HEN YOU NEED HEROIN, you can’t sleep, you can’t eat or drink. Your teeth shatter and goose-bumps run up your forearms, the downy hairs stand on end and you know these are your hands, your hairs, your goose bumps, but you don’t feel like it’s you.
It’s been almost a day, and hot sand burns in my bones. In my mind I reach inside the grainy marrow and scratch the lining with my nails. In my mind I have sharp nails. I never have nails in real life. I bite them to blood. But in my mind I shred the tenderness, claw out the gnawing ache, scrape the sand out clean.
I go inside, put Maddy on the red leather couch in the living room. She just looks at me. Like a bird in a storm she looks, little and grey, huddled in her brown blanket, quiet and so small. I’ll get a fix, and I’ll quit next week...
I dial the number. My fingers shake. The long beeps in the phone are loud. Louder than Maddy’s screams in the other room.
“Go pick her up,” says Jack from the hallway, his jacket and hat on. “Take care of your fucking kid.”
“It’s your kid, too. I’m sick,” I say. “I need a fix.”
“You’re a mother,” he says.
He puts a purple scarf around his neck, and says, “You can’t do it, you need to get over it, you’ll get your fix when she grows up.”
He reaches his hand in the stroller, under the mattress.
“No,” I say, crawling to him on all fours.
He pulls the money from the hole in the stroller’s bottom and waves it at me. His hand looks like a lobster’s claw, swollen, blue-black with scars and bruises.
“You’re an idiot, Nelly. Next time hide it better. I’m taking it,” he says. “For your own sake. You should be ashamed of yourself, what a bad mother you are.”
I’m a good mother. I just need my fix now, and I’ll stop next week, I know it.
He slams the door. I shake, arms around my body, my t-shirt sticking to me, drenched in my cold sweat. The sand in my bones hurts.
Then, I feel them. The wings. The wings are the worst. First, the hot sand throbs under my shoulder blades. Then, it forms two buds of feathers and cartilage. Next, the buds unfurl into iron wings that cut through my flesh like serrated saws. Each tooth is bent to a precise angle. Each tooth rips me inside out.
Pain has a sound: A schizophrenic string orchestra. A cat tortured in the basement of my mind. Snow squeaking under Jack’s boots. Maddy screaming in her crib. I follow the sound to her room. I shiver so badly that I almost drop her.
“Mommy’s here,” I say. “Don’t cry, baby.”
I peel off her soiled diaper, her soggy pajamas. The wings grow. I grab Maddy in her brown blanket and push her in the car seat and drive ten blocks to Mom’s house.
Green and red lights blink above Mom’s old door: MERRY CHRISTMAS. MERRY CHRISTMAS. MERRY— Every crinkle in the mustard paint is painful, familiar.
Mom’s in the garage, in front of the open car trunk. I see carnations in the darkness of the trunk like crumpled paper. More pale carnations in her arms. It hurts to look.
“I’m out of here, I’m off to church,” says Mom, her eyes wide open like a child’s eyes. “I promised, I said I’d be there. You know you should call first. I called you and your voicemail box’s full—“
The translucent threads in the bare electric bulb under the ceiling tremble. I feel them in my nerves.
“Can you lend me forty bucks?” I say, fast.
Mom blinks—I know that blink.
“Please, Mom,” I say, my voice whiny and nasal.
“Sorry,” she says and looks at her carnations.
“I promise, I—“
“I have to go,” she says, and I see a cold little tear on her faded cheek. It glints.
“Can you at least take Maddy with you, I have a flu, I need to rest,” I say, stepping closer.
“Sorry,” she says, stepping back. She falls in the car and shuts the door. A pink carnation slips from her lap and gets smashed in the door jam, sticking out like lace covered in blood.
“Can I just watch TV?” I ask through the half-open window.
She looks at me, blinks, says “Yes, sure,” forces herself to add, “love,” and backs out of the garage. Wings grow.
I go inside, put Maddy on the red leather couch in the living room. She just looks at me. Like a bird in a storm she looks, little and grey, huddled in her brown blanket, quiet and so small. I’ll get a fix, and I’ll quit next week. We’ll go to a zoo, or something. Next week.
Maddy smiles and points at the Christmas tree in the corner. It flickers. Mom hasn’t finish decorating it. Cardboard boxes, old cotton wool, silver trains, and foil stars are scattered around the floor. A Christmas Angel looks at me from a yellowed newspaper, eyes transparent and sad. Its soaring glass wings scare me.
“TV,” I say, my teeth shattering. I press the buttons on the remote. The bright pink and blue of the cartoons and shrill voices pierce my brain. The sand scorches, the wings grow, the blades burn.
I stumble to the bedroom. The dresser. The jewelry box. The glint of a broken lock. Mother-of-pearl shining smooth, just like when I was little. It’s empty, except for a pair of surgical tweezers.
“Bitch!” I whisper. She hid it. I open the drawers, one by one. There, in her worn, silky, miserable underwear. The peacock brooch with a ruby eye. Torn necklace with a locket, Dad’s picture. And the yellow gleam of her engagement ring. The dim sparkle of the diamond next to a fat, olive-greenish roll of dollar bills, a twisted rubber band around it. Nausea covers me like a dirty plastic bag.
The wings grow, grow, grow. By now they grow all over my body. My bones twist and turn in their sockets like old keys in rusty locks. My tendons turn into ropes. The ropes are fastened to a torture wheel. The wheel gyrates. I’m brittle like old chewing gum. I’m made of glass dust, like the Christmas Angel. I slip the ring into my pocket, and keep the money in my fist. I can’t look at the light. My stomach churns. My eyes, my nose, my mouth are oozing. I wipe my face with a sleeve, sniffle, and, holding on the walls, stumble through the living room and outside, into the car.
With that money, I know I’ll make it. I can see the smooth syringe, I can smell the worn leather of the belt squeezing my arm. The needle would bite my hungry skin, and the warm wave would wash me out onto a lovely shore, envelop me in love and light, lull me to sleep. It will melt the sand in my veins and illuminate me and everything around me from within. Oh how I love its balmy amber glow. The cobweb in the corner, cactus on the windowsill, and the Christmas Angel will fuse like puzzle pieces. The shattered world would be one.
I start the car, look up and see Maddy standing in the open door. She’s naked. A Christmas Angel shines in her hand, wings spread. The green and red lights twinkle above her, MERRY CHRISTMAS, MERRY CHRISTMAS, MERRY CHRISTMAS. I see her feet. Bare, pink. Toes spread out, curved up. Like bizarre underwater creatures, blossoming on the blue snow next to Mom’s smashed carnation.
Maddy’s upper lip quivers. Nothing moves, just one small, almost invisible quiver of a lip, “Mommy.”
I run out of the car. I snatch her up from the snow, press her to me, squeeze her, her hair smelling unwashed, making me sick in my stomach. I make it to the floor in front of the couch, wrap her brown blanket around her icy feet, and rock her. Maddy doesn’t cry, she looks at the TV screen—the Christmas Angel tight in her right fist, her left hand to her mouth. She sucks on her thumb, rhythmically, focused. I push my jagged wings into the red leather, say, “Mommy’s here. Mommy stays,” and shake.