Playboy College Fiction Contest 2012 Winner: “The Circuit Builders” by Don Peteroy
Dear James Franco,
The most frequent search term/phrase leading people to my blog is “Don Peteroy Playboy 2012.” People–probably eager college students–are looking for my story. Or maybe it’s you doing all the searching? Every day, you type my name in Google 100 times? You might as well stop. We are, after all, in the same Playboy issue. I got permission to post “The Circuit Builders” in this blog. Enjoy it. Tell Kirsten Dunst I said, “Hell-O,” which is Satan’s favorite kind of Jell-o.
Be impulsive; buy my book, “Wally: : http://burrowpress.com/wally/
And, agents are…. ummm… always welcome to contact me.
THE CIRCUIT BUILDERS
By Don Peteroy
The drug addicts waited in the dining room. They admired the fireplace’s granite base and marble mantle. “Bet it’s beautiful when lit,” said Ken, poking the tip of his shoe into the ashes.
They knew their fireplaces. Walt—a fallen IT consultant—had once owned an Osburn woodstove. Beth used to whore herself out to a venture capitalist who had a floor-to-ceiling fireplace. Philip expressed the exquisite comforts of a Royalton fireplace, the best model all around.
Rand stood among the antique couches and chairs on the room’s opposite side. There were four indentations in the rug, impressions from furniture that had been removed recently. A coffee table, perhaps. He gripped the couch’s walnut frame and put pressure on it, not enough to stress the wood but enough to gauge if years of temperature change had softened its integrity. He ran his fingers along the velvet. Still firm.
“How much is it worth?” said Brianna, approaching from behind. “You’d mentioned something about owning an antique furniture business. Or was that someone else?”
Rand felt uneasy around her. During orientation, she’d thrown the intake coordinator’s pamphlets in the wastebasket, had hollered about his failure to honor an agreement they’d made. She’d wanted the Midcontinental Journal of Archaeology delivered to the rehab. He’d reneged.
“I’d say it’s worth about $10,000.” He picked up the needlepoint pillow and squeezed it gently.
“Christ, it’s fancy here. The website didn’t give that impression.”
Rand recalled all those brochures that his wife had spread out on the kitchen table, places with names like Horizons, Care One and Freedom Academy. She’d insisted on Milestones because it was offshore and inescapable. Furthermore, the facility used an unconventional, but statistically impressive, French treatment methodology.
“It’s a ploy,” said Brianna. “I don’t trust them. Tomorrow they’ll send us to the real ward.” She drew in her lips after each sentence. It made her freckles stand out.
The head counselor, Trey, arrived. His red beard was neatly trimmed. He directed everyone to the dining room. They sat, and orderlies wheeled out platters of food: barbecue ribs, potatoes with chives, mixed vegetables. The patients cut their potatoes in two, and the rising steam tickled their cheeks. Rand had no appetite. He’d taken his last Percocet from the secret supply in his basement 24 hours earlier. His hips throbbed, a precursor to paralysis. Soon he’d puke, shit and shiver, unless Milestones took the merciful approach—like other rehabs—and doped him up on Valium for the withdrawal’s duration.
Trey said, “Welcome, everyone. I suppose you all introduced yourselves during intake?”
They looked at one another and shrugged.
“Then we’re all settled in? Everything’s gone smoothly?”
Trey said, “Five minutes ago you were all yapping. Now everyone’s timid. I’m not a fan of shyness or indifference, but it’s typical. Most of you are probably skeptical about rehabs, so you’re going to try to act disengaged. It’s self-protection. I’ll tell you this: Milestones won’t be what you expect. Most rehabs want their customers to return. They operate on the oil-change principle: in, out and back again in three months. Here, we obliterate your addiction.”
Trey asked everyone to talk about their addiction histories and future goals. Philip and Walter were well-rehearsed, long-winded and masterful with 12-step terminology. They’d wrecked their lives by freebasing -cocaine—a gentlemanly euphemism for smoking crack. Ken’s belly bled from Xanax abuse. Beth was addicted to “mind-altering men” and had regularly sold her ass for meth. Of all their stories, Brianna had rendered hers most artfully. She described a glass city of empty bottles in her basement, the smell of cobwebs and cheap red wine. Rand imagined her wandering helplessly among the towers, knocking them over and crying in the shattered glass. Rand’s story, by contrast, was unimpressive: frustrated logistics, stolen prescription pads, memorized inscription codes and DEA numbers.
When everyone finished, Trey said, “The common denominator is that you’ve all lost the ability to choose when to stop. But if you think Milestones will give you an intellectual toolbox for combating temptation, you’re wrong. Understanding consequences won’t save you, but behavioral compliance will. Let me show you.”
Trey produced a small bag from his shirt pocket. Everyone gasped. Rand estimated that it was an eighth ounce of marijuana, the good shit with red whiskers.
“What the fuck?” said Walter. Trey dumped the bag’s contents onto the table. It stank like a gust moving over a swamp. He tossed a package of rolling papers to Rand. “Roll everyone a joint. Myself included.”
“What? No way!”
“Let me get this right,” said Trey. “You’ve about ruined your life, lost your marriage and business, but you still think you know better than a certified addiction counselor?”
Philip said, “This is a test. Don’t do it, man.” He crossed his arms.
Beth said, “A lesson on willpower. Or discipline. Or teamwork or something.”
There was Brianna, looking down at her hands, ashamed. She must have caught herself entertaining the fantasy of smoking a joint in rehab. Rand had imagined it too, for just for second. There was a garden out back, a perfect place for getting buzzed.
Trey said, “You signed a contract agreeing to do whatever it takes to get sober, right? Then roll the fucking joints. This is what it takes.”
Ken said, “It’s a trap, Rand. He’s using a technique called paradoxical intervention.”
Brianna’s eyes met Rand’s. Do it, she seemed to be saying. Rand reached for the papers. It’s not like he even wanted to be in rehab anyway. Ken mumbled something about reactance theory. Rand laid out the papers and sprinkled weed into the creases. The room was quiet but for the sound of paper crinkling in Rand’s fingers. Nobody stirred. Trey grabbed a joint, wedged it between his lips and flicked a lighter. The paper sizzled as he inhaled. Smoke rolled out of the sides of his mouth. Rand still wondered if this was a trick. Maybe he’d smell potpourri or mint leaves.
They watched Trey take three puffs. Then, in one swoop, Brianna snatched a joint, lit it and pulled hard. “This is crazy,” she said. “Am I in trouble?”
“Of course not,” said Trey. Rand lit a joint. It was smooth going down his throat, feathery in his lungs. The buzz came within seconds, his vision sparkling.
Beth cleared her throat. Ken picked at his cuticles. Walter and Philip exchanged glances, seeking each other’s approval. Trey said, “Enough ambivalence. If you all want to go huddle somewhere and talk it over, be my guest. We’ll just smoke the rest.” Their faces relaxed. Walter reached for a joint. Philip and Beth followed.
Ken narrowed his eyes at everyone. He said, “I’m here to get sober.” Nobody responded. Fuck him. Sanctimonious asshole. Ken turned away.
Soon they stubbed out their roaches and sat back, stoned, while Trey expounded on the rehab’s practices. “We at Milestones,” he said, “choose not to offer classes on genetic predisposition and addict neurology. It’s useless. There won’t be any group therapy. No worksheets or moral inventories or confessional essays about your shitty parents. If you’ve come here to sit on a yoga mat and deep-breathe burning sage, leave. If you want God, go to church. See, in AA, they tell you to accept everything that happens to you as God’s will. They want you to think acceptance means convincing yourself that the fucking you just got wasn’t -really a fucking—it was a message from your creator. We don’t do that. We embrace our humanity. There’s no other way to overcome addiction than to eradicate your guilt and shame and let yourself be the addict you are.”
Be the addict you are. Yes, Rand thought. All of his troubles stemmed from trying to be someone other than an addict. Trey stood and said, “Tomorrow you’ll be assigned a buddy, and we’ll take it from there. When you retire to your rooms, you’ll find on your nightstands an Ambien pill and a glass of wine. Sleep well.”
Ken interrupted, “Hold on. How do you get away with this? Legally?”
Trey said, “Our legal advisor will be here Monday, if you need to speak——”
“How about you give me a phone and I call my lawyer?”
Brianna whispered, “No phones here.”
Ken laughed, “Oh? And if there’s an emergency?”
Trey said, “We take you back to land and bill you.”
Trey turned and left the dining room. Once they heard his office door shut, they released their giggles. Ken, first to rise, rushed out. He banged on Trey’s door relentlessly, until finally—and who knew how much time had passed?—he gave up.
Twelve hours later, Rand and Brianna were stoned and relaxing by the garden’s pond. Nobody had expected the previous night’s fortune to continue, but when the group filed downstairs for breakfast, they found freshly rolled joints on the table, along with wrapped gifts for everyone except Ken. He’d opted out of breakfast. The maid left a plate of waffles by his door.
Beth read aloud a note that Trey had left. He’d been tied up in another commitment but would be back later. In the meantime, he’d produced a list of buddy assignments. Naturally, Walter and Philip were teamed together. Much to Beth’s consternation, she’d been grouped with Ken. “He’ll emerge,” Trey had written. That left Rand and Brianna. Beth read, “Being a buddy isn’t difficult work. What you do is get high together.”
They opened their presents. Walter and Philip got cocaine. Beth got Adderall. Rand got four Vicodins, and Brianna got a bottle of rum. The orange juice and muffins at the table went untouched. They slid their chairs out and dispersed.
Now at the pond, Rand and Brianna watched the swaying cattails, the ladybugs buzzing in the tall grass. Brianna gulped her rum. She drank immodestly, throwing her head back and tipping the bottle straight up. They laughed over the circumstances, but soon Brianna’s merriment passed. “I know what’s going on,” she said.
Rand’s mouth was sour from chewing the four pills. He swiped his tongue along his teeth.
“They’re getting it out of our systems,” she said. “The recklessness, you know?”
“Unlikely. We’re becoming more addicted, actually.”
She stretched out her legs and fanned her toes. Brianna’s feet had a peculiar shape; her soles were so deeply arched that only her heels and toes touched the ground. Rand imagined that her body and spirit naturally strived upward, away. His wife’s feet came to mind. They looked like uncooked sausages, the bloated veins around her ankles, the jutting bones and cracked-cement calluses.
Rand said, “The fact is, no matter how much I did, I never got tired of it.”
They gazed at the pond, its surface smooth and asleep. Rand’s eyes fell on Brianna’s feet again, and she caught him looking. Her cheeks turned red. She wiggled her toes.
Rand said, “What do you plan to do when you get out?”
“Course prep. I’ll have a couple more weeks before the semester starts.”
“You’re a professor?”
“A history professor. A drunk one. Lucky I didn’t get fired. Kind of hard to do that to the country’s leading expert on the history of U.S. involvement in Panama.” She took the bottle to her lips.
“History fascinates me. Everyone, really. Whenever I sell a piece of furniture, I know that people buy it because they want its history.”
She nodded, showing mild interest. He continued: “It’s how I retain customers. For each item in my inventory, I trace its history as far back as I can. I print out a little booklet that explains where it’s been. People want to be the last page in the story, the happy ending.”
Brianna joked, “How many histories have you forged?”
“Most of them,” he said. Laughing, their shoulders bumped. Rand hadn’t realized they were sitting so close together. Brianna’s proximity unlocked something inside him, a magnitude of excitement he hadn’t felt in years. He could make it even better if he could score more Vicodin.
“Tell me about your wife,” Brianna said, glancing at the last inch of rum in her bottle.
“She’s out there and I’m in here. That’s all there is to it.”
Brianna shifted, moving away just a little. It meant nothing. She swallowed the remaining rum. “Fuck,” she said, eyes honing on the few drops.
“What about you?” he said. “Are you seeing anyone?”
“Off and on. Whatever.” She lay on her side and closed her eyes. Rand considered stroking her hair, but it’d be better to wait, let some days pass. He studied her back, its islands of pink blotches, probably symptomatic of her ailing liver. The blemishes didn’t disgust him; rather, they looked artful, like bursts of paint.
She snored. He stared at her feet. He imagined the sound of her sandals creaking when she walked. Perhaps, during the school year, she kept her feet in privacy, behind fragrant nylon curtains, which she peeled off at night and discarded in a pile. He bent down, inspecting the creases on her heel. Tiny fissures, no more than a fiber’s width. He opened his mouth and ran the tip of his tongue along the sole of her foot. Her rough flesh tasted like vinegar. Her toes curled. She stirred, then fell back asleep.
That evening, Trey summoned Rand to his office. Trey had one question: “Just for the record, have you ever licked your wife’s feet?”
Rand tried to conceal his panic. His eyes darted around the office, falling briefly on a pile of manila folders. Trey reached into a drawer and pulled out a bag of baby carrots. He snapped one between his teeth. “Carrot?” he said, holding out the bag.
“Okay, then. Let’s try again. Have you ever licked your wife’s feet?”
“Were you watching?”
“We monitor the grounds. The dining room, the recreation room, the library. Liability’s a bitch, so we take precautionary measures.” He cracked another carrot in his mouth.
“I didn’t realize——” Rand paused. “What about my bedroom?”
“You’re safe there. Everyone deserves some privacy.”
“Why should I believe you?”
Trey held the bag out again. “You sure you don’t want a carrot?”
Rand shook his head. Trey continued, “You’re not the first junkie with a fetish.”
“I don’t have a fetish——”
“Whether you do or don’t, I’d like to know if you’ve ever licked your wife’s feet?”
“Never even thought of it. It was a onetime thing.”
“That’s all I needed to know. Thank you.”
Rand wrinkled his brow. Trey stared at him, the muscles in his jaw swelling, the carrot clamped between his molars splintering like brittle wood. Rand said, “Why are you asking me this? You should have been up-front about the surveillance. I feel violated.”
“Violated? You licked Brianna’s foot. Last I checked——”
“I was high. On drugs you gave me.”
Trey laced his fingers together. “Then maybe we should try a different treatment option?”
“That’s not what I’m saying. I just want to know——” Rand stopped himself. He had to be careful because Trey had the power to cut off his drug supply.
“To know what?” said Trey.
Rand was going to ask if Milestones had ever been sued, but now he knew better. “I want to know if you think my perversion signifies an issue I need to work through.”
Trey said, “Nice try. It doesn’t signify anything alarming. You exhibit predictable behaviors, all around. So predictable, in fact, that I know what you’ve been itching to ask me all day. You’re sweating, Rand. Your face is losing color. I know what’s really on your mind.”
Rand said nothing. He felt ashamed for being so transparent. Trey continued, “Yes, we’ve got more Vicodin. That’s what you want, isn’t it? You don’t give a damn about the embarrassment of having been caught licking a sleeping woman’s foot. You want drugs. I say embrace your illness and just ask.”
Rand reached for a carrot. “May I?”
Trey waved his hand. “Take them all. I’m not hungry anymore.”
After midnight, while Rand was high and playing Call of Duty, Brianna arrived. She had a bottle of vodka. Rand let her in. Brianna was scratching her cheeks and grinding her teeth—sure signs she had used cocaine. She leaned against the wall. “You take your Ambien?” she said.
Rand looked at the nightstand. A single pill lay on a red cloth. “Are you asking me if you can have mine?”
She shrugged. Rand dropped the pill in her palm. “It works quicker if you eat it,” he said.
She chewed the pill, chased it down with vodka, then wobbled over to the bed and sat.
Rand slid down beside her. “When I first started using pills,” he said, “I’d swallow them, like you’re supposed to. But you know how it is. Soon, the buzz wouldn’t come quick enough. I started chewing them. The taste took some getting used to.”
She stared at the TV screen, a paused image of a soldier running toward barbed wire.
Rand said, “I eventually found I couldn’t get maximum absorption fast enough. I started crushing them, wrapping the dust in strips of toilet paper and swallowing ’em. Parachuting, it’s called. Sooner or later, I’ll start using needles.”
She didn’t seem interested in his war stories, or anything, really. He wondered if all she’d wanted was his Ambien. Rand continued anyway. “Opiates saved me, really. I was the kid who always hung his head in shame. I wanted to be like Superman but couldn’t even pass for Clark Kent. When I was 12, I broke my arm. The doctor gave me Vicodin. One pill and suddenly I felt like I belonged on this planet. I saw a big, glowing S on my chest. I’ve been chasing that S for over 20 years. Yet the more drugs I did, the smaller the S became.” He lifted his shirt, revealing his chest. “See it there? See it?”
“Me neither. The crazy thing is, I’m convinced that one day it’ll come back.”
She started to sag. It was steady at first, like a body swaying from a gallows. She attempted to sit straight but soon gave up. She lay on her back and winced every time the ceiling fan’s blades crossed the light.
Rand said, “You don’t look well. What did you take tonight?”
“Some kind of speed. I wanted to stay awake.”
“And you just took an Ambien?”
“Two,” she mumbled. “Yours and mine.”
Her eyes closed. Rand combed his fingers through her knotted hair. She probably hadn’t showered in days. He found her deterioration erotic, the way she stank, her bloated face and parched lips. It was a beautiful kind of self-hatred that few could understand. Pressure built in his groin, a miracle. His penis had been inert since he’d started abusing opiates, yet this broken woman had the power to overthrow his impotency, even in her deepest stupor.
Initially, Brianna’s trembling was slight. Nothing to be concerned about, just some spasms, her body wiggling itself into or out of the poison. But then her legs kicked the mattress, her head thrashed and she screeched. Her fingers twisted into the sheets and pulled them to her chest. Rand dialed Trey’s extension. “Be right there,” Trey said.
A nurse arrived quickly. Trey sauntered behind, pushing a gurney with a squeaky wheel.
“Stand aside,” she said to Rand. She approached Brianna’s quivering body.
“Is she okay?”
“I said stand aside.” Rand stepped back.
They lifted Brianna onto the gurney, strapped down her arms and legs and rolled her into the hall. The wheel stopped squeaking, but the gurney rattled with Brianna’s convulsions. Rand followed them toward the elevator. They waited, the elevator’s gears grinding and air whistling between the doors. Trey put his hand on Rand’s shoulder. “Good thing you called. Otherwise——”
The doors opened. They crammed inside and pressed against the walls. Spasms rippled up Brianna’s arms, and bubbles of saliva formed at the corners of her lips. Rand looked away.
“Otherwise?” Rand said.
Trey said, “Otherwise what?”
The doors parted, revealing an infirmary no bigger than a cheap hotel room. The walls were concrete, mold blistering in the corners. A single lamp glowed over a heart monitor and a cabinet stocked with medical supplies. Apparently Milestones anticipated this kind of mishap.
They wheeled Brianna inside. Rand noticed a strange mechanism next to the operation table. Five feet tall, it looked technologically ancient, like a time machine from a 1960s sci-fi flick, with thick copper coils corkscrewing along its exposed interior, meters and lightbulbs, silver-dollar-size buttons and rows of red and blue levers. Electrodes dangled from a control panel.
The nurse hooked up Brianna to the heart monitor. Trey turned to Rand while she prepared the IV. “Listen carefully. We’re going to let Brianna’s heart stop for a moment.”
“This is a controlled resuscitation process. Perfected down to the second.”
Rand winced. “You’re going to let her——”
“Die. Yes. Now pay attention. From this point on, you’re responsible for reviving her. And for teaching her how to revive you, in case you decide to overdose. Now—” the heart monitor screamed “—grab that wheel and start spinning it.”
Rand hesitated, his lips puttering as he tried to form words. Trey said, “I’m 30 seconds away from making funeral arrangements. Twenty-nine. Twenty-eight.”
Rand clutched the wheel. It wouldn’t budge; grime and rust hindered its rotation. He threw his body into it, and the wheel released some of its resistance. Trey said, “You’re generating electricity. This machine is a dynamo. An old one. We don’t want to make this too easy for you. Upstairs, life’s pleasant. Down here, you suffer.”
After three revolutions, Rand wheezed. His palms were pink, like strips of uncooked salmon. His knees were buckling, so he squatted and pulled on the wheel. Meanwhile, the nurse held up a syringe. “This is a steroid,” she said. “Next time Brianna overdoses, you’ll need to inject her, right here.” She jabbed Brianna in the neck and depressed the plunger. “The instructions are in the red binder.”
Finally, Trey ordered Rand to stop. Rand gagged, backed away from the wheel and clutched his stomach. Had he not taken so many opiates, he’d feel crippled.
Trey said, “It’s not break time yet. There are two defibrillator pads above the control panel. Take them and snap them onto the two wires there.” Trey pointed to the electrodes that dangled from the machine. “Try not to touch the exposed copper. The lightning’s for Brianna.”
Rand followed Trey’s orders.
“Place one pad on her chest, above her breast, and the other beneath her rib cage.”
The pads adhered to her skin.
“Not perfect, but that’ll do. Now, see that blue lever? Pull it down and let it bounce back up. That’ll deliver the shock. You’ve got three good blasts, so go ahead, revive Brianna.”
Rand worried that he’d spun the wheel one too many times and had generated just enough excess voltage to fry Brianna’s brain. He took a last glance at her, then pulled the lever.
There was a pop. Brianna’s body arched and her eyelids blew open. She looked startled. Then, something settled over her, an expression that didn’t fit her face. She crashed back down onto the gurney, and the heart monitor resumed its steady pulse.
“Congratulations,” said Trey.
“If she decides to, yes.”
Rand, bewildered, watched the nurse prepare an IV. “I don’t understand this,” he said.
Trey loosened the straps on Brianna’s wrists. “With all the drugs in this place, it’s bound to happen. Like I said, we take precautionary measures.”
“She could have died.” Rand took a step toward Brianna.
Trey held up his palm. “You’re right. It’s a shame; your buddy has no self-control. Poor girl. Good thing she’s got you to look out for her. Now, we’ll take the rest from here. You can head back upstairs.”
Trey stared at Brianna. The nurse, holding a red tube, said, “Job’s done, man. Go on.”
The first OxyContin got Rand through the morning. Later, he crushed a 40-milligram pill and sucked its dusty essence up his nose. He was passing time, waiting for Brianna to rise from her stupor. He’d bring her tomato soup and maybe a few beers in case she was having the DTs.
At 7:00 p.m. Rand went to the kitchen, heated Brianna’s soup and pulled a Coors six-pack from the refrigerator. She’d appreciate it. He’d offer her a foot rub. He couldn’t imagine her turning it down, not after he’d saved her life. He headed to her room, forgetting the soup.
Brianna’s eyes looked sickly yellow. The veins in her neck were swollen from retching. She tried to apologize for last night’s incident, but her voice was clotty and hoarse from having her stomach pumped. “It’s okay,” Rand said. “Just pace yourself from now on. Here, I brought this for you.” He held up the six-pack. “I figured you’d want something to hold you over.”
“I think I’m done, actually.”
Rand felt stung. “Of course,” he said, walking to the recliner. He put the beer on the floor. “I know how it is. Shit happens, and we go on the wagon. A month later, we’ve proved that we’re not addicts, so we reward ourselves and get high. Then, it’s back to the races.”
“You don’t believe me?”
“Sure I do. It makes sense. Last page in the story, right? Brianna gets sober.”
She patted down a wrinkle on the bed sheet. “I nearly died. My experience isn’t as simple as a booklet that comes with a piece of furniture.”
He snapped a beer from the six-pack, sat in the recliner and rocked. “Do you mind?”
“Okay then.” He placed the can back on the floor. “Listen, I’m happy for you, I really am. Near-death experiences can be inspiring. Lots of well-written books on the matter. But you’re a scientist, an objective thinker. You’re emotional right now, and——”
She retrieved a magazine from the floor. Rand saw its title: Midcontinental Journal of Archaeology. Her name was among three other contributors mentioned on the cover. She said, “This article. I wrote it three years ago. I haven’t been able to write anything since.”
Rand said, “Do you really think anyone can be scared into sobriety? If that kind of thing worked, we wouldn’t need rehabs, right?”
She raised the blinds. The thick sea fog obscured the stars. Rand didn’t care about her declining career. He just wanted her to get drunk. He wanted to lick her foot again, whether someone was watching or not. He wanted to fuck her, there on the recliner.
“I support you,” he said. “But I can’t let you do this because of fear. I’d be enabling you, knowing all along that sooner or later, fear will fail you. That’s not the point of Milestones.”
She glared at him. “Enlighten me, Rand. What is the point of Milestones?”
“To show us we’re not addicted to drugs; we’re addicted to the concept of more. Here, we’re given the freedom to discover what enough means. We’re not powerless, Brianna. We have a choice. It’s not that hard.”
“I’m glad you see it that way. Personally, I’m done.” She walked to the door and opened it. “I need to be alone. Conversation’s over, so please take the beer with you.”
Rand lifted himself from the recliner and stomped toward her. “Really? What are you going to do all night? Get in touch with your higher power? Convince yourself you’ve had a spiritual awakening? Write apology letters to yourself?”
“Please,” she said. “I want to be alone. Get out of my room.”
He smiled and held out his hands to reassure her. “Settle down. I’m your buddy, not your enemy. I just want you to be true to yourself.”
The door across the hall opened. Beth, in her nightgown, stared at Rand. “She’s telling you to leave,” she said.
The women waited. Rand picked up the beer. “Tomorrow,” he said, “when your senses have returned, I’m coming back. We need to talk.” He sneered at Beth, then walked out.
Rand couldn’t sleep. Why couldn’t Brianna recognize that her resurrection had originated in his body, had erupted from his soul? He’d spun the wheel. He’d generated the electricity. Why couldn’t she appreciate that?
Rand got up and put on yesterday’s clothes. He headed downstairs and exited the building. Outside, the air was misty, the morning’s dew heating in the sun. He sat by the pond. The buttercups glowed rich and yellow, and the air carried a thyme fragrance. The bottle cap from Brianna’s rum still lay in the grass. He picked it up. Maybe I should apologize to her, he thought.
Something rustled behind him. Rand turned toward the noise. There was Trey, pulling an ivy vine off an oak tree. “Didn’t mean to startle you,” said Trey. “This ivy’s been bugging me for weeks. It’s one of those evasive kinds that can fool a tree into thinking it’s being embraced. Then the vine strangles the tree to death.”
Rand squinted. Trey said, “Oh, don’t look so confused. That was symbolic.”
“Nope.” Trey threw the vine in the bushes, then sat beside Rand. “Didn’t expect you’d be out here so early.”
“I had a rough night.”
“Of course you did. Your buddy chose sobriety, and you don’t like that. I’ve seen it a hundred times. Everything’s predictable.”
“Yeah? Then what usually happens next?’
Trey lifted his knees to his chest. “I don’t want to give you any bad ideas.”
“I’m sure there’s a positive alternative. A favorable outcome.”
“As far as I’m concerned, your problem isn’t outcomes. It’s present behavior.”
Rand said, “I’ve been thinking about apologizing to Brianna for——”
“She doesn’t need your apology. Actually, I’m assigning you a new buddy. Walter.”
Rand felt a jolt. “Walter? Why? Didn’t I save Brianna’s life?”
“And now she feels threatened.”
“Given her current condition, she’s not the best judge.”
Trey held up his hand. “Neither are you. You’re with Walter. That’s it.”
“Don’t you want to hear my side of the story?”
Trey stood and wiped down his pants. “Your side of the story got you into rehab.”
Rand shook his head. “I’m going to talk to her. She’s just misunderstanding what I——”
“You’ll stay away from her. You’ll want to.” Trey produced a ziplock bag full of pills, their shapes immediately recognizable. He said, “Always obey the man with the drugs. Behavioral compliance.” He stowed the bag back in his pocket and walked up the pebble path. He disappeared into the building’s back door. Rand glared at Brianna’s window. Her shutters were closed, but she was probably there, peering through the cracks, satisfied.
Rand and Walter sat on the couch in the community room, doing bong hits. They had important matters to discuss. Over the last 48 hours, electrocution had become a fad. First it was Brianna. Then Philip got zapped into submission. Now, they watched the lights flicker. It was Beth’s turn; Ken had discovered her inert on the kitchen floor. Rand imagined Ken pulling the blue lever and Beth’s back jolting toward the ceiling.
Walter packed the pipe. “None of this was unintended,” he said. “You think Milestones hasn’t orchestrated this down to the minute?”
“I don’t know. That’d be pretty hard.”
The bong water bubbled. Walter held the smoke in, his face pinched. He said, “Ever heard of systems theory? It’s the big fuckin’ trend right now for stock market analysts.” He held up his finger, then continued. “We’ve got this massive system here, a sobriety-producing machine. We’re the parts. Rehabs don’t create sober people. Sober people create rehabs.”
Walter took another hit. “But it’s reciprocal because the idea of a rehab—its intended function—exists in everyone’s mind from the outset. Once they step through the institution’s doors, it causes a goal-seeking feedback loop between the system as a whole and its individual parts. The coherency we’re seeing—Brianna, Philip and Beth all getting sober at the same time—is an emergent property. All that’s needed to start the machine is an inciting incident. So they give us drugs. The minute one of us overdoses—Brianna, in our case—the machine’s alive, and all the parts start creating synergy, working together. Boom, you’ve got a rehab.”
Rand said, “You’re assuming that Milestones’ goal is to get us sober. I’m under the impression that we’re learning moderation.”
“Milestones’ goal is whatever the people’s goal is, and we’re outnumbered.”
Rand took the bong. “I’m not giving in.”
“You and I can say that now, but one thing about systems: They’re inherently self-correcting.” He handed Rand the lighter. “You might start feeling the urge to correct yourself.”
The sobriety seekers met in secrecy, held AA meetings and chanted the serenity prayer behind the community room’s closed door. Rand didn’t feel tempted to join, despite how he ached to see Brianna, to touch her. He wanted to tell her the truth, that she’s on an island and her sobriety is conditional, insulated, destined to fail anywhere else. He wouldn’t expect her to listen, but maybe, if he played her right, if he’d fall to the ground weeping, she’d cradle his head against her little breasts and whisper, “One day at a time,” or some other shit-for-brains platitude. She’d promise to stand by his side, and soon, his hands would move down the hollow of her back, her frantic breath fanning across his face, his lips brushing her neck, mouths coming together; punishment, so much punishment, curving together into their curled bodies, her legs in the air, her ankles on his shoulders, her toes walking up his chin, pressing against his jaw, digging into his lips, parting them, his moans stifled and throat gagging. It was possible. He just needed to establish the right spiritual connection. Brianna’s soul had been ignited, electrified, but his had not. The circuit was incomplete; electricity emerges only when there’s a path between two oppositely charged poles, anode and cathode, one alive by virtue of the other. Break the circuit and there’s oblivion. Rand realized his union with Brianna was contingent upon one predicament: She’d have to administer his resuscitation. And in order for that to happen, he’d have to both overdose and escape Walter’s scrutiny.
Three days, three saved Ambien pills. Two nights of scheming in his room, moderating his opiate abuse. On the third night, after sprinkling the -powdered-down pills in Walter’s bottle of red wine, Rand was buddy-free. He drank Walter’s whiskey and snorted his cocaine. The sharp grains rattled in his sinuses because he’d cut the coke too hastily. The chewed-up OxyContin numbed his tongue, and the clonazepam, taken sublingually, dissolved into an acidic slime.
He wobbled out into the hall and sat by Brianna’s door. He could hear her television: a commercial for Apollo 13 commemorative plates, a nasally lawyer promising financial rewards for work-related injuries. Soon the hall’s lights pulsed. His vision wavered, then became pixelated, as if broken glass coated his eyes. Something in his brain erupted, a feeling like a spike driven through his skull from behind. This was too intense, too painful. He curled over. Brianna’s door swung open. “Oh my God!” she screamed.
“Help,” he said.
She looked down the hall, probably wondering why Walter was absent.
In the elevator he was on his hands and knees, saliva swinging from his chin, heart thrashing against his ribs. For the first time in years, Rand wondered if he might die. The fear evoked an image of an untimely frost that had spread over Maine in July 1978, when he was a child. His mother had looked out the window at the ruined flower beds, then down at Rand, as if they were one and the same. Yet now, despite the chill spreading over his body, his bleeding brain and certainty of death, the fact remained: Rand wanted more Vicodin.
The shock felt like a bee sting. The better part of the pain had disappeared into the nothingness that marked Rand’s brief death. Awake, alive, he sensed the static’s hum dispersing through his body. There was Brianna, panting, and Trey, a blur in the background. It had worked.
Trey whispered, “Next, we pump his stomach.” Brianna cradled a coiled-up hose. The nurse pried open Rand’s jaw, and Brianna snaked the tube down his esophagus. He gagged; it tasted like a mouthful of rubber bands. She fed it slowly, hand over hand, as if unraveling the tube from her own stomach. An umbilical cord, he thought. She’ll never want to let me go.
Trey flicked a switch on the suction machine, and Rand felt like he’d received a quick jab to the gut. His insides shriveled. Brianna, mortified by the sudden stench and the machine’s gurgling, turned her head and cried. Trey put down his clipboard and embraced her.
“I want to go home,” she sobbed.
Trey’s hands stroked her back. He said, “Soon. It won’t be long.”
Autumn in Maine can seem so dour. Rand avoided his house as much as possible. The rooms echoed, and the cold drafts passed through too freely. He kept the store open until 11:00 p.m., though nobody came that late unless they were avoiding rain during their long walks home from the paper mill.
One afternoon Rand saw someone rushing in the downpour toward the shop. A minivan’s hazards flashed across the street. When she took cover beneath the awning and closed her umbrella, Rand gasped. His breath solidified in his throat. Brianna opened the door. The fliers and forgotten receipts tacked to the nearby corkboard fluttered in the gust. She stood still, water dripping from her umbrella. Then she looked at Rand, her face expressionless. Rand remained behind the cash register. He said, “If you’re about to tell me that you’re just passing through——”
“I’d be lying,” she finished. “This -really is the middle of nowhere. I don’t know how you ever found drugs out here.”
“I had a sympathetic doctor in Portland. Made a lot of calls to the pharmacist.”
“Seen him lately?”
“No,” he said. She walked toward the register. Here was a changed woman. She looked professional, her hair tied back and shining like polished wood, a black skirt and blue silk top, and a layer of makeup. Her perfume’s scent reminded Rand of a candle shop. Rand grasped a roll of quarters and spun it in his palm. “I never expected to see you again,” he said.
“There are things we have to do in order to stay well.” Her eyes moved down to where a button was missing on her collar. She snipped the hanging black thread between her fingernails.
Rand said, “I gather that this is part of your ninth-step amends?”
Her head bobbed. “I made a commitment to go to any lengths to stay sober. The Big Book says we must not shrink at anything. We make direct amends wherever possible, except when to do so would——”
“I know my AA, Brianna, and you don’t owe me amends. I was crazy and belligerent.”
“We were all sick. And I hope we all recognize that and forgive each other.”
He smiled and put the roll of quarters on the counter. “I still think about you a lot.”
She had no reply. She squinted sideways, a gesture of nervousness.
Rand continued, “Had we met under different circumstances, I have no doubt that——”
“Stop. You’re idealizing me. You never even knew me, and I’m not here for this.”
“We brought each other back to life. That’s important, isn’t it?”
She said, “Right, but we’re not indebted to each other.”
He looked at the cash register. It’d been empty all week. He said, “I’m working on letting go. It’ll take time. I’m a slow learner. Maybe we can go out for some coffee and talk.”
Brianna nodded. “I can’t stick around for long. I’m just here to give you something.” She pointed her key chain toward the van across the street. The van’s back opened.
Rand squinted. “What is it? I can’t see that far.”
“It’s my symbolic token of forgiveness. The resuscitation machine.”
Rand stood. “From Milestones? Goodness, how did you get that?”
“They were shut down. You didn’t know?”
“I ignore my mail.”
“Class-action lawsuit. Your buddy Walter——”
“Whenever a lawyer called, I figured it had to do with my ex. I never answered.”
They went outside. The cold rain blew sideways. They shielded their eyes. There was the machine, on its side, its coiled copper wires, lights, meters, terminals and wheel. Brianna said, “If you ever plan on relapsing, maybe this will inspire you to reconsider.”
They positioned the machine on a dolly and wheeled it into the shop. Rand moved aside an old bureau in one of the storage rooms, and they shimmied the machine into the open space. Then, stepping back, they gazed at it in silence. Brianna wiped the dust off her skirt. Across the street, the pizzeria’s lights turned off for the night. She rattled her car keys, signaling it was time to go. She’d done what she’d intended, and now it was on to someone else. Saddened, Rand said, “Will I see you again?”
She looked at him warily.
“You don’t have to say it. I understand.”
He led her to the door. Brianna stepped into the rain and crossed the street. Rand stood by the window and watched as she lifted herself into the minivan. She closed the door, idled for a second, sipped from a thermos, then drove away. His breath clouded the window.
The machine was dirty. He ran a rag over its control panel and around its copper coils. Tomorrow, he’d pick up some WD-40 and spray along the wheel’s joint and maybe replace the lightbulbs. He tossed the rag aside and turned the lights out. He headed back to the sales room, his hands in his pockets, his fingers separating the pills from the lint, his mind unsure whether he’d stashed the needles in the cash register or left them atop the broken grandfather clock.