There’s only one merry-go-round in the city. I have to ride my bike for half an hour to get to the neglected playground park where it stands amidst the old playground structures, all stripped of their paint down to iron bones. There’s a sign at the park entrance depicting the vibrant safety-feature playground that’s set to replace it next year.
In my pocket is my metal snuff bullet. I lift it up to my nose and inhale several bumps of smooth white powder before approaching the merry-go-round. The cold feeling of the iron bar chills my hand when I climb on. I push my foot off the ground, rotating the circle. I keep kicking, propelling the merry-go-round until gravel starts to sink under my foot, until the wind starts to pull at the red of my hair. Then the ketamine kicks in and that heavy, numb feeling comes over me and the world becomes continuous. Things are going faster, but the blur of the park comes across as slow and delayed, like paint drying in the air. My entire life is mirrored in the swipe of the spinning playground. Its faded colours create a clouded mesh of my seventeen years.
The last thing I feel is my hand clinging tighter to the bar. I’m swimming inside of myself, smiling, satisfied. I’ve become the only thing that has ever mattered, and nothing I do will ever change me, will ever ruin me. I’m an entity, rotating forever.
And then the centrifugal force becomes stronger than my ketamine-induced reactions can handle. I don’t see anything. I can’t react. I sense myself drifting away, floating against gravity. And I’m gone.
A pair of kids found me several feet away from the merry-go-round, according to the story in the newspaper. The article describes what I look like in the hospital emergency room, describes the thin white fabric of the sling supporting my broken collar bone. It describes the vivid red shade of my dyed hair.
“I like what the world becomes when I’m on it.”
The way the reporter paraphrased all my words makes me sound like a fucking idiot. It wasn’t the story I thought he’d tell.
Ketamine is mostly used as a veterinary drug, but is illicitly sold as a powder for recreational use. Effects include dream-like states and hallucinations. At high doses, ketamine (also known as K, Ket, or Special K) can impair motor functions and can cause delirium and even a loss of consciousness. Users are also in danger of suffering serious injuries, as the drug can be physically incapacitating.
My parents didn’t stay long; I refused to say anything when my mom was crying and my dad had that look of disappointment etched onto his face.
“Maybe you should read this, Maddie,” he said. He dropped the paper on top of the pink hospital blanket that was covering my knees. “You need to know what you’ve gotten yourself into.”
“I do know.” I’m saying it again, saying it aloud to an empty room that won’t ever understand what I’m talking about.
Rich, Chloe and Tommy are all waiting by my locker when I return to school.
“You’re a dumbass, you know,” Tommy says. He’s got that spiteful grimace on his face, the same one he wore the morning after we fucked at that Halloween party, saying, you think you’re hot shit but I know all about you now.
Rich has the newspaper article folded in his hand, but when he hears me sigh he tucks it into his pocket. His worried look sinks behind the glare of his glasses.
Chloe pulls me away, her grasp strong around my wrist. My backpack collides with the vending machine she hides us behind.
“Everyone thinks you’re crazy,” she says. “I’m worried about you.”
My gaze drifts to the ceiling tiles. I notice the patches of yellow growing around the brightness of the fluorescent lights.
“You’ve changed too much,” she says. “You don’t even care about what’s going on anymore. Do you know what the Internet said, Maddie? It said that eventually you’ll become bored with real life and that you’ll spend all your time high, and that you’ll constantly need to do more of that stuff to get the same high-”
“It doesn’t matter what you read. You’ll never actually know what it’s like until you try it.”
Her shoulders sulk. She shakes her head.
“I just don’t get it,” I say. “I don’t get why everyone’s so scared. It’s not like you try it once and you’re hooked forever. It’s about what your mind perceives. You can’t be defensive. You have to let it take you, and then you become everything.”
“You sound like some fucking new age hippie or something.”
The bell rings, giving me a reason to turn away. My fingers tighten and I clutch the strap of my backpack so tight I can feel the stitches in the vinyl fabric. I walk past Tommy and Rich, my chest throbbing.
“She talk you out of your habit, junkie?” Tommy asks. The reverberation of his voice shakes through my ribs.
Rich’s body shifts when he inhales. He opens his mouth, making it seem as though he’s going to say something, but I pass him slowly, giving him a chance, and I hear nothing.
I ride my bike down to McArthur park. The treads on the wheels hum over the pavement as they spin, propelling me forward to my favourite spot beside the river. When I get to the worn path between the trees, I climb off and walk the bike the rest of the way down the slough.
James shows up moments later, reaching into the pocket of his cargo pants for my K. His pants are the same pants he was wearing when I met him at that forest gathering I went to in the fall. He was high at the time.
His words had been simple, convincing:”This was meant to happen. I can feel you, that you need it.”
He had a small wooden plank that he used as a surface to cut a line. He gave me a straw, told me to lean down and let go of everything else.
That was the first time I did K, the first time anything ever made any sense.
“I saw that article in the newspaper,” he says. “It was pretty obvious that it was you. The red hair, you know.”
I nod at him, feeling that throbbing in my chest again.
“Merry-go-rounds, hey?” He smiles. “I’ve never thought about that before.”
I bring out my sketchbook and show him drawings of the lines I’d seen during the spinning high, the ones I did in my art class that I couldn’t explain to anyone.
“Your pencil lines are so hard and jagged now. It’s like the deeper you go, the deeper you are physically connected to the energy of the world.” He lifts the page away from the book. “Is this one okay to take?”
I nod and he tears the page from metal binding. He rolls up the drawing and accepts it has his exchange, his payment. That night we met, he told me that he didn’t believe in consumerism.
“Your art will become something one day,” he says.
He gives me a hug and tells me to forget about the newspaper article, that everything will pass, that everything will return to the way it was. I take a breath, but I don’t know how to tell him what loneliness feels like.
“That’s the beauty of circles.” He hands me back my sketchbook, nodding. “You should try drawing more circles.”
My mom doesn’t say anything when I get home. She hasn’t said much since she caught me snorting from my bullet during the week I spent recovering from the accident. She yelled at me, but I was too high to react the way I should have. I laughed at her and she left the room. Her fingers were shaking when she pulled at the door.
Now she just turns when she sees me. She goes back to stirring the pot of spaghetti sauce on the stove, playing ignorant, pretending to be normal.
When I’m in my room I lock the door and shut the blinds. There’s an oval mirror in my my desk that I pull out and lay on the surface. I cut myself a line, a thick one that I snort back with ease. My fingers start to feel tingly and I cut myself a second.
It isn’t long before I’m lying on my bed, before I’m flattening the straw between my fingers, folding it in half, and then in half again. The straw starts to resemble a suitcase handle getting smaller in my hand. I enter into this hotel room and my bag slips away. The view out the window is sealed over.
When I shut my eyes there’s just emptiness and dark. All I can feel is a gaping void spreading through my limbs. I’m just dead, motionless, immobile. My voice can’t even cry out. The postcard image of my soul is a hotel with a million vacancies. Everyone’s gone. The hotel sign just flashes until the neon lights burn out.
Chloe’s parents are away for the weekend and she throws a party. I end up outside alone, sitting with my sketchbook open. I’ve been drawing circles, drawing bicycle tires with splatter spitting off the treads. I’ve been pressing my pencil down so hard that the indents travel through several sheets.
A pair of hands slams down over my shoulders. When I jump, my flailing hand ends up drawing a line across the page.
“Remember at the beginning of the year when you used to be that easy slut?” Tommy asks. His voice fills the air, thickens it with spite. “I liked you a lot better back then.”
He sets his beer down on the table and slouches into a seat. He sighs in an exhaled grunt that makes it hard for me to remember how I was ever attracted to him.
“I thought you were supposed to be my friend, or something,” I say.
He grips down over the armrests of the chair. I have no idea how drunk he is, but his gaze trails momentarily before he answers. “You used to be all naive and shit, but now you just act like such a bitch.”
I inhale, holding the air in my lungs, feeling my chest expand.
His nostrils flare when he leans forward. He picks up his beer and he takes a swig, gathering air, gathering his voice. “You went to that hippie-fest and now you talk like you know more about the world than anyone. It’s not like you can just pretend you’re a better person for doing that shit. You’re not converting anybody, you know. You sound like an idiot when you talk about that stuff.”
I’m looking down at the table, at the frosted glass surface and the ring of beer that Tommy’s bottle has left behind. There are parts of the circle spreading out, running away. He stumbles when he stands, using the table to steady himself. His palm scatters the water, ruins the circle entirely.
“So now you’re too good to be confronted?” He finishes the beer. “You know, even Rich was upset about you. He thinks you’re insecure or something, but I told him that wasn’t it. I told him that you were just another slut that wasn’t worth crying over.”
My throat tightens. I can’t even answer.
“And he did cry,” Tommy says.
The old towel around my shoulders is rough against my neck. Chloe has her gloves on. The clear latex is stained with hair dye. She digs her fingers against my scalp, dying my roots, touching them up with Sunset Red.
“Every time I do this, it just looks more right, more like you.”
I nod before letting my gaze drift down to the repeating pattern on the bathroom floor. The circle designs are all bisected by the breaks in the tiles.
“Remember the first time we dyed your hair?” Chloe asks.
All I can remember is the gasp I hurled at my reflection in the mirror, is the sound of Chloe’s laugh before her calmed voice assured me that it looked okay.
“And Tommy said you looked really sexy. Remember that?”
“Yeah.” All I remember is how awkward I felt then, twisting my fingers around the strands of my hair when the word ‘sex’ slipped off his lips. I never thought about how his feelings would change later, how I’d end up being his accomplishment instead of his girlfriend.
I wind my fingers around the ends of the towel, pulling the rough cotton against soft flesh of my neck. I close my eyes and think of the flakes of dead skin being torn off.
“I miss this,” Chloe says.
I lift my head. She smiles in the mirror’s reflection, but I don’t have that warm feeling in my chest. The sound of my heart is a slow vacant beating that doesn’t want to end.
When I lean over the side of the tub and rinse my hair out, Chloe tells me about Rich’s upcoming birthday. She tells me that his parents don’t want us drinking, but that they aren’t even going to be at the house so we can just bring our own booze anyway.
“He wanted to invite you, but I mean, you haven’t even made an attempt to talk to him since the accident.”
“I don’t know what to say to him.” The sound of my voice echoes an uncertain sound against the tub.
“He likes you, you know.”
“He’d look better if he didn’t wear those glasses,” I say.
“I don’t know, I kind of like them. The nerdy look suits him.”
“It’s not really my thing.”
“You only think you don’t like him because he’s too shy to make a move,” she says. “He’s a nice guy, Maddie. He’s not an asshole. And well, he only asked me to ask you because he thinks I’m still your best friend.”
I reach up and turn the tap off.
“Am I?” she asks.
With the rough towel, I wring the last of the dye from my hair. It drips thick and red into the water, a sunset spinning circles before the drain cuts it off. Chloe talks to me as she dries my hair, her voice sounding calmer against the static of the blow dryer. She tells me that I should smile more often and so I try, forcing my lips into that familiar shape. I force it until my reflection starts to look natural, until the new red of my hair starts to compliment the pink in my cheeks.
Rich has sad eyes behind his glasses. The thick black frames always hide his gaze, but when he takes them off in front of me, I get it. He’s got issues, and he’s drunk enough to openly admit it. We’re in his bedroom and the only light that’s on is the one on his night stand. He licks his lips before he talks.
“I thought about killing myself once, you know.”
I take a swig from my fifth vodka cooler of the night. It’s too sweet. I grit my teeth together, picturing the sugar rotting at my molars.
“People just think I’m this funny, casual guy.” His eyes are on the floor. “I even made this list of ways I was going to do it and that was as far as I ever got.”
I swallow another mouthful, feeling the alcohol opening that uncomfortable void in me. I put the half-empty bottle down on the night stand.
“You’re just lonely, Rich.”
He doesn’t say anything. His bottom lip flinches before he leans in. He kisses me. It feels so empty on my mouth. I picture his emotional turmoil clinging to my gums. His saliva tastes thick with beer and stale breath.
“I feel like shit most of the time.” His voice nearly breaks when he sidles closer, nervous, stumbling, falling over me. “Why are you even here?” The alcohol has made such a miserable mess of his voice. “You’ve never really talked to me. I always thought you hated me.”
“I don’t hate anyone. I’m lonely, too. It’s just in a different way.”
His lips feel so soft and frantic and needy, and I reciprocate, kissing him while I fumble around in my pocket, trying to retrieve my bullet. I turn away from him while I inhale a bump of K. Against the alcohol, I can still feel the powder pulling me down, clinging to me. My head hits the pillow and I hold up the bullet, offering him a bump. He shakes his head.
“Please,” I say. “Nobody understands, Rich. I thought you would.
“Why do you even do that stuff?”
“Because it gets me.” Admitting it aloud makes me smile. “It’ll get you too, if you let it.”
“I can’t, Maddie. I’m so drunk, I-”
His chest is warm when I ease my hand against it. I can feel his heart pacing, pulsing into my palm. I take a moment and do another bump. There’s powder under my nose that I brush aside. Everything begins to slow. Time stretches out between his beating heart, connecting it to the quickening pace of mine.
“I’ve never been with someone like this,” I say.
Rich’s mouth slips open. He pauses, letting his breath slip. I close my eyes when I kiss him, when I run my fingers through his hair. The seconds that pass sound like my bike tires.
“Times like this can last forever,” I say. “Everything good lasts forever when you let it.”
My voice doesn’t even sound like mine. It’s confident. It’s willing. He reaches for the metallic blue bullet, taking it from my hand.
“Try it,” I say.
He groans the first time he inhales from the bullet. I tell him to do another bump to catch up with me, and he starts snorting hard, blinking out tears. We make out until he starts to hesitate. He tells me he can feel it, that everything feels so heavy. He looks down at his hands and his breath starts catching. He swallows and I know that the mix of powder and saliva has started dripping down his throat.
“Don’t swallow that,” I say. “You’ll throw up if you do.”
He shakes his head and goes back to kissing me.
“It feels so nice,” I say.
“Not really,” he says.
I do two more bumps and notice when Rich’s aura starts to show. It looks foggy and acid-washed. I have no idea how long it’s been. The walls start to move, start to rotate. It’s just Rich and I on the merry-go-round. We make out with the world spinning around us, and for the first time I feel myself connected with somebody else. I’m feeling him, the tides of him pooling around me. And then his hands start shaking. He tries to stand and he ends up on his knees. It feels like years later and he’s wiping the sweat on his face, hyperventilating. He clutches for the doorknob and he starts gagging.
The yellow colour of his vomit stains the merry-go-round sepia yellow. He’s no longer with me; he’s spinning with everything else.
My roots are showing. I haven’t bothered to call Chloe to help me dye my hair again. It’s been too long since Rich’s party, since I woke up in my bed the next morning and my dad informed me that his parents didn’t want me hanging around him any more.
“You know what they told your mom?” he asked. “They said you were toxic. She doesn’t know how to deal with this, Maddie, and neither to do I.”
I refused to say anything and he stepped out of the room and slammed the door.
All I ever do is bike to the slough. It’s the only place where I get high, where I can feel good about doing it. The sun always glistens on the water, reflects with the K.
I inhale from my bullet, clutching it tight in my left hand. I’m holding my pencil in the other. The drawing I’m doing is a series of hoops spinning, going over each other, again and again. Then the spiral flattens, stretches out beyond the page in the same direction that the river is going.
There’s always a centrifugal force pulling, luring me forward.
My phone rings in my pocket. It’s Chloe again. She’s the only one who still calls, who still wants to spend time with me. She doesn’t even bother to intervene. The night after Rich got sick, she suggested that maybe we were done with high school parties. She managed to get us fake ID’s, but even our under-age trips to the bar seem stale in comparison to the time I spend under ketamine’s grasp.
The polyphonic ringing continues. I don’t feel like picking up.
I don’t feel like pretending today.
Today I’m drawing the river and its currents going in a straight line.
Rebecca Jones-Howe writes dirty short stories that can still be considered literary. Her work has appeared in Pulp Modern and L’Allure des Mots, and is forthcoming in Out of the Gutter. She’s currently working on her first collection of short fiction. Rebecca lives with her husband in Kamloops, British Columbia and can be found online at rebeccajoneshowe.com.