- by L. D. Lewis -
Moses is not dreaming.
She is remembering.
She is twelve, standing drenched on the blacktop, all heaving, nervous breaths and frustrated tears blending with the rain. The air around her begins to pulse. She should have been home by now. A dozen things need doing before her mother gets home, and her little sister stands on the sidewalk, fidgeting beneath a plastic umbrella.
Chad Cunningham has her backpack, holding it open so the contents soak; he sneers, taunting her to cross the half court between them and retrieve it. Chad has been a problem for close to two years now. Grown-ups said boys become problems like this when they like you, but he’d winded her once. Punched her in the stomach in fifth grade reading group and dared her to tell, which she would have done had she been able to breathe. It was an ugly thing to do to someone you liked.
“Mo, let’s go,” Jo calls, her voice small and pleading.
“Yeah, Mo, let’s go,” Chad parrots, mocking her.
“Shut up, ape,” Jo snaps.
“What did you say, you little baby shit?”
“Nothing, you big junior asshole.”
“Jo, stop cussing!” Moses yells. The words are warbled in her ears as if she’s underwater. The air pulses in time with her heartbeat, blurring the world around her. Is it the rain or are her tears to blame for why she can’t see? She shuts her eyes tightly against a sudden pressure, focuses on the electric hum behind Chad and Jordan’s traded barbs—their demands that she do something, anything—until it reaches a deafening pitch.
Stop it. STOP IT. She doesn’t know if she’s thinking or saying it. The pressure threatens to crush her from the inside.
A small pop, and a rush of wind like someone opened a window in a stuffy room. Then silence.
When she opens her eyes, Chad is gone. Turns out it’s the last time anyone sees him ever again. The backpack remains unguarded beneath a haze of black carbon dust dashed to the ground by heavy raindrops. She waits one moment, two, for Chad to emerge from wherever he’s gone, certain he’s hiding like a troll in the bushes. When he doesn’t appear, she looks back at Jordan who seems confused. Frightened.
“Where is he?” Moses asks her.
Jordan says nothing, just trembles, small brown hands white-knuckling her umbrella.
“Jordan! Where is he?”
“What?” Jo screeches, blinking out of her daze. “I don’t know! Let’s just go home, okay? Please?”
Mo considers pressing harder, but her sister looks fit to cry. It takes a shivering stream of water down her spine to get her moving. She quickly crosses the blacktop, worried over her waterlogged homework and her mother’s dirty kitchen. She bends to lift the bag and stops, noticing a circle of blood dyeing the top of it. Her nose is bleeding.
Moses’s eyes snap open and she is thirty-four, gasping alkaline- and ash-flavored breaths on her sister’s couch. The room is dusted in faint, pre-dawn light, highlighting the dead logs in the spent fireplace, a glass of water, change of clothes, and a box of tissues she doesn’t remember being there on the coffee table in front of her. Jordan snores gently in the loveseat adjacent, still in her scrubs, her keys and the contents of a nurse’s pockets scattered unceremoniously on the floor between them.
Quietly, Moses sits up and places her bare feet on the worn rug. It’s then she notices the dark patch on the pillowcase and gingerly touches the space above her lip. Blood. Only some of it dry. She grabs the clothes and a tissue, and makes a beeline for the bathroom. The house is small and cozy, packed with what doe-eyed newlyweds would call “character”—all crown moulding and creaky floorboards Moses is deft at navigating silently by now.
She’s been uncomfortable in front of mirrors for years, and glances only into the one over the sink to clock the bloody mess smeared onto her cheek. She rinses her face, her mouth, until the water runs clear. Her hands shake as she does it, and her jaw aches from clenching. She catches her own eyes as she dabs her face dry. They are as large as she remembers, larger even—dead, glistening—in her sunken face, the skin around them an ashen brown. She parts her bluish lips to peek at the bleeding black that rims her brittle teeth. The collar of her faded blue sweatshirt is stretched to reveal the brown collar of the T-shirt beneath. She has been wearing them for weeks.
The shower steams as she sheds these layers, revealing the dog tags she often forgets are there, taut scars from clumsy burns, and bruised veins peppered with track marks. Opiates inject better but the company is worse. She’d switched to benzos at twenty-nine after her first overdose out of a prideful streak. Benzos don’t have that crisis label, though part of her knows it’s the same thing. But she needs to sleep, and there are so many things she needs to forget.
Her mama named her Moses as a declaration of purpose, an expectation of greatness. No one ever names their children for the monsters they might become. And Moses hasn’t killed anyone else, not since she started using, so there has to be a rightness in it.
She uses Jordan’s cucumber soap and an amber shampoo infused with honey, and watches weeks of dirt circle the drain. She finds herself here every couple of months, when the road gets harsh, more often when the weather is too cold. She never stays. She tells herself it’s to protect her sister.
She dresses in the new clothes, buttoning new jeans with shaking hands. Her stomach cramps and she braces against the sink while rifling through the medicine cabinet. On the other side of the door she hears the distinct shuffling sound of pills clattering in a bottle. She opens it, releasing the steam, and finds Jordan waving the bottle at her.
“Looking for this?” Jo looks tired but cheerful. She always starts out happy to see her.
Moses says nothing, but bends to put on fresh socks.
“You hungry? I can make breakfast.”
“No, I gotta go.” The knifing sensation in Moses’ stomach makes it impossible to stand up again quickly. Her sister catches the wince, the sharp intake of breath.
“When was the last time you used?”
“Day, day and a half,” Moses mutters.
Jordan reaches out to grab her wrist and check her pulse—the nurse in her wants to perform a routine inspection, but Moses is beginning to sweat and doesn’t have the time.
“Don’t.” She pulls away.
“Fine, fine.” Jordan backs off and Moses squeezes past her to grab her boots and beaten backpack from beside the couch.
“You know you can stay,” Jo says after a beat.
“No. I can’t.”
“Goddamnit, Moses, yes you can!” Jo laughs, delirious, unable to believe these words still haven’t worked. She shakes her head and chews the side of her tongue, the way their mama used to when she was upset. “It was a Chad thing wasn’t it? You know you can tell me what happened over there any time. You know I know you. Or tell someone who can help you kick this shit. I can help you do that. I want to do that. You can choose me for once, the way I’ve always chosen you. But you choose to be a ghost. To come back into my life for as long as it takes to grab a shower and get the fucking shakes again.”
Moses silently ties her boots while Jo vents. This is their routine, and it kills her every time. She knows her sister is right. She always is.
“I don’t know that it ever occurs to you, but you’re all I have.”
This part is new and Moses looks her sister in the eye. Her throat burns watching the angry tears well, the knob of Jordan’s jaw clench. There is no way to tell her what happened overseas in that blessedly short tour of the desert; that Chad Cunningham hadn’t been the only person she disappeared. There is no way to say that hurting her this way is better than touching her and one day watching her eyes boil out of her head.
Moses sighs instead. “You done?”
“Yeah.” Jordan swipes angrily at an errant tear.
Moses nods and kisses her sister forcefully on the forehead. Jordan forces the pill bottle open and hands her two, then hugs her so tightly even Moses wonders if it’s the last time. She doesn’t hug her back. Just in case.
“I gotta go.” She sniffles.
Jo releases her in what feels like many ways, and Moses steps into the winter cold, a pill dissolving under her tongue. It’s a bitter relief—or it will be—one she doesn’t feel she deserves.
“You have a home, Mo,” her sister calls, her cracked voice snaking through the sliver of space as she closes the haint-blue door behind her. “It’s wherever I am. You can always come home.”
Moses takes a loose cigarette outside the Blue Moon, the diner half of a diner-and-bar at a truck stop off the turnpike some miles from civilization. It faces a wall of rock, the winter mountains a jagged blur of naked tree trunks and grey, re-frozen snow. The air is heavy with pine and exhaust and old coffee.
Heat rises under her collar even here. She’s due for another dose. That’s the problem with benzos: they don’t last. Jo’s parting gift is only meant to keep her functioning and out of withdrawal, so she’s nowhere near high. Considering the moves she has to make—the bartering, the threats of violence, the plaintive grovelling for a re-up—spikes her anxiety and she sighs with exhaustion.
Her sister’s words about being alone haunt her. Twelve years of hiding from memories, from new attachments she fears destroying, and Moses has completely abdicated her role as a big sister. Some part of her assumed that Jordan would marry, have children, become fulfilled without her. She has never allowed herself a sober moment to consider that she lived alone, worked constantly in a field that saw Moses’s kind of trauma night after excruciating night, because of her.
The last pill is wrapped in tissue in her pocket. She all but counts the seconds of her restraint, as if it’s a sign that she has willpower enough, maybe, to stop this and go home for good.
You have a home, Mo.
She nods at the regulars as they pass her on their way inside. Most are good guys with families and longing stories they’re happy to tell when they stop for pie and a little company. Some of them peddle the uppers that get them through the turnaround in exchange for whatever the resident addicts have to give. Themselves, usually, for a few minutes at least, though Moses has never had to.
Now she watches an impossibly thin woman in loosely tied boots, a grey wool coat, and a dingy yellow backpack accost strangers milling about in the parking lot. The exchanges are brief, presumably a request followed by a brusque denial, and she’s off to the next person.
A few of the regulars here are dangerous. Moses knows them, too. Some years back, she’d seen a new girl, young and pretty and early in the grip of her poison, disappear with a couple of fellas everybody knew in passing as Bobby and Mike. They took her into the trees behind the gas station next door. No one saw her again after that.
They’re here now. Either Mike or Bobby—she’s not sure which is which—has parked an old, puke-green sedan and is making his way to meet the other outside the bar. They exchange familial handshakes and the one with the red beard spits in the parking lot. Moses squints through her haze of smoke and wind-whipped hair, watching as the girl with the yellow backpack approaches them.
This exchange is not so brief. The three of them settle into a conversation.
Moses doesn’t know what exactly compels her to move. Maybe lucid regret, knowing that when this happened before she was too ripped out of her head to prevent it. She knows better now, and strides across the parking lot as the three of them take shelter from the western wind on the side of the Blue Moon’s building.
“Hey gal,” she says, and they all turn toward her. The girl is pretty, which is a problem. “Come away from there.”
The bearded man scoffs. “What did you say?”
“You Mike? Bobby?”
“Mike.” He clarifies.
“Thought so,” Moses says and looks pointedly at the girl, extending a cigarette. “You don’t want anything they have, I promise.”
The girl hesitates but takes it, and Moses follows her, waiting until they’re well out of ear shot to light it for her. The men stare after them in gruff confusion.
“What are you, somebody’s mom?” the girl asks. She sounds young, still in a phase where this is fun for her.
“What’s your name?” Moses asks.
Moses is sure it’s an alias. Everyone here is running from something and half the time it’s themselves.
“You here by yourself?”
Cherry screws up her face and backs up a step. “You a fed? I’m eighteen and I’m not working, if that’s what you mean. Not looking for a pimp either if that’s what you’re into.”
Moses shakes her head. “Nothing like that. You’re young. You’re new. If you end up a body out here, this place lights up with cops and a whole lot of people just trying to live their lives get left in a bad way. You stay away from those two especially.”
Cherry eyes her, undoubtedly wondering about the ulterior motives of a stranger keeping her from a score. Inevitably, she nods.
“You holding?” she asks.
“No, I’m not.”
“I see. So you’re just some old, nosy, broke junkie bitch.” Cherry smiles, revealing a mouth full of perfect-if-stained teeth. She’d at least come from somewhere that took care of them. Everybody has a story.
Moses blinks at her a moment. She’s maybe a hundred pounds soaking wet—more coat than girl. Blurry tattoos mark the fingers flicking her cigarette and a lime green stiletto nail is broken on her middle finger. Her pixie cut hair is streaked purple, and red-rimmed eyes the colour of honey bulge from an otherwise baby face. These are useful details if she goes missing.
She is lost. But if she’s made it this far into nowhere, Moses figures, she’s dedicated to staying that way.
It’s cold. Moses scoffs and finishes her cigarette, grinding it into the sidewalk. “Stay away from them.”
Inside the diner, she settles into her usual booth, a joyless grey table bracketed by red vinyl upholstery squeaking on a creaky old bench in the corner. She digs into her backpack for enough change for a cup of black coffee and finds that Jordan has been there, leaving a naloxone kit, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and twenty dollars in singles with a note attached:
Her regular waitress, an older white woman called Donna, comes by with coffee and a smile that says she’s relieved to see Moses again. She knows her clientele and the fleeting nature of their lives. Moses is happy to be able to tip her today.
She will sit here for hours, watching the characters that make up her soot-covered world, until the bar opens up next door. She reads old newspapers and feigns interest in the news on the tv mounted over the counter. History dictates that she will score again tonight. She will drown her medicine with liquor like water to increase its potency, and to sleep without memories. And she will wake up in another city where she will find a way to do it all again.
You can always come home.
For now, though, she watches the snow beginning to fall outside, and keeps an eye on the girl who calls herself Cherry as she makes her rounds in no subtle way to find whatever it is she’s looking for.
She is remembering again. She’s twenty-two and in a desert overseas. Now she is in love. His name is Marcus. They were in basic together, trained at neighbouring tech schools, now deployed to something they called a war but felt like something else. She’s jogging on a clear, starlit night. The quiet is punctured by third-shift laughter and the echoes of a distant firefight.
Marcus is walking back to the barracks and stops where they’ve always stopped, to wait to hear about her day. As she gets closer, she appreciates the fit of his uniform. A greeting doesn’t escape her lips before someone else yells and then there’s a whistle and the wall of the building beside them is blown out. They’re both knocked to the ground. When the dust settles and the defensive strike begins, she scrambles to find him buried to his chest in stone and debris.
She feels rage, but only second to the terror of losing him this way. The air pulses around her. She is panicked, demanding in a frantic voice that he not die on her. He seems lucid, if dazed, but not in much pain until she holds his head to fix his gaze and the skin of his face begins to wither away between her palms, ember-crusted like burning leaves. And then the muscle, sinew, the blood and water of his body boils to vapour, and his bones to their origins as stardust. He is survived—just barely—by his screams.
It’s night at the Blue Moon and Moses is still in her booth, unsure if she’d been asleep or daydreaming. But her heart aches in that panicked way that reminds her she is too sober, too not used to feeling anymore.
She grabs a beer at the bar, flashing her dog tags for the veteran discount. The bartender knows her well by now. They nod at each other, spoken words useless in the honky-tonk blare, and she retreats back to the booth to nurse her drink and hear herself think. She rifles through memories of Marcus’ smile and the depth of his laugh. She anxiously rolls her last pill between her fingers before pushing it down into the deepest part of her pocket. It seems to pulse there, beckoning her like the One Ring. At least she feels the doom this time.
She hasn’t revisited this memory in full in a long time. It’s one she’s been killing herself to avoid. Her subsequent hysterics after Marcus’s death went on for weeks she could barely remember. Marcus was deemed KIA, but there was no body to send home. She’d suffered a psychotic break, they told her. The old guard tutted something about women in combat zones, some latent feminine defect that proved some ancient point. As a matter of politics, they deemed it post-traumatic stress and she was sent on her way with her country’s thanks, thirty days of Ambien, and paperwork that might help her figure this out on her own somewhere else.
She tried, but there was no coherent way to explain that she was the trauma. That fear made her a weapon not even she could control.
The wandering started on her return, after she drove across the country to pay respects to Marcus’s family but never stopped or got out of the car. She remembered the pale orange door of their quaint house, a woman she recognized from pictures as his mother tending the small garden out front.
A tear she doesn’t expect drops onto her hand. She is relieved it isn’t blood.
The music from the bar changes to something slower and deeper. Local lovers here doll up regularly for dates with truckers in town for one night only. Something about that feels romantic—watching them shuffle to jukebox tunes and smile into each other’s faces, swaying bodies aglow in the red neon light of a beer sign and the brash beams of ancient wall sconces backlighting their heads like halos. Moses swigs her beer. She’d never gotten to dance with Marcus. Some of these people are surely cheating on their spouses, but some of them are simply trying not to be lonely tonight. And some of them are stealing a clandestine moment with the love of their lives. This is a liminal space, a middle world overlooked by the real one, where everyone is a bit more broken, a bit more fragile, a bit more honest. Love could look like this.
There’s a loud bang in the kitchen and Moses jumps, covering her head. She knows something back there was dropped, but her body doesn’t. Her heart pounds and a whistle of alarm picks up in her ears. She’s panting when she sees Marcus on the floor—a hallucination covered in debris and reaching out for her, contorted face screaming silently from a blackened, disintegrating mouth.
She shoves herself away from the table and bursts through the front door, needing fresh air. Outside and alone, she paces, trembling hands clasped over her ears until the ringing stops and her breathing is back under control. She goes to light a cigarette but finds burns along its sides in the shape of her fingertips. She flicks it away and stares at the sky for proof that she’s being cosmically fucked with. The stars are bright and apathetic.
The bar door jingles open and Cherry staggers out without her coat, either drunk or high. She doesn’t notice Moses in the shadows, but drags her hand along the brick wall to keep herself upright as she moves to the far end of the building and disappears around the corner.
Not long after, Mike steps outside, his head on a swivel as he lights a cigarette. Cherry is in sight again, crooked, staccato steps crunching on the gravel field between the bar and the darkened gas station. Mike saunters off after her, not unlike a hunter after a wounded target. And it occurs to Moses that drunk or high were not the only options.
Moses’s blood burns in her veins as the fear sets in, and the pill in her pocket is a beating heart against her thigh. Twelve years of fight losing to flight keeps her stuck in place on the sidewalk, panting confusion and racing thoughts, who to tell or what to grab.
Bobby comes out with a more determined gait and heads straight for the ugly sedan. He watches Mike, waiting for him to catch up to the girl near the gas station before turning over the engine and driving at a slow creep to meet them.
Moses moves now, unsure of what she will do, of what she can do; certain only that doing nothing will make this another memory she dies to forget. She stalks toward them in time for Bobby to pull up beside Mike and the girl, to witness their swarming her, coercing her into a dark backseat. Cherry’s body is as rigid as it can be. She is reluctant. And then she is forced.
The pitch in Moses’s ears grows deafening but she cannot blink, not until she is close enough. The wind pulses in rings around her and her body grows so hot it crackles in the cold air.
Mike ducks into the backseat beside Cherry and Bobby goes to close the door when Moses is upon them.
“Hey!” she barks. As Bobby turns, Moses uses his momentum to spin his head into the brick wall behind him. There’s a crack, but he only goes cursing to his knees.
“The fuck are you doing, junkie?” Mike grunts, and clambers back out of the car.
Moses hears a coherent mumble from the backseat, faint beneath the hum in her own ears, but Mike is up and lumbering with a ham-sized fist cocked. She can’t get eyes on Cherry there in the shadows, but yells: “Cherry, girl, run! Can you hear me? Run!”
Mike swings, but Moses is small and used to scrabbling. She backs him away from the car to give Cherry space to escape if she can. She ducks him once, twice, and without thinking catches the third fist in her own skeletal hand, where it begins to sizzle. Before both their eyes, his hand shrivels and begins flaking apart like ash in a breeze. She’s terrified, but not enough to let go. When he begins his agonized scream, she puts her free hand to his throat and closes her eyes as the sound becomes air escaping the hollow she leaves behind. The embers of his skin eke outward, above and beneath the gaping blackness until his head falls away and continues to decay separately from the rest of his withering body.
Moses is panting, dizzy, adrenaline trembling her bones as she takes in what she’s done. There’s no time as Bobby groans his consciousness behind the open passenger door. She runs back and kicks it hard enough that it hits him in the face. She is racked with sobs and silent screams as she places her hands over his face, thumbs pressed into the inner corners of his eyes, and bears down until the ashes of his bones cave in.
Inevitably, her knees touch the ground, and the only thing she is straddling is the flat, empty spread of Bobby’s clothes. She kneels there while she weeps, dripping tears and snot into the dirt.
The ringing in her ears dies away, and all is silent but her shuddering breath and the winter wind. The sedan idles beside her and she remembers Cherry in the backseat. She stands quickly, worried that the girl has climbed out and fallen down the sheer cliff face behind the plaza. But for better or worse, Cherry’s still passed out, slumped against the far door.
Certainly for the better.
Moses takes a calming breath and looks around. No one appears to have come out of the Blue Moon. No one has seen what she’s done.
She leaves the clothes where they lie, where there are no bodies to investigate, then shuts the rear door and climbs into the driver seat. She hasn’t driven in years but she’s lucid enough to remember how.
One steady hand on the steering wheel, she digs the last pill out of her pocket with the other and places it underneath her tongue. It isn’t enough to get her high, to make her forget. But it will keep her even until she gets home.
© 2019 by L. D. Lewis
L. D. Lewis is a writer chiefly of science-fantasy, and serves as a founding creator, Art Director, and Project Manager for the World Fantasy Award-winning and Hugo nominated FIYAH Literary Magazine of Black Speculative Fiction. She was awarded a 2017 grant from the Speculative Literature Foundation. Her published work includes appearances in FIYAH and Fireside Fiction Quarterly, as well as YA anthology Take the Mic: Fictional Stories of Everyday Resistance (AA Levine, 2019), and novella A Ruin of Shadows (Dancing Star Press, 2018). She lives in Georgia with her coffee habit and an impressive Funko Pop! collection. Find her at ldlewiswrites.com and on Twitter @ellethevillain.