Jessica sat on the small kitchen table with her feet on the head chair and stared out the window, a cigarette pinched between her thumb and middle finger. Bits of ash fell onto her dark-wash skinny jeans and along the front of her black tank top. The sun went down behind the buildings, clutching to this side of the globe, leaving claw marks across the sky. They began deep, scratched into the atmosphere – yellow bleeding into orange – and surfaced into pink and purple that scattered in wild patterns like bruises on pale skin.
“It’s like the sun doesn’t want to go down,” Jessica said to Kelly when the front door opened. “Like it’s fighting the shorter days.”
Kelly set her backpack on the couch and made her way to the window. “I don’t think the sun cares about where it’s hitting Earth.” She was unusually cranky after pulling a double in the ER, but her rationality, her grounded perspective, was one reason Jessica liked her. Kelly’s mind was so much clearer than her own. She thought it was a good influence, something she should aspire to be.
A white trail cut through some of the colors from a passing jet, and while she knew Kelly saw condensed air and chemical reactions, Jessica saw a gash in skin, a tear in the atmosphere where the sun’s nails caught and dragged the clouds in its desperation. Jessica puffed her cigarette and blew the smoke through the screen, watching it disperse and fade away like the light.
“I thought you were working tonight,” Kelly said.
“I quit.” Jessica put her cigarette out in the potted fern on the window sill.
Kelly grabbed the pot and cradled it to her chest. Her left eyebrow twitched. “That’s the third job this month, Jess.”
“The manager was a creep.”
“That’s what you said about the last one. I can’t afford the rent by myself again.”
“I’ll get the money.” Jessica didn’t look at Kelly. The couple next door moaned loudly. Their bed bucked against the wall.
“Are you high?”
“Really? You wish you could go back to failing out of nursing school and spending all your money on drugs?”
“Obviously I don’t miss that part.”
Kelly sighed and went to Jessica’s room. She emerged a moment later with Jessica’s satchel and her red vest with the corner store’s logo stitched across the back. She threw them on the table. “Go down there. Tell them you’re sorry. Tell them you’re insane and didn’t mean to quit. Beg for your job back. Don’t come home without the rent.” Kelly went into her room and slammed the door.
Jess stared a while longer at the shifting colors before grabbing her army-green bomber jacket from the chair and slinging the bag over her shoulder. She shoved the vest deep inside beneath her wallet and pack of cigarettes. On her way out, she took her keys off the hook by the door and slipped on her faux leather boots with the undone laces tucked under the tongues. She took the dusty corner staircase one step at a time to the street. Buildings blocked the colorful scratches. What she could see of the sky turned into navy blue and black. Between skyscrapers, stripes of golden light caught the rock flecks in the cement. The city glistened, but no one else seemed to notice as they ducked into apartment buildings and townhomes to escape the growing darkness.
She couldn’t blame Kelly for being pissed, as much as she wanted to. Jessica was much more put together on drugs, or at least that’s what she told herself these days. She blocked out the nights slumped in the alleys, the sex in club bathrooms with strangers, the people who abandoned her. She told herself it was a fun time, free of responsibility, but she knew that wasn’t true. While she blocked out some things and didn’t remember others, she couldn’t forget Kelly sitting with her on the bathroom floor while she dry-heaved and cried, while the cocain worked its way out of her system, while her body shook and sweated and begged for relief. As much as Jessica wanted to be pissed off at Kelly, she knew she couldn’t repay her for all the pain she put her through, for all the times she stuck by her. At the very least, she could get the damn rent money.
A block away from the corner store, Jessica stopped in front of his building. She looked up towards his window with the leaky air conditioner. For three months she was able to walk by that apartment complex, never stopping, never wondering, but not tonight. Tonight she weighed the consequences of not coming home with the money against the humiliation of begging for her job back against her own impulse control.
Several minutes passed before she convinced herself to climb the splinted concrete stoop and ring his bell. The speaker cracked.
“What?” he said through the static.
“It’s me, Ken. Open up.”
The door buzzed and clicked. A familiar junkie slumped in the corner of the foyer. In his sleep, he scratched at the fresh, bleeding needle marks on his arm.
Jessica took the elevator to the fifth floor. The doors screeched as they slid apart. The same florescent light flickered halfway down the hall on the way to Ken’s apartment. One door had had its number replaced; it was a shinier brass than the rest. Ken’s neighbor’s door was fractured along the wall from where the police had kicked it in six months ago. Duct tape held together the pieces of wood.
Ken waited by the door, his scrawny face peeking between the crack. He hadn’t shaved his neck beard in at least a week. The patches of short curly reddish hairs speckled his jawline and cheeks. He smiled with yellowed teeth, a black spot between two towards the front, and opened the door wider for her to sneak through. The apartment hadn’t changed, either. He may have vacuumed recently, but the carpet was still stained in places and the fabric matted together around the couch and along the walls. Either he hadn’t cleaned the litter box in a long time or his tomcat stopped using it; the ammonia burned her nose and made the air sticky.
“Never thought I’d see you again,” Ken said, closing the door. He walked around her and slumped onto the couch with a torn back. The glass coffee table in front of him was the cleanest thing in the place. Small baggies and individually packaged syringes lined it next to a scale speckled with white powder.
Jessica focused on a crack in the plaster on the far side of the room. “I need my job back,” she told him and sighed. “I was insane for quitting.” He just stared. “Please.”
“I take it you’ll need an advance?”
“You know I’m good for it.” She looked at him, tried to read the sagging skin around his eyes.
Ken waited. He picked his teeth. Then he smiled again. “All right. Lucky for you one of my boys just dropped out. You can have his spot.”
“Where’s it at?”
“38th and Washington. Definitely a lot of people in need down there.”
“I’ll take it.”
Ken gestured to the table and wrote down the supplies Jessica shoved into her pockets, roughly twenty baggies and ten needles.
“You still using?” he said as he tallied the cost. When she didn’t answer, he added, “I got some new stuff. Real good.”
“I don’t have money,” she said.
“Tell you what, I’ll give you a taste for free – since you’re an old friend. You like it, you buy some when you come back.”
“You that confident?”
“Best shit I’ve had.” Ken pulled a dime bag out of a plastic tin next to the couch. It dangled between his fingers, half-full of white powder, a sharpied blue checkmark on the front.
“I quit,” she finally said, shoving her hands deep into her pockets, fingering the small baggies stashed there.
“Why? Cause that bitchy roommate told you to?”
“She isn’t bitchy.”
“Anybody who tells you what to do is bitchy.” He smiled. “One taste won’t kill you.”
She watched the bag swaying in his hand for a long while before snatching it, shoving it in her satchel and heading out the door. Down the hall. Down the elevator. Past the junkie. Onto the street where the lights created phantom halos around everything. Under a navy sky washed out by those lights.
Some people don’t think you can be alone in a city, but a city is the best place to be alone. So many fake people and rich people and poor people, and not one of them gives a shit about anyone but themselves. They use whoever they can to get whatever they want, and when a person’s usefulness runs out, they’re as good as dead. There’s no sorrow, no acknowledgement of the time spent together. Only silence. Jessica knew this all too well, was one of the people who used and tossed others aside, and now in these familiar back streets, she could not have been more alone if she were the only person left on Earth. Those who passed her on her stroll towards 38th Street were no more than ghosts, shifting shadows, tricks played by the dying light. The further she wandered, the less apparitions she saw, but she felt them watching her, waiting for her.
Washington and 38th met at a small alleyway between two tall buildings that always had “for lease” signs up. Both were dark except for a few dimly lit windows high above. Jessica stopped and leaned on one of the walls, dug the pepper spray out of her bag and slipped it into her back pocket, lit a cigarette and inhaled the smoke. It didn’t stop her hands from shaking or her heart from pounding. She didn’t remember it being this dark.
When the cigarette was gone, she dropped it and stomped the filter with the toe of her boot. Only then did they emerge from dark corners, behind dumpsters, and a parking lot a block over. The desperate ones came first. They flocked around Jessica like pigeons begging for crumbs. They’d take rice if they thought it would cure the pain radiating through them. They’d let the rice puff up in their bellies, let their insides burst, if it meant getting well one last time. Jessica took their rent, groceries, child’s new clothes, husband’s bonus. She shoved the crumpled bills deep in her front jean pockets.
The scared ones came slower, waiting a minute or two after the last person left to approach her. It was the singular ones that made her uncomfortable. They got right up on her, towered over her five-foot-nothing frame and shook like yippy lap dogs. One man must have only been twenty. He kept his grey hood up over his face, and in the shadow cast by it, his bloodshot eyes glowed. He rubbed his nose with his sleeve and bounced as Jessica thumbed through the dollar bills and dug in her pocket for a bag.
“I need a needle,” the guy said.
“Five bucks.” Jess shoved the bills down.
He stopped bouncing, leaned down a good six inches to get in her face. “Last guy charged two.”
“Things change,” she said as though she really believed it. She swallowed too loudly, but kept her eyebrows pressing down on the rest of her face. As much as she wanted to, she didn’t step back.
After a long moment, the bouncing began again. He scoffed and grumbled as he walked away.
As quickly as they emerged, her customers disappeared. She lit another menthol and leaned back on the cool brick. Far away sirens cried, cars sped, people slept and walked and lived, but here people dreamed, they sank, they floated. They came in uneven intervals, most not saying anything as they exchanged their livelihood for their lives.
Jess smoked two more cigarettes, thought over what she’d tell Kelly when she got home. She wouldn’t tell her the truth. She’d say the corner store manager was understanding and gave her last week’s paycheck in cash. What she didn’t know couldn’t hurt her.
Only when Jessica was certain 38th and Washington was satisfied did she wander back the way she had come, her hands deep in her pockets, hanging onto the cash and the two needles left.
A shock spread from one side of her face to the other, down her neck, through her belly, and into her feet. She was walking, then she was on the ground. Hitting the concrete sent another shock from the other side of her face, down her neck, through her belly, and into her feet. It took a moment for her to feel the blood dripping over her eyebrow and falling down the side of her nose, and even longer for the halos and black spots to leave her vision. Something clanged on the ground; she felt it vibrate under her cheek. She noticed the smell of him first: a potent mixture of weed and mold doused in Axe body spray. Jessica felt his hands next, pulling her arms away and trying to unravel the satchel from around her shoulders. Her ears rang. The world spun. She pulled away from him, found the strength to kick her foot and hit him dead in the leg. It distracted him long enough for her to pull the pepper spray from her back pocket.
Jessica pointed and shot, barely able to make out his frame in the darkness and the dizziness, but she heard him scream. She felt the tip of his sneaker crash into her stomach.
The man took off in some direction and left Jessica coughing and groaning on the concrete. The ground was cold. She rubbed the spot on her back where she fell on the satchel; it ached when she sat up. Jessica noticed the metal trash can lid lying next to her. The side was dented. It felt like her skull was, too. She put her hand up to the cut. Despite being high through most of her two years in nursing school, she remembered the basics. Blunt force trauma rarely caused deep cuts. She knew the scalp bled more than other parts of the body. She dug out the red vest, wiped the blood off her nose and cheek, and pressed it against the cut.
At least he didn’t take anything. That’s all she could think. At least he didn’t take the money.
She managed to pull herself up against a wall and lean back. The wind cooled her tears. He hadn’t taken anything, but the violation was familiar. Jessica was back in those bathrooms, back on those beds, spreading her legs for a hit, for a bit of attention, for a bit of love to put in the hole so deep drugs couldn’t fill it. The memories were scattered, surfacing like bloated corpses in a river, peeking out of the water just enough to make out the recognizable shapes. The images were fuzzy, but the feelings were clear. The rough skin of their hands, the biting, the scratching, the way this junkie pawed at her to get what he wanted like everyone else, like the whole damn world clawing at one another just to get a fix, just to make the day last a little longer, just to bring on the deep sleep, the sweet relief, the escape.
Jessica reached into her satchel for her smokes, but pulled out the small bag with the blue checkmark. She palmed it, rubbed the finely ground powder between the plastic. No matter what, she couldn’t get away from that life, not completely. She lived with Kelly, a stable, good influence, in a nice-enough apartment. Sure, she didn’t finish school, but she got away from her alcoholic mother and her abusive ex. She tried. But now she saw that it didn’t matter where she went or what she did because people were shit everywhere. They were shit in the alleys and shit in the classrooms and shit in the corner stores. And there was only one way to live in the shit without drowning in it.
The cracking of a broken seal rose goosebumps on her skin. She sucked the tip of her pointer finger and dipped it in the powder, rubbed the white stuff over her gums. She felt sixteen again, taking a shot for the first time, feeling it go straight to her head. The thumping stopped where he hit her. She pulled the vest away from the cut, no longer able to feel the blood pulling on her skin as it dried. She poured a tiny hill on her palm and dipped her nose into her hand. She breathed deeply.
Kelly lay curled on the couch in a spotted blue and gold blanket she and her mom made with ties around the border. She looked up when the door opened, watched Jessica shuffle across the kitchen and into her room. Jessica didn’t turn on the light. She kicked off her boots, nearly tripping over the satchel she’d dropped in front of her, and shugged the bomber jacket onto the floor before falling into bed. The sheets were white and cold, like an igloo. Above her, the Northern Lights waved across the ceiling.
“So?” Kelly stood in the doorway, blanket wrapped around her shoulders.
Jessica didn’t answer. Her eyes fell below her lower lids, held down by tiny fish hooks and weights. Behind them, the Northern Lights turned into the Milky Way. There were shooting stars and bright suns that burst into supernovas and collapsed into black holes. She smiled and made a wish.
Kelly turned on the small lamp by the door. “Holy shit, what happened to your head?”
Jessica felt hands on her. Clouds overtook the starry sky. She hit Kelly away. “Shh. Shh,” she said. “Stop it.”
Silence set in, and like frightened forest creatures, the stars and planets emerged from behind the clouds and danced for her again.
“Goddamnit, Jess. Are you high?”
“I got my job back,” Jessica said. She opened her eyes then, flinching against the sudden artificial light, and pointed at her satchel on the floor. “Money’s in there.”
Kelly went through the bag, pulling out the vest, examining the blood, and tossing it aside with her cigarettes and wallet. “What’s this shit?” In Kelly’s outstretched hand the dime bag waved and weaved. The check mark looked more like a question. “Three months meant nothing? Not a damn thing?”
“I got the money,” Jess said. She turned over and hugged herself against the chill.
Jessica heard Kelly’s footsteps leave and return.
“Sit up,” Kelly said.
Jessica groaned, but didn’t fight against Kelly pulling her up. She kept her eyes closed while Kelly used a damp rag to clean off the blood and a hydrogen-peroxide-soaked cotton ball to dab the cut. “Damnit, Jess,” Kelly whispered periodically. She place two butterfly closures over the cut, then laid Jess back down, undid the button of Jessica’s jeans, and pulled them off before tucking her back under the covers.
“We’ll talk in the morning,” Kelly said.
The lamp shut off. The door closed. The TV turned off in the living room. The toilet flushed. Another door shut.
Constellations were hard to find, but Jessica tried. She named the Zodiac and counted the gods. Stars leapt from her eyes and shot around the room. They burst. They collapsed. She made a wish.
Jaclyn J. Reed received her MFA in Writing from Carlow University/Trinity College, Dublin and her BA in English from the University of Pittsburgh. Her work has appeared in Prime Number Magazine, The Write Launch, and Open Minds Quarterly, among others. She lives in Hershey, Pennsylvania and works for a creative consulting firm.