It was Friday afternoon when my cousin
called. I couldn’t say more than hello before
he started in with, “Hey, little Bobby!” (which
he only said because he knew how much I
hated that name). “Got in on the five-thirty. I
gotta see that apartment of yours” (it’s a
condo), “and meet all them hot chicks you
keep talking about.” I only ever mentioned
my boss, Helen, and she has the beauty of a
dried prune. My family assumed I’d been
screwing her, and no amount of insisting
would sway them. Eventually one woman
became many until I started receiving letters
from cousins asking me how the women in
Hollywood are (I live in San Francisco), and if
they’re easy (which I wouldn’t know), and if I
can send pictures (which I didn’t); except my
father, who kept asking if I was gay (which
I’m not).

I hadn’t seen Phil since the reunion last year,
and then I only stayed for a few hours
because I can’t stand my family. I never
wanted a hand-me-down life in a town where
you’re recognized by your father’s name
more than your own, only I wasn’t even my
father’s son—I was
Brian’s brother.

When I got to the station, Phil pulled me into
a bear hug. Those same arms dislocated my
shoulder when I was eleven. Before he even
finished his greeting, he had my wallet
yanked out and was handing bills to the dirty
men nearby. I tried to stop him, but he put a
hand on my chest. “It’s good, little Bobby. I
know you’re a giver.”

I took my wallet back, stuck it in my front
pocket and kept my hand on it until we got to
the car. When he saw my Mercedes, he said,
“Ain’t you got no American car?”

He tossed his duffle bag into the trunk and
fell into the passenger seat. “How much this
run you?” I started the engine and steered
out of the parking garage while Phil kept
goading me until I finally said, “Forty-five.”
He whistled and asked me if I knew what kind
of American car I could get for forty-five (I
didn’t care), and how could I blow money on
a German car but not want to help a fella out.

“Did you see their shoes?” I said. “They
weren’t homeless.”

“No shit, Bobby, but they ain’t got no
counting job neither.”

“Accountant.” I felt like a kid again, self-
conscious and full of doubt, doing whatever
the men in my family told me I should.

“When you talk to your pa last?”

I told him I didn’t know (it’d been two
weeks), and what business was it of his

“Well, he said you don’t call no more. Say
you his prodigal son, gonna wander like
Abraham until God shows you the way. God
shown you anything yet, little Bobby?”

I didn’t answer. He went on about family and
how he didn’t see what the West Coast had
that Virginia didn’t, and how tall the buildings
were. He’d been to a city; this wasn’t
anything new or novel, and he wasn’t stupid.
He was just trying to piss me off.

I ignored him, but he talked all the way up
the elevator to my condo. My space is on the
top floor with a view of the bay from the loft
window. Phil’s voice echoed like he was in an
amphitheater. “Where’s the spare room?”

“This is it.”

He whistled. “Hope they ain’t charging you
much for this apartment.”

“It’s a condo.”

“How you expecting folks to visit, when you
ain’t got no place for ’em to sleep?”

Because I’m
not expecting visitors, but
instead I say, “There’s the couch.”

He put his arm around my neck, ruffled my
hair with his knuckles. “Ain’t you great,
letting me have the bed. I gotta shower.” He
disappeared into the bathroom, but left the
door open and hollered over the running
water. “Your brother said you a lost cause
and I aim to agree.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” I yelled

“You don’t visit, you don’t call. It’s like you is
embarrassed by us.” I started to respond, but
Phil cut in with, “I ain’t judging, little Bobby.
Them’s your brother’s words.”

Reminding me of my brother just made me
thankful for leaving that life behind. Brian
was older and bigger and would beat on me
when his friends were around. He’d apologize
for it later, say it was my fault for getting in
his way. My father told me I needed to learn
to fight back. The only thing I ever learned
was how to stay out of Brian’s way.

I heard the shower curtain rattle against the
rod and figured Phil wouldn’t come out. I
climbed the stairs to the loft and reached
under the mattress for the little black leather
case I kept there, and headed back

“Hey,” Phil shouted,“ You member the time
Brian took a dump off the highway?”

“Yeah.” I could still picture that night: Brian
running toward us, framed in arc lights,
pulling his pants up, panic-stricken face. “We
were getting back from the movies.”

“He must’ve drunk a gallon of soda and
couldn’t wait to get home to piss, except
there was an accident and we got stuck in

I smiled and unzipped the leather case. I
pulled out a little baggie of brown powder,
sprinkled a pinch onto a spoon, and worked
the faucet in the kitchen until three drops fell
out. I stirred it with a toothpick until the
powder dissolved. “Billy-Ray was driving.”

“S’right. And we pulled off to that access

“And Brian ran into the woods.” I flicked the
lighter on and cooked the spoon. Only took a
moment to boil. I glanced up at the
bathroom. Steam spilled out of the open door
and raced toward the ceiling.

“And he came out not a minute later; said
now he had to take a dump!” Phil was

I laughed with him as I pulled out the silver
syringe with a thumb ring on the end of the
plunger so I could work it one-handed. The
needle was tinted red. I wasn’t very clean
anymore. I pushed the shirt up my left
sleeve. “You gave him a box of—”

“Tissues, yeah! And he went back—”

I laughed harder, “Was only gone a few
minutes when all those arc lights came on
and some work crew started toward us.” I
spoke through gritted teeth, the rubber
tourniquet clenched in my mouth as I
wrapped it around my arm.

“And he came running back,” Phil yelled,
laughing, “pants ’round his ankles, screaming
for us to start the truck.”

I balled my fist until I could find a good vein
and slid the needle in. “And some
construction worker yelled out—”

Phil finished it, “I stepped in shit!”

We both laughed. I pushed the plunger in.

It’s like a freight train approaching, a low
rumble in my chest, building until it slams
into me and everything goes numb at once. I
fixated on the slow drip of water in the sink. I
felt the cool silver of the syringe in my
hands. Heart racing, palms sweaty, my whole
body throbbing.

I heard Phil yell, “Where you taking me
tonight?” and I slipped the syringe out of my
vein. Even though I’d only cooked up half a
hit, moving was like wading through deep
water, like fishing in the lake behind my
Uncle Ray’s house. I slipped everything into
the case and zipped it up and then I heard
Phil behind me saying, “Where we going?” I
dropped the case into the sink before turning
around. He stood naked and dripping, hair a
mass of white soap. “What you got there,

“Nothing,” I said, slower than I wanted. I ran
my tongue over my teeth. “Ain’t you got no

Phil laughed and headed back to the shower.

I slipped the leather case behind the rubber
tree and fell into the couch.

After a while, Phil got out of the shower and
climbed the stairs to the loft. “Where do you
go when you go out?”

“Where do you want to go?”

“How in the hell should I know? This is your
town, little Bobby.” In the loft, he whistled
while getting dressed. He threw the towel
down and it hit the kitchen floor with a plop.

I didn’t want to move. I felt like I’d become a
part of the couch. I ran my fingertips along
the fabric, felt loose threads poke the skin
under my fingernails. My heartbeat throbbed
and bulged behind my eyes. I wanted more. I
looked over at the rubber tree. My last
girlfriend brought it over and said I needed
color in my place. I sat with my neck craned
around and watched the dusty green leaves
bob in an invisible current of air and tried to
think of her name.

She dumped me six months ago. I can still
see her face, the curve of her cheek as it slid
into her chin and came to a kind of rounded
point beneath her lips. She had big
eyelashes, like two stress marks accenting
her face. She used to look at me with a wide,
thin-lipped smile and if I didn’t smile back
she’d stick her tongue out.

Phil kicked my leg. “What the hell you
smiling at, Bobby?”


He went into the kitchen and came back with
two bottles of beer and handed me one. I
held the bottle, feeling the cold radiate up my
arm. This seemed good, like it was supposed
to be, though I couldn’t say why.

“That counting job done run you ragged.” He
fell back into the chair.

“Accountant,” I said, staring at the front
door, trying to will him to leave.

“C’mon, little Bobby, let’s get out.”

I stood up as quick as I dared. “All right.”

The Batter’s Box is a bar at the end of my
block. I’ve only been there a few times
because I hate crowds. We were early and
there were only a few people playing pool in
the back. The big screens showed highlights
from football and baseball games. We sat at
the bar and Phil ordered a cheeseburger. I
said I wasn’t hungry (I wasn’t anything), but
Phil ordered a steak for me (which I didn’t
want), and got two pints of beer (which I
didn’t need). He ate and talked about home,
about my brother, about the harvest, and
how my uncle started the sawmill up again. I
just listened, riding the high. Half a hit peaks
too fast.

The bar gradually filled up and got louder.
Most people were dressed for work: men in
polished black shoes, women in three- or
four-inch heels. Twice Phil said I wasn’t
keeping up, forced me to take a drink. I tried
to sip, but he’d put his finger on the back of
the glass and tilt it up until more ran down
my chin than my throat. You should never
drink on the way down.

It was after eight when the first wave came
on. I ran out to the street before it hit and
tossed my guts onto the pavement. Some
splattered on the crowd that started piling up
out there, and they scattered.

Phil was behind me, laughing. “Damn, Bobby,
this city done made you soft. You OK?”

I was dry heaving on account of there being
nothing left to come up. “Fine.” I tried to
stand up, but stumbled into a light-pole.

Phil laughed and pried my wallet out of my
back pocket. “Hold on, little Bobby, I’m gonna
go cash out.” I leaned against the light-pole
hoping nobody I knew could see me.

When Phil came back, he kept asking if I’d be
all right (best I’d be for another hour), and if
I wanted to head back (which I did, but not
with him), and if I’d be fine at another bar
(which I wouldn’t be). We started down the
street. I had to take slow steps.

We went to the RipCage because it was the
only other bar close by. I don’t usually go
there because it’s a gay bar. Nothing wrong
with that, but I got enough trouble getting
straight dates; don’t need to get turned down
by every ball team. There was a cover
charge, and Phil said he didn’t have any
money so I had to pay. I didn’t have much
cash left. I’d have to get some before
tomorrow on account of my dealer friend was
s’posed to come around.

The bar was full of shirtless men and a few
women who looked like men. Phil had to lean
in and shout because the music was so loud.
“You turned into some kinda queer, Bobby?”

“You wanted a bar.”

“Fine, one beer.” We found a space next to a
wall; Phil leaned his back against it and
watched the crowd.

When the bartender set down our beers, Phil
swallowed half of his, then leaned in and
said, “Your brother done sent me out here.”

I nodded and sipped the beer. Bile still stung
my throat. My head hurt, but not like a
regular headache. It was throbbing in my
temples and pulling at my scalp. I wanted
Phil to shut up, but that didn’t seem likely.

“Your ma thinks you a lost cause, but Brian
says you got some fight left. Said you ain’t
gonna hear him, so I should make you hear.
You listening?”

“I gotta take a leak,” I said, and slipped off
the barstool. I was dragging low and I’d
either have to ride again or sleep it off, but I
couldn’t do neither with Phil. Near the
bathroom, I found a big fella and said, “See
that boy over yonder?” I pointed to Phil, and
the guy nodded. “He’s new in town, looking
for a good time.” I figured that would keep
Phil busy awhile.

I got outside and everything was like an old
home movie, like the kind my granddaddy
used to show at reunions, all gray and yellow
where everything moves too fast. I stumbled
around and made my way up the street and
then I was on my couch with no memory of
how I got there. The needle was in my hand,
my thumb hooked into the plunger, only it
looked like somebody else’s hand. The needle
was full, but I didn’t know how much I
cooked. I done heard about junkies who got
skills with needles. When doctors and nurses
can’t find a vein, junkies can, no problem.
Only, I’m no junkie. I only ride on the

I slipped the needle in and pushed the
plunger. My hand went numb like I’d gotten
an electric shock. The rumbling came like a
train coming ’round the bend, and when it
slammed into me the world shifted and I
watched the needle fall, silver catching the
lighting, sparkling just once before it fell out
of sight.

I woke on the couch when the sun rose. I
remembered the syringe and panicked. I felt
between the cushions of the couch and found
my leather case and the needle all zipped up
and tucked away. I heard Phil snoring
upstairs. If he’d caught me, he wouldn’t have
put everything away and gone to bed. The
more I thought about it, the more I was sure
he didn’t see anything. It had to be me,
stoned and dreary.

I found my wallet on the kitchen counter. I
only had twenty bucks left. Phil did a good
job running through all my cash, and he
must’ve taken my credit cards because they
were all gone. They were maxed out anyway.
I’d pawned off everything in my condo I
dared to—TV, stereo, computer. I’d have to
sell my car. For now, I was hungry and
needed coffee. I headed out to the corner
bagel shop.

It seemed colder than usual outside.
Sometimes when the ride is over, my brain
still can’t interpret sensory feeling. Cold feels
more like water. I kept wiping my hands on
my pants because they felt wet, even though
I knew better.

At the bagel shop, Mr. Goldberg offered up
the usual greeting, commented on how rarely
he sees me on a Saturday morning. I leaned
on the counter while he filled the bagel trays
in the glass case; his hands were shaking and
speckled with dark purple spots. He had a
short, squarish face that pulled together in a
big ball of a nose, like if you removed it all
his skin would fall down to his knees. We
talked about the weather, and about the city,
how even in hard times folks still want good
simple food. He was always friendly. I
suppose you have to be if you’re going to run
a shop.

I ordered two coffees and two breakfast
bagels. When I got back to my condo, Phil
was already up. “Where the hell you been,
little Bobby?” I held up the bag of food and
he snatched it. “Rightly kind of ya, especially
after you done ditched me last night.”

“Wasn’t feeling well.”

“Ain’t no excuse to leave family in a scrape.”

“I said I was sorry.”

Phil shook his head. “Little Bobby, I hardly
recognize you.”

I didn’t know how to take that, so I sat down
and looked at the paper. There was a story
about a drive-by shooting in Ashbury
Heights. Four people dead. No witnesses.
That’s always how it is. Somebody pulls a gun
on a busy street and nobody sees it. One of
the victims had heroin on him. The grainy
picture showed a cop standing behind the
Not Cross
tape. I wondered if it was my
dealer in the picture, lump of body under the

Phil balled up the paper bag and tossed it into
the sink. He’d eaten both bagels. I kept my
eyes down, but I wasn’t reading anymore.
Phil yanked the paper away, scanned the
headlines. “Violent place, this city. A fella
could get hisself into some trouble right
quick, I reckon.”

“Evil men get what they deserve.” I don’t
know why I said that. Sometimes it’s like
another voice takes over, says what I’m
expected to say. What I think everybody
wants to hear. I don’t know if I have an
opinion anymore.

Phil shook his head. “Ain’t no evil in this
world, Bobby. Just folks being what they is,
or trying to be what they ain’t.” He pulled his
boots on and started for the door.

“Where you going?”

“You ain’t got no food.”

“You don’t know where the store is.”

“Don’t make no matter.” He ruffled my hair.
“Gonna get to know your neighborhood real
well, seeing as how I’m gonna stay awhile.”
The door slammed behind him.

The last thing I needed was a cousin I
couldn’t get rid of. I sat on the couch, opened
the leather case, and held up the baggie. I
had enough for five, maybe six hits.

I started thinking thought about my uncle
Roy who worked at the bank. He opened up
the ledger one summer and got me
interested in numbers. After high school I
went to Old Dominion in Norfolk. I had a
girlfriend there named Julie. She had a great
smile and I thought she was the one. Even
bought her a ring. Tiny little speck of a thing.
When I proposed, she laughed. Said her
parents would never approve of a hick like
me. She married another man and moved to

I sprinkled all of the powder onto the spoon
in a big, heavy mound. Dropped water in,
mixed it up. The spoon overflowed. I’d never
seen so much mixed up at once. I flicked the
lighter on and stared at the flame.

Jack King won first place in the 2005 Maryland Writers’ Association Novel
Contest in the thriller category. He works in IT as a cloud engineer. His
technical articles have been published in places like Network World and ISSA.
This is his first fiction publication.
by Jack King