off, just waiting for the other to make the first move. An impenetrable silence filled the gap that stood between them. Eric refused to succumb. He turned around, brushed her off.
"Come on, let's go. You worry too much."
"No, I don't! I want to make sure you're not doing it again!" Angie exclaimed.
"Babe, I told you a long time ago I was done with that stuff. Now, come on? Don't you want to go to the party? I mean, I want to show you off to everybody; you look so hot. So many people are going to be there. I don't want to miss it." Eric put his arm around her briefly, forced his lips against her forehead, and walked out the door.
Angie gave him one last skeptical look, but finally conceded. She didn't put on that yellow halter top for nothing that night. They hopped into Eric's jeep. As the car doors slammed shut and Eric jammed the keys into the ignition, he felt his hands shake again. He gripped the steering wheel tightly to reassure himself, but he couldn't help but wonder why he was so doped.
"50 bucks a hit."
"You want the dope or not?"
"Alright, alright, give me the shit."
Eric was sidled behind the back alley of the nearby liquor store, leaning against a brick wall covered in vulgar graffiti and gang names. His dealer was crouched on the ground a few feet next to him. This local kid has been selling to him for about a month now. He was pretty young, probably only in middle school still: a bit freckled, high cheek bones, shadowed sockets for eyes, and some thin blonde hair. He always wore the same puffy black jacket and kept his dealings in secret pockets cut into the coat's inner seams. Eric could hardly wait as the kid handed him the plastic bag with the crushed white powder. He unsealed the Ziploc and peeked inside eagerly. Like fairy dust, he thought. He didn't typically snort, but he was desperate. He hadn't been high in days. Just as he was about to inhale the dust, the kid punched him.
"Hey, man. You got money?"
"Oh, right, right..." Eric reluctantly dug into his own pocket and pulled out some green wads of cash. 20, 20, 10... 50 dollars he could have spent on Angie. Might have gotten her that nice necklace they saw at the mall together the other day. Oh well... she'd be happier if he were in a good mood for the party that night. The dealer swiped the bucks from Eric's hand and slipped away, not even bothering to thank him for his business. Eric nearly stuffed his snout into the plastic bag, sucking in the powder through the nostrils. He snorted just enough to feel a rush flood his veins, but to still have plenty for stirring up his needle later. Eric then trudged back to his home alone with crushed poppy flowers in a suffocating bag, an empty wallet, and a sneaking sense of regret.
As Eric was driving down the road and Angie was humming to the car radio pleasantly, he felt his stomach start to churn. Damn kid gave him pure stuff. No wonder he was so goddamn drowsy. He never took the pure stuff-probably didn't help that he inhaled it either. His needle poked into his ankle jealously as his foot pushed onto the accelerator. His eyes were drooping; he could barely hold onto the wheel. How he managed to pull into the dance club parking lot would forever be a mystery to him.
Whether an hour or minutes passed after that was also beyond his awareness. All he could hear after Angie dragged him into the club was this rapid beat, like some sort of tribal ritual with rainforest drums. There was a barump, badarump, barump, badarump and all these wiggling worms in tube tops and jeans squirming against one another. Static would fade in every now and then, the kind of alien fuzz he heard when he turned the dial on his grandfather's old radio tuner. A mass of bodies was moving and gyrating, pushing up against him, like hundreds of fish trapped in a net wriggling to get free. Electric lights and orange, green, yellow, and blue smoke swallowed him, caused his mind to spasm. Perspiration soaked his body. A bass stereo reverberated inside of him. Obnoxious voices, catcalls and hoots, barely registered in his head; they were just faint voices merging with the static, the drums, the bass, a cacophony of lost sounds. He was in the jungle, with all the humidity, the howls, and the animals.
Angie's face contorted with anger. She bent over and grabbed at something near the floor. She brandished it in her grip furiously, waving it in front of his face. Too much light, too much sound, too much dope made it impossible to decipher what it was; it was like a glowstick waving back and forth in the dark, a lighter at Woodstock. Then he felt the scotch tape in his sock no longer adhered to the tiny hairs of his ankle. Angie screamed at him; a few people stopped to look, to laugh, to return to their dancing. He remembered her last words: "It's over."
Like the tip of a red pen... he could see there were splotches of ink on the tip of the needle, but did it matter at this point? She'd already left. He could risk whatever microbes might be in that ink readying to gorge into his bloodstream and disease him. He shoved the tip into his forearm. A bottle shined seductively on a table within sight, tempting liquor nested in the swelling of the green glass, the long, tapered neck leading up to a shiny cusp. Like peanut butter and pickles, Eric mixed his two addictions, abandoning his kidney and liver to their own devices. Let them figure the details out. He grinned wolfishly.
White powder, like harmless chalk dust or ground up Smarties. First it was white powder in plastic bags, then needles hidden in white crew socks, then white clouds as the drowsiness hit, white lights from there (that's when he "blacked" out and all the colorful smoke and neon lights disappeared), white walls, white beds, white people in white medical coats, more white pills. Not white like angel wings or virgin underwear or fresh canvas-bland, empty, dead white. Angie used to wear a white blouse he really liked. He remembered spilling Coke all over it when they went to the movies.
That made him wonder why she was sitting next to his bed, her feet propped up on a counter as she flipped through the latest issue of People. Her eyes were dark with too much mascara, puffy with redness from too much crying. As he shifted under his covers, she looked over at him.
"You're awake," she said softly.
"Yeah," he replied. "What happened?"
"You OD'd. Some kids found you panting for air on the floor. A friend told me; I called the hospital."
"What's going to happen?" Eric whispered.
"I don't know. They ran a bunch of tests on you. You mixed a lot of bad stuff last night."
"They're not going to arrest me are they?" Eric whimpered. Captain of his school football team, one of the most popular kids in his class, guy to this amazing girl -- and he whimpered like a scrawny dog about to be drowned.
"I don't know," Angie repeated herself.
Eric trembled and clutched at his bed sheets. His eyes were darting around the hospital room, looking for what he wasn't even sure of himself. From the dividing curtain to the meal tray to the cabinets on the walls, from the half-open bathroom door to the remote control to the bed to the drawn curtains over the window... and then to Angie. Eric leaned forward desperately.
"But you're still with me, right babe? I'll always have you." His voice was pathetic, pleading, like a toddler's.
Angie, this time, didn't look him in the eye. Sadly, she closed the copy of People and set it on the meal tray. The linoleum floor seemed to capture her interest at this point because all she did was stare down and study it. The silence was unbearable.
"Angie?" Eric croaked.
Watery eyes met his. "I'm sorry Eric."
"I promise, babe!" The young man flung himself forward and grabbed onto Angie's hands, yanking her toward him. "I'll never do them again. I'll stop buying the stuff, I swear. I'll go into rehab. I'm gonna change. For you, babe, all for you."
"It doesn't matter anymore," Angie sighed.
"Doesn't matter?" Eric barely knew he'd let go of Angie's hands as he did. His face was crestfallen; he was in disbelief. "Why does it not matter?"
"Because Eric," Angie's voice broke with suppressed sobs, choking as the truth slowly escaped her, slipping past her dry lips, "when the doctors did the tests they didn't find just evidence of drugs and alcohol in your blood."
"What do you mean?" Eric waited for a tidal wave to crash over him, for an avalanche to topple him down, a tsunami to swallow him whole. And it did.
"Eric, you are HIV positive. You have AIDS."