Two lines of Death on a mirror.
No one could mistake it for something as mundane as cocaine. Death is blood red and the experience depends on the user—what they’ve eaten, how much they weigh, how many hours of shut-eye the night before, some kind of crazy biochemical magic or madness that defies explanation. Drowning, fire, heart attack, flesh-eating bacteria. There’s no way to tell what you’ll get.
That’s the beauty of it, the powerful, terrible beauty. You’ll never know until the drug hits, and once it does there’s no way to change your mind and jump off the train. Boys and girls, keep your hands inside the ride at all times. You’re stuck here until it comes to a stop.
Unless it never does.
The water has no top, no bottom. You can’t swim your way to freedom and there’s no life preserver waiting for you on the surface like a bit of cereal in milk. There is no surface. You spin and twist and finally you open your mouth and the water pours in and in and in.
Nate takes a deep breath before he enters the common room. Lila’s sitting in a wheelchair, a thin blanket draped across her lap. She looks up and smiles when he walks in, but the smile doesn’t reach her eyes. Her shirt partially conceals the IV needle currently connected to nothing, but the smell of the place is a reminder that can’t be tucked away. Her limbs are stick-thin; eventually her muscles will atrophy and the chair will be a necessity, not a choice. There’s only so much they can do after all, but she’s alive and will be for a long time. Long enough, anyway.
Dark shadows mar the skin beneath her eyes and hollows run under her cheekbones, giving her the look of a starving supermodel. A slim silver chain around her neck holds her wedding rings; her fingers are too thin to keep them in their proper place. Nate kisses her forehead, remembering when her skin tasted of forever instead of antiseptic and sickness.
“You look good,” he says.
Her eyes say she doesn’t believe him, but her mouth remains silent.
“Want to take a walk?”
She gives a slight almost-nod, a gesture that maybe means yes or I don’t care, so he pushes her chair out to the gardens. They talk but it’s rambling, perfunctory. There’s so much he wants to say, to scream, but he taps his fingers on his upper thigh, holds his words, the real words, in.
They don’t talk about why she’s here or what happens after he leaves.
The box is holding you in. Top nailed shut. Dirt above. Two feet? Six? It could be a hundred. No one’s waiting with a shovel and a need to see your face again. You try to scrape a hole in the wood, and end up with your fingernails hanging in shreds of lost hope from the raw skin underneath. No point in screaming. The air is almost gone. You’re holding the last breath inside, and once you let it out, that’s it. Hold it in as long as you can, it doesn’t matter. There’s no one but you; nothing but the box, the silence on your lips, and the screaming in your lungs.
A month later, Nate’s back. The doctors don’t know why it works that way, the drug they have her on, but nothing else does a damn thing. A dose every day and still, she’s only Lila once a month. It is what it is, his father would say.
It should’ve been him, not Lila. It was his idea, like most everything in their relationship. He didn’t twist her arm or coerce her any other way, but still, if he’d never mentioned it, they wouldn’t have started to ride the red, and this wouldn’t have happened.
Again, he pushes her around the gardens. There isn’t much else to do. She isn’t strong enough to walk by his side, at least not for long, and although the common room has an entire shelving unit full of board games, she never liked them. He tried to teach her how to play chess a couple of times before, in the real world, and then after, in this place, but she refused each and every time.
“What?” she whispers.
“Remember when we broke the bed frame?” He lets out a quick laugh.
There’s a long pause. Then she clears her throat, a dry, raspy sandpaper sound. “Why would you even say something like that? Why would you even bring that up?”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean anything by it. I was just trying to make conversation, trying to maybe make you laugh.”
“It’s too cold out here.” Her words are clipped at the edges. “I want to go back in.”
“Okay. I swear, baby, I’m sorry.” He stops pushing the chair, bends down. “Okay?”
She nods but refuses to look him in the eyes. He keeps his mouth shut as he pushes her back, and by the time they’re inside, she’s dozing off. He didn’t mean to make her feel bad, but he doesn’t understand why she couldn’t just laugh it off. No matter the how or why, it was funny when it happened.
Straps hold you in place as a current runs through your body, a thousand volts racing through every vein, every cell, every organ. Your hair sizzles, your skin bubbles, your mouth fills with the taste of rancid peanut butter. You twist and fight against the restraints, but you’re held fast in place and the electric keeps running.
There’s no twelve-step program, no kind therapist with a comfortable sofa, no plans for what comes after. That would be cruel. There is no after.
The risk is one in one hundred thousand or so they think. A permanent hallucination, the doctors call it. There’s nothing they can point to that explains why some people don’t come out on their own, why they get stuck, and there’s nothing they can do to prevent the ride.
Nate heard of one case where they put a guy in a medically induced coma as a test and brought him out a week later, figuring he’d tell them he’d been asleep the whole time. No such luck on their part. Once it takes hold, Death doesn’t give up.
Still, the doctors and researchers think they can and will eventually break it, the craving. No need to call it an addiction, it’s so much more.
The police have cracked down hard, but they can’t eradicate it completely. That shit hasn’t worked with anything—Let me hear you say Prohibition, amen, my brothers and sisters—let alone something this powerful.
The first time Nate brought a vial home, Lila held it up to the light and for a long time said nothing. He was the curious one. His buddy Corey said it was the most amazingly intense experience he’d ever had. Fucked up, but intense.
Nate cut the lines on the glass top of their coffee table. One for each of them. Corey said one line would be enough to know if they ever wanted to do it again. He was right.
After, he and Lila lay tangled up in sweaty sheets. The sex had been hard, brutal enough to leave bruises on them both, but better than it had been in a long time. More . . . real. The light in her eyes wasn’t from the sex, it was the afterglow, Death’s perfect finish, a euphoria so precise and clear that anything was possible. She’d held out her hands, turning them over and over again, staring at something he couldn’t see, but could imagine without any effort at all.
“Are you okay?” he’d said. “What was it like for you?”
She’d raked her fingernails across his chest, drawing blood, and fucked his questions away. Right when she started breathing his name fast and quick and grinding her hips hard against his, there was a loud crack and the mattress dropped. They were both too close to coming to care, but they’d laughed their asses off when they carried the broken pieces of the bed frame out to the Dumpster.
The next weekend, he bought a second vial.
You feel them on you—many legs like feather-soft kisses but they only have affection for your flesh. Tiny rips and tears, delicate morsels slipping down gullets before you can comprehend just how long it will take them to swallow every bit down. Skin, muscle, the yellow blobs of fat, and deeper, into the bones, playing hide and seek with your marrow.
Nate stands outside the facility for several long minutes. This time he’ll talk to her, really talk. They won’t tap dance around the minefield of unspoken words, and he won’t say anything stupid. He’ll just talk to her. It won’t change anything, won’t put anything to right, but maybe it’ll take away some of the wrong. And maybe she’ll really talk to him, too.
He’s inside for about thirty seconds before a nurse pulls him aside.
“She’s having a rough day today,” she says.
He waits for her to explain, and she opens her mouth but snaps it shut. There’s a trace of condemnation, of judgment, in her eyes, only a hint, but it’s enough. He walks away before she can change her mind again about speaking.
A rough day? Fuck. Lila’s riding the red too much to really know what a rough day is. She doesn’t have to deal with work or bills or anything else anymore. He clenches his fists, pushes away the thoughts, the bright flare of anger.
Lila’s running her hands back and forth along the padded arms of her wheelchair as if they’re an instrument she yearns to play. There’s something different, something new, in her eyes that he can’t place.
She’s never blamed him, at least not verbally, but he’s caught a glimpse of it in her eyes a few times. But it isn’t his fault. He never forced her to do it, but he doesn’t want to get into a piss and moan match about it. What good would that do? They can’t change anything. And hell, he’s apologized a thousand times over. Is he supposed to open his veins and offer his blood?
What he sees now isn’t blame. He doesn’t know exactly what it is, but it makes him want to run away. Instead, they wander through the gardens, she in the chair and he behind it, the silence hanging over them, heavy and oppressive.
That silence is what does it. They used to talk to each other into the long hours of the night. They used to talk about everything, anything. The silence is fucking wrong. They don’t have much time together; they should be talking, not this . . . nothing. He brings her chair to a stop beneath the leaves of a maple tree and gets on one knee. He holds her hand for a long time, brushing his fingers over the bony knuckles while she looks off to the side.
“Is it always the same for you?” He keeps his voice soft.
Her head whips around faster than he imagined possible. Her eyes narrow.
“The death, is it always the same?”
Her mouth tightens and she pulls her hand away. “I want to go back. Take me back.”
“Come on, baby, don’t say that. Just talk to me.”
“Take me back now.”
No matter what else he says, she refuses to speak. He pushes her back, cursing himself for a fool. She always was stubborn; when she didn’t want to talk about something, she dug in her heels. He didn’t know why he expected her to be any different now, but damn, he wasn’t asking for the moon.
The heat presses in, but there’s no smoke to carry you away while the flames do their worst. You feel the lick and bite of fire everywhere, all at once, eating your toes, your fingers, your lips, and the tip of your nose. It doesn’t stop, only builds, until you’re nothing but a steaming misshapen figure puddled on the floor that’s no longer recognizable as human and still, the fire burns.
Lila’s not in her wheelchair.
“She refused,” the nurse says, her voice clipped, disapproving.
Lila’s on her side in the bed, facing away from him, facing the bare white wall. What does she see? An endless avalanche of snow raging fury? The foam of a towering wave as it crashes?
“Hey, baby,” he says.
She answers with only silence for a long time. Then, “I don’t want you to come here anymore, Nate.”
He hisses in a breath. “What? Why?”
She rolls over, fixes him with a gaze stronger and more binding than any rope. No tears, only determination. “Because I see it in your eyes every time. You’re the one who wanted it. I went along with it because I loved you.”
“Don’t lie to me,” he says. “Don’t lie to yourself. You loved it, too. And you could’ve said no, for fuck’s sake.”
“Of course you’d say that.”
“What the hell do you want me to say?”
“Nothing. I want you to say nothing. Just leave me alone.” She shudders. “You have no idea what it’s like.”
“So tell me, talk to me then.”
She laughs, the sound sharp and high-pitched. “That’s all you want, isn’t it? That’s all you’ve ever wanted. To know what it’s like.”
“No, baby. I just want you to talk to me.”
“Don’t kid yourself, Nate. I know you. You’ve never been able to fool me, and you don’t just want to know what it’s like. You want it, you want all of this.” She waves her hand around. “It should’ve been you, but I’m the one who’s stuck with it.”
The only thing he can say is, “Baby.”
“I don’t want to talk to you anymore. I don’t want to see you anymore.”
“Please don’t say that. I’m sorry, so sorry.”
“Enough, okay?” Now her voice is weary, each word holding the slightest tremble. “If you knew, you wouldn’t want it at all. You would never touch it again. Just go.”
Then she slips under. One minute, she’s awake, aware; the next, her eyes go distant, her mouth soft. Strange that something so powerful and chaotic on the inside elicits such external peace. It shouldn’t be that way. It doesn’t look right. He crouches down next to the bed, watches her face. He touches her eyelids gently, wishing he could see what she sees, could feel what she feels.
When the nurse tells him he needs to leave, he backs out of the room with his hands shoved in his pockets. Lila’s right. It should’ve been him.
Pain hits your chest like a rubber bullet from a riot gun. It reaches in and squeezes tighter and tighter, a vice grip sending lightning bolts of hurt down your arms, your spine, your legs. The air in your lungs refuses to budge because the unseen hands holding your heart keep twisting and twisting, and even when you think there can’t possibly be anything left to wring free, the agony keeps digging in, digging deep.
Nate’s eyes snap open.
It’s incredible, overwhelming, like the most intense orgasm laced with razor blades and barbed wire. No one who hasn’t tried it can even begin to understand how so much torment can feel so fucking good. He tries to grab it back, to hold it just a little longer, but it dances away with a soft kiss nearly as excruciating as the Death, and like any goodbye, it carries the sting of small cruelty. He wipes a slick of sweat from his forehead. Punches the cushion once, twice, three times. Rakes his fingers through his hair.
“Fuck,” he mutters. “Come on, come on, come on.”
His hands are shaking, and the vial tips over, spilling Death onto the coffee table, a Technicolor Rorschach taunting him, teasing him. But he’ll get there, he knows he will. If he does enough, he’ll get there. Fuck Lila, fuck the doctors, fuck everything.
He cuts another line, hoping this will be the one that pulls him under and keeps him there.
Originally published in Exigencies, edited by Richard Thomas.