A deep knocking rouses me from sleep.
It comes again, hard, knock-knock-knock-knock-knock, and I bolt upright. It's late in the day, afternoon sunlight throwing shadows across the floor. I called in sick to work this morning before falling back into the depths of unconsciousness. Cloud Nine can go on without me.
"Hello," Hamish calls. "Are you alive in there?" Before I can reply he's opening the door, peering inside, cheeks bright from the cold and still wearing his coat. "It's three-thirty in the afternoon, little brother," he says. "Rise and shine." I swipe at my nose and pull the blankets up around me as he comes over and sits down on the edge of the bed. "I've come to enlist your help."
"What do you want?" I groan, into my pillow.
"It's not what I want, it's what Annie wants," he says.
"And what's that?"
"A Christmas tree."
Of course. I know why he's here. My mother has called him to come rescue me from oblivion, from moping all day in my little room, from feeling sick about Sage, from drifting in and out of nightmares, torturing myself with the past, present and future. Of course. And here he is, like an obedient dog running to its master's call, trying to cheer me up and distract me with some festive, trivial task. Like I'm helping him. Right.
"Do it yourself."
"Don't be ridiculous," he tells me, picking lint off his coat. I peer at him from under my mess of blankets. "Our living room has a twelve-foot ceiling. Whatever I get is gonna require two people, minimum."
"Did mom call you?" I groan again, twisting away.
Hamish is silent for a moment, and that pretty much says it all. "So what?" he says, and I snort. "Look, we need a tree anyway. It'll make you feel better. Come on."
"So, are you just gonna lie here feeling miserable all day?"
"That was pretty much my plan, yeah."
"Don't do this, Liam. Come on. Get up."
"Sulking is not an attractive character trait. Seriously. Get up."
"You're just reinforcing every negative emotion you have about yourself and the world by wallowing."
He's quiet. Then, "I'll pay you fifty dollars to come with me."
A long moment creeps by. I sit up. "Okay."
Hamish looks torn between being amused and annoyed. He pushes his glasses back up his nose and stands up. "Get dressed, then," he tells me. "We're leaving in fifteen minutes."
In the car we've got the heater cranked up all the way and every window rolled down. I smoke cigarettes and surf through the stations on Haze's radio, trying to find something that doesn't entirely suck, and pull my hat down lower over my ears. Hamish taps his fingers on the steering wheel, calm, focused, patient, ever the good doctor. Okay, good doctor. So treat me.
"—so his dad had done, like, a background check on you?" Haze is saying.
"I guess so. He knew everything. Fucking everything. I thought those records were supposed to be confidential."
"They are," Haze says, frowning. "The fact that he could get them at all is pretty disturbing. You said he's an ex-Marine, right?"
"Something like that," I mutter.
"Weird. Very weird."
"He's a fucking asshole."
Hamish doesn't reply, but I know he probably agrees with me. I suck hard on the end of my cigarette, then toss the butt out the window and light another. Hamish eyes me. "Any time you're ready to quit, I can hook you up with some nicotine patches," he goes.
"Hook me up? You can hook me up?"
"Of course. Lots of people find them helpful with smoking cessation."
"You know what I mean." Hamish turns into a big, snowy lot filled with cut pine trees, lined up row after row. A whole forest hacked down too early, like a bunch of decapitated heads. It's sad, looking at all the fresh, full trees, still vibrant now but soon to be hung with gaudy ornaments and lights, shedding brown needles on the carpet, slowly drying up.
"This is so depressing," I mutter.
"They're just trees, Liam."
"They're all gonna die."
"There are tree farms with acres and acres and acres of trees. Millions of trees. I wouldn't focus on it too much."
"It just seems a little sadistic, that's all."
"We need something big, but healthy-looking and cheerful, too," he says, as if to himself. "Annie said no white pines. What about a balsam fir?" I roll my eyes, following him along the rows, boots trudging through the snow. "Here's a good one," he says, pointing.
"What about that one?"
We trudge some more. "I think this one's really nice. It smells good, too."
"Too much sap," I say.
We finally find a suitable candidate, and I help Hamish haul it to the car. He goes to pay the man at the front of the lot while I strap it down, cigarette poking out the side of my mouth. It's a big tree, full and green, with curved, prickly needles. It smells like childhood; like the woods.
"Annie is gonna love this," Haze tells me when he comes back. He stops short. "What's wrong?"
"Nothing," I say, but my eyes are watering and the sun seems too bright and everything goes blurry. I run my palms over my eyes, suddenly finding it hard to draw a breath, and bury my face in my hands. Do not cry do not cry do not cry here not the right time or place. Jesus Christ, Liam. Grow up.
"Liam," Hamish says softly, putting a hand on my shoulder. "It's just a tree."
"It's not that."
"I don't know." I do know.
Hamish pulls me into a hug. His arms feel good around me, strong and solid, and his coat smells like cedar chips and talcum powder and for a minute I let him hug me, and then I get it together and quit crying and dry my face with my sleeve.
"Let's get some dinner," he says, releasing me. "Are you hungry?"
"Where do you wanna go? My treat."
So we get in the car again, tree strapped to the top, and he drives me across town.
Afterwards. Hamish is drinking coffee, picking at the remains of some French fries and the pickle from his burger. I'm smoking a cigarette, tapping ash into a little black plastic ashtray. And I'm thinking. Thinking about Sage, thinking about Charlie, thinking about Luce and Velma and my mom and Hamish and Annie. Thinking about Jamie, and myself. Thinking about how things sometimes get so twisted, turned into what they were never meant to be, so easily. Thinking about how things can be so good, and so bad. Bitter and sweet, all in one.
"What are you thinking about?" Hamish asks me.
"Nothing," I reply.
He licks ketchup and salt from his fingers. Hamish. Oh, Hamish. There's this funny story my mom likes to tell of how when I was born, she brought me home from the hospital and Hamish asked her, Can you take him back? As if you could return a baby like a pair of shoes or a blender that didn't work. Ha ha. Funny.
"I keep having these dreams," I say.
One dark eyebrow shoots up, cocked and ready for action. "Yeah?"
"All these—like, flashbacks, or memories, or whatever. Nightmares, you know?"
He's still. "Yeah?"
"They're so real. They feel so real." I pause, and Hamish watches me, toying with his straw. "Do you remember—" I stop.
I tap the burning end of my cigarette, leveling the ash on all sides. I like that fire is dangerous. It mimics the power you have within yourself. The power you have to let it burn you, or the power you have to make that burning beautiful.
"Remember what, Liam?"
Hamish is looking at me. I force myself to smile. It feels mechanical, like cranking open a curtain to see outside. "Do you remember when dad used to buy tangerines and bring them home for us to eat?"
Hamish is silent, looking like that's about the last thing in the world he expected me to say. His eyes flutter down to his empty plate. "Yeah," he goes, all quiet.
"He used to get those, like, little tangerines on sale, five for a dollar or something. He'd peel them for me and I'd line them up on the kitchen table. One slice after another. I'd eat one, then feed one to him. They always tasted better when he bought them, for some reason. It was like, the best taste in the world, you know? Because he had got them for me. For us." I fall silent. I stub out my cigarette in the ashtray. Hamish is looking at me, and I'm looking at him. "Do you ever miss him?" I ask. My mouth can barely form the words.
He smiles, a little mechanical smile. "Yeah, I miss him. I miss him every day."
"Yeah. Me too."
"I'm sorry," he says, suddenly.
"I'm sorry that you were the one who found him. It should have been me."
My whole body feels like it's on fire, like it's burning. Burning hard. Everything goes blurry again, but I'm not crying. "You were gone," I say.
"Yeah," Hamish says, and his voice is hollow, like a spoon hitting an empty cup. "I know. I was gone."
Later, when my mother visits me and I quit refusing to speak to her, she'll tell me.
How she woke up to water seeping out from under the door, running down the stairs. How she couldn't break the bathroom lock. How Hamish kicked the door in himself. How she called 911 while he propped me up, tried to get me to walk around with him as they waited for the ambulance to come, but my lips were already turning blue. I don't remember anything, of course. Not until after the Naloxone, and even that is blurry. She told me that I screamed a lot, at first. That I trashed the first room I was put in, and then the second one after that. That they strapped my arms and legs down while the doctor ran through the psychiatric evaluation, because I broke the mirror, the chair, the glass of the shower door, his clipboard. His beard waggled as he talked to me and I ignored everything he said. By the time they drove me to the treatment center, I was hallucinating freely.
Visitors can come twice a week, Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, for two hours. There's a soda machine and a bunch of tables and an endless supply of coffee. The visitors are moms, dads, little kids and lawyers and sponsors. They come in all shapes and sizes, each colorful and unique, like tropical butterflies. They seem alien to me. They won't meet my eyes. I look like all the other inpatients: skinny, sick, washed-out, gray. Our fingernails are bitten and our teeth grind in our sleep.
Hamish wants to see you, my mom tells me. She rubs the lipstick stain off the rim of her coffee cup. I sit slumped away from her, arms crossed tightly over my chest. We always sit by the same window, the one that looks over the yard. The grass and trees seem like cardboard cutouts. Nothing feels real.
Fuck Hamish, I tell her.
He saved your life, Liam.
I never asked him to.
You didn't have to ask. He would do anything for you.
Then why didn't he let me die?
My mother starts to cry, and once again, I win the award for being the world's shittiest son. I exchange looks from across the room with Parker, a crackhead who sits next to me in group. He's twitchier than I am, fidgeting as he talks to his probation officer. He raises his eyebrows at me and I look away.
Look, my mother says. You're going to have to give a statement to the police.
They know where to find me.
You need to try to remember what happened.
I told you. I don't remember anything.
This is a lie, but safer than the truth, which I can't think about. Jamie's missing. The cops want to know all about us. They threaten me with drug charges while simultaneously asking me if I want to press charges for statutory rape. But they need a statement, and I don't want to talk to them, and now we're stuck. We're stuck and Jamie's missing and my mother is sitting here crying and I'm the cause for all of it.
Just think about it, okay? My mother reaches for me but I jerk away, and she drops her hand.
After she leaves I go outside and smoke cigarettes, one after another, on the cracked cement patio behind the rec room. Parker comes out and smokes with me. The first day in group he whispered Let's fuck in my ear, but I won't let him touch me, and besides, you get in trouble if they catch you fucking here. You get put in solitary for fucking. So instead we smoke cigarettes and Parker goes, Watch this, and puts out the tip of the cigarette on his arm. It smells like skin and burning hair. His eyes roll up into his head and his mouth pops open to form a little 'O.' He's breathing hard and I think if I did fuck him, is that how he would come?
It feels so good sometimes, he says. Ever tried it?
I haven't, so I do. It's white-hot and makes my breath catch in my chest. Parker looks impressed.
I just want a blast, he says. Just one last blast. I don't even need to be here.
He is full of shit, like all addicts are. I think, Fuck you Parker, you fucking crackhead. I wouldn't fuck you in a million years.