This story is by Jeffrey Muchuweni Becker and was part of our 2019 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
He was a strong man for weak places, and my rundown motel room qualified. The sun had roughed up his skin, and his face might’ve been carved from oak. But big girls need love, too, so I let him in.
Jesse parked his dirty backpack like it was furniture. I thought to tell him, don’t get too comfortable. They swore I’d leave in a month. But he’d figure it out by then.
Love the knickknacks, he said. Distracts from the stains.
I told him I grabbed whatever I could before my apartment turned to charcoal.
So you’re hunting, he said.
I said I can’t ‘cause I’m afraid to go outside.
Mistake. Tell someone your fears and they’ll become one.
But the HIV clinic is getting me another apartment.
Mistake number two. Tell someone about who’s helping you and they’ll know why you need help.
But it was done. I swallowed half a Xanax bar and squeezed the reused prescription bottle under the mattress. When I turned around, he was watching me. Bad omen.
We turned out the light, and the way he handled me, it almost felt too personal. He didn’t use protection, so he had a history, too. By morning it was clear he’d moved in.
And so had his weird behaviors. Once a day he stayed in the bathroom, like, forever. Who unloads that much every twenty-four hours? His backpack kept him company. Tough job.
Exception: Saturday. He sat on the oily chair with his greasy face, straightening his arms and rubbing his legs. When I finished changing clothes at the sink, his backpack was gone, and him with it.
I had a bad feeling, so I lifted the mattress and pushed my arm in up to my tits. Nothing.
For an hour, my mind was sludge. Then I searched the room like I had a warrant. Know what I found? My HIV meds were gone, too.
I hadn’t scanned the bathroom yet when he showed up, saying his doc gave him something, and he was good. But I wasn’t.
Where is it, I asked.
He said, It was time.
Weird, I thought. Actually it was past time for my daily Xanax to ease the disasters life had put into me, and he was wasting time.
And then he pulls it out of his pocket.
I’m in pain, I whispered.
And I’m pain management, he said. His stare was half social worker, half parole officer.
By Tuesday my bones ached. The cold seeped through the window and coated the drapes, but I sweated through my hair. He went for food, and my pounding head split open, pulsing out memories. Lost friends. The stuff I stole. My skinny-ass mom and her fat-ass bruises. He showed up and gave me my dose, and when he turned around, I thanked him with my middle finger.
Wednesday night he said I’d have to earn my pills. Off went the light. When it was over, I covered myself with wet laundry to give my skin something else to think about, and I anchored myself in the slick chair that he told me not to put my full weight on.
Thursday afternoon, his backpack stayed while he went for ice. Opened every zipper I could. Three days without Xanax, longer without HIV meds, and I was ready to burn the damn thing.
I heard him on the stairs so I wrapped up fast. He looked at me like I was leashed, and he opened his calloused hand to show my yellow treat. Then he sunk me. He closed his hand, lifted it over his head, and said, Manners.
When I walked to the sink with it, he grabbed my ass and chuckled.
A week later, Jesse went out, and I thought hard about telling the cops I was a sex slave. But when they got there, they’d never believe a fat girl. Even if they did, I’d face motel management, and my case manager, and homelessness with no housing voucher ‘cause I lied about living solo.
He forgot the phone, so I called Desmond, my tanned ex-neighbor from my burned ex-apartment building.
He asked why don’t I deal?
A question. Hadn’t heard one of those since Jesse came. And questions cherish answers.
My fat ass dealing weed, I said. That’s Instagram funny.
Pills, he said. Reliable income. A Plan B to get you the hell out of there, ditch disability and live.
He wasn’t kidding, but I hesitated. Disability is stingy, and judgmental, and it always questions your membership. But it’s the only thing I ever did right.
So I said it takes a pill, a hoodie and a veil to call Uber. Me working the streets? Uh-uh.
Work a pill press instead, he said. Make benzos to sell on the darknet. His boyfriend does, needs an assistant. No traveling.
A better person would’ve hung up, ‘cause what’s in these pills changes all the time. That’s why I break ‘em in half.
Then he says, No more withdrawals, you’d be your own supplier.
I said waiting ain’t so bad anymore.
I paused, mouth open, eyes wet. It was true. Two days of Jesse not giving me my pills didn’t feel like three anymore, and three definitely didn’t feel like four.
But Jesse smelled strength. That night he threatened a conscience call to Housing about us living together. Hope just wasn’t my calling.
Early on he hijacked my phone for internet, so at week three with minimal contact, I heard Shanice’s ringtone and took my chances with hell.
I didn’t know your soul could go numb, she said, mouth on speaker and guarded tone, as always. I spoke that language, too.
And brick heavy, I said. You drag it everywhere.
She broke down. It’s getting worse, she sobbed.
You’ll call before he breaks you?
I figured she’d punt and ask about me. I said, I’m decent. She needed the floor more than I did. She has a kid.
At one month without HIV meds, I had a low-grade fever and felt drained. But luck grinned, and the clinic was gonna squeeze me in.
Flab slows you down, Jesse said. Common sense.
I smiled. Who knows why. And when my lips ran out of room, my teeth stepped in.
He launched off the bed and punched me beside my mouth. It turned down the volume on everything, and the TV whispered in a new language. I smelled his fist in its wake. Saltwater, eucalyptus, sulphur. Dirt.
At least the parade was marching: bruised moments driven toward battered months dragged into lost years.
You’re welcome, he said, heading to the bathroom. With the backpack. Did he think I was gonna steal it?
I texted Desmond: Plan B. Come now!
Before I could think, I had super powers. I bolted up, and the lamp got sucked upside down into my hand. I’m sure fire trailed me to the sink. Hovering at the door I heard shuffling, and I cocked my weapon of choice like a mallet, ready to have an impact on him.
Apparently the front door hadn’t locked, and Desmond‘s circuitry must’ve gone atomic. He vaulted the carpet and grabbed at the lamp, doubling us over. Tomorrow, he whispered. Tomorrow.
When I heard a solid thud, at first I thought Desmond thumped the door. Naw. Not a sound that thick. That was floor action. Desmond shouldered the door open, which dragged a clump of something toward the wall. What the light exposed kept me from going in.
He ransacked Jesse’s backpack and yanked some Narcan from a compartment I’d overlooked.
Overdose, he blurted. Call 9-1-1! Running looks bad.
I avoided feeling clueless by easing the sacred backpack from the doorway while Desmond injected the Narcan and performed CPR. Jesse has my phone, I yelled from the bed, and I clawed through that compartment. I found supplies for his habit, and simple math: HIV med bottles at zero ’cause he subtracted everything. My viral load went up so his could come down.
Then my fingers found it, the bottle that stopped time. Even inside the backpack I felt a rattle when I flipped it like a rainstick, verifying there were pills left. I palmed the cap, and for a moment I was the Fat Chick Plan B Pill Pusher with the newest purchases, not the secondhand donations. The brand name life, not the knockoff.
Their addictions, not my conscience.
I shoved the bottle deep.
I heard Desmond in the bathroom calling 911. My feet moved before I did and the front door opened itself. The naked light was brighter, and bluer, than it was through the filmy window, and the cool air smelled exciting. I had about seven seconds to ditch hoodies and housing and living backwards, ‘cause at the edge of this room, going forward felt destined. Whatever followed me, the sweet wind would just have to scatter, ‘cause I was about to walk through the door and I probably wouldn’t even bother to close it.