WHEN 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 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.
by Bill Pieper
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