The Heart of an Epidemic
by Elizabeth Markley
People don’t think I see the way they look at me. That’s how invisible I am. That they can cast such open looks of derision and hostility, and they assume I won’t notice. But I see them alright. And after enough years on the receiving end of these looks, I finally understand the reason behind them. I thought it was simple dislike at first, but there’s more to it. Here is the real reason they don’t like me – I make them feel guilty. They see me, too skinny and too pale, and they already know I’m a lost cause. I don’t want their pity, but they give it to me anyway. And then they resent me for it.
There is no time, in the five seconds we pass at the gas station, to explain to people the nuances of my appearance. That I have a buzz cut not because I want to, but because it’s free and can be done in haste by my mom’s boyfriend in our driveway. And yes my hoodie and shorts aren’t always the cleanest, though to be honest their clothes wouldn’t be sparking clean either, if they knew what a pain it was to drive to the Laundromat. I want to convey to them these extenuating factors, and also explain that it wasn’t always like this. But at the same time, I don’t owe them a fucking thing.
The second problem is that I make people feel confused. This is an even greater crime than making them feel guilty. How are we paying so much in taxes, they ask themselves as they drive by our trailer park, and still we have these poor starving children in our country? I’m not really a child anymore, I’m seventeen, and I’m not anywhere close to starving. But I don’t blame people for thinking that. When they see our trailer, the ancient sides bleached bone-white by the sun, it’s only natural to think I must be going hungry.
This wasn’t always my life. Once upon a time – before the crash, the recession, the whatever you want to call it – we were doing ok. Or at least, I think we were doing ok. It’s hard to tell, because ten years ago I was only seven. But we lived in a house, I’m sure of that. A house that was not on cinderblocks and was instead located at the end of a quiet street. Troy, Tennessee, where I live now and also where I lived then, is actually not so bad. It’s tucked away in the far northwestern corner of the state, and when we were middle class it could have even been described as a nice place to grow up. No traffic, lots of green, open space. Little league Saturdays, ice cream after. That was my childhood. Now I live in a different Troy. One of dollar stores, and disability checks, and a festering opioid crisis that refuses to abate.
A national news program once even came to do a segment about the crisis. They descended with their cameras and their well-meaning journalists, filmed for three days, and then evaporated. When the program aired they called our region the heart of the epidemic, painting Troy as a grim, addicted town. A hotbed of overdose and sorrow. But we’re not really so special. We are not the epicenter of the crisis – the whole country is, from Maine to New Mexico. Though on certain days it may feel like we are.
The one thing I have going for me is I’m pretty sure I’m smart. This is a reflection of the earlier years, when my parents read to me and helped me with my homework. It’s a residual effect that I’m trying to hold onto. It would be impossible to try and become smart now. The air in the trailer is too stale, it chokes rational thought. I’m not saying I’m valedictorian, full scholarship smart, but I’m intelligent enough to have a 3.6 GPA and if I can get my shit together I can apply to some colleges. I get this from my mom. She was smart too once, breezing through the University of Tennessee Martin and running her own beauty salon for years. Of course that was before the pills took hold. When my mom is on them it’s as though she’s hollow, as if she has vacated her body. Where she goes, I don’t know.
If I do make it to college I’m going to study English. People will tell me to study something else. They’ll say that if I’m going to take out loans – and I’m definitely going to take out loans – then I need to pick a practical major that will guarantee a job when I graduate. But here’s the thing, my dad was a welder and my mom cut people’s hair. I’m not sure you can get more practical. And look how great that turned out.
Things are getting very bad now. But no one notices. The progression from bad, to worse, to dire is actually very subtle to an outsider. It was the first change, the one from goodish to baddish that was so dramatic. When my mom had to close her salon it felt like a community event, everyone coming by on the last day, dropping off casseroles like it was a wake. They made limitless promises. Anything to help, they said, just tell us what you need. We never saw them again. But it was a bad time for everybody, or so I kept hearing. Moving out of our house was also unavoidably public, what with the yard sale my parents insisted on having, and the neighbors saying good-bye as if we were moving to Alaska and not an apartment five miles away. It was a spectacle, but to me this was all mitigated by the fact that we were still together. At the very least, I reasoned, we were still a family. Though we wouldn’t be for long.
At that time my dad was still a welder, and I thought that was an apt metaphor. Holding us together even when my mom was trying to wrench us apart. On days when my mother wouldn’t get out of bed my dad would quietly take me to the kitchen and fry bacon and eggs for dinner, the only meal he knew how to make. It’s clear now that my mom was spiraling, depression and anxiety taking hold and dragging her down into miserable unseen depths. Sometimes I think I could have done more to help her, but when it got really bad I was still just a kid. Too young to have the first clue as to what to do. And by then my dad was on the road. He was fired from his job in the bloody aftermath of the recession, let go summarily and without severance. This was a word my child mind could not comprehend and yet still I understood it was important we did not have it.
After an indeterminate number of months fruitlessly searching for welding jobs, he finally signed up to be a long-haul trucker. I thought this was going to be our salvation. But I was wrong. It was his salvation. My father, who had never been further than Nashville, was suddenly visiting the Grand Canyon and sending me pictures of his feet nestled in the white sands of the Florida beaches. At last he was – to his amazement as much as anyone else’s – free and somewhat upwardly mobile. And if he had to shed his son and crazy wife to have that, well then so be it.
This was the transition from bad to worse. But like I said, it was subtle. My dad moved out of the apartment, but with him already gone for weeks at a time, who could really tell where he lived? And what’s more, who cared?
We maintained the worse stage for a very long time – right up until a few months ago. Long enough that I thought I might be able to ride it out for high school and leave Troy relatively unscathed. But on the first of January, we were kicked out of our apartment, and now the only way to describe the situation is dire. I suppose the landlord couldn’t bring himself to evict a single mother over the holidays, but he had no trouble calling the cops on us the first day of the year. No neighbors came to say goodbye this time. It was just me, my mom, and my mom’s boyfriend Ken, packing up Ken’s truck.
And now here I am, living in Ken’s trailer, in a bedroom so small it could be described as a closet. I spend as much time as I can outside of the trailer park. If I’m not at school or taking orders in the drive-thru, I hide out in the library until closing and read science fiction and fantasy novels. Anything that can transport me to a different world. I make a series of rules to survive. The first, and most important rule, is no drugs, and no booze. I vow to myself that I won’t even touch the stuff. My friends fall away when I refuse to go to parties or take a sip of beer, until my only remaining friends are two guys who are possibly lamer than I am. When we do hang out, we play video games and drink soda. I sound like an after-school special, but this is survival now.
The logical thing to do would be to ask my dad for help. But I burned that bridge. It happened the day I saw the picture on social media. This was maybe a year ago. Long after he moved out and before things had taken the dismal turn. We were still talking intermittently, but he would always call during school hours even though he knew I couldn’t pick up. It was obvious he was doing this on purpose, though I let it go. What I couldn’t get over was the picture.
I still have it. I printed it at school and stashed it under my mattress. It depicts my father, who grew out his beard and looks like a real trucker now, sunk down to his haunches with one arm around a little boy. The boy is younger than me, maybe nine years old, and wearing a baseball uniform. Both are holding up their index finger to indicate number one. I assume they just won a championship of some kind. The boy already looks athletic and tough, with the eye black streaked across his sweaty cheeks. I don’t know his name, but I know that he is the type of boy my father always wanted. There is another child too, a girl. They could possibly be my step- siblings by now. I have no idea. I told my father I was blocking his number and all contact with him ceased. In that last conversation his relief was palpable, even from the distant roads of Oklahoma.
Now I have Ken. Don’t get me wrong, I am not going to replace my father with him. Ken is a part-time mechanic, a job I normally associate with hulking men although Ken is skinny, skinnier than me and that’s saying something. He is not a face-tattoo-redneck, not yet, though he does have several tribal bands on his upper arms, and a mysterious date inked on his neck which he refuses to explain. He’s actually not a bad guy. He’s not dumb, and there are moments where he even borders on kind. I sometimes try to imagine what Ken would be like, if he had been given a different name and a different beginning. I wonder what his quiet personality would lend itself to. An engineer maybe, or an architect, or any profession where he could work in a place that is cool and quiet. Sometimes I think that’s all he wants. Then I stop imagining, because I feel a sinking sensation deep in my abdomen.
I break my cardinal rule. I have to. I’m not doing it for Ken, although Ken is the person I am currently seated next to. I’m doing it for my mom. She overdosed a month ago, on heroin. I didn’t even know it was in the house. I knew, of course, that she was on something. For as long as I can remember there has always been a Ziploc bag in her purse, filled to bursting with orange pill bottles, and cold medicine, and other general health miscellany that is anything but healthful. I suspected painkillers, but I had no idea it was this bad. Ken tried to reassure me, saying it was only the second time she tried the hard stuff, as if that made it any better.
It was not one of those really dramatic overdoses, like the ones on the news that draw condemnation and ire. A mom passed out in the aisle of a supermarket, her toddler wailing by her side. Maybe that would have been better. A wake up call. But the only people who know about my mom’s overdose are me and Ken, and I suppose the Doctors who treated her. I wasn’t even the one to find her, I just got a text from Ken that said to come to the hospital. By the time I got there they were already wheeling my mother out of the emergency room. She looked fine honestly, the Narcan having already worked its wonders. When I caught her eye she turned away, like a little girl who knows she is in trouble. I would do anything to never have to relive that moment. This includes buying painkillers for Ken, who is currently on probation and can’t risk another strike. Because the pills will undoubtedly reach my mom, and if she gets her fix this way, then she won’t go any further. This is the only way I can help her. When I called the county health department looking for a rehab bed, they told me the wait was six months.
We are in Ken’s truck, driving fast down a two-lane highway. This is the third time we’ve taken this journey together. The first two times we just dropped by some of Ken’s genial mechanic friends, but now we’re going to the source, the dealer, a man named Owen I have never met before. We pull into a neighborhood just outside Troy’s tiny downtown, and stop before a shoddy house. Ken issues quiet instructions from the driver’s seat. Hand over the money, don’t say anything weird, and get it over with as fast as possible.
I walk the crumbling drive alone. I’m not sure if I should knock or ring the doorbell, but I’m saved from having to make that decision as the door opens seemingly on its own. The person who opened the door is already disappearing into a living room to our left, so I follow him. I am surprised to find it filled with people. The smell of pot is overwhelming, and there is a cloud of smoke that grays out the room, like I’m looking at it through a screen door. There are maybe twelve people scattered among the low-slung couches, and they all stare at me.
“I’m looking for Owen,” I say, after a long pause. I’m saved by a girl who calls out, “Hey, I know you.”
The girl stands and crosses the room, and I am confronted with Kelly Nichols. Kelly is in my class, and we’ve been going to school together since seventh grade. Despite this, I am shocked that she recognized me. The reason why is simple. Kelly is hot. Like, really hot. She’s one of the most popular girls in our grade, at least with the rowdy crowd. Her long dark hair is pulled into a ponytail, and she’s wearing a man’s hoodie that covers her shorts, so it looks like the only thing she’s wearing.
“Hey,” I say, because she is looking at me expectantly. Then, “Do you know who Owen is?”
“Uh, yeah,” she replies. “I mean I hope so. He is my boyfriend.”
The man I assume to be Owen finally approaches and slings an arm around Kelly. He is tall and broad shouldered and in his early twenties.
He asks, “You with Ken?”
I reply that I am, and I hand over the wad of cash that Ken gave me in the truck. Owen quickly counts the bills, and then places them in his back pocket.
“I’m waiting for the delivery,” he says, “should be here soon. Just sit tight.”
“What?” I ask.
“I said I’m waiting for the product.”
“You don’t have it?” I say, and a sour note enters my voice before I can stop it.
Owen studies me for a moment. My expression must be growing tight, the way it does when I am anxious. He surprises me by laughing.
“Relax,” Owen says condescendingly. “Have a beer. It’s just gonna be a minute.”
I wish he hadn’t taken the cash before he told me this. Then I could have gone back to the truck and waited with Ken. But now I’m trapped. I can’t go back and face Ken with no money and no pills, so instead I sit awkwardly on the edge of a couch and wait. Five minutes become ten, then twenty. I leap up when two men enter the room, but they only buy some weed and quickly leave. I guess Owen is a multipurpose dealer. The other people in the room are older, more around Owen’s age, and they ignore me. Only Kelly glances over every once in a while. She is playing a drinking game, and Owen keeps encouraging her to drink whatever is in her red plastic cup. I’ve only had one class with Kelly, World History in ninth grade. I remember her as smart, and part of me wonders what the hell she is doing here. Her eyes are bright and intelligent, but right now they’re intently focused on the playing cards before her.
I rise and go to the window so that I have something to do. I have a half-formed thought that maybe I can try to get Ken’s attention, signal that I’m waiting, but when I get to the window I catch sight of something strange. Ken’s truck driving slowly down the street. I don’t wonder at him leaving me, I wonder why he is driving like that. And then, out of the corner of my eye, I see a dark shape approaching the house.
Instinctively, I back away from the window until I stand at the base of the staircase. Kelly watches me do this, her eyes tracking me as I move across the crowded room. Owen snaps his head towards me as I climb the first stair, but I don’t know how to convey to them what’s going on. I don’t even know what’s going on. It’s been all of ten seconds since I saw Ken driving down the street. And then, several things happen at once.
Kelly is standing and walking towards me, and Owen says, “What’s your problem?”
But his question is drowned out by the sound of the door caving in on itself. The wood snaps so loudly that I think a bomb has gone off. Police officers in full commando gear pour into the room, but it feels like I’m in a movie, like they’re only men in costume and none of this is real.
We scatter like rats in a flood. All of a sudden I find myself in the upstairs hallway. I hear chaos below, shouting and cursing and the thump of a body being thrown to the floor. There are hands at my back and I think I am caught, but the hands are gentle. I turn to see Kelly, who is frantically motioning me deeper into the hallway. We trip over each other as we reach the last door and enter a dark bedroom. I have the stupid thought that we’re just going to sit in here and play dumb when the cops find us, but Kelly is already at the far wall, crouched beside a small access door. She tugs it open and crawls through it, and I follow. It is pitch black so I can’t see the dimensions of the space, but I can tell that it’s tiny and unfinished, the wooden floor rough against my bare knees. I reach up and feel a sloping roof above us so I don’t try to stand. It’s a storage space of some kind, but it must be empty because I don’t feel any boxes.
“Shut the door,” Kelly says.
I can’t close the door properly from the inside, but I get it almost all of the way there, peeling the skin from my fingertips as I try to pull it in. I inch next to Kelly, and we sit with our backs against the wall, our legs pulled up to our chests. Noises from the living room sneak their way through the thin floor. No gunshots have gone off, so I assume everyone cooperated and is starting to be booked. Maybe, I reason, there were enough people in the room that the cops won’t look through the rest of the house. But even I know this is false hope.
Kelly starts to say something, but I hold up a hand to silence her. I sense it more than hear it. Officers making their way through the depths of the house, searching.
“Turn your phone off,” I whisper into the darkness.
I don’t want some alert to give us away. But in the brief moments when the light from Kelly’s screen illuminates her face, I see something that worries me. A look that tells me she is scared, but also weirdly thrilled. I am only scared. The hallway floor creaks as heavy boots fall upon it. They are coming closer. Deep voices confer somewhere around us, and Kelly giggles. My hand shoots up on its own volition, wrapping around her mouth. When they do finally enter the bedroom, however, Kelly is as still as a statue. The bedroom light flips on, illuminating the access door like some sort of fairy-tale portal.
A dark shape passes before the door, blocking out the light. I think about what my mugshot will look like. I’m wearing a black t-shirt with neon green writing on the front, and I’m going to look all wrong. Or rather, I’m going to look exactly as people expect. Their eyes will flick over my picture, and I will be indistinguishable from Owen and all of the other born losers. Kelly’s breath is fast and hot beneath my palm. But then, miraculously, the bedroom light turns off. The officers clomp back down the stairs, and I slowly remove my hand from Kelly’s mouth.
She surprises me by taking hold of my other hand. And it’s there, in the total darkness, with Kelly’s hand intertwined with my own, that I have the premonition.
Only one of us is getting out of here.
I don’t mean here, this strange little storage room. I mean Troy, and these uncertain lives we are eking out. The words appear entirely formed in my mind, like a prophecy from one of my fantasy novels. There can only be one.
The minutes drip away, accumulating into hours. I can still hear noises coming from the living room, but it’s mostly shuffling. The soft sounds of evidence collection, or crime scene photography. With our phones off there is no way to see the time, but I think it’s around one a.m. Kelly eventually releases my hand and curls up on the floor, and for a little while I think she may have even fallen asleep. She has no idea of my revelation.
At last, the front door closes for good and the house falls quiet. The hallway is dark and we don’t dare turn any lights on as we make our way downstairs. We leave through the back door, ducking under the police tape and scurrying into the night, through the back yard and over the chain-link fence to the neighbor’s. We walk quickly for several blocks, and only stop when we come to the edge of a dark field. I recognize it to be the football field of my youth, where I spent one miserable season baking in the Tennessee sun before my dad let me quit. The night needs a conclusion of some kind, so we walk to the paved spectator section. We stop in the uneven shadows of the towering bleachers, where it’s understood we will part ways.
Kelly’s hair shimmers in the moonlight. She is disheveled and somehow more beautiful than ever. I get the sudden urge to tell her that she should break up with Owen, that being older is not a personality trait, and that having ten thousand dollars in cash is not impressive, not when it’s from running pills. But if I tell her this, will it tip the scale in her favor? If only one of us is getting out, do I dare give her an advantage? I want to make a joke about my premonition, so that at least Kelly is aware. In case the universe is listening, I want it to know that I tried to play fair. Just then a car drives down the street, and I snap back to reality. I’m being so ridiculous I feel my cheeks heating up. I’m glad it’s dark so Kelly can’t see me blush.
Kelly begins, “Listen, maybe we…”
But I cut her off before she can finish.
“Keep this between us?” I say, and she nods in reply.
“It’s our secret,” I say, and I mean it.
She leans up to give me a quick kiss on the cheek. “See you around,” she says.
In a few years I will be in Nashville. Does this mean I made it out? It’s difficult to say. I work at a coffee shop chain and scrape by, living with four other guys in a shitty rented house. Sometimes it feels like an improvement, sometimes it feels like I’m as desperately poor as ever, only living in a more expensive city. College? No. But I am taking a lit class, and my coworkers grow annoyed at how often I tell them I will one day get my degree.
My mom and Ken are still together. This is surprising to everyone. A romance for the ages it turns out. They’ve gotten themselves off pills mostly, and moved to a different, newer trailer. I suppose this is the best I can hope for. I don’t know what Kelly is doing. The premonition I had that night—even when I was saying good-bye to Kelly—I knew how stupid it was. And by the next morning I was positive it was meaningless, just an elaborate production from a depleted brain. Kelly and I hardly interacted our senior year, nothing besides a few embarrassed smiles in the hallways. I have no idea what she did after we graduated, and I haven’t really thought about her since. I had completely forgotten about the premonition in fact, and I only remember it when I receive the text message.
I’m at work, and I look down when my phone pings brightly. I finish the latte I’m making and find a news article, sent from my one remaining friend in Troy. I don’t need to read the article. The photo tells me everything I need to know. High school was recent enough that they could still use Kelly’s senior picture in her obituary. I wonder what she looks like now. Or what she looked like when they found her, dead from a bad batch of fentanyl-laced heroin. I don’t find any mention of Owen, so I assume he was long out of the picture. I wonder who she was with when she died. I pray someone was there, even if the experience was traumatic for them. I can’t bear the thought of her being alone.
The café falls away. I see Kelly and myself—two kids standing in the shadows, two lives balanced on a knife’s edge. I want so badly to be able to go back and tell Kelly, in great detail and in total seriousness, the terms of the arrangement. Maybe she would have listened; maybe she would have laughed at me. More likely the latter, if I’m being honest. But I feel as though I’ve shortchanged the universe in some way. I can feel its great cosmic force starting to amass against me, and I immediately try to reason with it. I will finish school, I vow. I will help the homeless. I will adopt a Pit Bull. I make a dozen other similar promises, and I could keep going, except someone is trying to get my attention. The voice is banal, maybe a little annoyed. It’s a customer who is telling me her order is wrong. She thrusts her cup into my face, and the universe is pushed aside.
About the Author
Elizabeth Markley is a writer living in Atlanta, Georgia. She has been previously published in The Write Launch, The Mighty Line, and Cleaning Up Glitter. When she is not writing she is kept busy by her children, two rambunctious boys under the age of four.
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