I have moved into a third-story apartment with Ben—thin and muscled and bald and loud, always speaking, always joking—and his brother Huxley—thinner and hunched, everything about him turned inward, a quiet man, as though the two of them share a single mouth, and from Huxley flows only silence.
I have left far behind that cave of aluminum-foiled windows and pills, that graveyard where I drank and put out burned cigarettes in thin carpets. The sun shines outside and the white walls of this new apartment are bright and clean, and the filth of my life falls from me, and the day is new.
I will begin again, here, with this man and his brother.
People I trust.
I am carrying a cracked leather chair up stairs of spotless concrete when I pass my new neighbor smoking on the balcony—short brown hair and acne scarring and eyes like the flowing river. I stop, set down the chair, break out my pack, start smacking it against my palm.
I am sweating. I sigh, long and loud. I act tired. This is a way to gather his attention, that I might find if his sicknesses mirror my own.
“Got a light, bro?” I ask. I am twenty or twenty-three. He is younger—eighteen or nineteen. I have dealt drugs for years. I always need new customers. I can never seem to turn a profit. The money disappears up my nose.
He smiles, hands me a tiny crimson lighter. The summer wind blows—he cups his hands around mine as I light. I take a deep drag and smile around the cigarette.
“Thanks bro,” I say, blowing smoke into the breeze.
“No problem,” he says. “I’m Will,” he says, his smile sincere. We shake hands. We smoke for a second, the fire in our hands twirling in the humid wind as cicadas screech, our hands pressed against our foreheads to block the sun that burns straight through the clear blue sky. We smoke and smoke, he eyeing me, and I eyeing him.
“You smoke?” I ask at last, cocking an eyebrow. He understands what I mean.
“Yeah,” he says.
“Got some good green upstairs if you want to take a look,” I say.
“Hell yeah man!” he says.
Thus is he captured.
Or so I think.
I think of my own life—was there ever a dealer who captured me? Who tricked me? Who turned me into the dopefiend I am?
My answer is always no.
I had hatred for them once, when I couldn’t take responsibility for the breadth of my sins.
But that time is long past.
I always loved them, my dealers, even when they ripped me off. I was always grateful for what they gave me, always searched them out, always gloried in the finding of someone new.
I was never captured.
I captured them.
We become fast friends, Will and I. His roommates dislike me. I learn quickly that they are not like me—but Will is. The second time I sell him bud, I ask, “You need anything heavier? Pills, coke?”
“Yeah,” he says, smiling this disarming, alarming smile. “Yeah, all of that.”
He cannot handle his dope. I still believe I can handle my own. His roommates pull me aside one day when I go into their apartment to sell Will some Xanax.
“You gotta stop selling to Will, man,” one of them says—a man with long dark hair who dreams of flying commercial airliners. “He’s fucked up all the time.”
“That’s between me and Will,” I say, pushing past, but when I go into Will’s bedroom, he cannot stand, stumbles around his little white-walled room, knocking over his guitar, falling on his bed.
“Need more Xanax,” he mumbles, drooling.
“Hell no you don’t,” I say, turning and running away.
I feel the fear rising in my gut. If this man overdoses, as he already has on someone else’s pills—or maybe mine that he has saved—it’s prison for me.
And I will not survive.
These are the words that appear first in my skull. This is what I think of—not of him, not of his death, not of his family, his parents, his siblings, his roommates that will have to find his body, bloated and stinking and writhing with flies, not the cops that will have to identify him, the poor bastards in white biohazard suits that will have to drag him from his room, hoist him into an unmarked truck, hang him like a beached whale from a steel hook, take him to an oven, burn him to ashes, send the pieces of him back to the stars.
I think only of myself, of how his death will affect me.
Unbridled my selfishness is. A rearing, violent thing in my heart.
I look for excuses not to sell to him anymore. The next time I go down to his apartment with weed, his roommates corner me, angry.
“Hey, you fuckhead, did you hear about Jeff and Harold?” the dark-haired one says, backing me up against the scratched metal door of their apartment.
“What, the homeless kids?” I say, the whites of my eyes showing as I look for a way out, but the door is locked, and they surround me. I plant my feet firmer on the thin carpet, but I cannot fight.
I barely know of whom they speak. I’d seen the kids here a few times, sold them a little bud, but I avoided them. They were almost certain to rob me if I invited them to my apartment.
“Yeah, the ‘homeless kids’ you prick,” a skinny roommate with long blonde hair snarls, closing in on me, a circle of men with violence in their eyes. “They overdosed the other night on Fentanyl. You sell them that shit?”
“Hell no man!” I say, hands up. “I don’t fuck with that shit—only oxy. Oxy is the only thing I ever sell,” I say.
It’s true, but only because I have no connection for Fentanyl. It is still too rare, still too hard to find.
“It wasn’t you?” the blonde kid asks, licking his lips.
“I swear to Christ,” I say.
“Alright,” he says, giving me a half-hearted shove. “But don’t come around here no more.”
“No problem,” I say, rushing out the door.
I ignore Will’s texts for a while. Spring break hits. I party and forget about this man. He texts again near the end of the week:
“you got any oxy when I get home?”
I do have oxy. I’ve been blowing it all day. It fuels my rage. He has violated the cardinal rule:
Do not text.
Do not leave a record.
I text him back: “what the fuck you talkin about you fuckin junky, fuck off don’t ever text me that shit again, I don’t sell drugs.”
It escalates. He says things. I say worse things. Somewhere in here, he calls me. He is raving and yelling, and then this nineteen-year-old man’s mother is on the phone.
It is not the first time I have been confronted by a parent.
“I ought to call the police on you!” she shouts into the phone, flustered, “screaming at my son like that—you psychopath!”
I realize she does not know.
She thinks this is only a fight.
Not about drugs.
I hang up and block him.
I feel no responsibility, only contempt for a junky who cannot follow simple instructions.
Years pass. I leave that apartment, go on to smaller and worse things. On Facebook I see bits and pieces of Will’s life. He graduates from school in four years. It takes me seven to drop out.
He is a greater man than I ever was or will be.
Eight years later, I am sober and back in school, living in Dallas Fort-Worth and trying to finish my useless English literature degree.
I owe this man an apology for what I did.
I learn that he lives close to me.
I message him on Facebook.
We meet at a cafe in the blazing Texas sun. He is sober. He is kind. I apologize for selling him drugs, for the fighting, for all of it.
I wish I had never met him.
He accepts my apology with grace. We drink coffee together and sweat and laugh about our former drug use and talk about sobriety. I avoid his eyes, avoid what I must ask next.
“Listen, Will,” I say to the burning pavement. “I gotta apologize to your mom too.”
“Oh right, for the argument,” he says with that smile that cannot be recreated. “That’s cool man. No problem.”
He gives me her number. This is the worst of it—not apologizing to other junkys, but apologizing to those who are not like us, who do not understand how the mind is twisted.
So much ruins us in this world.
So much breaks the mind beyond fixing.
Those who have never felt their brains turn against them cannot understand.
But still they can be kind.
She was kind.
I’m on a lunch break from my first real job. I sit in the white Lexus ES 350 my parents gave me as a reward for staying sober and not committing crimes, for doing what the vast majority of the world does without a second thought, a reward for wearing the bridle. I sit on pale brown leather seats with cool air blowing over me as the summer burns outside and call Will’s mother. This is the first real job I’ve ever held, making a real wage. I am dressed well, I am proud, I am desperate to keep the wonderful things I have found. I am convinced the apologies I owe to Will and Will’s mother and the hundreds of others I’ve harmed stand between me and freedom.
The river flows through them, flows through city and country, through desire and suffering and fear. Its currents will carry me through this as it has carried me through so much else.
The flood holds me tight.
It tosses me in waves that roil and roar.
But it will not let me drown.
It is not they who stand between myself and a life worth living.
It is I.
They will lead me to the promised land.
And it is with desperation, in these moments, that I wish to be buried under the waves. To dash my head upon the smooth rocks, to watch my blood spiral about the ancient moss and stone of the river, to breathe in mud and peace.
Anything to avoid this.
The phone rings once. She picks up.
“Mrs…um, is this Will’s mother?” I stutter, wiping sweat from my forehead.
“Yes? Is this Will’s friend?” her voice is sweet. Will has warned her. I thank those rough gods I hate so much. I have learned the hard lesson of making sure the apology is welcomed.
“Yes ma’am. So, I know Will talked to you—”
“Yes he did. I think what you’re doing is brave.”
I am filled with shame. I do not feel brave. Was it brave of me to sell dope to her child? Was I brave when I cut him off?
What a hero I am.
There are so many people who have not committed the horrors I have, so many others who have done so much worse. They have whispered their secrets to me over the years as I, a fool dopefiend that is unworthy of respect or trust, lead them to sobriety.
To my grave I will carry the worst of their burdens. I pray that taking their horrors will lessen mine. I hope that they boil through me, leaving me cleansed of this and so many other sins.
“Th-thank you ma’am,” I stutter, my heart pounding. I take a deep breath, swallow. “I owe you an apology,” I say, voice clear now. “I sold your son drugs. I contributed to his addiction. I got you involved when Will and I fought on the phone. I was belligerent. It wasn’t right that you had to deal with it. It was wrong of me to do all of this—to you, to Will, to your husband. I regret it all. I know I can never make this right, but is there anything I can do today to begin to make it right?”
I have practiced the words over and over. She does not speak for a moment. I keep my mouth shut, as I was taught. She begins to cry, soft sobs on the phone. I wish to be anywhere but here.
“Thank you,” she says at last, her voice strong now, the tears gone. “You know, of all the people who were around Will when he was doing those things, you’re the only one who has ever apologized.”
I cannot remember what else she said.
I hang up and cross her name off my list.
Hundreds to go.
I think about what she said often. I think of those dozens of junkys that Will must have known, think of how many of them would have to make the same apology I did if they wished to stay sober.
I think of how many didn’t.
Perhaps they found another way. Perhaps they could stop, could moderate, could learn to just drink instead of filling their veins with meth and heroin, could just smoke a little herb instead of freebasing coke and drinking GHB, could live without getting high—on their own, with no help.
Perhaps they just go to church.
What I wouldn’t give to possess their simple freedoms.
The years pass. Life gets better. I have begun graduate school when I get the news that Will has died.
I search and search online, but I cannot find the cause of death, which means it is something shameful—a drug addict’s death. Choked on his vomit while he slept or stopped breathing after a big shot of heroin or got murdered by angry dealers with a baseball bat or flipped a car at a hundred miles an hour or caught a bullet over fifty dollars or hung himself in his closet.
Or perhaps it is none of those things.
I will never know.
If I go in any of these ways, I hope that those who love me will not hide from the world my disease, will not be ashamed of what I am.
I would have everyone know that my mental illnesses are what finally took me.
I did not reach out to his mother when he passed. I will never speak to her again. I am the foulness that took her son—in one form or another.
I have made my apology. The best thing I can do for this family is to stay the fuck away from them for the rest of my life.
He was to be in the medical industry. He was studying to be a physician’s assistant. This is the life those rough gods have taken from us. They steal a man who only wanted to help those who suffer, and they leave a man who thinks only of himself, who writes little words that will never be read, who works only for money in an industry of lies.
And it is lost at sea I feel. Where is the river that brought me here? Where the currents? Where do they twist and pull through these pages? To what end do they lead? It is not I who leads you—the river leads, and I throw the words into boiling whirlpools, and watch them flee into the oblivion that awaits all in the bones of the world. It is parabola, it is mountain, it is the center that holds only as you read, that fragments as the end nears. Is that what we’ve come to? An ancient beach barren under a bloated red sun, the ocean washing away the sands of ourselves, the waves emptied of life, sterile and burning, seared by the flame of us?
I never saw your body buried, Will. Perhaps your grave is empty. Perhaps you’ll come again. Perhaps I’ll wash away one day, on a sea aglitter with forgotten sun fire, the moon falling beneath the waves. Perhaps I’ll fragment in the wind, pixels flying to nowhere, and you’ll rise from the pieces of me, and come back to the ones you loved.
Adam Fout is an addiction/recovery blogger who writes nonfiction and speculative fiction. He is a graduate of the 2020 Odyssey Writing Workshop and has been published or has upcoming work in december, The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review, J Journal, Pulp Literature, and DreamForge.
John Grund is an artist based in Savannah, GA. When he’s not drawing, he can be found wandering the woods or basking in the sun. John primarily works in comics, but does editorial illustration and storyboarding as well. His work focuses on getting big ideas into little stories. He’s open to in-house work, visual development, concept art, or anything in between!