Prose
Experiments
by J. Bowers

When I got to Ketch’s, a few of the others were hanging out around the kitchen table, Indian-style, like kids at a church picnic. Laura and Frannie shifted to make a space for me on the rug, nodding hello. The kitchen table was usually hidden under dirty dishes and comic books, but everything had been swept onto the floor to make room for a strange array of beakers, plastic butter tubs, and the chopped-off tops of soda bottles. Evil Ben stood imperiously behind the mess, a pair of vinyl goggles perched atop his dreadlocked head.

“Good timing,” he muttered, stooping to bring his eyes level with a test tube full of clear liquid. The record player was on, but Evil Ben was clearly the floor show. Laura and Frannie sat rapt, passing a pipe back and forth whenever one of them thought about it. I got in on the rotation.

“What’s going on?” I asked again.

“Shhhh,” hissed Frannie, his nose spouting gray smoke. Laura started snickering. That was odd, because Frannie’s a dickhead, and it’s not good to encourage him. I looked to Evil for help. He only nodded, pushing his thumb into a box of baking soda.

“Guys, really, what--”

“Shh,” said Laura, more kindly than Frannie. She passed me the pipe. It was hers--thick, smoke-stained glass, brown shot through with yellow. Ketch always said it had an hourglass figure, like a lady. I raised my eyebrows at Laura, hoping to get an answer out of her. “Where’s Ketch?” I asked.

Frannie wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.

“Seriously, Naomi,” he said. “You should shut up. This is solemn shit.”

“Fuck you, Frannie.”

Pleased with myself, I took a long hit and leaned back on the rug, trying to pretend that I didn’t care about whatever game they were playing. But it was hard not to watch. Evil Ben scooped several heaping tablespoons of baking soda into a yellow butter tub, then threaded a clear length of fishtank tubing through a hole cut in the thin plastic lid. A larger beaker stood on the corner nearest us, its bottom coated with shredded newspaper. He picked up the test tube full of transparent liquid and examined it reverently, as though it contained fine wine.

“Go ahead,” he said, nodding at Frannie, who crawled back behind the table and started rooting around behind the huge orange construction barrels that supported Ketch’s gro-lamps. He came up clutching the tiny cage that held Kalindy’s mice. They’d been caught humanely in her apartment a few weeks back, and she’d said she didn’t feel right setting them loose in the snow. So Ketch agreed to keep them here until things thawed out. No one knew why she didn’t keep them at her place, but then, none of us knew why we hardly ever went home. The two mice crouched together beside an untouched toilet paper tube, trembling slightly, just as they had the last time I saw them. They were the color of dust, with black caviar eyes.

Evil Ben smiled encouragingly at Frannie.

“Catch one.”

Frannie set the cage on the table, snapped open the wire door, and reached inside. The mice tried to dart away, but it wasn’t long before he nabbed one. He pinched the loose skin behind the thumb-sized rodent’s pink ears and lifted it, squirming, aloft.

“Oooh, I can’t watch,” squealed Laura, yanking the pipe out of my hand.

“I can,” said Evil Ben, lowering the goggles onto his nose with a carnival flourish. Frannie dropped the chosen mouse into the beaker. It seemed stunned at first, then started propping itself up on its forelegs, its tiny yellow teeth clicking like pins against the glass. Laura touched the lighter to the bowl, her eyes crossed to watch the flame. She was no help at all.

Evil Ben smiled as he poked the free end of the fishtank tubing at the captive mouse’s face. It ducked and dodged out of the way. He let the tubing fall to the bottom of the beaker, and left it there.

“What are you doing?” I asked, feeling stupid as soon as I said it.

“Shut up, Naomi,” said Evil Ben, but before I could tell him off, Frannie slammed a salad plate on top of the beaker and Evil tipped the contents of the test tube onto the baking soda. The mixture fizzed immediately. He dropped the empty vial and cupped both hands over the frothing butter tub.

I took the pipe from Laura and had a long drag, thinking I’d distract myself, but I couldn’t not watch. Most of Evil’s concoction was spurting out of the cracks between his fingers. For a moment, it looked like nothing else was going to happen. But then, a cloudy vapor seemed to snake its way up through the tubing, under the saucer, and into the atmosphere of the beaker. We all got quiet, so quiet we could hear us breathing.

For a while, the mouse kept reaching curiously for the top of the beaker, falling over, and reaching again. It was apparently too stupid to realize it couldn’t get out that way. After a while, it fell down and stayed there, its back end completely limp. It used its two good legs to pull itself toward the middle of the beaker, where it finally shuddered and collapsed into the shredded newspaper, static, empty, dead.

Frannie was the first to laugh.

“Holy shit, did you see that? Did you see that?”

We had, and the room felt stranger.

“Nice one, Mr. Wizard!”

Frannie clapped Evil on the back, and he grinned like a magician, like he’d done some impressive thing. The mouse lay dead and gray among shredded headlines and advertisements. Its black eyes were wide open, like a movie murder victim. I looked over at Laura. She took another hit.

“You better hide it,” she muttered, exhaling a plume of smoke. “They’ll be back. Soon, they said.”

Evil Ben nodded, his languid eyes level with hers. Ever since they started fucking, it’s like they’ve developed some secret language that the rest of us can’t quite grasp. This time, her eyes somehow told Evil to slide open the window above the gro-lamps, grab the beaker, and send the mouse’s body sailing, newsprint and all, toward the snowy parking lot below.

“Hardcore, man,” gasped Frannie, his face pressed against the glass. “Hard-fucking-core.”

“We’d better just hope they don’t find it when they get back,” said Evil Ben, replacing the beaker on the table. He rearranged his makeshift laboratory casually, fiddling with the test tubes in their plastic rack, then ducking into the kitchen to toss the butter tub onto the garbage pile. Frannie put the cage back in the corner, next to Kalindy’s wormwood plants.

“Dude, we should have frozen it,” said Frannie.

I guess I made a face or something, because Evil shot me a weird look.

“Whatever, Naomi.” he said. “People kill them with those blue powdery pellets all the time. And you’ve heard the hawks at the reservoir, it’s not like they stood a chance in hell out there. This was humane. I looked it up on the Internet.”

“At-home euthanasia,” mused Laura, as if she couldn’t decide whether or not she liked the idea. She passed the pipe back to me and giggled a little.

I could see the other mouse, still cowering near its toilet paper tube. Smoke wafted noiselessly through the cage’s wire bars. Someone put on a record from Ketch’s “Ethnic Folkways Library” collection, all sitar and strange Indian bells. I’m not sure how long we stayed like that, splayed around the kitchen table. It was a bit of a shock when the front doorknob rattled and Ketch stumbled in, laughing. It always was.

“Hey,” said Ketch, nodding hello. Kalindy swept into the living room after him, laughing, her frizzy red hair an uneven halo. I got paranoid for a second, remembering what had happened to the mouse, wondering if they’d seen it on their way in. But Kalindy kept laughing and Ketch smiled broadly at all of us, the tiny metal barbell in his lip stretching away from his gums. Then he slammed the apartment door and checked the lock three or four times. Satisfied, he nodded at us again.

“What’s up?”

“Not much,” said Evil Ben. I hadn’t noticed him get up to retrieve a new rack of test tubes from the freezer. “Just some science experiments.”

Kalindy flung off her coat and insinuated herself into the slight space between Laura and me. I noticed pink strings of cellophane ribbon wound around her ankles, the kind people curl for presents. Clearly stoned from a previous social engagement, she luxuriated on the floor like a cat, then popped up, grinning at both of us.

“How are my best girls?” she asked, accepting Laura’s pipe.

“We went to Paco’s,” said Ketch, shrugging off his backpack and flopping into the armchair beside the front door. “He says next week.”

Evil Ben grinned. “Nice.”

“We did get these though,” said Kalindy, holding up a plastic sandwich bag. It contained two plum-sized brown pyramids, each side incised with a crudely carved eye.

“Yes, yes,” said Ketch. “We did get those, indeed.”

“Check it out,” said Kalindy, handing the bag to me. “Paco makes them. It’s dark chocolate with mushrooms in it.”

The pyramids knocked together softly in the bag. I gave them back to Kalindy, feeling kind of jealous. I didn’t ever participate in Evil’s experiments. I didn’t feel right putting anything in my body unless I could picture a deer finding and eating whatever it was in the woods, naturally, by chance. That said, mushrooms were my all-time favorite. I liked the extra color they provided, the vibrations in the walls.

Evil Ben clapped his hands, spreading his arms ringmaster-wide.

“That’s nice,” he said, “but I’ve just distilled a solution of 4aco-dipt with grain alcohol.”

The test tubes in front of him steamed gently at room temperature, sending thin white vapor trails drifting off the table’s edge.

“Interesting,” said Ketch.

“It’s been in cold storage for two days,” said Evil, his voice rising with pride. “I tried some already. It’s awesome. It’s like DXM without the puking.”

The clear liquid in the test tubes made me uneasy. I didn’t like the way things were shaking out. Ketch and Kalindy were going to eat shrooms, everyone else would drink Evil’s weird stuff, and I’d be stuck playing babysitter, watching everyone else trip. No way was I sticking around for that. I reached for my jacket, but Kalindy stopped me, shaking the chocolates like bells.

“Hey, aren’t we going to eat these?”

“Huh?”

“Yeah, right?” She nodded at Ketch and Evil Ben, standing beside the kitchen table, test tubes in hand. They seemed to be negotiating what would constitute a dose. Evil was demonstrating something with an eyedropper while Ketch nodded importantly, holding his test tube up to the light.

Kalindy leaned forward and cupped her hand around my ear. “No way am I drinking anything that doesn’t have a name,” she hissed. “And these are chocolate.”

She set the baggie down on her thigh and carefully extracted both pyramids, placing them on top of the plastic. For a second, I couldn’t figure out whether she was offering me one or not, but then she put a pyramid in the palm of my hand, super-casual, like it was a cookie or something. Up close, you could see that the eyes had been carved with toothpicks.

“Novus Ordo Seclorum,” murmured Kalindy knowingly. “New world order, freemason shit, that’s what that is. Just like the dollar bill.”

With that, she popped a whole pyramid into her mouth. I took two bites. The chocolate didn’t taste unusual, just sort of grainy and dry, like vending machine candy. My teeth sliced right through. “That’s the mushrooms,” lisped Kalindy, nodding as she chewed.

We looked up just in time to see Laura close her mouth around the three clear drops Evil gave her. She smiled down at us, beatific, believing, like whatever it was was simple and good, just another mouthful of powdered Tang. And we smiled back, our teeth black with chocolate. Evil Ben and Ketch looked like baby birds as they took turns dosing each other, all wide eyes and straining tongues. And Frannie almost gagged himself with the eyedropper, intent on getting the drugs close to the back of his throat, where the blood vessels run closest to the surface.

I don’t know why I ever slept with him. Come to think of it, none of us knew all that much about him. Rumor had it he was a trust fund baby, funded by parents who invested in Microsoft at five dollars a share. He did drive one of those square cars, and he never said anything about work.

He coughed at me, eyes watering, smile wide. “Damn,” he said.

“Good shit, huh?” asked Evil, using his free hand to catch anything that fell out of the eyedropper, and tonguing his palm to avoid wasting any.

“What is this stuff?” asked Laura. She always got paranoid five minutes too late.

“I told you, 4aco-dipt with grain alcohol,” replied Evil, as though that meant anything. He still presided over his meticulously kept beakers and vials, his lab goggles resting atop a matted mound of dreadlocks. There was always something about his hair that reminded me of buffalo in elementary school social studies textbooks--wild and doomed, thundering headlong off cliffs, collapsing under Indian arrows.

“I don’t know what that means,” Laura whined. “I failed chemistry.”

“They don’t teach this in chemistry,” said Evil Ben, shaking a beaker at her. “I found it on the Internet.”

Frannie burst out laughing. It sounded like barking, echoing off the white walls. “We just ate something you found on the Internet?”

Everyone laughed, one way or another. The drugs were taking hold, sure. But more than that, in my mind’s eye I could still see that mouse, and I knew the others could, too. I half-wanted to tell Kalindy what Evil did to it, so she wouldn’t blame me when it turned up missing. But then I noticed that I just couldn’t feel my hands unless I rubbed them over the carpet, up and down, warming my palms with the friction. It was the weirdest thing.

“Look, Nimmy’s got high-face,” giggled Laura, reaching out to trace the lines where my smile seemed to engulf my cheeks. Frannie just about cackled, accidentally banging his head on the bottom of the kitchen table.

“Fuck,” he moaned, collapsing face-first on the hardwood floor. His eyes spun like lottery balls.

“Careful,” said Evil Ben. He stood beside the table, replacing the test tube holding the drug in its yellow plastic rack. “It’s hard to say what your individual reactions will be.”

Kalindy rolled her eyes at me, and I laughed. Someone, probably Ketch, had flipped over the Ethnic Folkways record, and the sound of bells and tabla filled the room. For a second, it felt like summer was still happening, and we could all walk to the Rite Aid for a popsicle, or even the reservoir, but then the sun hit the snow outside, bathing the room in bright white light.

______________________

We got stranger after sunset, but isn’t that always the way. I guess it took until around five o’clock for things to really start going off. Frannie had been stirring beneath the table for a while, muttering something about vomit. Evil Ben and Ketch were sitting cross-legged on either end of the sofa, arguing about the composition of space-time while Laura played GTA 3, hitting every pedestrian. They were both philosophy majors, and Evil’s homemade concoction had induced some kind of debate. They gesticulated like saints in Renaissance paintings, their fingers pointed importantly at the ceiling, their fists shaking at the shadowed walls. I didn’t understand half of the conversation, but I was past caring. The mushrooms gave everything a mellow, hyper-real glow.

Kalindy had taken down some National Geographic nature books. I was flipping through one about birds of North America. The pages smelled nice, sort of musty and important, like I might learn something. I was trying to find a pheasant in a photograph of a wheatfield when Kalindy grabbed a hank of my hair and pulled, hard enough for me to feel it.

“This is boring,” she said. “Let’s dye your hair.”

“Okay,” I was sort of bemused.

“I was going to do Ketch’s, but you need it more,” she went on, yanking me up off the mattress by the arm, like I was some kind of doll.

“What’s up?” asked Ketch, distracted by our sudden movement.

“Nothing important,” said Kalindy.

I shrugged and followed her toward the bathroom, picking my way through the piles of Dumpster junk that lined Ketch’s corridor. The bathroom was a tiny place, bathtub, toilet, and vanity all crammed into a space the size of a closet, lined with the kind of black and white tiles that dance when you stare at them too long. The room’s only grace was a single window, with cracking mini-blinds to hide occupants’ bare asses from the parking lot below.

Kalindy trotted in ahead of me and slammed down the toilet seat.

“Sit there.”

I sat. Satisfied, she whirled around to grab a grimy towel from the rack, and flung it on the floor. She jammed it under the door crack with her bare, beribboned feet.

“Alone at last,” she announced, tossing a plastic baggie full of weed and a cigarette-shaped one-hitter into my lap. “Pack that, I’ll get the dye ready.”

The weed looked good. I regarded Kalindy with fresh respect. She’d been holding out on us all afternoon, smoking Ketch’s stash and hiding her own. I didn’t even know she bought drugs--every time I saw her smoke, she was freeloading off Ketch.

“I mean, we shouldn’t even have to be around those people right now,” she went on, as though we were already having a conversation. “We’re having a totally different experience, you know?”

I nodded, pushing pinches of dope down into the pipe. Kalindy perched one foot on the side of the bathtub, like it was a small white canoe, and leaned forward to turn on the faucet.

“I thought we were going to dye my hair.”

“Oh, we are, we are,” said Kalindy, spinning the temperature wheel all the way to the red zone. “But we’re also gonna hotbox the bathroom. It’s called multitasking, baby pie.”

“What?”

She laughed. “Just keep packing that pipe, sweetie. You’ll see,” she said. She pulled up the plunger that controlled the shower and jerked the plastic curtain closed, careful not to burn herself with the steaming water. Then she started rooting around in the cupboards under the sink.

The bathroom always had this weird dank smell, probably thanks to the moldy washcloths heaped in a corner of the bathtub. With the door shut and the shower on,
I could feel the air getting heavy, pressing in. White steam was starting to creep up and over the shower curtain. I ducked to catch the draft of air that shot in through the lone window, which overlooked the icy parking lot. If I squinted, I thought I could see the mouse’s remains, a darker smudge on the gray pavement.

“Here we are,” said Kalindy, holding up a bottle of blood-red liquid. “Now we’re getting somewhere.”

She seized a scummy-looking jelly glass and started squirting in the dye, which wound into thick red worms as it hit thebottom. Kalindy squeezed until the bottle was empty, then darted forward to snatch the one-hitter out of my hands, lighting the business end as deftly as you’d light a cigarette. She sucked in deeply, then thrust a plastic tumbler full of tap water into my empty hands.

“Take your shirt off and wet your hair,” she said, sounding slightly pained as she held smoke in her lungs.

I stood up and looked at the thin coat of dust and hair on the floor, my legs swaying slightly as the tiles began to dance. A faint rainbow halo surrounded the vanity lights.

“Why can’t I just use the shower?” I asked.

“Because the water is fucking hot,” laughed Kalindy. “They don’t call it hotboxing for nothing, you know.” She reached past me to slam the window shut and pull down the blinds. “There you go, prude. Now hit this.”

With the window closed, the steam seemed to stretch to fill the room, like we were standing in a low cloud. It felt more like summer than ever. I struggled out of my T-shirt and took the one-hitter out of Kalindy’s hand, quickly sucking in a lungful of smoke as she dumped the water on my head. I shivered in my bra.

“Jesus, that’s cold.”

“Yeah, you have to shock it so the color will stick. Now sit back down.”

When Kalindy exhaled, the smoke seemed to disappear into the humid air. She handed me the one-hitter. “It’s kicked. Keep packing it,” she said, her eyes half-lidded as she grabbed the hair dye. “It won’t work if we don’t keep smoking.”

Someone banged on the bathroom door so loudly I jumped.

“Are you guys showering together?” asked Frannie.

“You wish,” growled Kalindy, rolling her eyes. The doorknob jiggled, but Kalindy ignored it, scooping up a scarlet glob of dye with her fingers and smearing it onto my hair. It felt even colder than the water, and sticky. I couldn’t figure out how anything from under the sink could be so cold.

“But the shower’s running,” whined Frannie. “Let me in, I have to puke.”

“Oh, go die in a fire, Francis,” said Kalindy, talking through a mouthful of bobby pins. “He just can’t stand being left out,” she muttered. “Maybe he should have thought of that when he decided to play Frankenstein with the boys.”

“Maybe,” I agreed. When I heard her say Frankenstein, I remembered the dead mouse, prone and broken in the cold. The drugs made my mind feel fractured, all over the place. The pounding at the door continued for a moment, as Kalindy kept stroking dye through my hair. Then there was coughing, and the unmistakable wet sound of vomit hitting the floor outside. We could hear the others talking, and Frannie moaning, but with the shower on it all sounded like monkey noise.

“Ketch hates him, you know.” Kalindy plucked a bobby pin out of her mouth and secured a clump of dye-drenched hair to the top of my head. “Everyone only tolerated him because you liked him, but now that you don’t, all bets are off. If he doesn’t start buying drugs, or bringing food, or doing something useful, he’s old news.”

This was strange intelligence. In the short time I’d known Ketch, I’d never seen him ditch anyone. Things happened, people came and went, but it always seemed like it happened by chance or accident, not because of any concerted effort to ditch dead wood. Ketch was always saying, “everything changes all the time.” I pressed my lips against the pipe and lit the tip, feeling privileged and luxurious, like I was hearing government secrets at a top salon. The spiked steam made me sweat. Kalindy flicked her fingers through my hair, scattering drops of bright red dye onto the floor, where they formed stains like tiny fireworks.

“One more time,” she urged, motioning at the one-hitter. She blew a strand of her hair out of her eyes, so curly it was almost a dread, and almost unnaturally orange.

“Is mine going to look like that?” I asked, pointing.

“Oh, no, no, no,” she said. “You’re going to have this whole David Bowie punk rock thing going on. It would be even better if I had bleach.”

I envied her for being able to speak coherently when we were this high. I bet she could have even talked to cops. I started to think of my hair as this glowing shock of scarlet, and imagined what it would look like when we all walked down the street together, the way it would mark me out among them when we went to the 7-11.

“Okay, now we wait twenty minutes.” said Kalindy, rinsing off her hands. There was a scuffling sound in the hallway, then, as if we were someplace where there was a dog. Something slammed into the bathroom door, so hard the frame shook. I jumped up off the toilet and felt dizzy, like there was nothing in my veins.

“Cut it out!” yelled Kalindy, banging her wet fist on the door. She left a pink smudge, and the light trails from the vanity drew pink splotches around that. It was awful pretty. For a second, I thought we’d watch it together. Then she flung the door open, and Frannie, pale as milk, kind of collapsed into the bathroom, his head cracking against the tile. I had to leap onto the toilet to make room. From there, I could see that there was a puddle of bile and macaroni beside his feet. It was getting all over his sneakers as he writhed around. His eyes looked wrong, too black, and his mouth was damp with vomit.

“Whoa, are you okay?” asked Kalindy.

Frannie made a weird clicking noise, and choked out something like no, so Kalindy spilled the cup of water she was holding onto his face. He spluttered and choked, coughing like he’d just washed ashore. Kalindy threw up her hands, helpless.

“Fucking moron. Hey, Ketch, get in here.”

Ketch dashed into the hallway, faster than I expected him to. He lifted his T-shirt up over his nose and groaned at the vomit. “Ugh, remind me never to drink Robitussin with this guy.”

I didn’t see Evil Ben follow Ketch. He was just kind of there, leaning against the wall with his arms folded, his eyes levelly sweeping the scene. It was unnerving, like being watched by lizards at the zoo. Behind him, Laura hung in the hallway, an absent, glazed look of contentment on her face.

“I think he’s coming around,” said Ketch. He seemed fairly lucid, considering he was on the same cocktail of pot and God-knows-what that had taken Frannie down. He was slapping Frannie’s cheek like they do on TV. It seemed to be working. He had a little color back, and his eyes were less like marbles.

“Come on, dude,” said Ketch. “Don’t die.”

Frannie rolled his head to the side and spat at the tiles a couple of times. Then he puked a little more, and his face was sort of rolling around in it. I couldn’t figure out how to get out of the bathroom. The floor was covered in puke, and no one had bothered to switch off the shower. I ended up balancing myself on the edge of the toilet seat, my hands fastened to the medicine cabinet so I wouldn’t fall in. After a while, Frannie said he felt well enough to sit up. We all watched him struggle upright, his bare elbows sliding around on the wet tiles. He looked alive, but numb.

“That’s really a great vampire impression.” said Evil Ben.

Frannie stared at him.

“You know, the skin, the veins, all that,” Evil went on. “I didn’t know anyone could look like that. I mean, seriously, you look like hell.”

Kalindy looked at Ketch, and I looked at her. Nobody seemed to know what to do. Then Ketch started laughing, so hard, he couldn’t help coughing. Evil sneered. And I felt kind of sick because I could tell what was coming.

“Fuck you,” spat Frannie.

“Oh, man, Frannie, no, that’s no way to talk to your people,” said Evil, catching his breath. “Come on, man, just breathe deep and chill out. The girls were done in here, anyway, weren’t you?”

Kalindy started to protest, but Frannie cut her off.

“You’re trying to kill me,” he said, a trickle of bile dribbling from his mouth.

“You’re tripping, man. I told you it was stronger than last time.”

Frannie kept trying to train his eyes on Evil, but they were darting all over the place, half mad with rage and drugs. He reminded me of this pitbull in a film they showed us back at high school. In the hopes that we would say no to drugs, some doctors had given it PCP. It clawed at its meaty head until it passed out.

“You’re trying to kill me,” Frannie repeated, a rasp in his voice. “First this time, then the other. You’re fucking trying to kill me with this shit.”

“That makes no sense.” said Evil. He waved his bare palms in front of his face, like a magician revealing empty sleeves. When he spoke again, his voice was even, calm.

“Think, Fran. If I was trying to kill you, why would I drink the solution myself?”

“Murderer!” cried Frannie. “It’s just like the fucking mouse!”

We all shushed him instinctively. You can’t be loud when you’re on drugs, not like you can when you’re drunk. If the cops show up, you’re screwed.

“Shut the fuck up, Frannie.” said Laura, out of nowhere.

And it was weird, but he did. The effort of shouting took a lot out of him. He just laid there panting, his eyes a watery mess. Kalindy sat stock-still on the floor. She looked like someone had threaded a wire up her spine. And Ketch, touching her, knew.

“What mouse?” he asked, looking over at Evil Ben. It wasn’t an accusatory, cowboy kind of question. He said it the same way he’d ask ‘what’s up.’

Evil shrugged and pressed his hands together, completely unconcerned.

“I was doing some experiments,” he said. “There was a casualty. And if I recall rightly, you, Frannie, were the one who put Kalindy’s mouse in the beaker.”

The next little while happened too fast, like we were a movie and someone jump-cut the reel. Kalindy shrieked like a strangled cat and rushed at Evil, her fists flying. He threw his arms up to protect himself and backed up, hitting the wall, but Kalindy kept right on swinging anyway, her fists small hard pistons, until Ketch managed to drag her struggling body off of him. It was weird, the whole time, Evil just kind of smirked, like it didn’t hurt at all.

“Come on, baby, just calm down, chill out,” Ketch was saying. But Kalindy kept screaming about how he shouldn’t fucking touch her, he just shouldn’t fucking touch her, the whole way into the living room. It sounded like they were hitting each other, that fat slap of skin on skin. Then we heard the front door slam, and there were three or four rattles of metal. Ketch was kicking his bike.

Evil Ben scowled at Frannie.

“Now look what you’ve done, you stupid paranoid fuck,” he said.

Laura stood there for a moment, taking things in, like Frannie was a car crash involving strangers. Then she, too, drifted into the living room. It seemed like the storm had passed. I gingerly stepped down off the toilet and switched off the shower, wondering how the hell I was going to rinse my hair with Frannie in the way. He didn’t look like he planned to move anytime soon, and there was vomit everywhere.

“Well, you got away clean,” he muttered, swiping his arm across his mouth.

“Shut the fuck up, Francis.”

I tiptoed over his arms and legs and left.

***

We didn’t see Kalindy for a long while. Apparently, she’d had some prior disagreement with Ketch while they were at Paco’s, and needed some time away. Ketch only emerged from his bedroom to pee or get something out of the fridge, and whenever I caught his eye, he’d mutter things like “This, too, shall pass,” and “Ignorance is regarding the impermanent as permanent.” He’d been drinking for days. Except for occasional packs of kids trooping back to Ketch’s room for drugs, and the muffled, sticky sound of Evil and Laura groaning and getting it on, the living room was pretty peaceful. So that’s where I stayed. Ketch kept extra weed inside the djembe drum, and if I skimmed just a few bowls out of each bag, he never noticed a thing.

I liked to smoke in the late afternoons, when the sun came in through the windows. The dye had stained my skin a faint shade of pink. Apart from my fingernails, which were bright axe-murderer red, I looked almost healthy. Meanwhile, my hair blazed like Hiroshima, or at least the red I always imagined when I looked at the colorless photographs in those old National Geographic books. I liked this hair. It gave me a certain swagger, like the time I pushed a safety pin through my teenage ear.

I almost jumped out of my skin when a phone rang--I hadn’t even known there was a phone in there. It took a few minutes to find it, nestled between a long-dead cactus and a stack of graffiti magazines. Nearby, the lone mouse spun in its plastic wheel.

“Hello?”

“Oh, good, it’s you,” It was Kalindy. She sounded relieved.

“Hey. Where you been?”

She laughed. “Oh, around, around. What are you up to?”

I looked around, as if the junk lining the room would give me an answer.

“Nothing, really,” I said.

“Then you should come over here.” Kalindy’s voice was hoarse, like she’d been smoking. “And bring my mouse. I’ve got a surprise for you.”

“Okay,” I said, suddenly remembering something. “I’ve never been to your house.”

“Really?” She sounded surprised.

“I mean, I don’t know where it is.”

“Oh,” she said, understanding. “You can walk. I’m in 3-C.”

It took me a minute to realize that she’d hung up on me, and another few to gather up enough clothes to go outside. Most of my stuff was piled on an armchair beside the door. I couldn’t remember what was clean, so I threw a towel over the mouse’s cage for safekeeping and went out in a jacket, underdressed.

The snow-covered courtyard was blinding white. My eyes ached as I stared up at the number on Ketch’s apartment building. 12. I wondered why I hadn’t known that before. It took longer than it should have to figure out that the numbers on the buildings went in descending order, moving south toward the Valu-Food. I followed them down, 10, 8, 5. A couple carrying groceries stared at my hair. I felt dangerous.

I found apartment 3-C on the first floor of a brick building that looked exactly like Ketch’s, only with different shrubs. The foyer smelled of burnt syrup and cat litter. There was a fortune cookie paper stuck to Kalindy’s door, in the space where you’re supposed to put your last name. “Your dearest dream is coming true,” it read.

Kalindy opened the door right after I knocked, like she’d been waiting just inside. Dark circles rimmed her golden eyes.

“Your hair!” She twirled me like a porcelain dancer, her hand clutching my dye-stained fingers.

“I like it a lot,” I said, tucking a loose strand behind my ear.

“You should,” said Kalindy. “You really, really should.”

She snatched her mouse cage away from me and hurried me inside. Her apartment seemed much cleaner than Ketch’s, brighter somehow. It looked like she took the time to dust the corners. A monumental painting of an elephant hung on the wall behind the hi-fi. The rug was hidden under a mess of records, as if Kalindy had been sitting there switching them around, but nothing was on.

“My mom was in Florida,” she said, as if that explained something. She bustled to set the mouse cage on the kitchen table. “I’m really glad you were there. I’m fed up with everyone else.”

“Yeah, me too,” I said.

Kalindy grinned. I liked the way her left eye tooth hooked her lower lip.

“You could move here if you want,” she said, ushering me toward the overstuffed sofa. “All we’d have to do is drag your mattress over.”

I accepted the joint she was offering and appraised the room once more. It seemed larger than Ketch’s, too, probably because there wasn’t as much junk laying around.

“My stuff could fit under the window,” I said.

Kalindy shook her head. “There are two bedrooms, and one’s free. I thought I’d use it, but I haven’t, so you might as well.”

“Seriously?” I exhaled a long plume of smoke. “How much?”

She shrugged. “Don’t worry about it.”

That sounded too simple. But things at Ketch’s weren’t so great with Evil around.

“Okay.” I agreed.

“Excellent,” said Kalindy, leaping off the sofa like she’d sat on a tack. “Let’s celebrate!” She lunged at something on her bookshelf, and whipped around to shake the object in my face. It looked kind of like an instant oatmeal packet--brown paper, no writing--but all the edges were just folded over, not sealed.

“What’s that?” I asked.

“Aw, you’re cute, you don’t know.” said Kalindy, grinning. “It’s your surprise.”

I blinked. “I thought moving in was my surprise.”

“You thought wrong, baby-pie,” said Kalindy. She set the packet down on the coffee table and flopped backwards into the sofa. “I bet you’ve never heard of chasing the dragon.”

I had to think a minute. I was getting pretty stoned.

“Was it a Bruce Lee movie?”

Kalindy laughed so hard her knees hit the table. Wincing, she hugged them against her chest and rocked back and forth on her haunches.

“H!” she announced, still rocking. “Junk! Skag! Or, you’ll like this one, right, girls do--horse. That one’s sort of the best.”

“Heroin?”

I hated how incredulous I sounded, like the clueless lead in an after-school special. I expected Kalindy to lose it completely, but instead she became very serious, her lips drawn tight. She reached for the little brown packet again, reverently this time, like it’d be blasphemy to drop it.

“You’d think the others could have found some by now,” she said, cradling the envelope with both hands. “I mean, we’re ten minutes away from the city. It’s not like they’d have the balls to try it, though. I got it for us.”

I groped through my weed-addled brain for heroin information. Back at my high school juice bar job, there was a guy who wore long-sleeved shirts to work, all summer. One day he didn’t show up, and we all learned that he had been arrested in Towson for holding up a convenience store, trying to score more smack.

“Oh, man, you’re totally freaked out now,” crowed Kalindy.

I swallowed the spit in my mouth and talked faster than I meant to.

“No, I just hate needles. I’m not doing anything with needles.”

“Oh, no, no needles, no needles.” she said, waving her hands. “We’re chasing the dragon, and that means smoking it. The Chinese do it all the time.”

She shrugged.

“Well, I’m going to have some, anyway.”

With that, she set the pipe down on the cushion in front of her and grabbed a magazine off the coffee table. She tore off part of the vodka ad on the back cover and
rolled it into a tiny tube, licking the edges to make sure it stuck together. Satisfied, she shook the heroin out of the packet into the pipe, which was still half-full of weed. I felt pale.

“Bottoms up,” said Kalindy, flicking her pink lighter at the powder. The tiny flame sizzled like eggs. Before it stopped burning, she held the paper tube up to the bowl and painstakingly inhaled the thin curl of fumes. My head was spinning, watching her. I thought about how tiny particles of heroin were probably seeping into the pipe, and wondered how many times she’d done this before, how many times I’d done it by proxy, not knowing. She might have smoked heroin out of the one-hitter from the other night. There might be heroin everywhere, floating through the atmosphere, settling on windowsills like pollen. In fact, I thought, I might even be doing some right now.

Finished, Kalindy leaned back, her eyes slits, a thin smile playing on her lips.

“Happy birthday,” she sighed, pushing the pipe and the tube into my hand.

I flicked the lighter.

“No, no, you have to fill it up again.”

My hands were kind of shaky from the pot, but part of me was perversely curious about what this particular cocktail of chemicals would do to me. I imitated what Kalindy had done, like we were on some kind of bizarre cooking show--tipped the oatmeal packet into the pipe, one tiny shake of smack to two parts weed.

“No, more than that,” Kalindy advised. “Just a little more.”

I shook a little more powder into the pipe and retrieved the lighter. The whole works sizzled as I held the flame in place, then the tube, sucking up smoke. It tasted strange, like burnt putty. I watched the smoke snake out of my nose, and felt my limbs growing heavy, one inch at a time. My veins were dark blue. They seemed grateful that I hadn’t stuck them. I felt like they were stalks of celery soaking up warm food coloring, just like an experiment I did as a kid, after school. I let myself sink into the couch.

“Your eyes are like eightballs,” giggled Kalindy. “All backwards.”

She seemed almost unreal to me, then. She was just sitting there, her cheeks pink and freckled, her yellow eyes stained glass, but some combination of the drugs and her smile made it feel completely natural to collapse into her lap, like a pilgrim prostrating before the Buddha. Kalindy’s jeans were soft under my cheek, and she stroked my hair root to end, the way my mother used to pet me when I cried.

“It’s good, innit?”

She slurred the last two words, suddenly Cockney. My voice didn’t sound right either. I thought maybe I was finally hearing it the way everyone else does, not the way it echoes around inside my skull, bouncing off all the bones.

“Yeah...”

“I’m glad you came,” she murmured, dropping a kiss on my cheek. “I didn’t want to share it with the others. They don’t appreciate things like you do.”

I felt my face flush. Everything looked lovely, movie star fuzzy, like my eyeballs were dipped in Vaseline. Especially Kalindy, with her orange halo of hair. She retrieved the pipe, waving a languid hand at the cage on the kitchen table.

“Like what happened with the mice,” she went on, lighting the pipe. “You can’t leave anything nice with those people. You just can’t have anything nice in that house, you know?”

I shrugged against her thighs, my eyelids fluttering shut.

“I mean, what the fuck even happened?” she wondered. At first, I didn’t realize it was a real question. “Were you there? Do you know?”

The mouse, obsessed, worked its wheel. I could hear the metal squeaking, grinding against itself like a tiny cog in a strange and beautiful machine. I thought about how the other one had looked when it first hit the bottom of that beaker, more curious than frightened. I was sorry that it died. I was sorry that anything died at all. But it felt like something I’d read about, not anything I’d actually seen.

Kalindy tucked my hair behind my ear, her fingers light as feathers. I didn’t want to change a thing. I felt like if I didn’t move, we could stay this way forever.

“No,” I said. “No, I got there right before you did.”




Posted by: J. Bowers

Prose (May 4th, 2007)