1 ~ A Coming of Age

Wendy made one last overly sharp turn, feet flittering quickly in front of one another like each were trying to outdo their counterpart. She took long, hasty strides across the withering cracks of the neglected asphalt lot as she made her way towards the apartment building that patiently waited on the other side. The decrepit three story fossil was dark and ominous looking even in the beaming sun of a summer afternoon in Columbus, Ohio. So unwelcoming was it, in fact, that Wendy thought it deserving of a warning sign, reading "Condemned" or "Quarantined" or maybe "Abandon Hope all ye who Enter Here." A dozen spray paint cans worth of graffiti marred the faded paint peeling from the partially rotted wood of the outside walls, offering expletives and cartoon drawings that even conventional graffiti artists would find tacky.

Blocking out the eyesores, Wendy made quickly for the stairs that led up to the second floor balcony area where the entrances to the middle apartments were. A thick metal door, although partially rusted and streaked with grime, was the only piece of the building that looked to have been replaced in the lifetime of anyone living there. It harbored a large, crudely painted number six that had bled white house paint nearly to the floor, and a shiny lock that appeared to have been transplanted from a much nicer door somewhere else.

Wendy reached down and snagged a long, jagged key from the ring that hung around the belt loops of her work pants by a carabineer. She forcefully shoved it into the lock and had to aggressively wretch it back and forth for several moments before a hollow clicking sound confirmed that the door had opened.

It took much more effort that could reasonably have been expected to force it out of its frame as well, and Wendy found herself ramming the door with her shoulder several times before it gave way. She clumsily lumbered her way across the threshold to a dimly lit interior. Thick curtains provided a shield from any and all outside eyes while the combination of bed, coffee table, and TV stand took up the majority of the floor space in the cluttered studio. What carpet remained was further entombed by a messy scatter of unwashed jeans, tank tops, beanies, bras, and the like, while the tables bore dirtied dishes and empty pizza boxes.

Wendy sighed comfortably while she heaved the door closed behind her and turned back to her little slice of paradise. She wasted no time in peeling the work slacks and polo off and tossing them carelessly between the bed and the wall. They stuck stubbornly to her arms and legs in the muggy stillness of the air. That was unpleasant, she thought to herself as she danced over loose garments on her way over to the box fan in the corner. As she cranked the knob to its middle setting, she hastily yanked the hair tie off the back of her head and let the messy, tangled pile of dirty blonde hair fall to her shoulders.

By the time she reached the closet sized bathroom she had stripped down to flesh and made an automatic advance for the hot dial in the shower. She waited for the first sign of steam before plunging her body into the stream of water.

Her shower was a troubled one. Though she tried to use the cleansing sensation of the affair to calm her mind, it seemed to be in a thousand places at once. At first she became fixated on her tan lines, and how prominent they were becoming, which for one reason of another was a lot more stressful to acknowledge than it should have been. From the tips of her fingers to the line where the sleeve of her work shirt sat was darkened to a fine, lustrous, olive glow. Everything else, however, was a pasty, vampire-esque mess, from her slender runner's legs to her less than boastful chest and tight tummy. This only served as a constant reminder of how little she got out of the house except to work in the back of a kitchen, frying processed chicken in a grease drowned vat. That was also not a comforting thought for the shower, and from then it only unraveled into woes about bills owed, rents due, college tests in the future, and the burden of countless responsibilities imminent.

The volume on her phone was almost always maxed out, and even from the other room, tucked away in the pocket of her discarded pants, she heard it ringing through the sound of the falling water. Her hand flew to the dial once again and killed the shower, muting all sound except the muffled jingle of "That's Life" by Frank Sinatra. Wrapping herself hurriedly in a towel, she agilely hopped over the edge of the tub and, narrowing avoiding slipping, cleared the distance between her and the phone before it had stopped ringing.

"Hello?" she answered impatiently without checking the number first. Her shower having been interrupted, she now sought a distraction from all the racing thoughts that, though unprovoked, had been thus far plaguing her day.

"Um… hi," squeaked a tiny voice that she didn't recognize on the other end of the line. It was a boy's voice, she was hesitant to call it a man's because of how shy and nervous it came across, with shaky and stuttering tendencies. "Is this… is this Wendy?"

"Maybe," Wendy replied cautiously, her face wrinkling into a puzzled look as she allowed her dripping wet figure to fall into the couch lazily. She pulled the phone away from her ear and gave a cursory glance at the number being displayed on the LCD screen; not one that the device recognized from her contacts list. "Why, who wants to know?"

"It's me," the yet to be identified caller proclaimed with slightly more confidence in his tone. "Tony Evans, from Wednesday. Richie introduced us, remember? I thought I gave you my number that day but I must have forgot."

Wendy vaguely glanced over at her bed in the corner, which provided home for a multitude of college text books, trash, and loose post-it notes. Over there, buried under a psychology text book somewhere, Tony's number lay forgotten since it had been written down, never having made the conversion to digital. "Oh, of course, Tony," Wendy tried to sound enthusiastic, unsure what her reaction truly was. "I thought that sounded like you, I was just making sure. You um… you lookin' to stop by then?"

"Yeah," replied Tony, "I was hoping to get the same thing as last time if that's cool. I can be there in like twenty minutes."

"Sure, sure. I'll be here," said Wendy, and with that she clicked the phone shut and gently tossed it onto the coffee table.

Well, she thought to herself, if she wanted a distraction there was not a better one than business as usual. She energetically jumped up from the torn up sofa and began to finish drying off the way she hadn't been able to a moment ago. Most of the moisture from her body was part of the couch now, but her hair was a sopping fiasco, so she padded it down the best she could before lobbing the towel across the room where it landed with a splat in the corner. From there she located the most basic looking lounge-around clothing she could find; yellow thong, matching bra, skinny jeans, faded Sublime t-shirt, threw them on and sped off to the bathroom.

Her hair dryer was second hand from the Salvation Army and totally useless at drying the female head of hair with the slightest hint of delicacy. It could, in the right hands, possibly make a competent welding tool. Taking the barbaric approach instead, she cranked the machine to its hottest setting and began to nearly torch her hair dry, using the comb in her other hand to work out the "too many days of work in a row" knots. In four minutes it was dry enough to shove into a black and white beanie, where she then pulled the rest behind her shoulders and out of the way.

Tony was much earlier than he had estimated over the phone, and not ten minutes after their brief conversation had ended there was a swift rapping that sounded from outside Wendy's door. Still unprepared, she quickly announced "Just a minute," before scurrying off to the kitchen on the balls of her feet.

The kitchen of the tiny apartment was significantly cleaner than the living area, mainly because nothing short of a gun pressed to her head would convince Wendy to cook anything. It was mostly just a bare, unused space with a cheap card table and some folding chairs surrounded by mostly empty cabinet fixtures. She hurriedly grabbed the table and dragged it away from the wall that it touched on one side, uncovering the floor vent that lie beneath.

Using her fingernails she pried off the top grate and pulled out a series of ziplock bags, but before her hand had even dipped below floor level, that oh so familiar scent came drifting up to meet her. Each bag had approximately half a pound of her favorite leafy green drug in it; the three varieties that she sold to her clients depending on their budgets, experience, and how much she liked them. She snatched up the lowest grade of the three, the lightly seeded blend that was a very standard shade of green with a few orange hairs here and there, and returned the other two to their hiding spot.

On the table sat a box of sandwich bags, which she retrieved and opened, ripping one quickly out of the perforated mouth. She pulled open the bag of weed and began transferring the specified amount, using her eyeballs as a scale. Finally, after placing everything back into the hole in the floor, she popped the grate back on, slid the table until it was once again pressed against the wall, and walked over to the door.

"Sorry about that," Wendy apologized half heartedly as she opened the door just enough to poke her head out to where Tony stood waiting. Of all the people that frequented the doormat he was standing on, Tony looked the least like the stereotypical burned out stoner kid that Wendy was used to dealing with. He stood with a tall and lanky frame and looked at her through beady eyes that sat behind thick framed glasses. His polite demeanor was accented by a generic striped polo and off brand discount jeans that ended in payless shoes. A long, pointed nose appeared slightly crooked in a way that suggested it had been broken a few times by, if Wendy had to guess, a bully looking for an easy target. In her opinion, which she acknowledged was premature and judgmental, this kid belonged in a classroom behind a large, wordy textbook, not in her slum buying drugs.

"Come on in," she invited her guest nonchalantly, allowing the door to swing open and give him access. She walked back to the couch and lowered herself quickly into it while Tony ducked through the doorframe into her apartment. She gestured vaguely towards the coffee table where his ziplock bag lay waiting patiently. "It's right there for ya."

"Oh… yeah, thanks," Tony began awkwardly as he stood between the table and the couch, as if unsure whether or not he should sit down. He fumbled roughly through his pockets and after a moment of uncertainty pulled out a handful of crumpled up bills. "Ah, here it is. Listen, Wendy, thanks for hookin' me up like this, I really appreciate it."

To this Wendy's face twisted up for a brief moment until she consciously realized she was doing it and stopped. A formal thank you; this guy was clearly out of his element more than her first impression of him had given away. "It's nothing," she waved off casually, "that's what I do." She hesitantly reached out and took his money, grasping it with two fingers as she eyed the nervous look on his face and tucked it away.

"I um…" he began slowly, once again his voice void of all confidence, "I wanted to ask you something too."

Wendy's eyebrows began to instinctively rise but she caught it in time and anchored them. "Okay," she said in a bland monotone, which then gave way to another long uncomfortable pause until she realized that he was still waiting on her and added, "and that would be…"

"Well," he said uneasily, "I'm going to a party tonight with a few friends, Richie's gonna be there and some other people, they're all real cool and stuff so I was wonderin', I dunno, if you like wanted to come or somethin'?"

For a moment, Wendy didn't say anything but only tapped her fingers rhythmically on her knee, thinking methodically. "Like to supply?" she asked finally.

Tony shook his head vehemently. "No, nothing like that," he replied, "just like to hang out and stuff, have a few beers, chill, you know, just stuff that friends do at parties."

Even though she was trying to give this kid the benefit of the doubt, Wendy was acutely aware that if he used to word 'stuff' one more time she was likely to involuntarily punch him in the face. "I'm not your friend Tony, I just sell you weed," she said flatly.

In that instance she realized too late that her mouth had worked more quickly than her brain, but by then the damage had been done. Tony's face sank to a distraught expression of hurt so fast that he looked like a puppy that had just been kicked. "Oh…" he muttered softly.

"Oh my God Tony, I'm sorry," she blurted out, her face lighting up with urgency, "I didn't mean it like that."

Tony's head was hanging glumly as he mumbled, "It's okay," his voice barely over a whisper.

"No way dude," Wendy exclaimed as she thrust herself out of her seat, "that was a total bitch move, low blow, I'm sorry man, I have no social skills here." She pointed to a spot where she had been sitting seconds earlier. "Sit. Here. Now." Before he could react she grabbed his shoulders and forced him onto the couch.

Confused at the frantic change of pace, Tony's eyes stared up at his wound up drug dealer. "What are you doing?" he asked bewilderedly.

"Just wait here," Wendy responded hastily, "and give me that." Her hand shot out like a stray bullet and reclaimed the bag of weed that she had just sold Tony. She returned to the kitchen without another word, leaving the awestruck kid in her wake while she began once again moving the table to uncover the stash spot. Once she had pulled the bags free from under the grate for a second time, she instead selected the finest of her blends; seedless, damn near stem-less, and sticky enough to leave residue on the fingers of anyone who touched it. When the bag popped open, the aroma was such that it was remarkable the neighbors were not also acquainted with it through their ventilation.

She again formulaically filled a smaller sandwich bag with a portion equivalent to what Tony had been willing to pay for the inferior product, and then tossed in a touch extra to top it off.

"The bad news is," Wendy began as she made her way back to where she had left her guest, "that whoever you were going to before me was probably ripping you off pretty bad." She sat back down softly on the floor so that she was directly opposite Tony with the coffee table in the middle, and plucked the grinder up from the floor next to her. "The good news is, maybe we can fix that."

As Wendy popped a small amount of the drug into the grinder and began twirling it periodically around in her hands, Tony peered suspiciously at the new bag. "What the hell is this?"

Her eyes remaining fixated on what she was doing in front of her, Wendy offered up a non-conclusive shrug. "Sometimes I tell people it's Sour Diesel, or White Widow, or Dro, or Blueberry, hell, sometimes I make up a name on the spot, it's not like people question it."

"Is it… weed?" Tony asked skeptically, pulling out a small nugget and scrutinizing it more closely.

This time Wendy's head popped up so fast she nearly gave herself whiplash, and it was now her turn to bear the face of astonishment. "Are you serious?" she gasped. "Oh, you poor soul, letting the business walk all over you because of your basic lack of experience. For your sake I hope you haven't been smoking long."

"Just a couple of weeks," he replied dryly.

"Good," Wendy said as she shoved the ground up weed into the nearest pipe she could find, a small glass piece that sparkled with the blues and purples of the sky just moments after sunset. "Then consider this your coming of age." She gently set the packed glassware and the lighter from her pocket down on the coffee table in front of Tony. "Fire away chief."

Tony hesitated for a moment, looking down at the offering with a curious apprehension. He finally seemed to make up his mind, reluctantly held the pipe to his lips, sparked the flame, and inhaled.

What followed was what Wendy could describe only as a fiasco. Tony surged forward like he had been sucker punched in the stomach and a fit of frantic coughing ensued. With his tightly clenched fist held firmly in front of his mouth he struggled to control the violent spasms of his lungs. His eyes began to welt as he jammed them shut and squeezed the unyielding tears out, where they slowly trickled down his cheeks.

"You're gonna be okay buddy," Wendy assured her frenzied customer without any change in tone, "I'll get you some water." Before she returned to the kitchen, she used the opportunity to reach her hand across the table, pick up the pipe and breathe in a hit of her own. "It's only like that when you get your cherry popped," she added, light pillows of smoke escaping her lips simultaneously with the words.

When she had again came back from the kitchen and set the water down on the table, Tony was in a drastically different place than when she had left him. The coughs had subsided to a dazed grin as he accepted the water gratefully, took a long swig, and then reached for the pipe again. "Wow…" he trailed off in awe, his eyes locked on the pipe sitting in his hands. "This stuff is pretty crazy!" he then declared, the drug in his system already showing discernible effects in the relaxed features of his face.

Wendy resisted the urge to laugh and then subsequently end up mocking the lightweight seated in her living room. "Go easy," she advised as he took his second hit, "or I'll have to carry you out of here on my shoulders."

"Do people smoke this kind of stuff all the time?" a wide eyed Tony asked, voice heavily laced with amazement.

"When they know what they're doing," Wendy responded, "which you don't, no offense, god I feel like a total asshole today."

Tony shook his head slowly, halfheartedly fighting a losing battle with stoned grins and giggles. "It's cool," he assured as he gave into five or six seconds of laughter, which served as an adequate pause. "I really don't, I just didn't really know how much more I was missing out on."

Wendy nodded slightly as she retrieved the pipe again, the partially lit bowl producing a tiny smoke signal between the two of them. "Dude, that's nothing to be ashamed of, y'know? Better you know what you're doing in something useful like engineering than about different kinds of mind altering substances. It'll take you farther."

For a moment a puzzled reaction crept across Tony's face, narrowing his eyes critically. "How did you know I was going to school for engineering?"

"I didn't," she said automatically, "but if you are, what you know now about bud is enough." She leaned backwards against the TV stand, running her fingers through the hair behind her beanie as she picked her words carefully to avoid fumbling out another insult. "Look, I'm not sayin' that you shouldn't smoke weed, and I'll start giving you this blend if you want. Go out with your engineering buddies, get blazed, see who can eat the most Taco Bell and then pass out in front of the TV watching Family Guy. I get that, but like… bringing me into that equation, it's like bringing two worlds together that just shouldn't be."

Tony's face, showing intent listening to what was being said, gave away no clues as to whether his bloodshot eyes were coming to any sort of understanding. "I'm not sure I follow," he finally admitted.

"Tony, you've got a bright future," Wendy continued rather bluntly, "and you can juggle studying, the social partying, and still get a 4.0 on your college scholarship and be making seventy grand a year after you graduate. Don't ask me how I know about the scholarship, I just guessed. But me, I'm not saying that I'm like, a bad person or anything, but my story is a bit darker, if that makes sense. I'm almost that bad influence that your parents warned you about… I guess." Her eyes drifted around the room as she too started to doubt if any of what she was saying was making sense. "I'm just trying to explain it better than that shit I said earlier."

"So…" Tony trailed off, his mouth twisting up on one side in an apparent sign of deep pondering, "by not coming out tonight, you're actually helping me?"

Wendy found herself giving a slight chuckle as she shrugged. "I guess I am, how 'bout that?"

And before she knew what was happening, Tony had fallen over on the couch and was shamelessly erupting with laughter. "If… if…" he stammered through his Cheech and Chong antics, the ability to construct words all but gone. "If you had said it like that the first time, you wouldn't have had to give me all this crazy good weed," he exploded, and then he was back to splitting his sides.

"Wow…" Wendy said softly in something that was between a sigh and a drawn out exhale. Still, she found herself trying to keep a straight face as she slid the pipe across the table so it was just out of Tony's reach. "I think you should save the rest of this bag for much later, you little stoner in the making. You uh… you didn't drive here, did you?"
Tony's laughing ended more abruptly than the last episode of the Sopranos and his eyes nearly bulged out of his skull. "Oh shit! I totally did! I can't drive like this! I'm totally screwed!" He was spitting up words in a fast and panicked manner, characteristic of the paranoia that Wendy was familiar with from the first time she had smoked this breed.

"Relax," she said in the flatness that only years of experience could justify, "you'll be good in a couple hours dude, straight as a nail, perfectly capable of driving yourself cross country if you so desire." Her eyes flitted across the cluttered carpet until they found the remote, and she gently scooped it up. "You can chill here till then, I think I still have some Family Guy on the DVR."

"You… you'd let me do that?" he stammered, displaying clearly that this was not something he had assumed she would offer.

"I'm not gonna let you crash your car two blocks from here with a bag full of my product," she tried to say in a business-like manner. She turned on the TV and started perusing the old recordings. "Plus…" she added after a moment, aware of the awkwardness in her own voice, "you're company's not as bad as I thought it would be when you first got here." She pressed her hands on the table and slowly rose to her feet, making her way over to the couch. She stared down at Tony and made eye contact for what she realized was the first time that day. "I'm not apologizing for that one, now move over."

"No need to," he said with a toothy grin as he slid down to the edge of the couch, "that's the nicest thing you've said to me."
"That's 'cause I'm a total bitch, remember?" she shot back as she dropped herself roughly into the cushion next to Tony's. For the first few minutes of the program she sat in silence, not sure why she was so flustered. She then slowly dipped her fingers into her pocket and slipped out the twenty dollars that Tony had paid her for the drugs upon his arrival. A second later she turned her head vaguely back in his direction. "You wanna like, order a pizza or something?"