The night was deeper than the far side of the woods, which Damien peered into every now and then. He could feel it cover his hands and sneakered feet, his rather forgettable face and ragged thoughts. He stuck his hands into his jeans pockets and leaned against the van. It was ten o’clock when he’d pulled off the road and parked at the end of the fire lane. He’d waited twenty-five minutes. Either Tanner was up to his neck in deals or something was wrong. They had been friends since middle school and they had an understanding. When one of them needed something, the other came. Or at least called.
He needed oxycodone and had called. He hadn’t needed it for sixteen months but that was before. Before Jeanine grew impatient with him and left. Before his hours were cut from forty to twenty at the store. Before he hurt his back again lifting a box of car parts, cars that gleamed in the sunlight like the deluxe machines they were. Unlike the vehicle he owned.
Gravel spit and jumped and Damien jerked to attention. It was the driveway by the corner, Old Burl’s place. All he needed was someone to stop and ask what he was up to on a Friday night, parked on this road. He hurried behind the van and waited for the old Cadillac to slowly pass. Only when the tail lights became pinpricks did he step out again, forehead damp, mouth dry.
It had come to this again. The waiting. The wanting that drove every other thought out of mind. Now, every shadow slunk around him, every small noise caused alarm. He should have gone to the city where he would have been lost among a hundred others on the street. That’s where he belonged. That’s what he understood. Wasn’t it?
There had been a time when he had raced down the road to glory. A college scholarship for track which he cared less about than leaving this town. Three years being on the Dean’s List and the expectation of law school. He had always lived a life made incrementally more attractive by the number of challenges surmounted. It had been hard when he was a kid, mom ill with cancer, then taken down when he was ten; father consumed by that woman he’d married when Damien was fourteen. But he’d made it out alive and found the magic door: education.
Then there was the ridiculous accident the summer before his senior year at State. He’d come home for a month to visit and had been helping his father scrape paint from the house. He’d backed down a few rungs on the ladder to get an icy bottle of water in the cooler below. They’d been catching up. His father was happy with him, his only kid making good, had a girlfriend, Jeanine. The talk had been expansive and warm so that Damien had opened up for the first time in years. Working together was just the thing.
Damien swiped his brow with his forearm to catch the sweat. “What’d you just say?”
“Oh, get me one of those while you’re at it–I’m dying up here. How can August heat up more?”
And Damien had gotten the bottles, stuffed one between his shorts’ waist and his sweaty back, then held the other one in his left hand. His skin shivered from the cold, damp plastic. He took each step carefully but when he was six rungs from the top, he felt the bottle squeezing against his back, then leaking chilled water, a shock to buttocks and legs. The surprise of it threw him off. Or maybe he had been too relaxed, too confident that day. But his left foot lost contact with the next rung for a split second and he fell back, a flight that felt endless until he hit the ground like a one hundred sixty pound sack of cement. The fortuitous future morphed into a nightmare. Then he blacked out.
That’s when it had started. A back surgery. The pain requiring potent pills. Rehabilitation, more pills as the months turned into a year. Ten, then twenty a day. Living with his father and stepmother as though he was a boy rather than the man he needed to be. The lurking phantom of pain even when he walked well enough and then looked for work. In one year, his law school chance had slipped away. In two, the addiction had settled right, an unwanted roommate that Damien couldn’t dispense with. He ate them or snorted them, and sometimes shot them, whatever was handy or worked best that minute. It was either that or withdrawal, the sweats, the vomiting and intestinal hell. Agony in every fiber. Feeling crazy, skin aching, head askew. Being high was a thing of the past; now he just wanted to get through the days and nights. He left, took to the streets of a neighboring city and found more than he bargained for. He changed and although it felt worn, he acquiesced for the sake of Oxy. OC. Killer.
But eventually he’d had enough. He got tired of the no-win hustle that kept him running day and night, a game never over. Damien longed to snatch his life back, make it right. One morning he drove to a detoxification center and they made him better than he thought possible.
It was an uneasy and uneven return to health once more, but it was like his blood ran pure again and his mind started to follow, to even make sense. Still, it took a long while to get twenty-two months clean. There had been countless bad days.
And there had been more of those again the past couple months. Damien had held out as long as he could. He just wanted out of his head awhile, to feel nothing for one night, to not think. To not feel worthless: Damien Harper, part-time auto parts worker, ex-junkie (“Once a junkie, always a junkie”), still at his parents’ or couch surfing. What a damned tragedy that guy is and so on and on. Lost it all. Well, he couldn’t stand it. He didn’t even have to be anything fabulous, anymore. He just wanted respect. Some peace.
A sports car downshifted; the lights went out. It had been six years since that fateful summer. Tanner had been there for him after the doctors stopped writing prescriptions. He got out and unfolded himself, then stretched and yawned. It was as though he had been on a leisure ride and had just stopped for a break.
“So,” he said when he leaned against the van next to Damien. “Ready to come back to the fold?”
Damien tried to laugh but it came out like a grunt. “What do you have for me?”
Tanner shrugged. “That depends. I might want something this time.”
A frisson of anxiety, almost like a thrill, ran through him. “Such as?”
Tanner took out a cigarette from a crumpled pack and ran a thumbnail over the head of a kitchen match, a flare resulting. His face looked a dirty reddish-yellow in the match light and he smiled at his old schoolmate. The smile more a grimace. He blew it out; the darkness felt cooler than before.
“I have a job. Delivery. It’s your old stomping grounds, the college. I don’t really have the time tonight, bud, and you know the area well. How about it?”
Damien stared at him, the cigarette that dangled between his lips. Bartering, one thing for another. He remembered his old dorm at Hill and Ash, the union with the stone benches and fountain where they hung out and watched the girls. The cherry trees in the spring and the snow blanketing the massive steps of the administration building. He remembered his younger self: excited, maybe too fearless, but carving out a life he hoped to feel better about. Feeling stronger each time he got over the next hurdle. What mattered now?
“Tanner. Really? You want me to be your delivery boy?”
He stepped way from the van and Tanner did the same.
“A very small price. You get fifty pills. I get a job done. Not bad. Or do you want money? Of course not. You don’t want to be a drug dealer. That’s my job. You only want the drug, cheap. It’s a good trade, my friend. Time’s wasting’.” He slouched toward his car, looked at his watch, cigarette tip glowing.
Damien listened to the night. The frogs were singing in the distance. A bird called out, then there was a flutter of wings from one tree to another. A car was trundling down the road and Damien knew Tanner was itchy, ready to roll. He felt his throat constrict, heart thump.
“Hey! You’re in the wrong place, man!”
Tanner shouted an obscenity, got in his car and roared off.
The voice boomed across the road. “Is that Damien Harper’s sorry van? What’re you up to, son?”
It was Old Burl. The town drunk for forty years, sober for about ten, he’d heard. Had finally gotten married, too. Good woman, Marie; met her in AA. He hadn’t seen the man since spring, at the parts store. Damien heard him gun the engine a little so he walked up to the vintage powder blue Cadillac. They shook hands.
Old Burl spoke first. “That was Tanner.”
The old man cleared his throat and leaned his head out the window to better see him. “Well, why don’t you come by for a cup of coffee?”
“I don’t know–at this time of night?”
“This is as good a time as any, from what I can tell.”
Old Burl nodded at him and started down the road. Damien stood and looked around, then up. A capricious wind spread clouds across the inscrutable face of the night. Before too long, it would be autumn with a gorgeous harvest moon. Then winter again. So much time was going by. Damien had been so certain once that he would never get to twenty, then thirty. He could live as though he meant it or let life drift through his fingers. All that he had to do tonight was stay clean. Hang on and get through it.
Damien walked over to his rattling van and got in. Then he pulled up behind Old Burl nice and easy so stray rocks wouldn’t mar the Caddy.