Sidra was a Polish girl who’d read a lot of Nietzsche and wanted to die. When she met Jack, she wondered if the demon from her childhood dreams hadn’t strolled into her diner, wearing a pretty face this time. This was her old country bullshit: she knew Jack was just another chauvinist musician with charisma. Always performing, always aware of his audience, even in a diner. Sex in boots. A leather jacket that was in itself a museum of degenerate hedonism, intriguing secrets tucked into its many hidden pockets. Jack had driven in from Atlanta to play a string of shows: 40 Watt, Tight Pockets. When the bars closed the bands came to The Diner.
The Diner was Sidra’s limbo. It had taken her five years to realize the permanence of her situation. She chain-smoked to hurry time along. That night she’d been working a double shift, twelve hours on her feet. She saw him step out of the diner’s bathroom, eyes shining, white powder on his black jeans.
She looked him in the eye: rakish smile but eyes as opaque as locked doors. She arranged her face in the way she’d borrowed from the whores who came into the diner to warm up and rest their blistered feet. She placed her kitchen-burn scarred palm on his chest. He raised his eyebrows: mild surprise. She pushed and he stepped back into the men’s room.
“Share?” she asked, letting her Slavic accent do its thing. Her server voice: flirtation and edge side by side, honey dripping from a switchblade. Without comment, he pulled a bag from his jacket and offered her a key with a little flourish. The coke was pure and good. The rush of lying neurotransmitters: they lied but they lied well. She let herself like this bad man. She’d heard him sing; he had something. He’d learned to manipulate a room, to draw eyes and bodies. It was magnetic. How much of his sinister energy was theater and how much was real? She wanted to find out.
She propped a booted foot on the rim of the toilet seat and leaned towards him.
“It’s my smoke break. Wanna fuck?”
She was snapping under the sheer emptiness of her dead-end life. Fuck me kill me whatever. Whatevs.
Just don’t make me set another table.
He leaned in, covered her tense mouth with his, and slid a hand down her tights. He pushed her to her knees on the floor that she’d mopped lazily that morning, grabbing her roughly by the hair. When they kissed again, she bit his lip until she tasted copper.
Sometimes he’d slap her face and say, “Tell me you love me.” And she would say it, and he would slap her again until she couldn’t tell if the slap was the threat or the reward. They said terrible, terrible things to each other. They made each other cry. She could not keep away from him. She could not resist becoming the monster he allowed her to be.
I’ll make you love me and then I’ll punish you for loving me.
She told him all the worst things she’d done and, still, he was not afraid of her. About robbing the pharmacy in Poland: she’d slipped through an open transom window. About the doctors she’d let have her for prescriptions. It felt like throwing up after long nausea, to tell all those sick secret things.
And then to be forgiven? God is merciful. Hit me again.
She started riding with him to Atlanta for shows at The Star Bar or Masquerade. Last week they drove up with his drummer Fausto. They’d been driving in silence for most of the way when Fausto sat up excitedly and pointed to a building in a distant field. The building looked like a warehouse, surrounded by barbed wire and a parking lot full of unmarked cube vans.
“There’s enough dope in there to overdose all of China,” he said wistfully. “That’s where they keep the concentrates that are mixed into the filler, the stuff pills are made out of. Pharmaceutical cocaine for hospitals. Everything. Leon installed their floor covering and the lab tech nerds were joking with him about it.”
All three of them turned their heads to look out the window, like a pack of wild dogs. No one said, “Can you imagine?” because they were already imagining.
Sidra rode next to Jack on the way home. They’d dropped Fausto off in Atlanta with two girls, blond and tan, and enhanced according to the Georgia Southern belle mold. Jack drove and she watched the pines and rain blur out the window. She drifted off. She thought she saw the shadow-faced man appear outside the van’s window and jerked awake. Something in her cells felt electric. She looked out the window and took a sharp breath when she recognized Fausto’s warehouse approaching. Even in the dark, she could see the warehouse lit up by tall sodium lights. A door opened. A man with a thermos climbed into one of the cube vans while another unbolted the gate for him. It would be easy to stop, to wait, to see.
“Jack,” she said, and he looked up. He slowed down. She watched the realization play across his face. She felt him realizing what she wanted. She felt him deciding to do it.
They could sense shifts in the other’s energy like passing weather fronts. When she hated him, he knew, and when she loved him, he knew. She could always acutely feel his contempt and adoration in turn, like alternating currents. Why is evil so fuckable? Why is it that when you are tired and want to lie somewhere warm, the devil holds you? Like a father teaching a child to swim, you float and he rests his palms under your back. It’s mostly you, floating on your own, but his hands make it possible for you to trust. Outside the cicadas droned. The air still smelled of pines and dirt and fresh rain, warm and sweet.
The cube van loaded with chemicals pulled out of the gravel driveway. They looked at each other. They poised for the swan dive, smiling at each other, their eyes soft with love.
They waited for the truck to crest the hill, then pulled out after it.
“Headlights on or off?”
“On is fine. We’ll hang back.”
She put her hand on his thigh. Fuck it. He was still smiling his cliff dive smile. She always recognized it: the body composing itself for a swan dive. Compulsions take over with the grace of instinct. The physical body remained focused and adept, while the mind’s boundaries and ethics fall like dominos. Things gain an uncontrollable momentum. The devil takes your hand and gives you a twirl and a wink. So, Sidra decided that it was too late. She took the cigarette back from Jack, took a long drag. She felt much more relaxed now that she had given up.
And so they followed the truck. It drove back east, towards Athens, so they could still tell themselves that they were just going home. But the longer they followed, the more they began to accept their intention. The delivery truck pulled on them, magnetic. She responded physically to the proximity of all those chemicals, eyes dilating when the truck shone white in the beam of their headlights, stomach clenching when it disappeared. It made her wet. She felt as if they could smell the drugs on the wind the way a wolf can smell the afterbirth of a newborn calf. Time writhed under the fingers of latent violence. Time no longer moved in a straight line.
The truck disappeared ahead on the dark road. Mile after mile they’d lost sight of it. Sidra almost felt a breath of hope, of relief. The trees blurred in the rain and the motion. When she was a child and afraid of the dark, she’d told herself I am the hunter in the dark. Scavenger, night creature, prowler. I am the thing to be afraid of. She’d said that to herself until she’d almost believed it. And now? Now maybe it was true—she was the one to fear.
She noticed a darker patch on the side of the road, the gravel gleaming and rain slick over fresh tire tracks. Her mind was noticing and processing faster than she could understand: it was like second sight. But she knew the truck was there. She knew it had pulled over, just out of sight.
She said, very quietly, “I see something.”
The delivery truck’s headlights illuminated the far woods. He’d pulled in next to an abandoned gas station. Jack cut the headlights off. The wind moved in the pines. When they pulled the van in behind the truck and shut off the engine, Sid’s heart pumped so hard she could hear the blood in her veins, like the ocean, like a train. The roar receded and she was washed up in the present moment again. Oh, fuck, she thought. Anywhere but here. Any time but now.
Jack slipped a syringe of cocaine from an unseen pocket of his leather jacket, a maze of hidden pockets only he could navigate. He slid the slender needle into his wrist and Sid watched his face go pale, watched the muscles in his jaw tighten. First trembling, then steady, he reached for the door latch, and then he was out in the rain, he was taking a tire iron from the trunk.
When the coke hit it felt like God was talking to him. He felt this joy in his chest like he was glowing, like he had tapped into some secret truth and its power was flowing through him. He could do no wrong. His trembling hand steadied as he stepped out of the van.
When I’m rushing on my run and I feel just like Jesus’s Son.
The delivery driver must have walked into a stand of pines to take a piss. He was still fumbling with his fly as Jack got out of the van. When the driver finished putting his dick away and turned around, he saw Jack with the tire iron and froze. Jack had closed the distance as the driver turned to run. Jack felt like he was flying. He swung and tapped the back of the man’s skull with the iron. The driver turned, his face asking so many questions, and tried to grab Jack’s wrist. Jack raised his arm and, letting gravity and momentum do the work, he hit the driver again in the temple. The man collapsed into Jack’s arms like a lover. Time unhinged its jaws and swallowed them.
Jack hurled the tire iron off into the trees. Then, shuffling backward, letting the driver’s feet drag in the gravel, Jack pulled him back behind the abandoned building out of sight of the road. He knelt and let the unconscious driver drop, gently. He rolled him over and moved his limp arms behind his back. He drew a handful of zip ties from another hidden pocket of his leather jacket, that maze of leather and hardware and bad intentions.
He knelt over the limp and softly breathing body of the man, the name “Frank” stitched on his uniform. Frank looked strangely vulnerable there, with his shirt hitched up showing his white soft back and belly. Jack tightened the zip tie around the driver’s wrists. He looked at the hairs on the driver’s knuckles, the wedding ring, the calluses from another job. Jack felt sad now, feeling the driver’s human frailty, imagining his ugliness and shame, his befuddled trek through a bewildering life of repetition. Jack leaned over and took a length of chain attached to a bundle of keys from Frank’s pocket. Frank looked like a child having a bad dream, forehead furrowed, breath shallow and fast. Kneeling, Jack gently brushed a stray strand of Frank’s hair back behind his ear, then kissed the driver quickly on the temple. He stood, spit, turned sharply, and stalked out. He wrapped the chain around his white knuckles, the keys in his fist biting his palm. The driver’s body lay still in the dark. Sidra was leaning against the van trying to light a cigarette and Jack thought, manipulative bitch. Girls all manipulate, it’s like they’re trained to. Almost everything he’d done, he thought, he’d done for a girl. The band, his songs? All for them. He knew he could win their lust, but never their respect. They always wanted something from him. Sex, money, attention.
They made men do their dirty work for them. Then they acted all holier-than-thou. Jack thought he was too smart to fall for that he’d been wrong. He felt sick to his stomach and stopped walking. Sid started to walk towards him and he held up his hand to stop her. He was going to tell her to fuck off when his guts clenched and he doubled over to puke up the bag of gummi bears he’d eaten on the drive. He started to cry. He felt like he’d been a kid then, a half-hour ago, eating gummi bears and drumming on the steering wheel. Now he felt so old, so old his bones hurt and his heart hurt, so old he’d gone blind from seeing so much. Yet it was as if he was seeing Sidra for the first time. He saw she was an eastern European street rat, that she’d put her needs in front of everything else. She manipulated the doctors she’d fucked for drugs. She manipulated her customers for tips. And she’d almost made him a murderer just so she could get high. Jack was squatting in a ball on the ground when Sid came up slowly and put her hand on his shoulder. He physically recoiled from her touch, and she yanked her hand back as if she’d received a static shock from his electric hate. But as her face crumpled in hurt, he realized she must love him at least a little. He felt his penis twitch.
He took her by the arm and led her to Frank’s truck. He looked at the handful of keys on Frank’s chain. Fuck. But the first key he tried fit, and the truck’s doors swung open.
“Climb in,” he said, and she did. “If you want this shit you have to work for it.” She’d pass him plastic crates full of large white plastic bottles and he’d pick out the good stuff, taking armloads of opiates, stimulants, and benzodiazepines and tossing them on the floorboards of the van’s back seat. Not a single vehicle passed as they worked. When they were finished and driving away, he noticed that while his hands were shaking, hers were steady as stone.
The road flew underneath her tires, she drove as a wolf ran, intent and smooth, all the way back to Athens. She parked behind The Diner, where a rickety staircase led up to her rented room. Inside: concrete, a mattress on the floor, hangers. Nothing to show who she was. Below her window, she could see the flickering neon of The Diner’s sign pulsing in the dark. They filled their backpacks and an old Piggly Wiggly bag with the bottles and climbed the stairs. Cicadas hummed darkly. Sidra latched the chain and the deadbolt and closed the curtains while Jack began to reverently sort through the crates. She lay on the bed with her eyes closed, wrist flung over her forehead. She could feel the road vibrating still.
She could leave. It would be easy to disappear without him. It was always easy. People barely saw her now; she was just a woman-shaped silhouette passing through the corners of their lives.
She shut down her mind. She thought, I am shutting down my mind. What would happen next didn’t bear thinking about. It wouldn’t do to start thinking now. It’s too late. She fought the urge to pinch herself, or slap herself across the face and say, “wake up.” It wouldn’t do to wake up. It wouldn’t do to see too clearly. It would spoil whatever pleasure might be had.
“Fix me up something, Jack,” she said.
His face stayed as blank as if she had never spoken. A face like a locked door. A face like no face at all. The hairs stood up on the back of her neck.
Sid’s room was a blank slate lit by neon. He wondered what was wrong with her, that she had no childhood stuffed rabbit, no Polaroid of her laughing with a friend, no prints on the wall or hodgepodge of cosmetics strewn in front of the mirror. She had no mirror. There was a discolored space where one had hung over the bathroom sink but it had been taken down. He stood in the bathroom doorway, his back to her, and looked at the square of pale, clean paint.
“What happened to your mirror?”
“Took it down.”
“Why?” He was genuinely curious.
She laughed, “Maybe I am a vampire. Are you afraid?”
He could see her making an effort to be light, playful, but his palm still felt bruised from his grip on the tire iron when he’d brought it down on the man’s temple. Frank of the hairy knuckles and soft white belly, Frank with the dark circles under his eyes from the long nights of driving. Jack’s father had had circles like that.
“I took it down because I don’t like it. What do I want to see my face for?” she muttered.
Jack fixed them up something. He was both nimble and quick. Opiates to dull the creeping rage, stimulants to spark in the blood. A speedball is a contradiction. Perhaps God is also a contradiction.
“Come here,” he said, and she came and knelt in front of him. He administered his dose to himself first while she watched. Then he took her hand and placed it in his lap, finding the veins in her wrist. Clasping her wrist, it looked as if they were praying, as if she were offering supplication. He depressed the plunger and watched her eyes change.
“That was his blood.”
“What?” she said
“That was his blood we took; you are getting high off that man’s blood. You don’t even know his name.” He had not told her about the oval on the man’s shirt embroidered with the name Frank. “Washed in the blood of the lamb.”
She looked pained, confused, but not scared. “Whose blood?” she asked and made a sound like a laugh. She stood up to walk away but he pulled her down onto the mattress where he sat. He could see her face trying to find the right expression. But she was a girl with no mirror, she’d had no practice. Hoping this was a joke, afraid to offend, her face was trying to make him stop. A car passed outside and its headlights threw her face into deep shadows. For a moment she looked like a hollow-eyed hag in the yellow light, the witch from his boyhood nightmares. Then the car drove on and she was again a blandly pretty girl, wide red cheeks like a face from a Russian propaganda poster. He gathered her hair in his hand and pushed her face to the mattress. He held her there. “Are you sorry?”
“Yes,” and she did sound sorry. He pressed her face into the mattress harder, she was saying something but he couldn’t hear it. His blood hummed in his ears. Something was shaking to get loose inside him, a panicked and trembling thing.
He let the pounding thing in his blood loose. It felt like a fist that had been gripping his heart for years unclenched. The air felt good in his lungs. He pressed her face into the mattress until he couldn’t hear her. His white-knuckled hands were wrapped in the hair at the base of her scalp but his eyes were gazing steadily at the wall. It was good that she was sorry. It wasn’t her fault, what she was, but it was good she was sorry anyway.
Time passed, but it was confusing to him. After a while. After a while. It started to drizzle, and the sound of the rain was soothing. He fell asleep next to her and dreamed of a cabin in the woods. In the dream, he felt so safe. When he woke he remembered the empty forest service cabins up in the North Georgia woods. They were shacks, really, no light or plumbing of course, built for the forest service trail crews but rarely used, welcome shelter for Appalachian Trail hikers. No locks, and always built close to springs or streams, some source of water to filter.
The drugs had him feeling soft and warm and gentle now. He avoided looking at the mattress as he gathered the backpacks and rattling plastic bags. As he left, he looked to the space where the mirror should be and was grateful for its absence.
After driving a little while there was nothing to see but pines and the mountains curving gently as the palm of God’s hand. Time had worn them down soft and slow. It was hard to keep his eyes open sometimes, but he kept heading North, stopping at a 24-hour Walmart for camping supplies. When he began to think, he’d pull over and medicate his mind to that soft place again. God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change. He skipped over the rest. God grant me the serenity to accept. I cannot change. God grant me. I cannot change. Jesus loves me this I know. I know. Right?
He parked at a trailhead, stripped the license plates, and consolidated his things into one bag. He began to climb. It felt good to sweat. Every neuron was on fire with feeling good. It was after dark by the time he found a cabin. The wood was dark with mildew and lichen. The night breeze smelled of mountain laurel. Inside, he unrolled his new sleeping bag on the slatted floor and tucked his bags of pills in the foot of it. He fixed himself a dose of something strong enough to tug his eyelids downward and make his ears ring.
Jack walked outside into the utter darkness.
He would figure something out.
Grant me: I cannot change.
When he turned back to the cabin, he was afraid to step inside. The closed space smelled like death. In the bottom of the sleeping bag, serenity coiled like a rattlesnake. He had taken everything he had wanted, but he hadn’t realized. There would be no returning from what these things would do for him.
Cover Art by Seo Ryung Samantha Park