in Short Story, Writing

The Needle

The soft lament of the guitar climbs its way through the eddies and pools of the air around me, as a gentle touch of a piano is added in counterpoint, both slowly rising to meet each other like butterflies mating in fluttering dance. The smoky voice of an old man starts to sing.

“I hurt myself today…”

I know this song. I know it in my core. In ways that others may think they know it, but they don’t. It is mine, and I am it. I am the song, it purloins my emotions, snatches the very thoughts from my mind, and bestills my actions before a breath can be taken or a muscle encouraged to move.

“To see if I still feel…”

The voice carries me, like a father holding his son in his arms, striding up a dark set of stairs to a welcome bed that the child dreamt of in his car ride. It wraps me in its arms, and I feel the infinity of the instant unfold around me in tight paper folds of complex origami coming undone, falling over its edges, unfurling, curling, in blossom like a flower opening to the sun.

I am undone.

******

The plain around me is unfettered with the necessary implements of farm and field. Yet I stand among tall wheat, the rough grasses bending heavily in the wind, the sursurrus of their stalks rubbing together like cricket legs. I look afar for the red barn or the great mechanical threshers, but they are missing here. There are no fences, no roads, no barriers of man standing between me and an infinity of wheat. I am alone in this moment, the sky above dark, the remnants of a song still unwinding its way to the greatest reaches of the upper atmosphere.

They are lost to me now, but I still know of them, like a secret in my heart or a treasure in the bookcase, they are mine by virtues of being there.

I know this place. I was a child here, long ago. It was in Nebraska. Sutton, a small town, nothing really. Just a place near a place that I happened to live. On a farm, where my father lived and died, and my mother lamented the life of a farmer’s wife, and my brother decided to take his own life in the barn. The place where I found that life is not easy, and it has to be taken in order to be. A place where the chickens clucked among the grasses, and the pair of goats would eat anything they left behind. This place was mine.

I stood here, on this minor hill among wheat, and I would look towards the barn, which would be over there, right there. But it is missing. The barn would be there. The house would be just out of sight that way, closer to the pond. The barn was a massive thing, many men high, and would tower as only a barn could when a grain silo or elevator was not nearby. It was a landmark here on the farm, and I could always find my way home in the wheat by glimpsing the flash of red and white far off, a promise of where my home was, and where it would always be.

Until it wasn’t.

******

“I focus on the pain…”

The song calls out to me again. That voice. I know that voice.

But I am somewhere else now. I am in Buick, a sticky night outside, the inside of the windows steamed up from Elsie and I talking, and kissing, and exploring things that only teenagers can explore for the first time with each other. Giggling, followed by heavy breathing, by promises that can be broken in a week or a day, followed by the clutching together in desperate solace from the terrors of a world around us. A song plays on the radio, some number easily forgettable by a band that no one will ever remember, even in memory, it will be nothing but a hook and a simple lyric left behind. The song is like a plastic shovel left behind in a sand box, all sad and forlorn, its handle crooked and beat upon by the sun, forced into the labor of a sundial against its will. The song is a toy in a sandbox, only remembered because of where it is and what it is used for. Remembering a night in a sweaty embrace.

Elsie would move to Ohio. She went to a University. She married a man named Tom. I was not invited to the wedding. My mother was though. So that was nice.

“The only thing that’s real…”

I snap back to the car, watching Elsie in her brilliant youth, her skin lit and eyes inflamed, the fingernails on my shoulders, her teeth at my ear. I see it as if I was outside of it, observing it scientifically and pretending that the thing inside me was fake, a sham, a fakery of emotion that I was building involuntarily because my dick was getting wrung.

I don’t know. I always thought I was a robot. I was immune from the emotion. The life that I experienced kept trying to show me otherwise. My life, time and time again, would raise itself against me, crash against me like a wave of too cold water, and remind me saltily that I was only a human after all. I cried when she broke up with me. For days, I cried, amazed internally that a girl could illicit such a response in me. Again, I stood outside myself, watching my grief unspool from me. I was overwound in the sadness and anger.

I lashed out. Something broke in me. I decided to break something else instead.

Her name was something to do with fire. Amber? Ember? Ashley? Ashlynn? I don’t remember her name. Is that sad? I remember other things. Like her eyes bulging. Or her attempts to scream. I remember those things. I remember burying her deep in the soft soil near a river. I pulled her body limply from the bed of my pickup truck, and shoved her broken body into the hole and grinned like a damn fool. I pretended it was Elsie. It felt so good that I almost blacked out.

I thought I would feel guilt. But I didn’t. I felt something greater than the sex, or the orgasm, or the warm vibrant aftermath. I felt purity. Something that was so evil made me feel pure.

I was washed clean from her death. It was a crucible that I poured myself into, and by pushing it into death, I was free from it. I did not know that I had discovered my drug at the time. I thought it would only be the once that I had to clean myself in such a way, but it wasn’t.

Another guitar riff counterpoints the piano. And pauses dramatically as the voice comes back to tell me its purpose.

“The needle tears a hole, the old familiar sting…”

Drugs. I thought drugs were for the weak. Alcohol for the weakest. But I found the greatest drug already. Nothing could compare to the thrill of it. The chase, the dance, and the hunt. And when the life left, and the eyes went glossy and dull, and the breathing stopped, my blood would erupt into life, boiling within me. Everything between those moments was a semblance of life. Living was fake until that moment when death showed me how real I was.

“Try to kill it all away…”

I laugh. Because I remember everything.

*****

I will keep myself. They cannot take this away from me. They will try. They will…

*****

I am back in the field of wheat, the barn is still out of sight. I am eight years old again, and looking for my house in the fields. I tried calling out for my father and my mother and even my brother. I tried calling out for help. I tried praying for something. But only the fields can hear me, and they do not care.

The barn is missing, I cannot see it. The red is not where it should be, and I feel the night coming. The night is cold, I am not dressed for it. The wheat murmurs its long summer secret to me as I run through it, feeling the sharpness of the stalks against me. The wheat could be angry at times, whipping about, lashing out at anything near it. Today it was contemplative. It sang quietly, assuredly, and tried to tell me not to run. To find a spot and wait, but I ran. I ran in panic.

The wheat bent out of my way, as tears poured down my cheeks, and I could not remember why I was crying. I was eight. I had seen something.

What?

What had I seen? Something bad. A man. Choking a woman? My mother? My mother was choking on something, a man stood in front of her with his hands on her head. He groaned heavily in the field, and shuddered. I said, “Mommy?” They both looked shocked, and there was anger there. Anger and shame.

I was running to the barn to hide. But I could not find the barn. It was always there to find. A beacon in the dark. A lighthouse to guide me. I cannot find it, so I cry, and call out for help.

But no one comes.

*****

The second time was when I found out how much I needed it.

I am in bar, and an ugly old man is paying me to make him happy in the bathroom. He promises to give me fifty bucks so I can buy some food and fill up my truck. I thought about just robbing him out back, but at this point, I don’t really care. I am empty. I am so buried in black that I cannot see the light. I close my eyes and do it anyway.

It doesn’t take long. After the old man grunts, he buckles his oversize belt buckle and slaps me across the face and calls me a faggot. On my knees, my eyes watering, I take his money anyway. My face stings, and my lip is bloody, but I am empty, so I don’t care.

I wait for him outside. I wipe my eyes in the red glow of the bar sign, and wait for him to go to his big rig. I have a tire iron in my hand, someone just left it laying it in the back by the dumpster. It was small, the prying kind that was only little longer than my forearm, with a heavy end where you turn the lugs. I like the heft of it, the promise of it. It is hard and so full of potential energy, my arm shakes just holding it. It is an answer that I did not know that I needed to have.

The ugly old man opens the cab of his truck and I swing the iron into the back of his head. He drops with an angry sigh, like an exhale of breath that was not supposed to happen. I hit his ugly face with the next swing, and I know his half lidded eyes capture my visage. I am only twenty, a shock of brown hair poking up at all angles, a dirty face with more freckles than not, and bruising cheek where an old man slapped me for sucking him off. I hit him again, and feel a splash of blood across my fingers. I sigh in ecstasy as the freedom washes over me like a flood.

The darkness is gone. I am filled with joy. With white pure electricity in my veins.

I didn’t bother burying the old man and left him underneath and between the tires. I took the tire iron though, and tossed it into my campfire later that night to burn off anything left behind. The blood in my clothes came right out at the laundromat, just a little cold water and peroxide and everything was perfect. It took a few days for the black eye to heal, but I was made new. I was a radiant star in my own life, and everything else was open space.

I was high for a little over six months. The next one was a hitchhiker. The one after that was a whore in Reno. The one after that was runaway. The world had no shortage of fixes. And as an addict, I was able to use anytime I wanted. I purged every time I needed in order to keep the blackness away.

“What have I become, my sweetest friend. Everyone I know, goes away in the end.”

Yeah, they do. I tried to live a life worth living. I tried to find something in the world for just me. A girl that would have me, a job that would fulfill me, but I knew there was nothing but the high.

There was nothing but the next fix.

******

The guitar and piano pulls me back again. I want to curse.

I am in the field again, the wheat slaps my face. I cannot find the barn and I am desperate to find a place to hide. I hear calls behind me, my mother yelling she was sorry. A man calling my name, but he is a hand, so I don’t talk with the hands. My father told me time and time again to leave them be. He didn’t pay them to play with me. He paid them to work his fields, and to harvest his wheat, and to put food on our table. To make a future for me.

I want to find him. To tell him that a man was choking my mommy. That something was happening that I did not understand. I am an adult inside, and I know what that act is called, but my eight year self has no idea. I am clueless of what I had seen, but I am hurt by it. By the face of my mother, slicked with spit, her downturned mouth in such disappointment of me.

I run into the fields, and try to head to safety. But I cannot find it.

I will never find it.

*****

The song plays, and I open my eyes feebly. I am on a table, my arms are spread outwards like I am hanging from a cross. I feel a tear tumble down my cheek. The ceiling is concrete, and I hear a heart monitor next to me as a small ipod sitting on a pill shaped speaker nearby plays Johnny Cash’s rendition of of a Nine Inch Nails song from my youth. There is a needle in my arm, and they are pumping so many different drugs into me. Plungers are being depressed by a computer that some unseen man is running. That man killed me, but I don’t hold it against him.

I know people are watching me. They are behind glass. I had to address them. Tell them I was sorry. But I wasn’t sorry. I was just keeping myself clean. They wouldn’t understand what it meant. They couldn’t understand why I had the need to keep myself going. Why I had to do the next hit, the next death, the next moment of exhilarating freedom as I became myself. This is just the last one. My own. My own freedom from myself. They were actually freeing me and they had no idea.

I wish I could hear the entire song, but I know that I won’t.

*****

I am back in the field again. “If I could start again… A million miles away… I will keep myself… ”

The wheat is taller, and darker. Harvest would not be coming though. I am full of joy, and I am myself. I am not an eight year old any more. I am an adult standing tall in the grass as it bends in the winds from the southwest, blowing warmly against me. The barn burns off in the distance, a fire I set. The house is already an inferno with my mother inside of it. I would not have to look for the buildings ever again.

But that doesn’t matter. Maybe in another life I…

I would be a farmer maybe. I could have saved everyone. I would have stopped the darkness before it started. I would have a beautiful wife. Elsie probably. I would have kids that I could carry to bed and that would hug me for no reason. I could be the best version of me. I could be something special. Not the worst version that I had been.

I would find a way.

The fires disappear and the wheat around me fades to white smoke. I try to take a deep breath, but my lungs do not want to pull any air. I want to scream, but I cannot move my mouth. I am laying prostrate, and the lights are white, and the concrete is bright, and the beeping is slowing and intermittent, and I am wheat, and I am wheat, and I am wheat, and I am wheat, and I…