“Yo, Pen. Bro. Wake up.”
“Fuck you, I’m awake.”
I opened my eyes to a mop of brown, greasy hair: Moses.
“You can’t sleep yet, Pen. I don’t wanna lose ya; the night is still young!” He winked, reaching into his coat. Suddenly there was a small bag, sealed with a green twist tie. “Sweetie, I’m gonna take you to the fucking Promised Land.”
Did he really just say that? I used my left arm. Moses used his right thigh.
“Is this why they call you Moses? You always go around and bring people speedballs?”
“Just the people I like.” He winked again.
“Well, I guess I like you.” Never had I worked so hard to hold back vomit than in this moment.
I felt the rush beginning to creep up—soon it would take over—and then I was thanking God for my existence.
I was outside of his new apartment. For a place called Green Meadow Townhouses, there was an unfortunate lack of green and meadow. How did I get here? I looked down. Dirty, ripped jeans hopelessly clung to my protruding hips. Gross. An oversized black hoodie covered my arms and torso. Gross. Everything was gross.
He doesn’t need to see me like this.
My feet agreed and took me back to The Convent. It was a safe place to get high. A safe place to sit down and shoot up. It was a place to be free. A safe place to be in the arms of H.
The entrance to The Convent was not the front door to the house; that door was covered by stolen plywood. The porch creaked with rot and held a clutter of broken lawn furniture as I rounded the corner. I crawled through the remnants of a large bay window: the “door” to home. Walls covered in peeling wallpaper graced my vision and the fumes of fresh spray paint assaulted my nostrils.
My bones were melting and sliding through the residual tunnels in my skin sack of a body, pooling in the tips of my fingers and my feet. Everything was warm, hazy.
And then I was crashing.
“Sean, please. I swear to God I’m working on it.” I begged—on my knees, pleading with my whole heart—I begged.
“I can’t fucking do this anymore. You’re not the woman I fell in love with… I don’t know what you are.” He was angry. But this time, he didn’t calm down. This time, he couldn’t. He turned, giving me his back, and yanked clothes from the dresser. He attempted to get them into a suitcase and didn’t do well. Packing was never his forte; that was my job.
He wouldn’t let me help.
He was leaving.
I sat, staring, tears streaming down my face. Maybe if he saw me he would change his mind. Maybe he would stop trying to pack and sit next to me, wiping away a tear. Everything would be okay if he’d just stop and look at me.
And then he was gone.
He left me in a bare apartment, save for the mattress and my own knick-knacks. He had looked at me and left me with running mascara and too many tears. He left me with no family and no money.
I lied— I wasn’t working on anything—maybe he knew that.
Stop & Shop was a combination of heaven and hell. The lights were too bright. On the other hand, the entrance was next to the pharmacy. Only a handful of steps until my lord and savior, Excedrin, found its way into my jacket pocket. The small coffin encasing Lord Excedrin offset my weight. With nothing in the other pocket, I leaned left to bring back balance.
I wandered through the aisles of food that didn’t make sense. I just wanted to look normal. The tiles were slightly yellow and honestly, the whole store felt yellow. Yellow like my skin. Or yellow like melted Mexican blend cheese.
My feet carried me, and my eyes found saltines. I wanted to feel the granules of salt on my tongue. Rough and comforting. I grabbed the smaller of the boxes: one that held two sleeves of glory. I stuffed it under my jacket. Lord Excedrin had two disciples.
I wandered a couple more aisles before slipping out of the exit, my spiritual guides in tow. Outside was brighter. More painful. I forced two pills into my dry mouth and chased it with dry crackers. The desert had made an appearance in my orifices. At least the saltines made me feel a little less hollow and a little less nauseous.
My feet took care of the rest.
“C’mon man, I just need a little bump to get me through. I’m good for it!”
A stranger was trying to bargain with one of our dealers. His hair was dirty—stringy—to a point that I couldn’t discern a color. Ripped jeans and a beige coat hung off of him. He looked like a child imitating daddy. Probably homeless. Scratch that, probably newly homeless. Welcome to hell, friend. I scanned room after room in the old house, and finally found my prize: Moses.
“Penny! Where the hell have you been? You can’t just leave me all by myself, babydoll.” He winked. Jesus fucking Christ, why does he always wink at me?
“Don’t call me Penny. Fuck, I’ve told ya too many times. And so what if I left for awhile? You’re not my fucking mother.” Spit flew from my lips and landed on Moses’ face. He wiped it with a brown sleeve of a not-brown shirt, crumpling the fabric in his fist.
I fucked up.
He snarled. “If you’re gonna shoot up my shit, you’re gonna fucking do what I say. And I say that you sit the fuck down and stay here. Is that cool, babydoll?”
I didn’t know what else to do other than nod. Moses gets mad at other people—not me. I didn’t have a response.
With Moses gone, I could have, theoretically, done whatever I wanted. But leaving didn’t feel like an option. Leaving wasn’t an option. What would I have done? He was mad at me. Everything was going to be okay if I stayed.
I leaned back against the wall and slid down to the ground. Tears landed in my hands—small puddles of salty self-hatred—when did I start crying? Dirty skin cleansed by eye water revealed some skin, shade to be determined, depending on the light. My body was fighting me. It wouldn’t stop crying. I couldn’t stop and trying to stop made it worse and I was choking on my spit because I couldn’t breathe out of my nose and snot rested on my upper lip and people were starting to notice. The Convent was a safe place to shoot up. But The Convent took care of itself. I tried to gather my composure, or any semblance of self—what I did gather wasn’t much.
“Girl, you gotta get it together before Moses comes back. This ain’t the place for your self-pity shit. Trust me.” Blonde dreads squatted in front of me. “Can you get it together or do I gotta move you?”
I could stop them.
I was in control again.
“No problem lady. But for real, you can’t do that shit here. It’ll get you into trouble. ‘Weak links are the end to The Convent’, according to Moses. What’s your name?”
“I’m Twig. Nice to meet ya.” She looked around my age, maybe twenty-six at the latest. Or younger. Drugs make it hard to guess. Then again, you don’t need to know an age when you’re only focused on the present moment. Dirty, oversized cargo pants and a tight black tank top made her waist look like (you guessed it) a twig. Scabs covered her body and began to reach her face. She looked kind. She wasn’t just searching for another hit. At least, not in this moment.
“How’d ya get here, Pen? You know, I’ve found that H isn’t picky with her friends. It really lets you meet some interesting people!”
“It just kinda happened. I don’t really wanna talk about it.”
“That’s cool, do it on your own time and shit.” She smiled with discolored teeth, like brown-beige corduroys.
“You know, I like you. Even if you don’t wanna talk about what happened. Your soul is pure, I can see it in your aura! If you ever need anything, I live in the master bedroom by the big window. I have a cactus, look for that.” She wandered away, greeting everyone she passed. Perky “Hey!”s echoed louder than the mumbled replies from other parishioners.
“Look for a cactus.” My mouth kept saying it until they didn’t sound like words and it ingrained itself somewhere, deep in a wrinkle on my brain.
I sat on the edge of my bed.
I hate myself.
My brain did nothing, but my feet picked me up and started moving. Left foot, right foot, left foot, right foot. Left foot, left foot, trip. Try again. Left foot, right foot, left foot, right foot. Good. Keep going.
Half-shut eyes showed me nothing and told me even less.
I kept letting my feet do the thinking for me. I decided I’d pry open my eyes when my feet stopped and demanded it.
Left foot, right foot.
Left foot, right foot.
Left foot, right foot.
I stood in front of a dilapidated Victorian. My abandoned, dilapidated Victorian—I had always passed it on my way into work. Vines and moss covered most of the exterior, puncturing windows and wrapping porch pillars. Maybe it had been lilac or lavender or just plain purple in its heyday, but now it was plant-green or tan bare wood paneling. Why am I here?
My feet took over again; left foot, right foot, left foot, right foot.
I found the entrance through an old window and climbed through.
“Welcome to The Convent, pretty thing.”
What the fuck does a cactus look like?
I’d only been upstairs twice, both times with Moses. He had his own room. The walls wore yellowed peeling pinstriped wallpaper, occasionally revealing The Convent’s inner wooden frame. The master bedroom was shaped like a thick “L”, with the same yellowed pinstriped suit and casual nudity. Covering most of the floor was, essentially, a big sleeping orgy. “Co-sleeping,” they called it. Most of the people had pushed their sleeping pads or cardboard or whatever together, sort of like a set of gymnastics mats. I hoped Twig wasn’t a co-sleeper. I didn’t want to get involved with the moving mass of limbs. Seems a little dirty. Side-stepping around the limb monster, my eyes searched for something green that could be a cactus.
I saw green shirts, green paint, green puke, and green hair, but no green plant. I did find a body separated from the mass of limbs, though. It sat against the far wall, in the corner, with its head resting on crossed arms.
“Yo, Twig here?”
Nothing. Not a single muscle moved. It was worth a shot.
Turning on my heels, I tried to bolt. I bolted into cargo pants and blonde dreads.
“Pen! So great to see ya! Come on, let me show you my humble abode!”
She turned me on my heels again and pushed me forward, guiding my shoulders to a cactus I hadn’t noticed in a corner I didn’t see.
Twig’s bed consisted of a sleeping pad (the kind intense outdoor enthusiasts use), a rectangle resembling what I could only assume was a pillow, and a couple of colorful woven blankets (the ones people bring to outdoor concerts).
Her cactus pulled double duty as a form of life in a place where life was lacking and as a sturdy bookend. An old, tattered copy of Grey’s Anatomy was held in place by her plant. Grey’s friends included The Catcher in the Rye, a collection of Chekhov’s short stories, an old high school yearbook, and 1,000 Places to See Before You Die. A hearty collection of bound, dead trees.
“Welcome—sorry I can’t offer you any refreshments!” Twig spoke with the most regal of tones; she bowed and stuck her arm out as if she were a servant. I laughed.
“This is nice.” I stared at her small hoard of belongings. It wasn’t much, but it was homey.
“Thanks!” She beamed. “So what’s up? Need a book? A chat? A nap? A plant?”
I paused. Deep breath.
“I hiked the Appalachian Trail when I dropped out; you meet a ton of rad people out on the trail! I try to keep in touch, but you know, it’s hard without a phone or an address.”
I nodded. Twig understood that I couldn’t talk all the time, even if I wanted to. She’d just talk and tell me stories and let me listen to her most days. She dreamed of going on another hike, or going back to school, or getting clean. Sometimes one of these, sometimes all of them.
“I’ve never hiked. I like walking, though.” My voice cracked. When was the last time I spoke?
Twig jumped up. “Let’s go! We can leave right now; I know where we can find some old gear and we can walk around the country together. You know it’d be better than this. And I’ll still talk and tell you stories—you don’t even have to talk that much if you don’t want to!”
I thought about The Convent.
We decided to leave that night.
“Ladies! How are we feeling tonight?” The stench of rotting trash arrived hand in hand with Moses’ grimy fingers around each of our waists.
“We’re great! Have you felt the good vibes around lately? It’s really been pickin’ us up!” She brushed back dreads; they fell back into her face.
“Oh, really? Where are these good vibes from, Twiggy?”
“Pen and I decided we’re gonna go on the trail. A trail. I’m gonna show her the country! We’ll walk everywhere and I’ll tell her stories!”
He clenched his jaw tightly; several veins made an appearance in his neck.
“Are ya now? What a grand time, babydoll! How about we celebrate with a little hit?” The needle and drugs appeared in his hand, as if by magic. I stared at Twig.
“I love celebrating!”
We weren’t going to leave tonight.
Maybe in the morning.
My eyes opened.
Why am I in Twig’s bed?
I stretched. My hand touched dreads. At least she didn’t leave me.
“Twig,” I whispered. “Wake up, let’s go. It’s still dark out. We can make it. No one will know.”
I nudged her again.
Nudged her harder.
I screamed her name.
I sat up. Something wasn’t right.
I rolled her over; her face stuck to something that looked like vomit.
I tied myself off and inhaled as I pushed the syringe into a vein. Track marks traced my arms and graced the crevasses between my toes. Exhaling, problems disappeared. For a moment, so did I.
“Pen. Wake up!”