If you let them, people will ruin. You, most of all.
Wet cold cadged from leaky cement, knifing into hips uncovered by a nightshirt’s plaid hem. Sitting on the floor of someone else’s basement apartment, she crocheted over the newborn nursing at her breast, ignoring the sensation.
Instead, meticulous digits tenderly clicked at violet lambswool. The beatnik needlepoint coupled with the sleepy suckle of a daughter’s famished lips. Together the tandem kindled motherly hearth from vacuum’s shiver. Creature comforts, however, were cornered to a Canadian cellar. And only one had gotten used to sleeping on a bed of callouses.
Sated into slumber, the baby rested its chin on the bubbly scar from mommy’s makeshift tracheostomy. It served as an impermeable bib. The drool glossed under the slit of thyroid cartilage, collected over cracked breastbone and turned south to the ad hoc gastric cylinder made of polyvinyl chloride and healing.
Dragging parallel to the disease-preventing salve was the last of her yarn. Pilling from moisture and friction, the virgin fibers looped around the infant’s leg and torso and caught against the PVC pipe. She used the plastic tube to hook textile umbilical taught—the bob to her stitch—until the thread’s spool tread bare. Only then, with the end of the string weaving to a finish, did she recognize that her family quilt would never be realized.
Too little too late was too much too soon, but she was too tired to care. Tightening the last of her sutures, she wrapped her knit around her darling and smiled the way only a crying mother may.
“I made this. For you,” she growled into the bundle, her scorched tongue lacquered in unintelligible Portuguese. “Had to. Redo. The knots. Burned. Through. What we. Had. But. The color. Is nice.”
She pressed purple to pink and rubbed miniature form warm, but her well-meaning rasp inflamed the moment. Emotion soured intention and curdled consolation—hers was a gift that no one wanted. The child began to tear.
The wail wrinkled her skin with rue. She had wanted it to deserve everything. All that had endured. All that had been forfeited. All so something new could need and complain.
Feeling the acerbic sin that postpartum creates within, a vicarious shadow intensified with awful appetite. It turned eyes of envy to the molded stranger wearing her skin. Shaking the leaves from memory, she targeted all the ingredients she could hate: an ugly birth mark above a left ankle, the corners of a mouth that turned down to an everlasting frown, a useless nasal breath—all of it an invention failing a contest of nonsense.
Perhaps if she suffered.
What is life but a sacrifice, a soothing balm to the universe’s wizened hands. Everything pries at warmth, vies for it, desperate for a taste and a touch before the frostbite envelops. Nothing deserves. All the good. All the bad. All the pointless knowledge in between.
Inchoate fear rang red. Subconscious gratification scorched over raw skin, feverishly rubbing at the now screaming bairn. Sweetly, passionately, she whispered her brand to the bawling child.
“We are. So much. More. Than this. Why do. You keep. Letting. This happen.”
A sudden clatter of arrival worked its way downstairs. Keys at the door. Panic in her mind.
Overwhelmed with ownership, she retraced her steps to knowing better and coddled the thought. Muffling the bleating babe, she hid innocent anguish by plunging nascent face into her seared bust. The shame of responsibility washed over her.
“Never again,” she offered the future with a shudder.
Pressure spiked with poison filled eyes with heavy. Their whites had turned rogue, spinning focus off its axis. Rashes of friction scored the leather padding of a wheelchair’s armrests, and the nails responsible dug in at the edge of the shredded cushion. There they remained, mooring against gravity’s concussion. Shoulders jutted out, flying buttresses to a head hanging nauseously in between. Every waking moment barked at his skull. Every movement wrung dehydration from his cell. A vulture stalking its spot, he stared below at the snow accumulating at his useless feet, each unique flake erasing the filth underneath.
He left his mouth agape in an unintentional grin. A warm sickening lace of saliva unspooled towards its molecular brethren below, the prodigal child returning to share an experience of the world’s ill.
Soon he felt the rest follow suit. The bourbon and the beer, the rum and the everclear, a house of liquor built on the foundation of an empty stomach. Having no use for a distillery’s antiseptic properties, acid reacted and foamed towards a trigger. Unnerving the vulgar, the sieged blood-brain barrier telegraphed the command to retch.
Gastric contents erupted through the esophagus. Stomach acid stripped the enamel and shined the fillings from back molars. Dopamine receptors unlocked his jaw, and the fresh crystalline blanket below turned into a sludge of buttery mustard awfulness.
He already felt better.
“Better out than in,” he said loudly to no one. “Better you than me.”
The words bounced between the frozen streets of King and Queen while he collected himself on the lonely avenue of Dunn. Reaching over the side of the chair, his numb fingers scooped up a handful of the clean stuff, cleansing his face until it turned beet. He grabbed another to rinse his mouth, and spat the caustic residue over his shoulder at earthly spittoon. The rank souvenir steamed.
“See you again soon, old friend.”
He then slid still callousing palms over the rubber tires and bound homeward through the appalling slush of his current existence.
Addiction is fun. A pal with shared interests, its lonely company will keep you snug in that rabbit hole of stagnation. So deep you can see where the roots were sowed with pain.
Addiction is a choice. A strife that shapes you, a constant wind that concretes the bend. To keep the body from breaking, offer a tribute. Might as well be the heart.
Addiction is a hunger. A modern nostalgia, its appetite pursues that most primal of instincts—escape.
Addiction is salvation. A disease that eats, breeds ill-mannered excess, dominates the dose; show me a better way to teach empathy than an addict.
“Motherfucker!” Roland exclaimed, thudding into doorway. He fumbled the keys, scratched at the lock, then rolled trails of melt into the studio, shaking off the smell of a damp derelict deep-fried in soil. “I swear that ramp was built by Euripides out of lack of inspiration.”
He had been blaming his tools for weeks but had turned indignant long before becoming anchored to his seat. The reflection of shame from the feminine corner stopped him in his tracks. He could tell that the baby was crying, albeit muzzled.
Bruna kept her eyes from him, embarrassingly pulling the lapels of her shirt towards the cause on her chest.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m such an idiot. Completely forgot about—”
“No. It is. Alright.” She smiled, her stare still muted. “I am glad. To see. You.”
He smiled. They were troubled and living on the lam, but at least there was decency.
He looked at her skin and lost his train of thought. She smelled his state and snipped.
“What. Are you. Going. To do. Today.”
Realizing Bruna was not keen leering, he quit his lascivious lingering and rolled to the ice box.
“My plan was to drink a pitcher of beer, eat a pizza then nap for three hours. You know, watch baseball.”
She shot him a quizzical look.
“Today’s the home opener,” he said. “Even if it’s snowing, they’re playing.”
She paused, mulled it over and nodded with mock understanding. With one arm wrapped around her sleeping daughter, her right hand’s fingers spidering up the wall until she was standing. Giving rubber legs a moment to recompile pins and needles, Bruna quietly brought the baby to her cardboard box. The former container turned paper crib of a was softened with cotton balls covered by a tattered piece of duvet, concaved with the indent of naps past. Bruna wrapped the scarf around her before depositing the child into the crease. Sadness puckered her face. Roland noticed, and offered a panacea.
“You want me to cook something?”
Bruna’s eyes lit up and nodded. Roland turned towards the kitchen briskly, nearly knocking over a table lamp in the process.
“Every. Time.” Bruna shook her head.
“They keep giving me shots!” he exclaimed, a slight seethe in his voice. “They think it’s funny. A white man washing dishes at a hole-in-the-wall. It became a contest. Twice their size and I don’t even need to stand.”
Bruna’s look seared off his excuse. Roland used the refrigerator door as a shield. Longing for his intended plan, he removed eggs, bacon, scallions and a bagged liter of milk. He placed the items on his lap then moved to the oven, letting the door close behind him. Stretching to the stovetop, he confirmed the cleanliness of the pan, turned the knob to its limit and let a series of clicks prime the windy ignition of gas to blue flame. Bringing the dial back to a simmer, he ripped open the package of bacon, slipped his fingers under a row of three, and lifted ribbons of porcine taffy. Suspending them above the hot plate, he turned to Bruna.
“You’re not going to get sick again, are you?”
Bruna shook her head and inadvertently swallowed. She loved how lipid reacted to hot iron, the heat seemingly rekindling life as it danced. She adored the sizzle and cracks of celebration and anticipation. But more than anything else, she needed the powerful umami odor to mask the cauldron of atrocities hiding behind her lips. The sensuality of sensation was now a bully, taste a ghost.
Her tongue was a flap of shriveled brown muscle spotted with white papillitis, a grim reaper hosting a horror show. Atrophied to their roots, teeth had dissolved into single congealed units, their gaps bridged into a calcified audience of braille bumps and vacant gums. Her palatine uvula—that dangling cherry at the back of her throat—had disintegrated into a fleshy blossom budding among the scorched lesions that littered her esophagus with sores and pus. Above it all was the hard palette. Chemically blanched into a stretched piece of canvas, an undercooked piece of pasta could rip a skylight into her nasal septum.
She breathed in deeply through her nose, the laced smoke swirling through to receptors. Ghrelin and galanin peptides bonded along her neurotransmitters to awaken shivers of delight. Dopamine and serotonin pumped a soft smile between her dimples.
“Simple things,” Roland noted.
He seized a cutting board and a mixing bowl from a low cabinet, retrieved the hand mixer and a chef’s knife from the drawer and started breaking some eggs.
“How is it.”
Roland said nothing—it would have been impolite—but his mouth churned with vigor. Sunny eggs peppered with emerald vanished from the plate. He took a piece of bacon between his index and thumb and gnawed.
“How. Is. It.”
Still no reply. A slight squint and a teasing smirk. He then rolled his eyes and feigned ecstasy.
Glands grumbled under her tongue, pushing saliva from reflex, and her stomach bemoaned its lack of labor. A glutton for punishment no more, she stormed past his relish to accost the fridge. Sizing up her opponent, she ripped open its face and dug her hand into its entrails, scouring the organs for something suitable. She settled on Roland’s tankard of ale. Before he could protest, she had found a funnel and an opener. She cut the can, lifted her shirt, and poured the carbonation down the funnel and into her tube. Popping her hip, she dared him to say something.
Roland remained wordless, but his cheeks drooped into a slow chew. The sparkle had left his eye.
Letting the last drop dribble over, Bruna wiped the foam with her sleeve and recorked the feed. She felt as if she had finally had the last laugh. Within moments her stomach would grumble and bloat the last word.
Two minutes later she was on her knees, yakking bile and foam over the bowl. Roland shook his head while holding her hair. After the final few dry heaves, she turned and leaned against the wall, wiping the tears from the mess of her face. Roland flushed the toilet.
“Why do. I. Keep. Doing this?” Bruna pleaded.
Roland let out the biggest sigh in the world. Starting from his shoulders before slumping into his chest, whatever was haunting was exhumed from his body. It left him crumpled at his core.
“Don’t be too hard on yourself. We’re all suffering from PTSD.”
“What is. P. T. S. D.”
Roland opened his mouth to answer, paused, then found his reply.
“Please try, still dying,” he replied.
“Please. Try. Still. Dying.” Bruna repeated.
“You got it,” he said. A tear came to Roland’s smile. “It always amazes me what people are willing to live with. And what they are willing to die for.”
Then Roland’s eyes began to well.
“There are these fish they keep in a tank at the restaurant,” he began. “It’s not for decoration. It’s so the animals stay as fresh as possible before they are butchered for the plate. And these fish, they all group together in the farthest corner from where the opening, huddled in one big mass. And they know. They know they are there to die. There’s no struggle in them, but you can tell. And the last thing they want before they die is communion. A connection, something to remind you that we’re all in this together. Even in death.”
He looked down at his useless legs.
“The reason why we keep doing this is because we’re all broken,” he whispered. “Because neither you nor I know how to fix each other. Because we’re stuck here, waiting to die or be saved. Whichever is worse.”
“What. Do you mean?”
“Most people have no problem with other people dying. It’s preferrable, to be honest. One less body in your way. It’s when they keep you alive that should worry. People only work with what they can ruin.”
The comment washed over Bruna. Something shattered and she stood to stumble over to the child in a cardboard box. Watching her face grimace with pain while her eyes shown love, Roland towed himself over. Feel him by her side, Bruna pointed at the scarf wrapping her baby.
“I. Finished. It. See.”
He looked at her work and offered a quizzical if playful look.
“Did you?” he patronized. “Looks like there’s one end a little longer than the other.
“Don’t get sour,” he continued. “It’s nice, but if you wanted me to get a scarf, I could have gotten one for a toonie over at Honest Ed’s.”
Bruna said nothing, but her lips began to quiver.
“I’m sorry, alight? You did a great job. Look how warm she is.”
“You are. Lying.”
“Isn’t that what you want? Do me to lie and make you feel happy?”
She looked down at the life sleeping below.
“Yes,” she whispered.
“Color me unsurprised.”
“I have. Never. Been happy.”
“Women and their happiness,” Roland opined. “If you’re happy, the rest of the world can be a miserable place.”
“The same. As men.”
Roland scratched his chin.
“I suppose that’s true,” he said. “No wonder all men lie.”
“Not. Good men.”
“There is no such thing as being good man. There’s only trying. The only reward a good man earns is knowing how to persevere. At least you give yourself that.”
The comment caused Roland’s eyes to bubble with anger.
“Like Lester?” he scoffed. “To him, we’re nothing more than a resource. Another living carcass to pluck and weave into a web. We’re both trapped here because of his mess. And you want to call him a good man?”
Roland was almost yelling by the time he had finished. Bruna, tired of listening, lifted the babe from her tranquility. An immediate siren of unhappiness pushed the walls from their moorings. No number of coos and soothes could temper their force. Bruna tried to caress succor into her, but the screaming would not cease.
Roland’s rage had bit its tongue, but the man listened, swallowed, and then prodded.
“Mind if I try?” he softly requested.
Bruna’s frustration begat humiliation, but she relented. Passing down the wrapped-up bawl to her sedentary flat mate, she let her grip on the flesh go. Within seconds, she regretted the decision.
The babe calmed upon transfer. Pleased with himself, Roland looked to Bruna. His smile vanished.
She had gone pale so quick, Roland was worried she had had a stroke. Frozen stiff, the whites of eyes wide bleached the scene to her memory. Trying to hide from the soreness of the moment, Bruna returned to the bathroom and locked the door.
“Bruna,” Roland softly pleaded. “It’s alright. She still loves—”
His mouth opened. The sound of her sobs compelled retreat. He lingered, unsure of what to do. Roland eventually rolled to the corner, shifted the child to spot by his shoulder, and the two found comfort in the weight. Within minutes they had found respite from reality.
Night crept in, and with it came the apartment’s owner. Dressed in the best three-piece suit polyester could afford, he quietly unlocked the door. Upon entering he spotted Roland seated in the corner, the baby in his arms, both sound asleep. A quick scan found no Bruna.
Silently stepping to the bathroom, Lester went to the next key on his ring, unlocked the door and turned the handle. Slumped in the space between the toilet and the wall sat Bruna, her face raw and rancid with emotion. She glanced up, utterly defeated. It was the first time the two had seen each other in weeks. Lester’s eyes were sympathetic, but his voice stern.
“We’re leaving,” he said.
Bruna’s eyes lit up.
“Now,” he whispered urgently.
Bruna hoisted herself up and rummaged under the sink for her toiletries.
“No. Shoes. Coat. We need to leave immediately.”
Bruna nodded. She stepped out of the bathroom and into her shoes. As she put on her coat, she spotted Roland in the corner. His mouth was a jar, and his breathing loud. Drool had made a run for it, its path leading towards the bald baby head on his chest. She stepped towards him, but Lester seized her shoulder.
“But.” Bruna pointed to the baby in Roland’s arms.
“I can take you, I can take him, or I can take her,” he implored. “Your pick.”
Almost overwhelmed with guilt, Bruna did not attempt another word. She did as she was told. Lester opened the door, and frigid night air swept back in. Lester held the door, his body shaking from impatience. Bruna looked back, carrying the curse of a survivor.
“Teach her.” she whispered before leaving. Lester turned the lock but left the key.
Stepping out to the street, Bruna found a black luxury sedan loitering. Bruna entered first, with Lester slamming the car door shut.
The two of them sat silently. Staring at Lester but finding him adamantly not interested in returning her eye contact, Bruna cracked the ice.
“Where. Are we. Going.”
“To the border. We’re driving over tonight.”
Bruna’s heart began to race.
“I do. Not have. Any papers,” she groaned.
“It does not matter. I made a deal.”
“He’ll be safe.”
Lester still would not look at her. Bruna turned to face the other direction and watched the nightlife of Toronto whir by.
After a few kilometers, Lester’s rigidity stretched and reclined. Bruna remained at her station, staring out the window. They had reached a town called Hamilton, and she was entranced by the fires of the steel mills. The top of their stack pipes burned the stars from the evening. The blistering whiff of industrial acid marred her mind.
Lester coughed with intent. Bruna turned.
“I got you something.”
Lester reached into the breast pocket of his coat and removed a small cardboard box. Handing it to Bruna, she offered a weak grin. She looked at it for a long while, as if she was afraid of what might be living inside. Then, tentatively lifting the folded tab, she poured out its contents.
Wrapped in purple packaging was a black little container with two grey stubby buttons. Near the bottom was a dial that ran from min to max, and the top had a smooth screwed-on metallic disc that could detach. Straw-like pieces of plastic, a paper pamphlet, and two 9volt batteries were included.
She picked up the pamphlet and read the device’s name, inked in bold: ElectroLayrnx.
“The doctors called it a throat back,” Lester said. “You can put it to your voice box, like this.”
He demonstrated the obvious gesture. Bruna patiently nodded.
“It vibrates your vocal chords for you. If that hurts, you can use the straws.”
Bruna took the piece from him and screamed internally. She wanted to throw it at him, or better yet, gouge his eyes out with it. Her lips, however, turned the other direction.
“I thought you’d like it,” Lester smiled sheepishly. “Finally, you can have a proper voice.”
“Now try saying that with the throat back.”
Bruna did as she was told. She put the parts together, placed the device to her throat, and took a deep breath.
An early morning sun dripped into the room from a window the size of a paperback. Its increasing frequency prodded Roland awake. His eyes wrestled open and focused on the ceiling. He lifted his hands to wipe the evaporated drool lines from his face. Sudden realization startled him up-right. The weight of the child was gone.
Ten feet in front of him, sitting on a wooden chair taken from the kitchen, was a stranger. Baby bottle in one finely-manicured hand, baby cradled in the other arm of an immaculately tailored blazer. Roland could smell the after shave radiating from the man’s freshly-barbered face. Its bright ghostly visage rose over a luxurious black turtleneck. It glowed, floating between two bookends of darkness. Every detail on his obsidian head had been crafted by a Swiss watchmaker. Each hair followed the direction of the flock, each skin flake cemented to its post.
The two sat, tied in the light and shadows, a pair of tissues sopped in human mire.
“Who the fuck are you,” Roland demanded.
“Shhhh.” The man put his index finger to his lips. “She’s still hungry.
“I have a son, much older than her,” he continued. “How fast they grow. It’s been ages since I last had the chance to feed an infant a suckle. But that’s why I’m here. To bottle a baby. To throw a dog a bone.”
Roland could feel a damp sweat collect at the base of his spine.
“Who in god’s name are you?” he asked, quieter.
“Someone who knows god. Someone who god knows enough to not get in my way.
“Let me ask you this, Roland,” the man continued. “If someone gave you a million dollars to ruin someone’s life, would you ruin someone’s life?”
Roland heart was now beating hard enough to be audible. The stench of his fear mixed with the body odor and he could feel himself entropy.
“You a friend of Lester’s?” he asked meekly.
“Lester doesn’t have friends. Answer the question.” The man kept feeding the child, the bottle halfway there.
“You know the answer. I’ve learned how it ruined my own.”
The man nodded, took the bottle from the baby’s lips, and placed her over his velvet shoulder. He tapped her on the back until she burped.
“The coldest creature in the world survives by becoming vitrified,” he said. “I guess that’s what you’ve tried to do up here.”
“Who are you?” Roland pleaded.
“I’m here to help. I’ve done some reading on you, asked around. Apparently, you were a bit of a fixer in your previous life. I like that. There’s an inherent intelligence in a tool, something that it knows better than anything else. Until it breaks. And then it doesn’t know what to do with itself. Tell me, how’s that treating you?”
Roland hung his head, his eyes peering up at the man. His hands, however, clenched into fists as they rested on numb thighs.
“You can’t keep a good man down, right? That’s all a good man ever gets, right? Knowing he’s a good man. And even then, you know it’s not enough. Don’t you, Rollie?”
Roland was sinking in his own stew. He had half a mind to attack the intruder, but the child remained on his lap, doleful yet at rest.
“The easiest way to make yourself appear good is to ruin the lives of others. That’s something we share in common. Where we differ is where we stand, pardon my choice in words. Your choice is simple. You can either make your life more difficult while we scoff watching you paddle in circles, or you can give yourself a purpose.”
Roland’s lower lip began to quiver. Slowly, his mind began to register what was happening.
“Aren’t you tired of dying for something to believe in? Wouldn’t you rather give yourself something that matters? Or are you finally ready to kill yourself?”
Roland began to weep. The man stood, sleeping baby in arms, and walked over.
“No? Good. You know who I am, don’t you Rollie?”
Roland nodded. “You’re Dennis Warren.”
“Accurate, but I am so much more. For one, I’m your new boss. And I’ll be in touch.”
Mr. Warren then returned the baby to Roland. He quickly took her, and she reached out to play with his red nose. Her scarf inadvertently wiped the tears from his cheek.
“Take this, you deserve it,” Mr. Warren said. “After all, you’re one of us now. And motivation is a terrible thing to waste.”