He should have stayed home. He had been doing this long enough to know that he had plenty to get by. That’s the thing with addiction. There’s always a need for just one more fix – one more dose of pungent ecstasy to warm the saliva in his mouth like God’s kiss. Why did his family say he was going to hell for something that seemed so beautiful?
He scored some of that good shit the day before. One of those spider bags. Who would have thought that the cellar of that old office building would be such a gold mine of copper and brass – a scrapper’s wet dream. So many pipes to unfasten. So many wires to strip.
He had money left over from buying the first bag, but not quite enough to buy another. What would he do when he ran out? It was not as if one bag could quench his desires indefinitely. So, he lived that night like so many other nights: searching for enough scrap to get him the next day’s fix. That’s why he entered that old shipyard half past midnight. That’s why he stumbled into that warehouse holding nothing but an old Maglite, some wire cutters, and a wrench. Deep in his jacket pocket, he held close to his heart a lighter, a spoon, his stash, and a good syringe to go with it. He had everything he needed.
That’s why he found them.
Not much was left of that old warehouse. Just a couple of old shipping containers. They were the kind they lift off of the boats with cranes, and then strap to semi-trucks and haul cross-country. They were either empty or forgotten or both. The floor was covered in a layer of dust so thick that his boots left imprints like it had snowed. He could smell the fresh river water wafting through a broken window near the rafters above.
His eyes followed the line of the windows thirty feet above the warehouse floor. Along the window-line, a catwalk traced the perimeter leading to the foreman’s office. That office was the perfect vantage point to gaze upon workers below. It was also the only place in that dust-ridden building that would have the treasure he sought.
A rusted staircase hung precariously from the catwalk. He staggered up each step, careful not to lose his footing on the slick dust and mold that coated every surface. With every tentative step, he wondered if these ancient stairs would collapse from beneath him. For his sake, and for the sake of what was above, he hoped they would hold true. He’d been in warehouses like this one before. He guessed that the boiler room was connected to that office. With boilers comes pipes – pipes containing enough copper to cure his cravings for at least a few days. Maybe longer.
He told himself over and over that no other scrapper found the scrap first. No one would have the gall enough to climb those steps. That staircase would have collapsed under the weight of the average man. But, he was light – no more than 105 pounds on a day when he had a decent meal. Some of his family said he lost what made him human a long time ago through the needle. What was left of his demur was quashed by a need for another blast in the arm. He had already seen God three times, until the Narcan brought him back to Earth. What was one more brush with death?
The steps wavered beneath his feet.
He was maybe twenty feet up. His hands shook as if he was drowning in ice. It wasn’t a fear of falling that got him. It was an itch. He wanted so badly to take that spoon out, melt down his liquid sustenance, and press that needle deep into the crease of his arm. He would feel the warm fluid engulf him. Protect him. He could do anything with the help of the spider bag.
Just one to get up the stairs.
No. Not yet. Not until he had that sweet copper in his hands. He could plunge himself into that heavenly hell when the night was done, and he was far away from those steps. That place. That life.
He grasped the rail in one hand, his Maglite in the other, and climbed towards the catwalk. It would be safer there, he told himself. The beams would be sturdier. They had to be to support the weight of that office. Each step creaked louder than its predecessor, whining and snapping like branches in a metallic jungle. The beam of his flashlight shimmered before him, dancing on each successive foothold. He wished he did not have to stare down through the grated steps towards the powdered floor that awaited him if he fell, but he could not trust his already shaky footing to find itself through touch alone. Deep breaths. Deep breaths. Just like all those nights in his bedroom with the radio blaring. In with the plunger. Out with the needle. He needed it. How could he go on without it? Cold sweat trickled down his back. It sent a chill over him that not even the warmest blanket could contest. His teeth chattered, and the beam of his flashlight danced faster before his eyes. If anyone looked up at him from the warehouse floor, they would have seen the hellish lightshow that was his fear. The stairs creaked. Louder. Louder. The staircase was about to fall in a cascade of twisted steel. He could feel it coming. It was that sick feeling that comes with every bad decision. Why had he gotten himself into this? He didn’t have to do it.
He reached up with his foot, unable to follow the dancing light any longer. His foot fell through the air and brought his body with him.
His heart dropped into the darkest pit of his stomach.
He expected to hear the crash of the steps collapsing under him. He expected to be impaled on a jagged beam as he fell to the warehouse floor. There he would lie, his life dripping out of him onto the dust below. Would anyone ever find him in that abandoned nightmare?
But he didn’t fall to his death. He felt the grate of the catwalk against his face. The stairs stood as they had for decades – neither wavering nor toppling to a bitter end. He pushed himself up to his feet, not bothering to brush himself off. He patted the inside of his jacket. His syringe was still in working condition, and the fall did not tear his spider bag. Good. What would he do without those?
The catwalk was much sturdier than the stairs. Though it creaked just the same, it felt like he was on solid ground. He inhaled as deep as he could, hoping to catch some fresh night air from high above the thick dust. It had been nearly twenty-four hours since he shot up. The effects had long since worn off. When was the last time he was sober on one of these adventures? A month ago? Two? Longer? Yet, the itch to use still tickled the back of his mind like a lingering cough ready to disrupt the moment.
Just a little bit. Just enough to get by?
No. Not yet. It wasn’t time. Cold sweat dripped down his spine, and his heartbeat thumped in his ears, throbbing against his temples. He would have his relief soon. An hour. Two hours tops.
The door to the office was unlocked, though he had to use his shoulder to un-jam it from its rotting frame. The wall that faced the warehouse floor was made entirely of glass. He took a moment to survey the warehouse floor from above. The office provided a penthouse view of all the action down there. He wondered what it was like to be a foreman in a place like this. He felt like God looking down from the heavens. The workers would be his disciples.
He liked the sound of that. It made him feel powerful. It was a natural power – a power more than just control over himself, but of everything below as well. For a moment, he pictured himself as a professional. He was not there to steal scrap metal. He was there as the boss of the building. People would come with him with questions, and he would get to make decisions bigger than how much he was going to use that day. Maybe he could, someday, be a foreman with an office like that. Maybe, just once, he wouldn’t have to scrap just to get by. He could be the boss of his own life.
There was a desk and a filing cabinet in the middle of the room, along with some papers scattered around the floor. He didn’t bother to look at them. Paper was worth nothing unless it was green with dead faces on it.
There was a door towards the back of the office. A beat-up rotary phone hung on the wall next to it. He picked it up and put it to his ear as if he was about to make an important business call. He did not expect to hear a dial tone. Yet, there it was, idling – waiting to be put to use. He hung it up and wondered how hard it would be to get it off the wall. That phone would probably fetch a nice price at the pawn shop on Thirteenth Street, once he cleaned it up a bit. People love that retro shit.
The door in the back of the office was unlocked. Again, he had to shoulder it to knock it loose. How long had been since someone pried their way into that room? Months? Years? Longer? Inside was the boiler he had expected, along with tons of pipes crossing each other and passing through walls. He had imagined a good find, but this was a copper El Dorado. He had never seen such a complex distribution of piping. Pieces large and small intertwined with one another in a web of precious metal. He could tap that treasure chest for months, so long as the staircase held. Maybe he could even build a pulley system with some of the money so that he could eventually haul it all out – even the boiler. With that kind of money, he could start dealing. He could even pay his mother back the two-hundred dollars he “borrowed” from her drawer a few weeks back. This was his chance out of scrapping, at least for a little while.
He smiled. He didn’t have the tools with him to get the larger pipes out, nor did he believe the staircase could handle their extra weight. He was used to finding the half-inch pipes – the kind that break from their fittings with a hard kick or a swing of his Maglite. Many of these pipes were more likely to break his foot than break from their place in the boiler. Those would have to wait. In the meantime, he could strip some wires from the wall and break loose a few of the thinner pipes. Those would be worth enough to get him by until he had the time and materials to get the rest.
He found the light switch near the door to the boiler room. Start at the source and work outwards. That was his best bet. There would be good wire behind that switch. There had to be.
He raised the Maglite over his head, ready to destroy the drywall that concealed his treasure.
A bright beam of light passed through the office windows from the warehouse floor.
He flopped to the ground like he’d learned to do when the gangs start shooting. Get out of harm’s way. Get out of sight. The Maglite hit the floor and rolled out of reach. Its light flickered and then went out. He could hear two voices coming from the warehouse floor, but he could not make out what they were saying. One was coarse like a smoker’s cough. The other had the innocent crackle of a boy just out of high school – not quite old, but not childish.
It had to be the cops. Someone must have seen his light dancing in the window and called the police. Who else would come around this place at this time of night?
Then he heard wailing. This voice was different from the other two. This voice was younger and contained a hiccup-like tremor.
His head throbbed harder than ever, and he wanted nothing more than to crawl into the corner, melt down some of that spider bag, and squirt it deep into a vein. He just wanted something to get him through – something to deal with the anxiety of it all. There was no way three people could brave those stairs. Not without a total collapse. From the sound of the wailing, it was not like those people were there for him. He could curl up until their voices disappeared into the gentle lapping of the river. Then, he could get his wires and pipes, and be on his way.
He hesitated. No. Not yet. It wasn’t time.
The cries came louder. He couldn’t be sure, but it sounded like begging. It was something in the way teen sobbed, and the way those inaudible words reverberated off the warehouse walls. He shook more violently than he had on the staircase, but something inside him told him to look down at the warehouse floor. It scratched at his mind like a fork on fine china.
Look at what they are doing to him.
He inched his way towards the office glass, careful to avoid the filing cabinet and the legs of the desk. As he pulled himself along like a snake, he crumpled an old slip of paper beneath him. The papered crackled like dry leaves on the forest floor. It made the kind of sound that sent animals scurrying through a forest. He wondered, would these papers have the same effect on the people below? Would they flee too? Or, would it do the opposite? Would they come for him? Would they dare brave that staircase.
He peeked through the glass. Two men stood over a lump on the ground. One held a flashlight. The other had something dark in his hand. He waved it in front of the lump on the ground, and the lump scurried back. When the flashlight shined down on the lump, it revealed the face of a teenage boy. Maybe 18 or 19. He didn’t look weathered like most of the people around that part of town. He had probably only been in the game a few years. Kids slinging dope bags to help their mothers pay rent. It really had gotten bad. The teens were younger and younger getting into the game. How old was the one who sold the spider bags? 14?
Even in the dust of the warehouse and the harshness of the flashlight, the teen’s skin was soft – gentle almost. He held his forehead, and red oozed between his fingers. The neck of his tee shirt was stretched beyond repair.
The man with the dark object in his hand kicked the teen hard in the gut. The poor kid sputtered, then puked.
The man kicked him again. Another sputter. Red. The teen let out another scream before going limp again on the floor. Dust billowed around him, concealing him for a moment in a gray haze. The two men argued about something after that, motioning at the broken body in front of them. The body twitched, coughed, and then went still again. They spoke in hushed voices, and the tips of their murmurs ricocheted off the walls and ceiling of that warehouse – guttural sounds in the darkness.
What was a junky to do, trapped in that office, with nothing but a Maglite, some wire cutters, and a spider bag in his pocket? He was like twisted god up there watching Man’s atrocities from afar, unwilling to intervene. He wanted so desperately to be an angel at that moment. He wanted to swoop down from that catwalk, descending upon Satan’s minions with the wrath of thunder and lightning in his hands.
How could he watch this happen and do nothing?
And yet, he was not an angel or a god. He was just a scrapper trapped in an office high above sinners worse than he could ever be. He could not swoop down. He could not bring the wrath of God upon them. All he could do was turn his back and wait for it all to be over.
When he turned around, he noticed the rotary phone still hanging on the wall.
He might not be able to swoop down from Heaven, but he could call the police. He could crawl over to the phone and ratchet that old dial into place. 9-1-1. They would come. They could save that poor kid.
And what will they do when they find you?
He sat there on the office floor and listened to thuds of more kicks. He knew he had to do it. He had to crawl over to the phone. He had to make that call. It was the right thing to do. How could anyone doubt that he was better than how they saw him after saving that kid. He just needed courage first. Once he made that call, there was no going back. He would be at whatever mercy God laid before him. No more scrapping. No more spider bags. Not for a while, at least. A day? A month? A year?
He had to be ready.
Icy sweat trickled down his spine again. It felt like he had been dropped into the river outside and then left to soak in the chilly, evening air. He felt God’s thunder and lightning bouncing around in his head, and his shaking turned into convulsions that threated to travel the building like an earthquake. Could the others feel him shaking like an epileptic at a light show? Could they hear the thunder bashing around his brain? He reached for the spider bag in his pocket. At first, he just wanted to touch it – to remember that sweet ecstasy still waited for him at the bottom of that bag. It could give him the courage he needed. It could cure his tremors, his throbbing head, and the inescapable cold that haunted him in the darkness.
Just one. Do it.
He put a dab on his spoon. He did not have any water to help the process, so he used his spit as a substitute. A couple seconds with the lighter to melt it down. He prayed that the men below did not see the flame. He did not want to give away his position until clarity flowed through his veins.
He plunged the needle into the crease of his arm.
His eyes rolled back as heaven bubbled through his neck and across his once icy skin. He exhaled his fears away.
The teen let out a scream that escaped to the ceiling of the warehouse. The rotary phone. Yes. It was time. The other guys would be distracted for a moment. He could call the police now, but his hands still shook, and he could feel the sweat pooling at the top of his pants. He wanted so desperately to move forward, but his legs would not move. He needed something – anything – to get him moving.
Then, he felt that part of him pinch at the back of his neck like a thousand spider legs.
Maybe just one more?
No. He didn’t need it. He had taken all he needed to make the call. He could have more when that kid was safe.
But, why wait?
Again, he spat into his spoon, and cooked some of that glorious spider bag. Again, he plunged the needle into his arm, and he felt the warm fluid creep up his neck – to his cheeks – placing God’s lips on his.
The screams sounded as if they were being smothered by Hell’s ashes, and it seemed like the devils from below were miles away. The phone seemed equally as far. He pushed himself forward towards the phone, sliding towards it on his face, as if he was trying to hide his shame from the Heavens. He stole a peek at the phone. It was maybe a couple feet away. All he had to do was stand up and pull the dial around three times. 9-1-1. That was it.
But, his last plunge was the one that dragged him across the room. His courage waned.
Maybe just one more.
He pulled the bag out, and watched the flame melt it on the tip of the spoon.
Maybe just one more.
There was a scream from below, and then –
The explosion snapped his eyes open. The warehouse was silent. It was as if even the river ceased its lapping.
Maybe just one more.
His vision began to fade again, and the darkness of the room became apparent. He sat back beneath the old rotary phone. Should he reach for it now?
Maybe just one more.
He closed his eyes to capture the perfection of darkness. He wondered if this was his destiny. Was this how he was meant to be?
Maybe just one more.
Was this what he had become?
Maybe just one more.
He felt the silence close around him, and his eyes refused to open.
Maybe just one more.
Maybe just one more.
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