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Post Road Magazine #34

Blood Moon

Donna Gordon

     In Mississippi they thought they were melting. But it was only the song of opiates slinging arrows through their brains, plying marionette dreams upon the wind, their tongues tasting of death in drones, the rush of butterscotch shot through their veins like sugar in the raw. 
     For the past two months that summer, Zack Miller had been living out of his backpack, sleeping on the bare wooden floor of his friend Doug’s parents’ living room on the outskirts of Ole Miss in Oxford Mississippi. Outside, the round oak porch was bleached with age and curtained in Spanish moss, gauzing over the dusty windows.
     It was a neighborhood greased with the smells of raw earth and thin green-violet iridescent vines that tricked the light, giving it a lingering antebellum sentiment.  Row upon row of Greek revival houses, white columns tilted upright against a cobalt sky, moisture seeping in between the floorboards. At night, sweat poured down their backs and an army of June bugs slapped against the wire screen door like tiny battering rams bent on a death wish while they pixelated away the hours, wasted, watching reruns of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. Switching over to porn when the cable channels opened up at midnight.   Doug’s two-mom parents were away for the summer doing field research somewhere in the blue and white of the Aegean. Professors of Greek culture and artifacts, they had filled the house with imitative antique works from the Bronze Age and straight out of the Acropolis and the Isle of Lesbos.
     Zack and Doug had been college roommates and best friends first semester of freshman year in Boston before each met tragedy in his own way. They hadn’t seen each other in six months. Doug suffered from depression and had had to leave school shortly after his first semester after overdosing on barbituates.  Now he self-medicated randomly on pot and select other potions from his personal apothecary, including, recently, heroin.
     Zack finished freshman year on a high, helping to bring the school’s baseball team to the nationals, despite managing a hefty nightly booze intake and some serious recreational marijuana.  He was a lefty pitcher with a deadly fastball, and he took a summer job working as a valet at the Winnetu resort in Edgartown on Martha’s Vineyard while waiting to hear about an opening on an elite Cape Cod minor league team that fed players up the AAA pipeline, even to the Red Sox. It was early June and he was driving home from a routine trip to the airport to pick up guests come to stay for the weekend, when the driver of the jeep in front of him pulled a sudden U-turn.  The impact instantly killed three people, including a child—all of them not wearing seat belts.  They were ejected out of the open roof of the car on contact, sailing wordlessly into the woods nearby, skimming the clouds before dropping to the ground, later airlifted back to Boston.
     Zack walked away with a broken foot and a broken future in which more intense self-medication loomed eerily on his radar. His dream of going to AAA ball that summer was over. 
     He spent the next two weeks at his father’s house outside of Boston, awaiting the state troopers’ verdict as to whether he would be charged with manslaughter.  He waited, fearing the worst, while they closed the road and tediously reconstructed the scene of the accident that eventually proved the other driver was to blame. But the look on his father’s face still made Zack feel guilty.  He couldn’t sleep without seeing the faces of the victims impaled on trees. He imagined the child, a girl of seven or eight, most of all, her young eyes wild with fear.  To soothe his pain, he loaded up on Percocet and found his mother’s old stash of Trazadone buried in a bathroom drawer.  What he invented was worse than what he could remember, an ambush of colored light and sound crashing against him at every turn, a repeating drum beat mixed with a waking dream where he attempted to swerve too late. It was his good fortune that he hadn’t been texting—it was the first question his father had asked him.  The police checked his phone and checked his blood for drugs and alcohol, but he had the good sense to be clean on the job.
     “You know you’re still not out of the woods yet,” his father said the night before he was to go back to work after taking a week off to be with his son. “The victims could still try to wage a civil suit. It’s their right. I would sure as hell try.”
     “Jeez, Dad,” Zack said, barely covering his ears with his hands. “Haven’t you already found enough ways to punish me? You know I’m not going anywhere.”
     The days following the accident, Zack hobbled on crutches and waited for his father to leave for the office where he oversaw contracts and legal briefs, then he went downstairs into the dark mildewed basement where he used to drink booze and smoke pot after school every afternoon from the time he was in junior high, still missing his mother who had died too young of breast cancer at forty-five when Zack was fourteen, and he’d felt lonelier than he’d felt in his whole life. He picked up the old photo album now, found one of the two of them holding hands and gliding across the frozen pond in Warinanco Park where she had taught him to skate on raw winter days. Realized how he had betrayed her, maybe even caused her to get sick by getting into so much trouble and telling so many lies.  Those last few months she had disapproved of the way he dressed, in baggy jeans and with his sweatshirt hood pulled over his head.  “It’s like you’re hiding from the world,” she’d said, defeated, and he was angry and didn’t answer.  Over the last couple of years his dad had begun dating—nothing serious, he claimed—but it made Zack mad to think of someone trying to replace his mother. He sat on the old couch quarantined with cat pee and cigarette ashes, rolling joints and feeling scared shitless. After a few days of eroding his guts with his father’s Grey Goose but still beaten up inside, he was desperate to find something potent enough to shut off his mind. He imagined toothed sharks circling in his gut, serrating ribs and arteries, his bones on fire. Till now he’d been afraid to risk the kind of serious heroin habit that was messing with Doug’s head, but there was nothing else he knew of that might take the pain away. It was not exactly a conscious decision. 
     It had been easy to make the sale in Harvard Square in the Pit near the kiosk across from Harvard College, where aging skanks and outdated skinheads in leather and chains sold drugs like canapes. He sat in the basement between boxes of old photographs and mouse dung and moldering hockey skates, and spread the delicate rose-gray powder out like a layer of warm sand on a sheet of tinfoil. Then he lit a small flame and huffed, inhaling a wave of perfect euphoria. His petaled insides soon parted and hushed, urging him onward with an uncanny need to know, that he subconsciously wished might obliterate a need to feel. Soon the sleek aroma of earthiness filled his lungs, his heart and head enveloping the heat of it, that combined to create an immaculate feeling of letting go.
     It was not his first time coaxing fate to converse with his central nervous system. Before being expelled from his preppy private high school he’d had a jagged history of drug merchandising and petty theft—selling pot and Adderal, not discriminating between jocks and nerds, stealing money from kids’ lockers by manipulating an underclassman with smaller hands to help reach through the carved tin grates.  The money made him feel like a big shot. At the meeting with the academic dean, his father sat in formal clothes denying it was possible. But less than a month later when Zack got caught using his father’s ATM card to withdraw $500 to buy the latest hip hop Nikes, his father confronted him and Zack put his fist through a wall.
     “You better believe you’re not living in this house anymore,” his father said, and he soon forced him into a therapeutic boarding school somewhere off the grid in hayseed West Virginia, in a place designed to remold rebellious youth into individuals of character. The campus was in the middle of acre upon acre of parched withered tobacco fields, with no cell towers for miles. Running Brook sat like a fat green oasis in the middle of it, soaking up money like oil; it was all coat and tie and manners. There were rules for when to sit and when to stand, along with a slew of blonde social workers with names like Shayleen or Kayleen, their heart-shaped faces bred out of backwoods empathy, trying their Christian best to rehabilitate him.  Boys were segregated from girls in narrow dorm-like trailers that stank of butt-fuck. At night his two roommates sucked each other off and he had to lie there in the upper bunk and take it while the anger boiled up inside him.  Anger at large.  Anger at his father.  Anger at himself for always being in the wrong place at the wrong time. For getting caught.
     No one had accused him of being a sociopath, but it was obvious he preferred to say fuck you to anyone in authority rather than cooperate. During eighteen months of semi-incarceration, he managed to retreat from hatefulness long enough to learn how to throw clay pots on a potter’s wheel and be more accepting of everyone, himself included. It had nothing to do with God or religion, but he saw how he could do something well for once without the drugs.   He graduated with a high school diploma and a decent transcript that included Latin and fine arts and emerged a normal looking man, the whites of his eyes clear. He was admitted to a respectable college in western Massachusetts that had a Division III baseball team where he was determined to be a walk on. Despite not having thrown his fastball over the mound in more than a year, he still had the gift.

*****

By the time Zack was beholden to heroin and it had become clear he was not headed to jail at least for the moment, his ex-roommate Doug got in touch and said to come stay with him. The night Zack left, he didn’t say goodbye but stole cash from his father’s wallet and grabbed an abandoned old Rolex to hock. He took a train from Boston with a detour to Chicago for no reason at all except to delay time, or not get caught, or sit still and be nameless long enough to dull the pain.  He had a fat wad of cash hidden in his backpack and a stash of heroin. They started dealing out of the house in Mississippi soon after he arrived, eating takeout for every meal and living amidst the trash. Talking about girls too pretty to care about them, selling drugs without a conscience to students who’d somehow got wind they were for sale. They’d laughed after selling fake psychedelic mushrooms to a blind man.
     The future was nothing.  They were living in the moment.  The last night in August, darkness creeping in under a moonless sky, somehow a raccoon managed to find its way through their front door. Doug was asleep, a pillow beneath his head, when Zack was rolling a joint and got scared.
     “C’mon Doug,” he yelled, jumping to his feet.  “Hey Doug, man, what the hell, you gonna help me?” But Doug didn’t respond.
     The raccoon looked at him with floodlight eyes, as if to say who do you think you are, casting a shadow on the wall big as King Kong. Zack backed away, took a wooden broom from the kitchen and rubber banded a steak knife to the upper part of the handle, cutting himself slightly as he turned it upside down to make a spear. When the raccoon closed in, he jabbed at it, managing only to scare the animal before it waddled back out the door. All the time Doug was snoring.
     “Doug,” Zack yelled and tried to wake him. Doug was smiling beatifically as though centered on a cloud.  Zack locked the front door, sat down near his friend, and opened up his vein.
     In the morning he woke up groggy, but in real time, tried to rouse Doug but he wouldn’t wake.  Zack lay his ear against Doug’s chest, which sounded cave-like and hollow, his consciousness erased.  Then a legion of adrenalin charged through his brain, signaling out and out panic. He grabbed his few things and called 911 anonymously, leaving the door ajar behind him.
     In his fight or flight defense he left everything behind—his laptop and baseball glove, their treasure chest of product stored in an airtight fishing tackle box below the kitchen sink next to a can of Drano. His thoughts glazed red and his head ached as he made the slow return route home from Mississippi on a Disneyed bus painted green to look like Peter Pan. There was nowhere else to go.  In the piss-stained tiled stall in the men’s room of the public station, he made a last salute to hell, as he shot up his vein, and the semi-darkness retreated. He sat in the back of the bus, imagining they were flying, imagined staring into the slack-jawed faces of Doug’s bereft parents, Melinda and Lou, who must have been shocked and desperate to know who had been with Doug during his last hours. They were probably hacking into his laptop, going through his belongings, realizing how little they had known their son.
     He let the miles drift between his ears, the white lines straight as a needle in his arm, his mind’s eye racing against the red tail lights of a thousand botched forevers in which it seemed he alone had lived and everyone else whom had mattered to him had died. It had never been his plan to leave Doug behind. Most nights they had stayed awake into the early morning hours talking at random, how they’d have lain down and died before giving the other up, like blood brothers. He had never said it but he was always jealous, thinking Doug didn’t know how good he’d had it, having two moms, when Zack had none. 
     He didn’t know if his father would be alone, or with another woman. His mother’s slow death had driven them apart day by day, at first hopeful and then betrayed by her body. They delayed hospice till it hurt to look at her. She had died with her eyes wide open as if about to say something more. His father had sat by and let it happen. Zack hated him for that; it seemed like he was born hating him, for every time he got in the way of Zack’s freedom and his friends. His father criticized everything he did, as if he were too sick or too small to get things right. His mother had told him to be patient and hang on.  But she was wrong.
     The asphalt highway took them east past the dirt backroads of Tennessee and into Kentucky, past invisible streams, then upward through the Mid-Atlantic states.  He shut his eyes and resurrected the accident, replaying in his gut something that he had not had the courage to tell anyone—that if he had not looked away from the ongoing traffic that afternoon for that one split second, the collision might never have happened.  That made it his fault; he could have done something.
     He got off the bus in front of the boarded up White Castle and walked the few blocks past the grammar school and church, the playing fields of St. Peter’s neatly parallelogrammed with chalk-white bases, the fine ridge of sheared grass fading yellow at the end of the season.  Summer was over, the Red Sox and Baltimore were in the playoffs, one of them headed to the World Series. His lucky number was eleven. It was sewn onto the back of every jersey he’d ever worn, from little league to the local majors. When he was twelve, he had hit nineteen homers in front of a cheering crowd to win the home run derby.  At fourteen, he had pitched the Mayor’s cup while out of his mind, in front of the entire city, bringing his team from a close tie to a 10-9 victory in the final seconds. His childhood room was lined with trophies.  The younger kids had looked up to him as legend.  Now if they knew the truth, their parents wouldn’t let them anywhere near him.
     Soon he found himself in front of his father’s house in a neighborhood of historic homes and garden club tours.  Across the slate walk, the years rolled back into birthday parties and pinatas and barbecues in the yard. He had eight dollars in his pocket and a half pack of Marlboros. His blue eyes were washed over with regret, knowing he was no longer welcome here—and his jaw stood out farther than the rest of his face. The weight in his legs shifted and he peered through the stained glass and knocked on the door. 
     It was the first weekend in September, a grayish light skulked through sheaves of thinning cumulus, a chill was in the air.  His father answered, a towel wrung over his shoulder and wiping sweat from his brow, having just returned home from the morning’s round of golf.
     “I fucked up, Dad,” he said before his father could say anything. He stepped back from the doorway, noticing how his father’s thinning hair was grayer than he remembered.  His shirt hung pleated and loose from his scapula while he waited for him to answer, seeing now what he had refused to see before, how his father’s grief had gone inward and filled him to near eye-level. Zack was guilty then for every ounce of hatred he had sent his way. The truth was, Zack was afraid all the time.  Things moved on the walls and out of the corner of his eyes.   He had daily thoughts of digging his own grave, climbing down into it, having it all be over.
     “You sure did,” his father said. “I’m not sure you have any idea how much you fucked up. Your future…you can end up in jail and if not there, dead. Doug’s parents called and I don’t even want to know if you were there. It’s a blessing your mother isn’t alive,” he said, sinking to the porch step in order to collect himself.
     “I’m sick, Dad.  I need help…”
     His father stood up and shook him by his shoulders roughly. Zack knew it was what he deserved.  Then his father slowed, took him in arms.
     “You’re still my son, Zack,” he said. “I know you’d love more than anything to stay here, but you can’t. It’s not tough love or anything like that.  I’ve just had enough is all. If the accident hadn’t been the scare of your life, I don’t know what would be.  If you’re here because you’ve had enough—of the drugs and everything else—I’ll do what I can to help. But it’s up to you.”
     “I don’t know what to do,” Zack said seizing his head between his hands and leaning his body hard against the doorframe.  “I’m mixed up about what’s true and what’s a lie. I can’t believe Doug is gone.  He was my best friend, like a brother. I walked away like a coward. Even now, just standing here, I’m thinking about getting high.”
 
*****

Four days in detox at St. Elizabeth’s got him past the shakes and dry heaves and caged desperation, while his father searched for a treatment center, finally locating one in Portland, Maine that specialized in helping kids who were former athletes, who still had dreams.  Kids with arms like oars who liked to move and throw or kick a ball of one kind or another. It was a six-month program that cost $7000 a month and was run by a former running back from the Rams.  They used Zack’s college fund to secure it. 
     The two-hour drive to Maine was thick with tractor trailers and Subarus. His father glanced over at him only once as they crossed the bridge leaving behind New Hampshire’s license plates of Live Free or Die,and he finally touched the hand of the boy he no longer recognized or had real hope for. 
     “I screwed up, too, when I was your age,” his father said. “It was right after my father left.  I got in a bunch of fights, stole a car.”
     Zack listened, realizing it was the first time he had heard his father admit to any wrong-doing. 
     “But when I put my fist through a glass door and nearly severed a tendon,” his father continued,  “I thought, I don’t want to end up like my dad.  Your mom and I tried like hell to make sure you had a good childhood.  I’m sorry if I failed you.  Zack, I hope you get through this.  I’m here for you, but I won’t be forever. You have an opportunity if you’re smart enough to take it.”
     Zack listened, drumming his thighs.  His short life was filled with lies and second chances. He had conned the life out of most everyone who had ever meant anything to him—coaches, parents, teachers—anyone who’d half believed in him. Once, during summer league when he was fifteen and too high to care, he had walked off the mound in the final inning—letting down his entire team and his coach, saying, “Let someone else have a turn.” And the coach had said, “What, what, you don’t want to play?” And he had thrown down his hat and banned him from the game for days afterwards.
     Despite wanting to get clean, he knew his desire to get there was only half his brain talking. The desire for heroin was still an ember waiting to be fanned.

*****

They angled off the ashen highway following signs for downtown Portland, a salty sense of the nearby ocean hinted at by gulls circling overhead.  The city was roughly half the size of Boston, but hipper and cheaper and easier to get by for ordinary working people in their twenties and thirties. They passed a trim denim harbor of white glazed ships bobbing at anchor and then they shifted uphill. His father checked his directions, taking a right onto Congress, then drove along Franklin, scanning the rows of shops past the Salvation Army, movie marquee, and rows of upscale restaurants intermixed with breweries and small boutiques and second-hand shops—slowing to read the street names that would get them to Granite House.  On Zack’s radar all the telltale signs of a bustling drug economy were visible, electrifying his nerve-endings. He sat up in his seat and took in the small eroding public parks and dusty alleyways, where there were folks with piercings and goods to be had. Along with what seemed to be an overwhelming pennyante tribe of rancid panhandling homeless.
     Their goodbyes were quick and ended with a handshake. “I’ll be up to see you in a few weeks,” his father said, turning his keys over in his hand andtaking a hard line. “Make good decisions.”

*****

On Zack’s first night at Granite House, a Victorian three story wooden building that had seen better days but was freshly painted white and wired with flat screens, he met his counselor, Woody, an ex-junkie with crow-footed, faded blue eyes and white blonde hair that screamed surfer dude.
     “Good to meet you, Zack,” Woody said showing him his room just a few feet inside the front door. “New guys get a stint in this one before they graduate to upstairs.  It’s the worst room in the house, kind of like an initiation process, but not everybody stays. You gotta earn it,” he said smiling.  “And by the way, you have a roommate, this guy, Buddy,” he shrugged towards a kid with dark hair sulking in a stuffed chair in the hallway, “just in from Baltimore.  Says he’s a track star.”
     Zack nodded to Buddy who didn’t look up, then left him alone and began to unpack his duffle bag next to the twin bed facing the window in the tiny room with nothing on the walls, just pine boards and a trash can, a door to a toilet.  In the closet, Buddy’s battered Adidas and a freshly oiled snowboard tucked into the corner. Dinner with the rest of the house of eight other guys, ranging from eighteen to twenty-five—a group of fresh-faced good looking alpha males who surprisingly didn’t seem to have a care in the world—was quick and easy.  They joked about their “habits” and told him he’d get used to it.  “Warm up your pitching arm,” a burly guy named Will said to Zack, tapping him on the shoulder.  “You’re not the only one here who threw a fast ball in college.”
     The structure of the six-month program was simple on the surface, and involved doing the work of the Twelve Steps, same as AA but without the Easy Does It, along with as much physical activity and sports scrimmages as they could manage. He’d have to cook and clean for himself. Acupuncture and yoga to keep the devil at bay.  Meth and Subaxone for anyone who wanted it.  It felt good to be among guys who wanted to be clean and sober, who knew what it meant to want to compete, and who were trying to get their health back. Drugs had taken not just Zack’s will but his body.  He had been too blind to see it or realize how his entire musculature had deteriorated.  In college he had been up at six in the gym lifting, arms and legs on alternate days. Now he was surprised to see his pants hung off his tailbone as if he were a scarecrow.
     Later that night, after wrestling with sleep, he was woken after two by the sound of an ambulance siren which seemed to be coming through the window, followed by bright lights in the hallway. Buddy, with whom he’d never managed to exchange a word, was lying on the floor drenched in his own vomit. “Speedball,” Woody said dryly, getting up from where he had knelt over him administering Narcan. “Here’s your show-and-tell of heroin and cocaine. And just ’cause you’re here don’t mean you’re immune,” Woody said, standing as Zack backed up against the group of guys who had assembled to watch, and who looked more pathetic than dangerous to him now.

*****

With a six-month reprieve from life, he didn’t have much time. Zack heard the clock start ticking louder the night Buddy was sent home.  He’d survived, but just barely.  If Zack didn’t get with the program, he knew he’d be the one risking relapse.
     Getting with the program meant going to 7 a.m.AA meetings downtown and volunteering in a nearby soup kitchen. Working on sobriety was a full time job.  In the early mornings on his way to meeting, he handed out cigarettes to ragged winos with torn filthy jackets and missing teeth. The streets of Portland felt ghostly and deserted.  He shivered in his jacket and his boots hit the cobblestones, thinking how the first of the twelve was probably the hardest: admitting he was powerless over alcohol and heroin, that his life had become unmanageable. That was no surprise, but it was still a bitch to reckon with.  He would be twenty-one at the end of the month and the world of alcohol and drugs were supposed to be opening up to him on a silver platter. How could they be taboo from now on?
     By the end of the first week, he was starting to feel his freedom. He was catching on, getting used to the guys, the drill, the roll call. Drunks were drunks, and yes, he was an alcoholic and an addict and he probably had Hep C acclimatizing somewhere in his veins.
     Two days a week they were driven in a van to nearby Hollis to a place called “Forward Stride,” where integrative equine therapy was practiced, mostly upon autistic kids and veterans from the Wounded Warrior project. The slogan was, “changing lives one stride at a time.” The horses slept standing up in their stalls and the autistic children dressed in shorts and T-shirts appeared not to feel the cold, and managed to sleepwalk through life, so that on the surface they all appeared equal. Zack and his friends were offered a chance to ride, but instead chose to volunteer, thinking their bad habits were not innate, at least might be fixable.  At first they groomed the horses and mucked out the stalls, then later over the course of weeks learned how to talk to them and led some of the kids on therapeutic rides.
     Some of the kids and veterans had lost their sense of feel, as though seeing everything through a wall of glass.  It made Zack think how far away the world had gotten from him when he got high. The more you took, the more you needed it.  How injecting heroin could elongate a moment, suspending time, so you didn’t need to move backwards or forwards, but were like a butterfly positioned between two plates of glass.  The thrill of static electricity all around.
     The kids were born with their darkness, like a halo of something having expired before they’d had a chance to see. Witnessing an eight-year-old struggle with the simplest things made him feel guilty to have experimented with his brain. The hero that he thought he was had gone to salt.  It was what he did now that would determine his character.  The faces of the dead formed fists around him—Doug and his mother and the unknown victims of the car accident—talking so loud he had to close his ears.
     Like any addict, he substituted one buzz for another. Caffeine became his drug of choice at Coffee by Design, and D&Ds, Starbucks. The dark whiff of espresso, the aroma of the beans.  Working out was another drug.  It would take a lot to regain his former athleticism. His brain still sometimes refused to cooperate, moving independently of him as though through a revolving door. He had a roster of organized sports activities to choose from—flag football and softball in the park in between pancake cook-offs, and group sessions and one on ones with therapists. Not one of the other guys there had admitted to using a needle.  Only Woody in his younger days, and Dave the founder who was also a recovering alcoholic. The rest were potheads and fuckups from rich families in New York and Chicago and San Francisco with trust funds and war stories of minor-league thievery.  Doubtful any one of them had been down on his knees in urban trenches, doubtful they had ever seen anyone foam at the mouth and die in front of them.
     Making amends to anyone—it was like asking him to do the high jump over a bed of nails. He had killed his conscience and cannon-balled through his teenage years, destroying everyone he touched along the way.  He didn’t know if he deserved forgiveness. In anger, once, when shortly before she died, he had told his mother “to suck his dick,” and he had gotten out of the car while it was still moving—leaving her stunned in the rain with the windshield wipers moving.  Now she was gone and there was no way to take back any of it.
     He sat with the group of guys with whom he had felt almost collegiate, reliving the shame of their worst moments in the middle of Wednesday afternoon therapy, eerily aware that he was starting to be able to listen.  His ability to think had come creeping back, along with pieces of memory that felt familiar. He was sitting in an overstuffed leather chair with his feet up on the coffee table in the seminar room, pictures of red and white sailboats clinging to the walls.  His friend Jon was talking about how he had turned to drugs after his younger sister had died of cerebral palsy, how it tore their family apart.  Zack put an arm on Jon’s shoulder and was grateful to be able to offer him something real, grateful to have made a new friend while sober. The sun was shining out the window over the skyline that faced away from the ocean. He knew that moment in which he began to feel safe, that childhood was over, that he had crossed the line past home on such a hugely intractable level, that the life he thought he had longed for most was gone. Not to sleep in his bed, or see his mother’s face, or call Doug on his cell to get together. Too much empty time had passed, and he felt much too young for all of this to have disappeared. 
     He was not about to disclose all to Woody, whose job was to pry the details out of him. He had his pride, and did not intend to spill the sordid facts of his road to addiction.  But it happened unexpectedly during a one-on-one a few days later as they walked together along the heavily trodden grassy path at Cape Elizabeth overlooking Casco Bay. Waves were crashing against the indifferent eye of the lighthouse, and a low rumble of dark clouds quickly closed in overhead. The hammering of the waves felt unbearably loud inside his ears. When it started to pour on their bare arms and legs, Zack stopped in his tracks and dropped down to the stone walk, still not able to face Woody full on, and told him about the accident and how he had killed people and what that meant. “They flew up out of the Jeep in front of me,” he said, his hands searching the air. “Like ghosts or dragons or something on fire.  It happened so fast.”
     It made him let loose and cry.  He realized then the immense pressure of it all, how he had been acting his whole life as if the whole world had been backed up against him. 

*****

Opportunities to get high were everywhere you looked: bars on street corners boasting local artisanal brews and head shops and tattoo parlors. Girls with lipstick and eyeshadow and condoms in their bags.
     It was his twenty-first birthday, a Tuesday.  He stood in the doorway of Castaway’s Pizza on Main and had an overwhelming craving for a beer. Earlier, the guys in the house had cooked him a steak dinner on the grill and got him a cake.  He backed off from watching a movie afterwards, saying he was tired and needed to lie down, then snuck down the back stairs, stoked on adrenalin. The pull of self-sabotage hung before him like an elixir. It used to be he could down seven or eight beers before he’d even begin to get a buzz. The bar was lit with red and green Christmas lights though it was only late September. The dark countertop studded with glass mugs of amber liquid, blue light rising up from the backroom by the pool table like the eye of a periscope. Prince’s Purple Rain heavily vibrating off the walls. A slender woman with long blonde hair and bare legs was sitting at the bar laughing at something the bartender had said.  She smiled at Zack as he approached, and beckoned him to sit next to her.  
     “I like a man who knows the best place in town to drink,” she said looking up at him.
     Her eyes were blue and clear, one knee crossed tightly over the other.  He had always posessed the innate sensitivity of knowing how to listen to a girl or a woman. 
     “ID please,” the bartender said to Zack, “I gotta do it, kid, first things first.”
Zack shrugged and handed over his license, thinking how many times he had used fake IDs before.
     “Ah, ha,” the bartender said, looking it over then looking up at Zack.  “Your first legal drink is on the house,” he said.  “Here’s to years more.”
     “Best place in town?” Zack smiled back at the woman and ordered a draft, rapped his knuckles on the counter. The barkeep brought it within seconds and he set down a ten. The beer was ripely lit from within, so emancipatingly gifted, he could almost taste it. He moved the mug in a semi-circle across the glass, felt its coolness against the edge of his hand. Looked up to the flat screen and saw Lester on the mound pitching the ninth to close for the Red Sox, the score tied.  He remembered what that was like, to be the one folks gambled on to bring it home. What the hell was he doing? If he drank that beer now, it would be a slide back to hell. He was starting to feel capable of owning up to things, however ugly, however the truth tore him apart. Despite missing Doug and the psychic distance from his father—he had started to value the Portland community.  He was pathetic to have even come in here. It took all his strength to walk away.
     He was six weeks out of detox, four weeks into recovery. Any way you looked at it, his chances of staying clean and sober were fifty-fifty. He crossed the street under a purpling sky and entered Til Death Tattoo parlor based on the name alone. The tattoo artist, a Brit named Mike had biceps painted with Raphael angels, their pellucid wings folded in.  Under his lower lip a dragon spitting fire. With everything he had done to desert his mind and body, he needed something reliable, and came out after three quarters of an hour with the reminder on his wrist: “All who wander are not lost.”

*****

Later that night he sat out on the porch in the pitch dark, knowing how close he had come to blowing everything.  Knowing how it takes an average of seven times in treatment for most to recover. The house sat atop a hill, and he looked out over the shaded horizon line of converted factories and new hotels, pinched together in places, separated by fields and fountains in others, then lit a cigarette. The sky was dense blue and emptied of light, the houses overlooking the steady stream of traffic below the arc of the highway morphing into darker shades of sapphire. Here and there in the antique houses of the neighborhood, a wooden figure head of a woman’s beatific face carved out of oak adorned a Colonial doorway or visitor center, laying testimony to the seafaring legacy upon which the city was built.
     He took out a pack of cigarettes, reached for his lighter, noticing some peripheral movement in the driveway next door. Saw the headlight of a car switch on, flooding the driveway, saw the shape of a bleached blonde in red leather pants and a denim jacket arced over the open trunk of her rusted out Impala, muttering out loud while digging through the rubble of balled up bras and miniskirts, eyes popping white from between heavily mascaraed lashes. Her body a walking coma. He knew the signs. Zack watched her pull the apparatus from her purse, lean on the bruised car fender and begin to pump her forearm, ripening a vein.  A glint of plastic.  When she saw him, she stopped, looked up, winked, as though from the hidden glamour of some secret Hollywood.
     “Got a light?” she asked.
     “Sure,” he said, at first hesitating, then approached slowly through the ridge of hedges that separated the shared driveway, registering the feral state of someone desperate for a high.
     He reached into his jeans pocket for his lighter.  It was new and plastic.  They had taken the old one away in detox, the one he had used repeatedly to set himself free. Under the amber glow of the streetlamp he could see she had lain out the paraphernalia across the trunk on a paisley bandanna, neat as a surgeon.  Her eyes were blood red when she turned to him, her mouth woozy with bourbon.
     “You one of the junkies?” she asked, pointing to the house. “I’ve scored some of my best shit here.”
     He was dizzy with longing. He had already resisted the road to hell that night.  He didn’t know if he was going to make it.
     She looked at him uncertainly, reached for his arm—the signs of a rush racing under her skin.  He leaned in towards her as if to taste her. He could take her, all of her naked as dung, the drugs and sex and everything in-between.
     “What the fuck’s going on out there?” Woody’s loud voice cut through the air from next door.
     “You’re just a dumb kid,” she said to him in disgust, nodding across the driveway. “Only as good as your last OD.  Go home to your daddy.”
     “What the fuck are you doing out there, Zack?” Woody called again.

*****

Zack felt so spooked he needed to run. Near eight, he was on his bike and starting to peddle the twelve-mile run. The sky was brackish in heated up waves, something yellow shifting in the distance, pulling him towards it as though connected by blood. He wove down Franklin past the amphitheater and Town Hall to the west, past the sports arena and library and bars crowded with folks congregating around huge TVs. Then veered down Congress beating out the black BMW with Massachusetts plates. Above his head, a halo of blue stratosphere cradled the emerging pale cadmium yellow moon, just beginning to blush pink at its outer edges.
     He crossed the tentacled wrought iron bridge that tethered Portland to Cape Elizabeth, careening down the ramp that spanned the cold rushing water beneath, and let the front wheel of the bicycle touch down silently onto the pillow of asphalt rimmed with sand. The smell of the ocean swirling in his nostrils, flared out across his face in a fine salt mist. 
     He moved through the gate that guarded the sea, threw down his bicycle against the bolted Visitor Center.  A crowd had gathered beside the rocks, people milling about, and he wondered what was happening, if there was a party. He could see the pale white column of the aging lighthouse clinging to the sea like a lone survivor. The parking lot lit with small kindled bonfires burning in trashcans, clusters of amateur astronomers with telescopes tilted towards the sky.
     For a moment he felt he was the only living being alive standing in the spotlight. His heart was beating like crazy as he felt himself drift prehistorically back in time as he watched the moon descend larger than life, clinging to the blackness. Here and there the water shivered slightly, spiked with shards of yellow and red, mooring the moon’s reflections. He heard a mother somewhere tell a child that on this particular night the moon contained all of the world’s sunrises and sunsets.
     When they sent him to detox he still had packets of heroin hidden in the cavities of his body, a final refusal to give in.  The nurse there held him as he had the shakes and he said, help me, hold me.
     Now she was in full bloom, her edges on fire.  Sound moved through the air like slaughter as gulls swooped down over the rocks from above. Zack checked his watch.  It was approaching 9:15 and had already started to happen.
     She had a face, so wide he could feel in it his own reflection. As if she alone were telling him to have courage, to accept he was forgiven. The curved edges of her body were robed red and unabashed. He stood as far out from the cliff edge as was dared possible.  He blinked, and a piece of sky that separated them seemed to shudder and fall away.

 


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