“Meg’s Peace” by Beth Richards

“None of us can help the things life has done to us. They’re done before you realize it, and once they’re done they make you do other things until at last everything comes between you and what you’d like to be, and you’ve lost your true self forever.”

                                                ~Eugene O’Neil’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night~



   Meghan Cochran learned at a very early age that sometimes people are so broken on the inside that they can never be fixed. Maybe someone was responsible for it, or maybe a series of unfortunate events left nasty jagged scars over the soul that never healed properly. But what could a five year old possibly know about life and how it can break a person into pieces? Meghan knew her mother was among those broken human beings and was never allowed to forget it because of people like the chunky, freckle faced first grade bully named Marty Sewell.

   “Your mom is as mad as a hatter!”  Marty teased, out of breath from using the brunt of his strength to spin the merry-go-round. It was spinning so fast that Meghan knew she was seconds away from throwing up – and thrown up she had – just in time for Marty to take a labored step back and miss the waterfall of vomit that splattered on his brand new black and white Reebok inflatable pump sneakers. Tears clouded Meghan’s vision as Marty Sewell ran screaming to the teacher who was overseeing recess.

   However, the tears gathering in Meghan’s eyes weren’t from the bully’s antics. No, it had been an involuntary reaction to puking up her lunch. The old rusted red paint of the merry-go-round had slowly come to a stop with Meghan’s tiny head resting against the cold slab of metal, her coppery brown curls lying in a puddle of puke.

   “Hey, are you okay?” asked a voice that managed to crack through Meghan’s vertigo. She couldn’t help the wave of nausea that rolled through her insides when she tried to pick her head up.

   When she looked up, a boy from the other kindergarten class stood several feet away from her. He took in the sight of her with a furrowed brow and bright blue eyes full of concern. He had a mop top of unruly light brown hair that framed his head like a football helmet. Meghan could see the outline of the Ghostbusters motto etched in red on the front of his t-shirt and that  he had on a pair of Chuck Converse high tops. Meghan didn’t answer him. She couldn’t speak for fear of throwing up again, so she just shook her head no at her precarious Good Samaritan and rested her head back down on the merry-go-around.

   She lay on the merry-go-round, too dizzy and off kilter to gather her weight under her until Mrs. Silks, the teacher on recess duty, came to see why Meghan hadn’t responded to the whistle.

   “What did you do Samuel Chance? Off to class with you!” Mrs. Silks said shooing the boy away in an authoritative voice.

   As Mrs. Silks ushered Meghan across the playground and into the nurse’s office, Meghan didn’t bother to tell her that it was Marty, not Samuel Chance, who had made the comments about her deranged mother and spun her relentlessly on the merry-go-around.

A Chance Encounter

Thirteen years later

   “Make me another A today, Meghan,” Poppy said enthusiastically casting her his full-toothed smile as he perched at his familiar nook in the breakfast bar.

   Meghan rooted through the new stainless steel refrigerator that Pop had finally bought only last week. It was the finishing touch to the five year kitchen remodel. Gingerly, she reached for her trusty red, delicious apple and slid into the stool across from her grandfather. “I hear they purposely save Mr. Diehl for senior year… Adam says he actually threw a desk across the room last marking period because the overhead projector wasn’t working properly. It probably just needed a new light-bulb. But I guess learning how to actually change one would be something more up the science department’s alley what with it involving electricity and all. Much too complicated for the  resident ‘mathematical genius’.”

   Poppy chuckled in bemusement before he lowered his gaze back to the newspaper, rustling its thin pages as he did so. “Do you really think the superintendent would allow such an act of violence to be committed in a classroom? I’ve known Georgie Diehl darn near all his life…He’s an honorable man, served in the Gulf War. Cut him some slack, Meg. I’m sure he will think you are the epitome of a perfect student.”

   “No pun intended right, Pop, with the whole ‘cut’ reference?” Meghan said factiously making quotation marks with her hands as she poked fun at the dreaded math teacher before pouring herself a glass of orange juice. “Is it true that they had used a piece of his butt cheek in order to skin graph it to his head the summer he came back from the war? Adam said it’s a fact. It’s also the reason that Mr. Jockstrap, formerly known as Marty Sewell, is being suspended from the first two football games this past season…because he called Diehl a butthead.”

   Pop gruffly set the paper down in his lap, the pages crinkling as if reflecting the change in mood. Brian peered at his granddaughter above his rectangular bifocals. “Don’t be disrespectful, Meghan Mae. There is something to be said about our men in the service. I raised you better than that. I think that Adam has an even more active imagination than you do. Maybe we ought to not be having sleepovers that seem to spin stories out of gossip. Now, go make me an A.”

   Meg swallowed the last of the juice and tried not to let Pop see her smile as she grabbed the uneaten apple and her car keys off the granite bar top. Poppy was once again trying to smooth out the paper when Meg whisked by and bent to kiss him on the cheek on her way out, “A is for apple, Poppy. I love you.”

   “A is application Meg. That’s application, as in a college application!” he called after her as she closed the front door.

   The short walk from the farmhouse to Meg’s Plymouth Neon was brutal in January. She slid behind the wheel and shuddered as her body temperature attempted to adjust itself from cold to warm. Poppy was a real jewel for having an automatic starter installed for her birthday at the end of September. He was always thinking about how to fix things or how to make Meg’s life better. He wasn’t Meg’s favorite person in the world for no reason. Meg couldn’t remember a time when Pop did anything for himself. He still insisted on driving the Wagoneer that had just about cannibalized itself so that when she turned sixteen last year he could buy her a nice used vehicle. She hoped he wasn’t too offended by her sarcasm regarding Mr. Diehl.

   She couldn’t hide the fact that the beastly teacher scared the hell out of her. He was a legend in her high school. The man stood at least six and a half feet tall and had the frame of a golf tee. The scary factor was enhanced by the hair on his face, from his beard and mustache to his eyebrows, which needed the same TLC he gave to his military style haircut. He was notorious for being hard on his students, a fact that made Meg even more nervous because she had never been any good at Algebra…let alone Algebra II.

   Meghan chastised herself for her fears on the short drive to the high school. After all, she had made it through twelve years in the public school system with a 4.0 grade point average. This menace of a teacher was not going to get in her way of applying to Ithaca. She would just have to survive. Beg for the A if she had to. As far as Meg was concerned there was only one ticket out of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and that was through a scholarship to her dream college in South Hill, New York. Even though she had the acceptance letter from Ithaca, it was still pending on her final grades for the year. In New York, she would be surrounded by a huge population of people, none of whom would know her as the daughter of Katherine Cochran.

   “Four months until graduation. Six months until Ithaca,” Meg repeated lines out loud to herself like a mantra.

   Throwing the car into park in her assigned parking spot, she double checked to make sure her parking permit was able to be viewed from the rearview mirror before she hurried out. In the off chance Mr. Oravitz decided to police the senior parking lot, she didn’t want a Saturday detention for being careless with something as miniscule as a parking permit. Slinging her purple L.L Bean backpack across her shoulder, she reached across the median divider and flipped the coupe’s lock before hurrying back to make sure the driver’s side was locked as well.

   It had snowed over the weekend. The ancient sidewalks leading up to the school hadn’t been shoveled and they were covered in rock salt making for a slushy walk as Meg neared the school. Meg was thankful she had remembered to throw her black London Fog boots on this morning even though it meant carrying the extra weight of her sneakers in her backpack. Those thin white Sketchers would have been horribly stained and soaked from all the salt.

   As soon as Meg passed through the cafeteria doors, she stomped her wet feet on the rolled out rug, slipped her gloves off to check her watch hidden under the sleeve of her grey wool pea coat. She had exactly seven minutes to get upstairs to homeroom before the first warning bell. All around her, students were scurrying up and down the long hallways. The squeak from rubber feet sliding created an eclectic mix of noise only compounded by hundreds of voices speaking anxiously in anticipation of the new semester. Meg scanned the crowd for her best friend.

   “I thought the sea was supposed to part for us now that we’re upperclassmen. I demand a refund from the-now-college-freshman that sold me that line of bullshit last year.”

   Meg whirled around just in time to see Adam run his long slender fingers through his spiky blonde hair. They looked beet red against the contrast of the rest of his pale skin. Why the kid refused to wear gloves in the dead of winter was beyond Meg. Adam was his own work of art. “Pop didn’t find the story about Mr. Diehl’s butthead very entertaining.”

   “You are exasperating! Remind me to try harder next time,” Adam patronized  her as he fell into step with Meg. “For the record, Butthead might have appreciated a little more skin. Don’t tell me you are actually wearing the sweater Mrs. Valentino knitted you for Christmas.”

   Meg smacked him playfully on the back. There was nothing wrong with her sweater. In fact, Adam had picked the hunter green knit from The Deb over Christmas break. It fell slightly off her shoulder, she wore a white tank underneath only exposing the corner of her right shoulder. It wasn’t a secret that Mr. Diehl had a thing for pretty girls with low necklines. “The day I start using my boobs to get good grades is the day you start using yours to impress Chance.”

   “Keep your voice down, bitch! Oh My God, Meghan,” Adam hissed at her immediately turning his eyes toward the floor.

   Oops! Meg forgot how touchy of a subject his sexuality was once they reentered the invisible warzone that was high school.

   “Hey, Meg!” a voice floated over the sea of students.

   Meg and Adam looked up to see the captain of the football team, Marty Sewell, as he floated down the stream of students. He was waving to her, a stupid lopsided smile on his freckled lips. Meg always thought that he stuck out like a sore thumb with his red hair. Adam rolled his eyes and shot Marty the finger before pulling Meg by the arm toward Mr. Diehl’s classroom. “That dick has some serious issues with rejection. He needs to take the hint.”

   Meg was too nervous standing on the threshold to Mr. Diehl’s room to care about Marty right now. Unconsciously, Meg began chewing on her cuticles unaware that Adam was talking to someone outside the room.

   “Hey, Meghan, this is Sam. Sam, meet Meghan. I’m putting Sam in charge of the Butthead situation because, while you might not think this kid is a genius, he is. And conveniently for us his last name is Chance which means he will more than likely be seated right next to you since our old friend Mr. Diehl is a stickler for alphabetized seating.”

   Meg was acutely aware of the way Adam was purposely avoiding meeting her eyes as he hurried through introductions. So this person standing before them, with his washed out faded blue JNCO’s, Blue Meanie Beatles t-shirt, and grey Vans was the Chance that Adam had been in love with since middle school? How did Meg not know this? It wasn’t Chance Girardi, captain of the chess team and soon-to-be valedictorian of their graduating class, it was this guy? He had amazingly bright blue eyes and tousled hair that was a mess and in need of a haircut, Meg thought to herself. Was it copper? If it was any shade of red, this kid was bad news. Red was an angry color. It reminded Meghan of her mother.

   Sam was leaning in the frame of the door, his long thin lips snaked into a rebellious quirk. The look in his clandestine blue eyes seemed to be taking her in in the same way that hers were drinking him in.

   “An impasse?” Meg whispered, horrified that real audible words had actually escaped her mouth. Pop was always telling her to think before she spoke.

   Adam stared at her with a creased forehead, the vein that always pushed its way to the surface when he frowned pulsated underneath his skin. Since his hair was almost white and barely visible on his face, Meghan would have found it humorous if not for the telepathic messages he was sending her that screamed murder for embarrassing him in front of the said-love-of-his-life.

   “An ellipsis,” Sam retorted refusing to look away from her face. It wasn’t posed as a question, it sounded straddled on the fence, one side threatening and the other promising.

   “Ahem!” a gruff voice barked at them from inside the classroom. “Alright lovebirds, take a seat. I’m sure Mr. Cabot is in a hurry to get to first period. On time. Right, Mr. Cabot?”

   Adam was suddenly sprinting down the hallway in that ginger way only he was capable of, leaving Meg with heat flooding her face as she scurried past the hulking form of her new math teacher. She took an empty desk that ran parallel with the windows. She found herself with a renewed appreciation for the outdoors if it meant that she didn’t have to look at Mr. Diehl or Sam. Much to Meg’s horror, she realized that she had been the last student to trickle in after Sam. What a nightmare! So much for flying under the radar. Mr. Diehl wasted no time handing out the course syllabus and rearranging the students into their permanent place settings for the semester.

   Once the shuffle of bodies fell like dominoes into their new seats, Mr. Diehl seemed to sit back and admire his handiwork, while Meg tried to look anywhere but to her left where Sam sat with his cheek in his palm eyeing her precariously.

   “It isn’t going to be a problem sitting the two of you next to each other now is it?” Mr. Diehl asked, wagging his finger between Meg and Sam. “You will be able to control your raging hormones right, Mr. Chance?”

   Every muscle in Meg’s body tensed. If it were possible to flush scarlet she was sure she was. She could hear the scoffs and laughs of other students behind her that made her glad she was in the front row.

   “Of course, General. There is a time and a place for everything. I’m sure we can wait a few measly ninety minutes and then find an empty janitor’s closet on the way to Sociology.”

   “What?! No! It’s not, I mean, we,” Meg motioned between herself and Sam with her hand, whether to fan her rising temperature or get a point across she didn’t know. “We are not together.”

   “Yet,” Sam replied matter-of-factly, those glossy baby blues fixated on her face as if no one else were in the room. But there were other people in the room, twenty-eight to be exact, with all their fifty-six eyes taking in Sam and Meg.

   Mr. Diehl laughed, clapped his hand together in a mocking manner, and pretended to wipe a tear from his eye. “That was beautiful. Wouldn’t you agree class? A real Romeo and Juliette. This is perfect. Now, Mr. Chance, I’m sure you know the way to Principal Ortiz’s office? You can escort Ms. Cochran there. I don’t tolerate spectacles in class. Let this be our first lesson of the semester.”

   The room fell eerily silent. Meg swallowed hard, dumbfounded. She had never in her life been sent to the principal’s office. Without any further discussion, she grabbed her backpack and made a beeline for the door. God help Sam if he tried to talk to her, or even walk a few feet in her personal space. If he attempted to talk to her, she might experience an in-school suspension for the first time for slapping the kid in the face. She kept a brisk pace, not sure entirely what she was supposed to say to the secretary in Mr. Ortiz’s office. She slowed as she rounded the corner, contemplating something to say that would vindicate her reputation and distance her from Sam. Then Sam caught up to her.

   “Meghan, I’m sorry,” Sam said grabbing for the crook of her elbow as she turned her back to him.

   Suddenly, she didn’t care about anything except getting away from him. “Don’t! Do not touch me. Do you have any idea how badly I hate you? God! I’ve never been reprimanded in school in my entire life!” she spat at him jerking her arm away from his reach.

   “We won’t even see Principal Ortiz. The secretaries will probably just send us to study hall with the other kids.” Sam spoke to her with that sly smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. “Well, it will probably just be Walton down there, but still. I’m sorry.”

   Meg glared at him, surprised that anyone could be so nonchalant despite the fact they were about to face the head of the high school. “Well, excuse me for not being familiar with protocol.”

   “Adam was wrong. You haven’t changed at all. Maybe he doesn’t know you half as well as he thinks he does,” Sam called after her as she was about to open the door.

   She froze. Her eyes took note of the cracks in Mr. Ortiz’s name plate. He had to be getting close to seventy nowadays. “What is that supposed to mean?”

   Sam laughed. It was a unexpectedly pleasant sound. “Nothing really. I remember the first day of kindergarten. Marty taunting you on the merry-go-round until you puked. You didn’t get up and say anything just like you did back there when Diehl tossed us out.”

   The sudden memory of Marty Sewell, the jerk who insisted on asking her out every other day last semester in biology class, came flooding back to Meg’s memory like a tidal wave. She turned to face Sam. He was encroaching on her personal space fast.

   “Thanks for the reminder. I’m glad I’m held accountable for something that happened thirteen years ago when I was five. What the hell do you know about that anyway?”

   The only possible answer was Adam. But how did Adam talk to or see Sam without Meg knowing? Adam and her were practically joined at the hip. But then again, she hadn’t known that Adam was crushing on the kid standing before her until about a half hour ago.

   Sam leaned into her personal space. She could feel his breath on her neck as he whispered, “I was the kid who ended up in the principal’s office that day. You never told them it was Marty. The yard teacher thought that because I was standing there when she found you that it was me who bullied you.”

The Call

Present day

   The sharp ring of the office phone cut through Meg’s office as if someone had just blown a whistle in her ear. The cursor on the computer screen blinked against the white page in sync with the persistent ringer that demanded an answer. Either it was her husband calling to ask a question regarding their one year old son whom he was in charge of for the day, or it was her editor about to give her hell for her column being a day late. Either way both options were nothing that Meg wanted to deal with at the moment.

   She reached tentatively for the telephone, her manicured pink fingernails hovering just above the black receiver. For a second, Meg mused over the idea that it might be fun to use the old rotary phone as a hammer to smash the computer screen, but doing so would not stop the deadline for her next article from closing in on her. She also knew that it wouldn’t be in Tate’s best interest if her husband administered the wrong dose of children’s Tylenol.

   “Hello?” Meg answered, summoning her best cheery voice.

   The silence on the other end of the line stretched the better part of thirty seconds. “Meggie-Mae?”

   Every muscle in Meg’s body tensed. The familiar white walls of the office fell away upon hearing her nickname. Meg was only conscious of the blood whooshing in and out of her ears and her heart thundering against her chest. No one called her Meggie-Mae anymore. No one.

   “This is Meghan Byrne.”

   “Meggie-Mae, it’s Adam. I’m sorry to bother you. I hope you don’t mind I got your work number off your community Facebook page.”

   “I know who you are,” Meg snapped more harshly than she had intended. “Why are you calling me? It’s been years since I’ve heard from anyone from home.”

   Meg was gripping the receiver so hard that her nails bit painfully into her palm. The soft effeminate voice on the other end was not one she had ever imagined hear again in a million years. Adam’s voice was like opening Pandora’s Box, ruffling chaos and evils that Meg was not ready to face.

   Adam cleared his throat, a noise that sounded just like his father who had been her supervisor on the yearbook committee during their senior year in high school. “I didn’t want you to hear the news from a stranger. I didn’t know if you still kept in touch with anyone from home.”

   His words left Meg feeling as if someone had knocked the wind out of her. She was suddenly dreading what he would say next. She twiddled absently with the old curly black cord of the phone. “I don’t keep in touch with anyone, but you already know that. What news?”

   “It’s Sam. He—he,  died last night—an  overdose. As soon as I heard, I thought of you.”

   Meg felt her breath hitch in her throat. She had no control of the tears that began to cloud her vision and spill down her cheeks in a silent sob. The barrier she had constructed specifically for this moment crumbled and flooded her being with a force of sadness that she hadn’t felt since the day she left him. There will be a phone call, the opening line of her recent first Times article had read in response to the heroin epidemic that was griping the Northeast. A phone call to say, “I’m ready,” or a solemn voice to say, “I’m sorry.” The echo of Meg’s narrative voice faded in and out of her rational thought. When it came to Sam she had no rational thought process. When it came to Sam…she was good at running away.

Meg’s Exit

Flashback: Five years after high school graduation

   Haphazardly, Meg struggled down the narrow hallway of her apartment in the dark. It wasn’t the cover of night that denied her stealth, but rather her taut limbs that cramped and ached as she fumbled through the darkness. Meg felt labored and breathless with every step she took. The only sound audible to her in her ears was the aggressive erratic pounding of her heart as it beat against her chest. She could feel the adrenaline as it whooshed through her veins in tandem with the pulse of her heart in anticipation of her victory.

   When Meg reached the bathroom door, she eased it open. The old oak groaned in protest and threatened to betray her position. She managed to slip through a crack without opening it the entire way. Once the door was shut, Meg held her breath. Rivulets of sweat gathered across her bare skin, causing chills to run down her spine as the sweat mixed with the frozen air of February inside her apartment. Yesterday, Meg’s neighbor across the hall told her that he was no longer comfortable allowing her to use his electrical jack to plug in the space heater that she used to heat her home. He swore up and down that it had nothing to do with the fact that Meg hadn’t been to see him in over a week. He told her that the cord running across the hallway between their apartments was a safety hazard to other residents. It jeopardized the relationship that he himself had with their landlord. that it drew unwanted attention, as opposed to the truth. The truth, such an ugly word, was that if she refused to sleep with him anymore than he wasn’t going to support her anymore. The electricity in Meg’s apartment had been shut off since before Christmas. Tonight was bitter cold.

   Meg closed her eyes as a sick shiver wracked through her entire body. She was only vaguely aware that her hand was still clutching the cold crystal of the doorknob because the angles of the crystal bit into her palm as the shiver subsided. Carefully, barely drawing a breath she clicked door’s lock into place. The snick of the it reverberated throughout the empty space of the apartment. Shaken, Meg turned her back on the door and let her weight sag against it. She wore nothing except an old nude bra and underwear. She was painfully aware of the splintered pieces of wood that scraped against her bare back as she slid down the length of the door and onto the floor. The laminate felt like ice and caused Meg to bring her knees to her chest in a fetal position and rest her head against her crossed arms. She could feel the warmth of her breath against her thighs, but it brought little relief from the withdrawal.

   The painful sensation of the scrapes took Meg back to a time she wasn’t entirely sure had ever really existed. It sent her to a time she was as desperate to forget as she was eager to remember. These were the moments where her memories reminded her that her grandfather was gone. The pain was a hard reminder that he, the only family she had ever known was dead, never to sand another door, or speak to her again. The reality knocked the breath from her lungs that she hadn’t realized she was holding. Pain. Pain was what she deserved for the choices she had made over the last few years of her grandfather’s life.

   However, no amount of physical pain could surpass the bittersweet pain of Meg’s childhood memories. It was her memory, coupled by the guilt and the shame of who she had become, that bore down and imposed itself on Meg in a way that she was sure would eventually kill her. After her grandfather died, she made the decision to chase the dragon in order to keep the feelings at the bay. The irony of Meg’s choice was that, as the drugs ran out, despair ransacked her body and soul as she began to compromise one sacred piece of herself at a time in order to keep the high going. In a moment of oblique clarity, Meg realized that there was more than one way to die.

   Don’t think. Don’t feel.

   Meg rested her head against her forearms, but the skin-to-skin contact was so uncomfortable against her distressed skin follicles that it caused her stomach  to heave. She scrambled on all fours searching for the toilet. She barely had enough time to pull her disheveled hair away from her face before the bile came. Afterwards, uncaring, Meg laid her cheek against the frozen toilet seat and tried desperately to choke down the coughs that accompanied the vomiting. She struggled to establish quick intakes of breath until the heaving subsided.

   Don’t think. Don’t feel.

   When she was sure her movements weren’t going to bring on another bout of nausea, Meg reached into the cup of her bra and pulled out two blue wax button bags. Stamped across the front of the bags were the words: ARTIFICAL INTELLIGENCE. She had stolen the bags from Sam after he had blacked out. That was the kind of high Sam chased, oblivion. Meg wanted the absence of pain, not control, but lately it was taking more and more of the drug to quell the pain. It was the fear of losing control that made Meg feel desperate for something she could not name. If she started chasing the same kind of high as Sam, they would both be dead. She still feared death, hated the thought of it touching Sam. She thought about the irony that his last name was Chance. Every shot he took, every line he did, every hit he inhaled was a chance. A Russian roulette of sorts.

   Tonight felt different. Tonight Meg felt as if she wanted to tempt her body’s primal desire to live. Would her lungs struggle for breath if she took too much? Last night after she and Sam had met their dealer, she had been jarred from sleep because her lungs had demanded oxygen. Her lungs had felt the effects of its absence and, as a result, she had involuntarily woken up in a panic as her body frantically gasped for air. God was too cruel to let her die her in her sleep. Instead, she was convinced, He would wait for her to be awake so that she could feel the pain, the fear. Tonight felt different. Why did this night feel different? It was the question Meg had obsessively been asking herself since she woke up. How long ago was that? When? Three A.M.? She had no way to tell what time it was. It was the question she felt pressing for an answer when she had snuck into Sam’s black O’Neil wallet and taken the last two bags. Her only thought being to make the pain stop. She wasn’t even sure what the source of the pain was anymore…

   Pop. Baby. Self.  

   The absence of the drug in her bloodstream refused to be silenced. It always made itself heard. The places inside Meg that she’d thought were sacred quickly disappeared into the one forlorn thought, the ways and means to get more heroin. Using water from the toilet bowl and the old metal art deco soap dish that had once belonged to her grandmother, Meg cooked the powder down into an invisible liquid and reached for the syringe resting on the back of the toilet. In less than a second, with shaking hands, in one fell swoop she pushed the plunger of the needle into her vein and reveled in the onslaught of endorphins. The coming-up mimicked the same safe sensation Meg cherished every time she had stepped across the threshold of her childhood home. It was the knowing that the outside world couldn’t penetrate the fortress Pop had built. She was safe in their home.

   The reverie flooded Meg’s veins, tingled through her muscles, relaxed her gag reflex and slowed her rapid irregular heartbeats. The syringe, lithe and small in her palm, slipped from her hand and bounced on the laminate as numbness fell over Meg’s body.

   Don’t feel.

   Maybe she only nodded against the toilet for five minutes, it could have been an hour. Time no longer held any definitive meaning for Meg and Sam. They existed only in their apartment. Pieces of Meg lay scattered around Bethlehem. Two pieces of her lay in the cemetery only a mile away from the farmhouse. Bleary eyed, Meg scratched her cheeks, vaguely aware that it had been two years since Pop’s death and only fifteen months, three weeks, and five days since she and Sam lost their…

   Don’t think.

   Meg forced herself to stand up using the pedestal of the sink to steady herself. She surveyed the damage done to the crooks of her arms. Blotches of various shades of green and brown splayed across them like wounds made from tiny bullets. Instinctively, Meg clapped her hand over her right elbow and caught her face’s reflection in the residue-ridden mirror. Don’t look. But she didn’t listen. The mental haze that the drug created was like a pardon from her guilty conscience, one that seemed to give her permission to gaze into the brown abyss of her dark eyes. Her entire iris was commandeered by the dark chocolate color Meg had always imagined as belonging to the unknown man who had fathered her. Her pupils were pin points. Her long chestnut curls limply framed her sallow cheeks. The face that stared back at her was Katherine’s. The mother that hadn’t even attempted to stop shooting up when she came to Pop’s doorstep eight months pregnant. Meg had been born prematurely and addicted. Katherine was the woman who had made no effort to quit using so that she could be a real presence in her daughter’s life. The only things that Katherine cleaved to in life were her hallucinations and her heroin. A silent sob erupted from Meg’s throat, parched and defeated.

   She didn’t want to acknowledge the pain. She didn’t want thoughts of her deceased grandfather or the baby she had lost. She didn’t want any reminders of the mother who had abandoned her. She wanted to be transported to somewhere she wouldn’t have to sell her body for another man’s pleasure while the man who was supposed to love her hovered eagerly nearby awaiting her return so that she could buy him his next hit. This wasn’t what Pop had wanted for her. She rubbed her eyes mechanically and was surprised to find that real tears streaked down her cheeks. The defeat she felt inside herself was palpable. It was confirmed when her tears pooled on her chapped lips. At least they still tasted like salt. She was still human.

   The tears sent a wave of desperation through Meg. Something deep inside of her crashed against the tendrils of her pain. The taste of tears sent a yearning for something she didn’t understand, but felt deeply. The clarity of one thought organized itself in her mind: Caron. Although her grandfather had left her the sole proprietor of his will, she was not able to touch any of his assets until she agreed to go to treatment and could prove over the course of two years that she was able to maintain her sobriety. Her childhood neighbor and lawyer, Caron, was the sole benefactor of his will until Meg agreed to go to treatment. Only then, to cover the cost of rehab, was Meg allowed any portion of the trust fund Pop had set up for her. She exhaled sharply. The taste of saline on her lips made her cry harder so that tears blurred her vision. She wanted to drown in them. If she and Sam were the fjord than the world was the sea and she felt certain that it was about to collapse on them. She felt swallowed by the realization that from the first moment she had taken that first pill, then booted that first bag into her vein, that it was always going to come to this.

   Before Meg could stop herself, she slammed her fists against the vanity mirror. Tiny jagged fragments of glass tinkered onto the floor. Meg’s reflection vanished. Sobbing, Meg watched spots of blood appear in the palms of her hands and travel down her wrists dripping onto the shards of glass on the floor and still she heard no footsteps, heard no voice from the other side of the door. It gave her the few minutes she needed to wrap her bloodied hands in toilet paper. Once she was sure that Sam was still unconscious, she turned the crystal door knob, swiftly this time, and padded back into the bedroom.

   The light from the nearby street lamp bathed the room in a gray hue. For once, Meg was glad she had forgotten to close the curtains. Her black satchel and Sam’s blue JanSport hung on the footboard of the bed. Quietly, Meg gathered a few things from the dirty laundry and stuffed them into the bags. She found her favorite pair of khaki’s in the process. Setting the rumpled pants on top of her dresser, Meg wrestled into one of Sam’s black button down shirts. She hadn’t even buttoned the first button when he stirred in the bed.

   Sam didn’t wake up. Meg watched as he moved from his stomach to his back kicking the sheets off so they lay in a twisted heap at his feet. Meg stood, her fingers toying with the first button as Sam crisscrossed his forearms so that they covered his eyes. He seemed so normal strewn about the bed at this time of night. In his sleep, Sam was pacified. Whether or not his drug induced haze constituted as sleep, his body obeyed nonetheless. He looked relaxed. He looked, she thought, okay. Meg silently chastised herself for her cowardice. If she waited for Sam to wake up she’d lose her nerve to leave. She knew that if she had to face him she would be compelled to find a way to get the money for their next high. She’d have to come up with a lie about the last few bags she had stolen from him.

   How was she supposed to say goodbye to the person she’d loved for the better part of five years? Perhaps it was the warm fuzzy feeling from the H, or maybe it was the sight of Sam in his worn-in Strokes t-shirt. Maybe it was both, but the sight of him gave her pause on the last button of the shirt. Her fingers circled the button. She couldn’t just leave him. Knowing that he might wake up and that she might change her mind, Meg approached the bed anyway. The mattress dipped with her weight as she straddled Sam’s hips and smoothed back his dirty blonde hair from his face. His skin felt damp and feverish. His brows knit together as if he were worried. Maybe he was. Without warning, Sam cupped her hand as it rested against his cheek and leaned into her wrapped palm. She couldn’t stop the gasp of pain that slipped through her teeth.

   Sam peaked at her through a closed eye. “Lucky I didn’t grab for the baseball bat underneath the bed, Meggie-Mae.” His voice was gravelly.

   Meg smirked a sad grin, pulled her hand out of his grip and leaned forward, settling her weight on her forearms as she rested them on either side of Sam’s pillow. He didn’t know that she’d pawned his prized autographed Cal Ripkin Jr. baseball bat a few months ago. As she leaned forward to whisper in his ear, the tips of her hair fanned around them enveloping their faces and blocking out the rest of the room. “Go back to sleep. I was cold.” For a brief second their eyes met and that carefree boy Meg had fallen in love with flickered across his tired face. The moment was fleeting. His hooded eyes were on the verge of succumbing to the darkness once more. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d kissed him. Terrible withdrawal symptoms made strange bedfellows. She and Sam had become isolated recluses that shared the same bed, but were otherwise strangers to each other.

   Without further hesitation, Meg lowered her lips to his. His were as dry and cracked as her own, unfamiliar, yet so familiar. They moved together, slowly at first. Sam didn’t quite understand. Meg breathed into him simultaneously the same second his hands reached up to pull her closer to him. His fingers knotted themselves into her hair, eagerly pulling her deeper into his mouth. His thumb brushed her cheeks tenderly. Meg could taste the salt from her tears pass between them. She kissed Sam until the rhythm of their lips lulled him away from her and back into the depths of his dreamless sleep.

   “Sleep well, Sam.” She spoke the words softly against his lips and then lifted herself off him.

   He didn’t follow her. Why didn’t he follow her? Meg made as much noise as she possibly could with the desperate hope that Sam would wake up and beg her not to go. She wanted him to kiss again and tell her that it was going to be alright, that they were going to be alright. She wanted him to thank her for this gift of desperation and tell her that they would get better together, even if neither of them knew what it meant or where it would lead them past detox, but that they’d do it together. But he didn’t wake up. He didn’t wake up, not even after the apartment door slammed shut behind her.

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