suspense by Michael Ehart
Julie fell off the meth wagon again. Because I was in Chicago on a case, I didn’t learn about it until I got home Sunday night. By then she had at least a two day head start into the dark.
I went through her things, hoping this time to get some indication of who she was with or where she had gone, but besides the realization that I had missed the warning signs again, there was nothing but unwashed dishes, dirty clothes and the other signs of depression that precede one of her episodes.
I grabbed a recent picture from my digital camera, taken surreptitiously a couple of months before. Her appearance changes fast, and a picture taken even a couple of years ago would be useless.
I found Tony, her sponsor, in the pool hall where he worked. “Ain’t seen her, man. Haven’t seen her for about a week.”
I glared at his gap-toothed smile. “Aren’t you supposed to keep an eye on her?”
He shrugged. “I try, but you know, a week ain’t that long, bro.”
A week is forever sometimes.
Three days passed, and I was out of leave time from work. My boss is understanding, but there is only so much he can do. Soon I would have to go back to work. I couldn’t afford to lose this job, not in this economy.
But then I caught a break. A tenuous lead from a street performer sent me talking to cab drivers. After a frustrating day of conversations in about six languages, chief of which was broken English, a cabbie named Rashid thought he remembered catching a bell from someone who looked sort of like Julie’s picture who might have gone to the Hilltop, maybe with someone else. “I was worried about the fare, ‘cause she didn’t look so good. And the guy she was with, he wasn’t so — you know?“
I nodded wearily. “Yeah, I know.”
He dropped me on the corner of a block of small post-war houses that had resisted any of the feeble attempts at maintenance haphazardly shoved at them in the subsequent years. The house stood out, even from them. Broken windows were boarded up, and what was left of the lawn was covered by old appliances and incomplete cars on cinder blocks.
The lock on the door was broken, so I pushed though into the dimness inside. It smelled like cat piss and old mattresses.
A figure slouched on a couch, one leg up on a broken coffee table. He was jabbing frantically at a game controller and cursing the images on the screen. “Judy’s in the back. She owes me sixty bucks,” he said, not looking up from his game. “Pussy’ll only buy so much crank.”
I threw three twenties on the table. “Julie. Her name is Julie.”
She was laying on the bed, her back to the doorless frame. Her leg was going, and she seemed to be talking to herself. I gently turned her over, and brushed her hair back from her face.
“Time to go home,” I said.
She smiled through her rotten teeth. “I’m not ready to go. Having a party.”
“I know, but still, time to go.”
“Okay. You gonna take me to another party?” She picked at one of the scabs on her arm.
“I going to take you to the hospital, and then we will see.”
I helped her up. She was shaking hard. “You love me, don’t you?” For a moment I could see the little girl behind the ravaged face.
“Yeah, I do.”
And then the little girl was gone, replaced by a mask of weariness, pain and defeat. “Damn you. Damn you for that.”
We walked out the door to the waiting cab. When the cab driver saw us, he jumped out and helped me get her into the cab. “She looks like hell. Hospital?”
Our insurance ran out a couple of years ago, and the charity program run by the woman’s shelter was full, so after a vitamin injection, I had to take her home. I put her to bed, and walked out to the porch and had a cigarette.
As I smoked, I thought of the guy in the meth house. I wanted to go back with a gun or a crowbar or a can of gasoline. While I was having fantasies, her sponsor Tony could use a little disciplinary dentistry too. I sighed in exhaustion.
We had never talked of the past, Julie and I. Whatever pain overtook her was from before we met, in her previous life. I thought she was protecting me, but maybe she was protecting herself, fruitlessly hiding from the hurt.
This was never gonna end. She was never gonna get better. The times between each episode were shorter now, and she was spiraling down to…
Scowling, I flipped the butt into the weeds in the yard and went back in.
She was asleep, a pillow scrunched under her head. Her mouth was open and she snored. I picked up the other pillow and held it between my fists, staring down at the mess she had become. Stringy red hair streaked with grey clumped across the sheet.
I lowered the pillow until it was just above her face. It would be so easy. No one would know. As messed up as she was, she probably wouldn’t even struggle much.
I noticed my hands shaking. I looked over at the bedroom mirror. My reflection was pale, and my face was old looking. In the mirror the shadow of the pillow made Julie’s face look softer, erasing the meth lines.
For a moment it was like we had been switched somehow, that I was the meth addict.
I slowly set the pillow aside.
Copyright May 2011 by Michael Ehart
Michael Ehart writes adventure fiction. Some of it looks like detective stories, like his Pushcart-nominated Without Napier and some of it looks like sword and sorcery, like his Harper’s Pen-nominated The Tomb of the Amazon Queen. You can look at his latest novel The Tears of Ishtar at Amazon or your favorite bookseller. He lives in the upper left-hand corner of the United States with the most beautiful woman in the world and their offspring.