A sudden knock on the doorframe of my room startles me. The black marker in my hand streaks across my sketch pad.
I’m not allowed to have a pencil—I might use it as a weapon.
Before I turn toward the door, my hand moves up to my head and starts scratching.
“Come on. It’s time for group. You’re late. Let’s go.” A redheaded nurse, toe tapping rhythmically on the linoleum, calls into my closet-with-a-bed. The pastel colored butterfly print scrubs she’s wearing, along with that thick shimmering hair, scream Mary Poppins. If she starts singing, I’m going to vomit.
Mind foggy, I hesitate before I say, “I haven’t been assigned a counseling group yet.” My fingers scratch harder. I can feel the fuzz of hair growing back on my bald spot. I don’t want to go to any group.
“Oh, no worries, dear. I know exactly whose hands to put you in.” I’m not sure how to read the smile she gives me. Then she looks at the clipboard in her hand. She happily huffs, if that’s even possible, and rolls her eyes. But that creepy smile remains. “You haven’t had your meds. Why haven’t you had your meds?” Not waiting for my answer, she says, “No worries. I’ll fix that. Let’s go, dear.” She wills me out into the hall with a wave of her hand, almost like a puppeteer. I can feel the pull.
Dear? And that smile—I think she took my meds.
After a quick stop at the nurse’s station, a plop of meds and water into my mouth, the redheaded nurse—Nurse Hatchet is what the tag on her lanyard reads—ushers me through the first door we come to that has a group of patients gathered inside. The door clicks shut behind me. I reach under my tongue, pocket my meds. My hand involuntarily starts scratching my head, again.
I’m about to turn and flee, until every face in the circle of people whips toward me. My eyes immediately look away. I look down at the black and white checkered floor. I shove my shaky hands into the pockets of my jeans. With my sneakered-foot, I push an empty plastic chair toward the group of patients.
I enter the circle.
I have no idea if I’m in the right group. It’s only my second day here. Feeling all eyes on me, I can’t force myself to look up, to look anyone in the face.
A man starts talking.
A weight lifts off from me.
The attention is now on someone else.
After a couple minutes of what I assume is someone’s psycho-babble, it feels safe to look up from the floor. His words—I can’t hear any of them. The vice that repeatedly squeezes on my head and chest has always caused a malfunction with my hearing, ever since I was a child. With the arrival of my teen years, it never got any better—which is how I’ve ended up where I am.
A new voice sounds out. I turn toward the sound.
A skeletal-thin man speaks with passion of an insatiable hunger. His voice sounds strained, scraping and clawing its way out of his mouth, stumbling past his dry cracked lips. His eyes scream pain, empty and hollow, drained of what may have been behind those doors before.
With every syllable he utters, I can’t stop staring at his neck. With every bob of his Adam’s apple, I’m fascinated, mesmerized. With every bob of his Adam’s apple it slithers around the base of his neck.
The size of a mutant slug—fat and glistening—with a thickness five times my thumb’s width.
How did it get there?
What is it from?
Does it hurt? Itch? Throb?
Does he ever, sometimes, forget that it’s there?
These questions shoot through my mind in rapid succession—as I stare.
I can’t make sense of the scarred man’s words. My questions are too loud. Too many. And I can’t stop staring.
I need to hear his words.
I force myself to listen. Now I can’t not listen. I can’t un-hear the insanity, the desperation. His story is permanently etched into my brain.
“I reopen it when I need to re-up.” The man speaks with a gravelly voice. The slug writhes and slithers with every word. “I scrape a good amount with each incision. The more I chisel and collect, the less often I need to slice open the wound again. I stitch it. Let it scab over. Let the scab loosen and fall away before my supply runs out.”
Supply of what?
From the opposite side of the circle a woman picks up where the scarred man’s words fade away. The sound of her voice jars my attention away from the slug. Her words drag and drone and trip across the open hollow of the circle, landing in my disbelieving-ears. “Then it starts all over again. The self-surgery. The extraction.”
The woman is scarred, too. Not her neck. Her upper arm. It snakes along the outside of her bicep. It starts at her elbow and slithers up onto her shoulder. Thicker than the man’s slug. And a lot longer. Snake-girl. “It hurts like Hell, but it’s free. Music to a user’s ears—free high.”
The term stuns me to stone, heavy and unmoving. I don’t want to hear anymore.
My eyes start scanning the circle of people. Every one of them is scarred. All in a different location on their bodies.
How did I not notice this defining detail when I first entered into this circle?
The wrong group for me.
But I can’t speak up. I can barely breathe. I want to slip away, unnoticed, but I can’t even move. My nerves have tied me to the hard plastic chair.
A few moments pass. Maybe many moments. I don’t know. Someone is talking. My ears don’t hear anything but my frantic garbled thoughts of how I can flee undetected. I can’t even decipher what’s sounding in my head. There might be a good idea in the chaos of my mind, but I can’t lasso one out.
A strand of hair falls in my face. It starts tickling my nose. I force my hand to tuck my hair behind my ear. My hands are wet, sweaty. I slowly rest my hand on my knee. Now my knee is bouncing. I can’t stop the involuntary motions.
Sweat. Sweat. Sweat.
“Never let them see you sweat.”
The sweat is causing wisps of my hair to stick to my forehead. Then I notice the blood— under my fingernails. I curl my fingers under. Does anyone notice? If not the blood, all of them must see my bald spot by now.
The counselor hasn’t said a word. I don’t even know which one is the counselor.
Every one of them is scarred.
A counselor with first-hand experience, I guess. They say that’s the best kind, most respected by patients, especially addicts.
Who are they anyway?
A voice. Someone is talking. Louder now. Is it a different person? Or the same? I don’t know. At this point nothing is making sense.
A garbled voice echoes in my head. By the sounds of it, the voice is traveling through a tunnel before it reaches my ears. Is it a man or a woman? I don’t know. I can’t even make out any of the words. It’s as though all the words are jumbled together, overlapping, tossed together like a salad. I can’t look to see who’s talking. They’ll see the confusion plastered on my face. They’ll know I don’t belong. They’ll think I’m judging them.
Never judge. I don’t know where they’ve traveled. Their shoes don’t fit me.
I can’t focus on the voice anymore. It’s too maddening. I stare, instead, at the scars.
I can’t take it anymore. If I can’t make myself leave, I need to know . . .
I don’t want to know, but questions fly, like hurricane winds, out of my mouth before I can rein them back. The loud person is still talking when I blurt out, “You get high by carving into your own body? All of you?” I scan the circle, addressing the group. My eyes can’t focus on any one face. Instead, my eyes dart back and forth and round and round from person to person. They all nod in unison. As soon as people turn toward me, I feel the flames reddening my cheeks. I don’t see their eyes on me. I feel them. “How? I don’t understand,” my voice croaks, barely letting the words slip out. It feels like a snake is wrapped around my throat, constricting.
Sweat drips faster. My bloody fingers start scratching the peach fuzz again. Why can’t I leave it alone, let the hair grow back, look normal again?
The thought makes me scratch harder.
My eyes accidentally fall on a husky tattooed man in camouflage shorts. His drug-serpent slithers along his shin. Very fitting with his Medusa tattoo. The artist worked it into her snake-hair, almost undetectable as a scar—
until I’d realized this is a group of cutters. Not your typical cutters. They cut to get high. Somehow. Some way. A high follows every cut.
I don’t get it.
The Medusa Man reluctantly, almost painfully, speaks up. It’s as though my eyes pushed him to talk. The veins in his neck are bulging out, a network of rivers. Every word that emerges from him looks, and sounds, like a weightlifting challenge to haul up from his vocal chords out into the audible world. The result—the voice of a pre-pubescent boy coming from a man. “It’s in the bones. Everyone’s bones. His.” He nods toward Slug Man. “Hers.” He nods toward Snake Girl. “Even yours.” He looks, unblinking, straight into my stinging eyes.
The shock must be painted on my face.
His eyes widen and he nods. “Yes, even your bones.”
I shake my head, rub my eyes. The sweat stings.
Slug Man—he acts as the spokesman for the group. “You look confused. Let me explain— Once we slice ourselves open and get down to the bone, we chisel and scrape bone dust into little baggies, onto tinfoil—whatever the choice. It’s like heroin, but all natural. We can cook it and inject it. We can smoke it. Snort it. Best of all—it’s free.”
“Best of all?” I cringe. My stomach turns. My skin itches, like spiders are crawling all over me. Scratching my head, my hair slicks back as though it hasn’t been washed in days. Blood, warm and slick, starts dripping down my forehead.
My knee is bouncing faster. It won’t stop.
No judgment. No judgment. No judgment.
Now it’s time for my burning question—“How the Hell did all of you find out about this . . . this drug-like substance in our bones?”
Slug Man speaks through his gap-toothed grin. “From my work at the crematorium.”
Each cutter, each addict, starts stating how they made their discovery. All eyes are on me as they speak. I can’t force myself to look directly at any of them. I can’t understand what any one of them is saying. They’re all speaking at once. They’re all staring at me. And they’re all getting closer.
My eyes dart around the circle, around the room. The groups’ voices are getting louder as they’re all getting closer to me. Metal chair legs squeak and scrape across linoleum. I scan the room for the door. I’m disoriented. Displaced. I can’t remember which side of the room I came in through.
There it is. The door. It’s behind me.
Just as I’m able to peel my sweat-drenched back off from the chair and unglue my ass from the unforgiving hard plastic seat, I notice, as I start to stand, that I’m now surrounded. I’m in the middle.
In the center of the circle of addicts. The cutters. All eyes on me.
I take a deep breath. My return-breath trips and stumbles up my throat and gets lodged there.
What do I do?
What can I say?
All eyes on me. Big, bulging, hungry eyes. Craving eyes.
My skin crawls.
My hand scratches.
More blood drips.
The more I bleed the wider the users’ eyes grow.
I can’t breathe.
I can’t breathe.
I can’t fucking breathe!
The door. I see it. I stare at it. It’s close at first. But the longer I stare, the farther and farther away it moves.
Feet frozen to the floor like a tongue on an icy flagpole, I’m unable to move.
The room starts spinning.
My head is going to burst.
Where’s my breath? I can’t find my breath!
I have to move. I need to leave. How can I get the fuck out?
I see the door. It’s so far away. I don’t think I can make it. I don’t know if I can even make myself move. Then I feel a breath. A breath not my own. It’s blowing hot against my neck.
I turn. A hand reaches for me. I flinch, but not fast enough. A long, rough finger slides across my forehead then quickly pulls away.
Snake-girl. She licks her finger. “Mmm . . . Fresh. I bet I can get to your bones fast, you skinny little ball of nerves. Won’t hurt me one bit.” She leans toward me and sniffs my sopping hair, what’s left of it.
That’s it. I can’t fucking take it anymore!
Somehow, some way, I find the strength to move.
With a crash and a clatter, I bolt.