"Where are you going?"
"To the drug store to make a purchase."
The two men walked somberly down 16th street in San Francisco's Mission District, to the house of a drug dealer named Tony. It was hot, too hot for San Francisco's crowded old buildings, tiny streets, and throbbing black-top, and the heat made the stench of human urine seep from doorways and alleys. It muffled the car exhaust close to the street where pedestrians inhaled it, hardly noticing it anymore for the lack of mental presence in the city. Heat that sucked whatever oxygen that may enter the lungs out like the sudden gasp of a dying man.
They continued to walk.
The "Drug Store" was a section of the neighborhood where the dealers seemed to congregate to do business, make deals, squabble and fight over territory and get high. Littered among the parked cars were junkies and winos, undercover cops and patrol cars, and the occasional unwed soon to be mother, pregnant out to here and pushing a squalling infant in a stroller while her boom box pumps out some foul mouthed rapper singing about his old lady. The lyrics never change, just the delivery.
Terry and Greg were brothers, Greg being the older and Terry the dutiful shadow since he was able to walk. Even at the ripe old age of 19, Terry believed the sun rose and set on Greg. Still tall and gangly, Terry's chest had not yet filled out, nor had his acne subsided and he tried desperately to grow a beard to cover it, the blonde peach-fuzz seeming to taunt him with his youthful appearance. Greg though 3 years older than Terry, was fairing little better in the masculinity department though he had finally conquered the acne.
Always on the corner of 16th and Valencia a man sat in his garage drinking ice-tea and watching passers-by. He was old. Ancient. Nearly a fossil of a man who's skeletal body belied the baggy t-shirt he wore with the sleeves rolled over a pack of Camel cigarettes. Smoking, smoking, one cigarette after another, he would light the next one off the butt of the old. Then a fit of coughing that rattled his whole body and brought up bloody spittle would set off until he was just too out of air to go on. The cigarette though, never left his mouth. He blinked hard at the glaring sun as his sallow cheeks continued to suck on his cigarette, the smoke puffing out his nose like some fierce dragon, and watched as Terry and Greg approach him.
The two men walked passed the old man sitting in his garage, ignoring his coughing fit.
"Hey fellas," the old man finally said after spitting to the side.
"Whas-up?" Terry said slowing his pace a little.
"Want to talk to ya," the old man replied his cigarette dangling from his mouth.
"We ain't got time to talk to you old man," Greg spat angrily, "we got things to do."
"I know you do," the old man said smiling, his teeth yellow with age and tobacco, "that's why I hailed you".
"So what do you want?" Greg said walking back to face the man square on.
"Just to tell you not to go," he replied picking up his glass of ice-tea and taking a swallow.
"Oh right," Greg said, "what are you some kind of prophet of doom? Let's get outta here," he said to Terry and both men began to walk away.
"Ok," the old guy replied, "see you on your way back."
"Wait up," Terry said to Greg, "aren't you curious about what he wants to tell us?"
"No," Greg said impatiently, "I'm curious what Tony's gonna charge us this time. Come on."
"I'm gonna go talk to the old guy, you go make the deal." Terry headed back to the garage and the old man.
"So you're back," the old man said as he watched Terry heading for him.
"Ya I am. So what did you want to tell me," Terry asked, shuffling from one foot to the other like a kid caught stealing.
"I wanted to tell you not to go buy the drugs you were after. They will ruin your life."
"Is that all? Everybody says that. Don't tell me, are you the guy who came up with that stupid commercial with the fried egg? Man, that sucks."
"No, I'm not into commercials. And yes everybody does say that. Everybody who has been there and is trying to keep young punks like you from screwing up your life.
I used to be a successful business man her in San Francisco. Had a house in Pacific Heights, had a beautiful wife and kids, couple of grandkids. I did coke now and then, mostly at parties, and then a friend turned me on to crack. Now, I live in this garage. No business, no wife, the kids won't speak to me. And though I quit the crack a year ago, I still crave it. My life's over because of a drug."
"Well, what makes you think me and my brother are doin' crack?"
"A hunch. You make lots of trips by here every day. So are you?"
"Ya, sometimes. But we're not hooked, no way. And we won't be either. So thanks for the talk, but me and my brother will be all right." Terry started to walk away from the old man, his hands in his pockets as if to hide his feelings, and he headed off to find his brother.
Greg had just finished making his deal. His deal consisted of going to one of the corner markets in the "drug store" neighborhood, and heading for a garage in the back. There he had to get past the guard--a 130 pound Doberman Pincer and his owner--to reach the slot in the garage wall where he slid his cash and got his vials of crack in return. He had never actually seen Tony the dealer, and suspected that Tony wasn't his real name. He hadn't gotten three blocks when he ran into Terry.
"Preached some kind of sobriety gospel didn't he?" Greg asked Terry as they headed home with two vials of crack.
"Ya, how did you know?"
"Ah, I know the type. Says he's been there," Greg went on in a martyr type voice, "and he just wants to save you from going down the path he went."
"Wow, you hit it on the money. He told me he was some big-shot with a big house and all and that he lost it doing crack."
"What a loser," Greg said waving the whole thing off.
The old man's yellow-toothed, phlegmy laugh played through Terry's mind like instant replay during a baseball game, giving him a blow-by-blow reminder of all the guy said. Terry, who never had trouble sleeping, was now having his first night of insomnia. Not that the six rocks of crack that he did himself was keeping him up, though it often kept Greg up. Terry had never smoked so much before. He had always considered himself an occasional user.
Finally at about 4 am, Terry drifted off to sleep and dreamed. He had never really dreamed in his life. Oh yes he dreamed, everybody does, but he almost never remembered them so he figured he didn't often have them. When he did, they were drab, colorless images, none of which could be put together into any coherent story. Until tonight. Tonight he dreamed vivid. He dreamed color. The color of blood. And he dreamed a coherent story as unbelievable as the craziest sci-fi movie he had ever seen.
"You look like crap," Greg said to Terry as he shuffled into the kitchen.
"I feel like crap too," Terry replied beginning to cough violently until he spit up blood.
"No, I really mean it Terry," Greg said looking alarmed, "you should go see a doctor or somthin'."
"Ain't seein' no doctor man, now just leave me alone!" This was one of the rare occasions when Terry ever yelled at Greg. Usually it was the other way around, and Greg was taken aback, and hurt.
"Fine asshole," Greg spat, "Sorry for caring." Greg finished his coffee and headed out the door. He was late for class. Terry had classes too, but wasn't even going to try to make it. He went to bed and didn't sleep.
He was certain that every car or bus going past the house was coming for him. Knew that every time the phone rang it was someone checking up on him. He even suspected that Greg was keeping tabs on him but couldn't find a reason why he would.
He needed a hit of crack, and he needed it badly. Needed it like a suffocating man needs a breath of air. Craved it like the suffocating man's burning lungs craved oxygen.
His throat was dry. Dry like he had swallowed a tumble-weed and all of its stickery spines were jabbing his throat making him cough at the slightest attempt to talk or swallow. He drank glass after glass of water but nothing helped. And the cravings got stronger and stronger.
Oozing out from under the floor-boards like some kind of gray lava, it kept coming closer to him. It seemed to make breathing movements--Inhale, exhale. Inhale, exhale--while its tentacles reached. Reached for whatever was in front of it to grab onto and devour. When its entire body had escaped from the walls it looked like a giant Jellyfish.
It was heading straight for Terry.
"What are you?" Terry said in near panic.
I am craving, the thing replied though not audibly. It continued its relentless movement toward Terry until it was literally crawling up his leg.
At first Terry thought it must be some kind of hallucination or something. Something from some crazy movie he must have seen. Maybe as a kid. Terry had always loved monster and sci-fi movies, especially the horrid B movies. He had seen every kind of monster or alien created, and this one just seemed to resemble all the others. But he was scared anyway. Scared because, no matter how many movies he saw, the monsters had never entered his home, or crawled up his leg as this one was at this very moment.
You have invited me to be your constant companion, and here I am, the thing breathed in a voice that sounded like fingernails on a chalk board.
Before Terry could utter a reply, the thing had made its way to his face and was smothering him as absolutely as a pillow over the face would. Terry panicked.
There were his muffled screams. There was the struggle to peal Craving off his face if only to catch one breath of air. Terry's lungs were ripping inside of him and the room began to blur and fuzz. Then all went black in his eyes except for the vivid colors flashing like neon lights. He was dying.
Just before Terry finally passed out, Craving let him get one large breath of air. This was enough to send Terry running to put his clothes on so he could get to the dealer. By now Craving had moved onto Terry's back hanging off of him like a wounded war buddy being dragged to safety. This at least, Terry could handle. At least he could breathe.
Terry checked his wallet for funds. He had two bucks. Two of Craving's tentacles began to tighten around Terry's neck again cutting off his oxygen supply. Terry ran headlong into the kitchen to the cupboard under the sink where mom kept emergency money in a Band-aid can. Fifty bucks. He stumbled down the stairs and out the front door, hoping no one would notice Craving on his back, its long tentacles wrapping around his torso, his neck, and even his head.
He itched violently. It was as if Craving's tentacles had thorns jabbing his skin, leaving a venom that coursed just under the surface like thousands of ticks burrowing. He scratched madly as he walked to the "drug store".
It was still stifling hot in the City, and the usual fog--the City's natural air-conditioning--was not due to come back for days. The air felt like a sloppy-wet, hot wool blanket covering Terry's body causing the "ticks" to burrow furiously. Terry was certain everyone could see Craving on his back, could see the "ticks" crawling around just under his skin. He was sure everyone was calling the cops on their cell phones, reporting the scene walking down 16th street. He ducked into alleyways when he could. Hung out in doorways watching passers-by every now and then to see if they were watching him. He listened for footsteps behind him. At one point a squad car happened by and Terry nearly jumped into a nearby trash-can to hide. The cop didn't even notice him.
Arriving at the crack house, he made his way to the back garage where he had seen Greg go to get their drugs. The guard's Doberman barked wildly at Terry sensing what only Terry apparently knew; there was an alien thing clinging to him. Terry kicked at the dog--something totally out of character for him--and sneered at the guard. "Get that damned thing away from me," he said and went on to the garage.
Shaking from fear and the itching bugs he was feeling under his skin, he pulled out his money and slipped it in the slot. His vials were slipped back without a word. The deal was done just that quickly. Terry took his dope and headed for home trying to get the constant babble of Craving out of his head.
He was incessant, Craving was. He babbled in his "fingernails on a chalk-board" voice without end. Telling Terry how good the drug was. How much he needed it. What a stud he was for taking it. And so on and so forth. Constantly, day and night, Craving babbled unless or until Terry got high.
He burst through the front door of the house and ran upstairs to get his pipe. A few seconds later he was high and Craving was gone along with his itching tentacles and grating voice. What a relief. Not only a relief, but euphoria. Terry had beaten his demon at his own game. He was a stud.
For about fifteen minutes. He smoked some more, and more, and more, until his cache was gone. And he was out of money. And he had already hit mom's Band-aid can. And Craving returned bigger and more powerful than before.
He couldn't sleep. He hadn't eaten in weeks. And he had started talking back to Craving, even in public. Fortunately for him, it was not uncommon for people to talk to themselves, even argue with themselves while they walked San Francisco's streets. Most folks didn't give it a second thought.
The incessant babbling of Craving was only interrupted by the sound of the old man's phlegmy voice telling him that crack would ruin his life. "Great," Terry thought to himself, "all I need is another voice competing with Craving. And a preacher's voice too."
He headed back to the crack house.
It wasn't long before Craving became so insistent that Terry couldn't even wait to get home before he lit up. He started going to a crack house where people got their stuff and got high right there to save time and energy. But he grew terrified that the other smokers were watching him. Talking about him. Maybe even reporting him to the cops. He started hiding in a corner of the crack house, smoking and waiting for Craving to leave him alone.
And Craving did leave him alone. And then he returned, always in a new and improved fashion. Now Terry could hardly carry Craving on his back, and Craving was becoming irritable, nasty, and insatiable. The "ticks" had turned into cockroaches crawling up and down his body, making nests in his hair, laying eggs under his tongue. He was sure of it.
Craving had tried to suffocate him so many times that his lungs had ripped themselves apart. Torn themselves to shreds. And now Terry coughed violently and spit up blood.
He demanded that Terry get some money and buy more crack. So Terry did. He picked pockets. He stole purses. He took Social Security checks out of the mailboxes of the retired and cashed them. He shoplifted. This from a man who had once been a Boy Scout. Who had cried from fear at the Wizard of Oz when he was little. Who had talked to all the old ladies in his neighborhood as a boy and helped them up stairs with their groceries. Now he preyed upon them for money.
Craving was delighted.
"I just can't tell you how nice it is that you still help an old lady like me," Mrs. Johnson said.
"Oh it's no problem," Terry replied, trying to work up a happy sounding voice. He placed Mrs. Johnson's groceries on her kitchen table while scanning the room. He had helped her with groceries and other little chores since he was about 12 and her husband suddenly died. She always tipped him a little from her coin purse, even to this day though the amount never changed and his needs certainly did.
He walked into her living room as she put her groceries away, and searched for anything he could steal. She didn't have much and what she did have was worthless.
After a few minutes she came into the living room with her coin purse looking for quarters to give to Terry. She was so old now, he thought to himself. She was old when he was a boy, even before her husband died. Now she was positively antique. She handed him a couple of dollars in coins and gave him a warm smile and a heartfelt thank you.
This will get you nowhere! Craving spat venomously in Terry's ear. Why do you bother with the old woman when you have me to take care of. Cold-cock her and steal her purse you worthless puke-bag!
Terry felt the choking suffocation beginning as he stood staring at the old lady. Without a second thought he hit her and watched as she fell backward onto the hard-wood floor. He then went for her purse. It was the first of the month and he figured she would have just cashed her Social Security check. He was right. And in her purse, (she had not set foot in a bank since the great crash of the 1930's had wiped out her father), had three-hundred dollars in it. He took it all. And ran.
When Mrs. Johnson regained consciousness, she called the police and reported Terry. She didn't want to, couldn't bring herself to think that he had really hurt and robbed her, but she had to have her money back. Waiting for the police to arrive, she put some ice on her bruised and swollen eye and cried. Cried for the sweet little boy she had once known and liked. How he would look up to her as he helped her. How he would spend hours talking to her as she worked in her tiny garden. How he came running over to show her his report card the time he got a passing grade in arithmetic. How proud she was of the man he had become. Until now. The fine man had been replaced by a gaunt, stringy haired, unshaven, unkempt, thief. What had happened?
He had spent the better part of the afternoon at the crack house getting high and bidding good riddance to Craving. He was so wired on his walk home that his heart was doing somersaults in his chest while his head--feeling as fuzzy as a Q-tip--reeled from the high. It wasn't long though before he came down again. Way down.
He lay in his bed sobbing. The depression he had fallen into was palpable. Like being captured in a giant maw and swallowed alive. Swallowed down the throat of despair. An abyss that is lined with oily, gooey cotton that sticks to the skin and sucks the soul out of the body. The more he clawed to keep from sinking deeper, the more oily the cotton grew, the more the throat swallowed, until even the light at the end of the tunnel was extinguished.
He tried to sleep.
He got his brother's gun.
Craving encouraged. And laughed his maligning, cackling laugh. Go ahead, I dare you. You're nothing but a worm.
He placed the barrel into his mouth.
You don't have the guts do you? Do you? DO YOU?
And he watched as his brains, bits of skull and clumps of hair shot into his bedroom wall. The blood, as vivid a red as has ever been painted on a pallet pooled on the floor under his lifeless body.
After fifteen years with the same alarm clock, Terry still hadn't gotten used to the pealing alarm when it went off in the mornings. This morning though, he was more than happy, delighted even, or maybe even ecstatic to wake up to it.
He felt just like Scrooge when he had awakened after the visitation by the three ghosts. He wanted to dance, because he was alive. He wanted to sing, because he wasn't being suffocated by Craving. He wanted to go talk to the old man in the garage and tell him he was right. He was about to ruin his life, and the man's words and his terrifying dream had set him straight. He was a new man.
He looked around his room just to make sure. No skull fragments, no blood, no gun lying on the floor next to his dead body. It had been a dream. He hadn't gotten hooked on crack. Hadn't stolen purses or hurt Mrs. Johnson. He hadn't stolen his mother's emergency money.
He nearly bounced at every step as he headed down 16th street, not to go to a crack house but to go thank the old man. The sweltering heat wave had finally broken and the usual off-shore breeze so ubiquitous in San Francisco, was back sending flags waving and hats flying.
The people had come alive again. No longer staring at him. No longer crossing the street to avoid passing him. He was just another fellow taking a walk in the City and enjoying the day.
The garage door, usually open by this time of the day, was closed, and the old man nowhere to be found. Dismayed, Terry went to the front door to knock. Who knows, maybe the old guy does stay inside once in a while. He waited for what seemed an eternity to his exuberant mind until finally a woman answered the door.
She had never heard of the old man. Had never even seen a man that fit Terry's description. And no one lived in her garage, least of all a chain smoker. No, he must have had the wrong house she told him.
Somewhere, in a garage on the other side of town, sat an old man. A fossil really. With yellow teeth and sallow cheeks, and a cigarette dangling from his mouth.
"Say fellas," he said to two young men passing by, "wait up, I want to talk to ya."