Fiction: As Above, So Below
By Paige Johnson
Johnny shivers under a streetlamp, watching a tangle of moths fight under the false sun’s glow. He slumps forward, trips over nothing, then sucks in the sliver of spit that dangles off his cracked lips. Five more minutes until his fix gets here. Six until he can scurry back into his rat cage of a motel room, and ten until he can nest in his tar box lined with foil and warmth.
His dealer, Rosalie, texts her ETA, gifting him a heatwave of anticipation. He sweats through a tank top, a button up, and jacket, but the chills won’t quit. Is that what Nirvana meant by sunburnt freezer burn?
Whatever, Johnny traded in those vinyl records weeks ago so the needle could scratch his arm instead. No time for drawing caustic connections now.
Rosalie crosses Kings Court, looking both ways as though a car crash wouldn’t solve both their problems in a cosmic sort of way. Her beady eyes are blacker than her oily tresses.
“Johnny boy, who let you out past bedtime?” she greets with an unwarranted embrace.
“The birds aren’t even chirping,” he says hoarsely, wishing her hug were an excuse to slip him something good, but she’s gotten clingy since her boyfriend got sent to the penitentiary upstate.
Caressing his gaunt cheekbone, she pushes a slight burnet curl from his eyes. “Still so youthful,” she sighs. “So, you wanna kick it in your room?”
He wants to say no and be handed a hollowed-out bible or something, but even a junkie has manners. He sucks in a breath. “Sure.” Whatever’s the fastest ROA.
“Oh, I didn’t know you graduated from snorting to smoking,” Rosalie comments as they kneel beside the bed, admiring his open box. It’s a different kind of junk drawer, a wooden contraption about a foot in diameter with a portrait of an angry-eyed sultan on the cover. “That thing’s better off holding diamond rings or Cuban cigars, don’t ya think?”
Placing the lid aside, he licks his lip. “What can I say? I’m a quick learner but have poor taste.”
“Yeah, I mean look who you married.” Rosalie looks to the side, hoping what she said can pass for cute or funny.
Narrowing his eyes, Johnny picks up three orange-capped syringes and a cereal spoon. With extra vigor, he wipes them down with an alcohol swab. Despite the sweat coating his pale skin and clothes, he only smells of peroxide and vinegar. Unpleasant, biting, but clean in one sense. “Been six months since Eden stopped talking to me and started our ‘break’ now,” he says, hoping to sting Rosalie more than the rig. A drug dealer should know better than to pick the scab. “But here I am, sonless and shooting dope, so I guess she made the right choice.”
Rosalie rises to sit on the bed, shakes her head. “You’ve been using less than half that time. She doesn’t know and it’s not that bad.” Her dirty sneakers swing over the starchy comforter, one gently snaking under his forearm until it kisses his ribs, rubbing in circles. “We can do some other things she doesn’t have to know about, you know.” She makes him drop the loot.
He bites his thumb to hold back a dry heave, a sob, until eyeteeth break the skin.
“Don’t be such a downer. You have a job and car. You’re, like, rich compared to half my friends.” Her hiccup of laughter stings his ringed eyes.
For a second, he contemplates not flicking the needle, so a bubble of oxygen will remain at the top when he fills it with half a gram of sticky sweet. When it enters his blood stream, will he feel it travel to his heart like a spike of gravel? How can a globule of air be any worse than pumping sludge through his veins? How can he expect Eden to spit in his direction after this? She was already repulsed by the sight of him. How could she not be? If it wasn’t his defective seed she carried for seven months, maybe they’d have a firstborn son instead of a bloody bathroom floor.
“Don’t be such a downer,’ huh?” he says, black eyes dripping down his jacket. “Thought that’s why we did this. So we can get drowsy, douse our brains so we can fucking sleep. Forget tomorrow’s never coming and—”
“You want the rock or not? I’ll take your Benjamin, but you don’t have to keep what you won’t use. Got a dozen other buyers.” Rosalie eyes him like the serpent who tricked Eve.
He thinks she should’ve been named Lilith, Adam’s family-snatching sidepiece, instead. Smaller on the food chain, he defers like a cockroach caught in the light. He crawls a few feet away, his feelers slick and twitching as they trace the needles on the floor. Another two wet wipes must be sacrificed.
“That’s what I thought,” she mutters like his father-in-law did when he heard about the couple’s split. “Clean mine extra good. Don’t want no carpet crust.”
Obedient, Johnny hands her a thrice-wiped needle, shrugs out of his sleeves. No tourniquet needed. His arms are as vascular as a fern, despite the miles of comfort welts and red tentacles stemming from insertion marks.
Rosalie throws her offering into the communion box.
Seconds later, the flick of a lighter heats the spoon. They watch the lump of coal turn into ink. Once it bubbles and Q-tips scrape out the impurities, Johnny’s senses dull. Anticipation melts his complaints. Elbows don’t itch as much; he can tolerate cold hands and restless feet. Maybe he won’t peel the skin off his nose tonight. He grew his nails out with the express purpose of scratching it more, but a bit of liquid hope goes a long way—for better or worse.
As he fills the skinny syringe with molten lava, his eyes don’t desert the box. It used to hold homemade valentines, ticket stubs, pebbles from park visits, and pressed flowers. He knows he should feel remorseful it’s been replaced by baggies to scrape from in times of plague and famine, but looking up at the sky to repent is too difficult with your eyes pinned.