WASTED LIFE IDIOT
By Katie Baker
The morning it broke was brilliant, a warm June morning as clear as water in a crystal glass. The sun rode high in the sky by 10:00, and the leaves on the trees shone glossy in its light. Their shadows tickled each other in the breeze.
Usually Dot was out of the house by 9:00; halfway up the road with a thermos of coffee tucked into her bag, a bottle of water, her journal, and a few books. The coffee pot broke first thing, and it took her a few minutes to find the French Press.
But Dot possessed a determined kind of positivity. She refused to let anything trivial crush the enjoyment of her day.
Her spot hid behind her neighbor’s field, tucked away near a copse of birch trees. The trees chimed invitingly their quarter-sized leaves. A small creek wound along one side of the clearing and skipped away toward the valley floor into a pond that glistened on the other side of the road. In June, the field stood tall with hay that rippled like ocean waves and beat their spiky, golden heads against her arms as she hiked through them. Wild rose bushes grew thick in the hedge; their scent warmed the air. On Saturdays she always spread out her blanket and spent hours lying there breathing the roses’ scent, as she gazed through the leaves.
On that day, the birch trees chimed and chattered. The wind whipped through the uncut hay and stirred the scent of the rosebushes. The creek rested dry and silent from lack of rain.
Everything was normal until she saw it, perched on the little outcropping of rocks near the creek’s edge: the amber brown bottle bore the sticky remnants of a label. In a turgid puddle of creek water, the label caught and swirled.
To Dot it caught her eye the way a favorite picture does when moved on your bedroom dresser. She stopped, breathless in a sudden gust of wind and a burst of chiming leaves.
There was other evidence: bottles—labels intact—nestled by tree trunks and discarded on the mossy bank. On the old stump she used as a table a plastic syringe winked in the shifting shadow. Another syringe, the needle of it missing, crackled beneath her flip-flop. A small strip of rubber laid wound amid a wilting patch of flocks, and down in the mossy bowl limp, discarded condoms lay strewn—three or four of them. She was too revolted to count.
Dot stood rooted among the birches as if one of them. She felt like she had stumbled into an empty room to find her favorite pet gutted and flung across the floor. She longed to turn away, cover her eyes, as if it were an indecent, naked thing she had found. Just for a moment, though, she couldn’t turn away. She stared.
When she could stare no more, she stumbled backwards—one unsteady foot at a time. She raced through the field, though its clasping, scratching, whacking arms. She ran along the road, down her driveway, and through her front door. The screen crashed behind her and called her mother to the banister like a bell.
“Is something wrong?” her mother asked, holding a dishrag in her hands.
“Where’s Dad?” Dot wheezed.
Dot dashed up the stairs and out through the back door. Their deck lay strewn with tools, saws, and wood dust. The pool winked silver ripples beneath the sun and the breeze. In one corner of the deck the boards were all ripped up and stacked in a wall around the resulting hole. Dot’s father stood chest high in the deck.
“Remember how Mrs. Turner said she’d found evidence of people squatting on her back patio while they were in Florida?” Dot asked without context or breath.
Her father looked up, puzzled for a moment, squinting into the sun. He wiped a shiny patch of sweat off his brow. “Yeah…I guess. What’s the matter, Dot?”
Dot crossed her arms and scowled. “I think they’ve moved on.”
“Did you see something?” Dot’s father loved to joke, but where his children’s safety was concerned, he never laughed. His eyes held that sickening gravity now.
“They’ve found my spot.”
Her father’s eyes grew quiet, almost hurt, apologetic—the kind of look a father gets when he must take the family pet to be put down. He laid his hand against the warm boards and gazed up into Dot’s angry face.
“Listen to me, Dotty. These people are getting out of hand. There’s no telling what they’re up to or what they’ll do if you interrupt them. I don’t want you going back to that clearing.”
“What?” Dot cried. “No, that’s not fair. We’ve got to find them. We’ve got to do something. They can’t be scaring people like the Turner’s from going out on their own patio—or me from enjoying my backyard!”
Her father picked up one of the fresh boards. The movement stirred the warm, wood scent into the air. “It’s not exactly YOUR backyard is it?”
Dot frowned and stormed back into the house.
In bed that night, watching the moon cast long silver rectangles across her floor, Dot wondered why she hadn’t told her father about the heroin needles. When she shut her eyes, she could see them like shards of glass waiting to slice her foot as she floated through the grass.
In May the Turners had said nothing of heroin—just beer and pot and garbage—lots of garbage. But heroin was nothing new to the valley. For years the break ins and robberies had all been centered around meth, but lately kids had been dying—kids Dot’s age, kids Dot knew—from heroin overdose.
Luckily for Dot, the kids she knew who used were lost to her because of college. They were just pictures to her now from her old yearbook. Pictures next to which she placed an asterisk in her mind. The footnote read: Wasted Life.
Dot wasn’t sure why she hadn’t told her father about the syringes, but the thought of them out there now using HER spot and the moonlight to pump their veins full of death made her heart thud against her ribs.
It wasn’t fair.
The morning she decided was just as brilliant as the day before, with a sky as blue as the ocean and a breeze to rival it. The threat of storm hung thick and heady in the air like a woman’s perfume.
Dot waited until her father and mother left for work. She waited until her brother and sister jumped into the pool, until she could hear them splashing and shrieking and knew they would be lost for hours. She shoved plastic gloves into her bag along with four or five trash bags.
That clearing was Her Spot, and she would reclaim it. She would fight for it. Some heroin addicts weren’t going to scare her like they had the Turners.
The field rippled and eddied. The same wind tugged against Dot’s unruly bangs and feathered her wavy hair. The heads of the hay beat and rustled against each other like a thousand voices whispering together.
It was Dot’s favorite kind of day: the one that brings the storm.
The birch trees chimed their hello.
Dot paused and searched her mossy bowl for fresh evidence. More trash certainly, but the syringes were gone—policed like a sniper’s brass. The condoms had multiplied though. Dot shuddered. Setting her pack down, she fished out the rubber kitchen gloves (the kind that come up to the elbow) and a trash bag. She was just about to pull on a glove when the storm broke.
“What do you think you’re doing?” the voice was belligerent, wired beneath by unnatural emotion yet slightly familiar like a favorite punch that’s been laced with alcohol.
Dot jumped. Her glove fluttered down onto the moss like a garish yellow leaf shed too soon.
The birch trees twittered in the silence. A car rocketed by unseen on the distant road.
“Jeff?” she said, finally gathering her focus on the wiry framed man who stood behind her.
He acted as if his skin itched. He couldn’t stand still. His face was worn in a way age could never wear it, but Dot was sure it was him. She had spent too many years of high school dreaming about him from the side of the basketball court to ever forget those blue eyes. Blue eyes that were bloodshot now and set in sunken, dark sockets in a drawn face.
Amazingly Dot recognized him, but she wasn’t sure if he recognized her.
“What have you got in the bag?” he demanded. “Have you got it then? Are you Jenny? Vincent’s girl? I’ve got the money.”
With each staccato sentence his speech became like machinegun fire, desperate and pitched in intensity.
Dot stared at him, blinking, frozen, unsure what to do. They had spent four years sitting in the same classes together, doing the same homework. Jeff was the one they called the Gentle Jock. He had none of the ego and bravado of his teammates; he was always polite to everyone no matter their status.
In Dot’s silence, Jeff’s personality suddenly swung like a pendulum. He put his hands to his head like someone who hears voices. “You’re not supposed to be here!” It was a whine. “Who the f—are you? Do you have it? Do you have it!” His mouth twitched, his eyes went glassy and wild. He couldn’t keep his arms at his side or his feet in the same place.
“You’ve got to give it to me! You’ve got to give it to me, Jen! F—ing B—!” he screamed, and then jumped across the mossy ground.
Dot screamed, but the sound died in a thud as she hit the ground, Jeff on top of her. They landed in the moss, half in grass. Dot smelled the flocks crushed beneath her. She saw the maple tree flutter its leaves between her and the ocean-blue sky. Jeff straddled her, a leg on either side of her mid-section so that he sat on her hips, pinning her down. He leaned over her, breathing desperately. He smelled like decade old garbage and unwashed body. He smelled like rotting rat-corpse baking in the afternoon sun.
His hands rifled over her, searching her pockets, pulling out their linings; he reached beneath her shirt, down into the side of her bra. She grabbed his hands, flung them back, and wrestled with his scarred, pockmarked arms. She screamed at him from the bottom of her lungs, pulling herself up by her abdomen, getting into his face.
Even strung-out and itching for a fix, he was stronger than her. He grabbed her by both wrists and pushed her back into the grass, slamming her arms and body into the ground. He kept swearing over and over.
“Give it to me! Give it to me, you b—! I need it. You f—ing b—!” His eyes were wild, electric, and with each word he slammed her harder into the ground.
Suddenly the leaves in the maple tree spun against the sky behind him. The sunlight stabbed into Dot’s eyes. The world crept toward grayness at the edges of her vision until, in a little vignette, Jeff’s face—growing fuzzier by the second—was all she could see. And then, just before she slipped away, caught beneath the weight now sitting directly on her lungs, she thought she heard a telephone ring.
The afternoon that brought the aftermath started one drop at a time. A drop on the wrist. A drop on the thigh. One big drop on the cheek that rolled down her neck like a tear. Then lots of drops far away in the trees rushing toward her with the sound of a river. Lots of drops now all on her face, rolling down her temples, across her forehead, into her hair.
Dot opened her eyes.
She was alive.
Jeff was gone.
The maple tree danced and dripped in the downpour, but it protected her from most of the rain. She could see the sky like black charcoal hanging low over the trees. A pitch-fork of jagged lightning ripped through the clouds, followed by an equally jagged crack of thunder.
Dot started to cry. Not loudly. Just little broken sobs like a child who’s too tired to realize why they’re crying. She couldn’t force herself to move.
When she did, she saw great black stain-like bruises on her wrists, and her ribs felt like they were on fire. She stood on legs too shaky to hold her.
Jeff was gone, but the mess he and his friends had made remained. The creek babbled now, gently with the rain. A little stream of water dislodged the beer label, and it floated away.
Dot looked into the field and sobbed.
There was no other evidence of them except for here: in Her Spot—and now on her body. How was it fair? How was it fair that these people just waltzed into your life and took what wasn’t theirs and smashed things that were beautiful, and littered the lives around them with garbage no one should be forced to pick up?
Dot groaned, almost threw up with its violence, and began trudging down through the field.
Back in her room, she managed to hide away before her siblings grew curious. She locked her door and sat on her bed. She probed her sides and her ribs for the bruises Jeff had left. His face still hung there in the air above her—angry, desperate, wide-eyed and blind.
Dot closed her eyes and trembled.
But she was safe now, right? Safe in her house. Safe in her room. Safe with her brother and sister upstairs arguing.
Poor, Jeff, she thought. He’d been safe too.
Dot cried until tears dripped off her chin and into her lap.
She wasn’t sure why she never told anyone about what happened, just like she wasn’t sure why she hadn’t mentioned the heroin to her father that first day. This was something that went too deep to lay the burden on anyone else. So for days she hid the bruises until they didn’t need to be hidden anymore. For nights she woke up from nightmares about a handsome boy who transforms into an empty-eyed monster. At church she would jump when someone touched her shoulder. She would cry in the middle of the sermon, great rolling tears that fell down her neck and met in the middle of her chest.
It didn’t make sense how life could be so normal—happy even—and then in the space of two days it could be broken and shattered.
Even though she was conscious after the darkness Jeff had smothered her into, she hadn’t really woken up at all. She took to humming hymns to herself to fall asleep or quoting psalms, poems, old speeches—anything to push back at the hurt that haunted her darkness.
Through all the turmoil, only one thing remained constant: Dot didn’t want to look at or even think about Her Spot anymore. It was as if a friend had betrayed her.
June fell into July. July descended toward August, and it grew hot. The wild rose bushes wilted and the flocks, too. Her neighbor had already gotten in one cut of hay, and now it was tall again, thigh high and golden in the early August heat.
But Dot paid it no mind. Her shame lay beyond it like a blood-stain.
The morning she faced it dawned humid and foggy. The breeze that moved the trees caught heavy and thick under its own moisture. Dot contemplated going for a walk, but decided against it and made breakfast instead.
Over waffles and an egg, her mother kept watching her thoughtfully, a frown tucked at the edge of her lips, between her brows. Dot glanced up at her a few times before pausing.
“What’s the matter?” she said.
Her mother stirred and shook her head. “Oh, nothing. I was just—” she waved her hand through the air as if batting down cobwebs— “I was just thinking how uncertain life seems sometimes. How random.”
Dot felt a familiar pit rip the bottom of her stomach. “What do you mean?”
“I found out last night one of your high school classmates passed away. I haven’t been too sure how to tell you.”
Dot lowered her fork. Her heart pounded wildly, painfully in her chest. “Who?”
For a moment, Dot saw his face—not the drug-aged, gaunt face of the man who had attacked her—but HIS face, the Gentle Jock, blue eyes sparkling in laughter at someone’s joke, the way he bowed his head slightly whenever he held the door open for someone.
“Oh, honey, I know you had a little crush on him back then—”
“How?” Dot asked.
Her mother’s brow crumbled in uncertainty.
“How did he die, Mom?”
Her mother licked her lips. “A heroin overdose.”
Dot stared for a moment, then pushed back her chair, and thumped down to her bedroom. Her mom’s chair scraped the floor behind her, and her dad’s voice echoed: “It’s okay, Grace. Let her be for a minute.”
Dot sat on her bed in the same spot she had sat after Jeff attacked her. She touched the same spots he had bruised. Suddenly it felt so stupid and pointless all the misery and the shame that had trapped her here these last few months when it had been Jeff who was dying. He had been dying the day he sat on top of her crushing the breath from her chest.
The last few tendrils of fog lifted from the valley when she walked outside, and the sun that burned through was hot already. The languid air felt steamy. The field was still. Bees buzzed between the stalks of hay. Insects tried to dive into her eyes, but she flicked them away with a hand.
There was no new evidence in the clearing. The garbage was the same old garbage. The condoms had disappeared though and the beer bottles were filmy, crusted with dirt. No one had been back since the day Jeff left her unconscious in the grass.
Dot stood and surveyed the trash. Suddenly it made her angry.
“You idiot!” she screamed at the top of her voice. The trees seemed to gather and bottle the sound.
“You idiot! You stupid, wasted-life idiot!” And bending down she picked up one of the bottles and with a grunt heaved it against the rocks in the creek. It shattered with a crash. “You can’t have it!” she yelled. And picked up another bottle. Another smash in the water, amber chips flying. “You can’t have it! Do you hear? This is mine,” she cried. “This is mine!”
About the Author
Katie Baker is a graduate of Baptist Bible College and has a Bachelor of Arts from their writing program. She lives in beautiful northern Pennsylvania and often finds inspiration for her stories from the nature around her.