Jolted awake by immense pain. I’m out of my bed and onto the ground within my first breath.
Jenny! Jenny are you okay? Isabel says.
I want to ask the same thing, but my mouth won’t work. Agony. All I can feel. My stomach. My legs. My arms. The muscles are cramped, locked in place, immobile. I’m both sweating and shivering. My heart is already racing, was pumping like a jet engine before I even jumped out of bed.
Jenny, are you there? Isabel says again.
“We’ve got bigger things to worry about,” I say, my voice husky and strained.
The cramps subside, if only momentarily, so I look around from the floor. The room is a dumpster, or it might as well be. Rain is falling through a hole in the roof, the bucket beneath it overflowing. There’s a single light bulb hanging in the center room swaying with the wind, creaking, calling out, begging to be put out of its misery. There’s a kitchen in one corner and a toilet directly adjacent with nary a wall separating them. A wide-open shower with a rusted-out spout sits along the wall beside the toilet and on the wall opposite the front door is a sliding glass door onto a shabby, rotting, and weak-looking deathtrap of a deck. The stagnant apartment air reeks of death, or something close to it.
Bigger things to worry about? Isabel says. She’s suffering, you monster.
“Sorry, I ju—” A jolt of pain cuts me off. Though I’m flat on my back, the room is spinning, a blur, a mess of despair. I moan with it. Vomit comes without warning, or perhaps with obvious signs I was too distracted to notice.
My mouth is watering, the horrible taste of vomit lingering even a few minutes later. I feel tears welling at the corners of my eyes. Isabel’s sadness? Jenny’s? My own?
“Jenny, I’m sorry,” I say. “Are you there? Do you want to talk about it?”
I think she’s gone, Isabel says after a few seconds of silence. I don’t feel anything.
I could feel her in here before. Not anymore.
“Turning her own brother against her.”
Do you think they knew? Isabel says. Or was it just some coincidence?
“There can’t be a coincidence with something like that. Gerard knew exactly who he was killing us with and what it would do.”
Isabel pauses as though she’s thinking. Victoria, I’m all for standing up for yourself and I obviously don’t know the whole story here, but can’t you just give them what they want if this is what’s going to happen?
“I genuinely don’t have what they want. If I did, it might be different.”
Another jolt of pain rushes to the surface. The smell of vomit lingers in the stagnant air and the walls creak like they’re going to give out at any moment.
“How are you doing?” I ask Isabel.
How do you think?
“Sorry, yes, of course, stupid question.” I pause, struggling to find the right words and wincing through my searing headache. “I think it’s amazing that your first thoughts after your own death were of Jenny instead of yourself.”
Thanks for trying as hard as you could to get away.
We lay in silence until the water from the overflowing bucket finally reaches me.“ Can you feel Hayley?” I ask.
No, who’s that?
I search my mind for details, of which I have very few. I never saw her face or knew anything about her. In fact, I can’t even describe what she sounded like. “She was the one before you. She gave me the fear of heights.”
If you’d have been able to hotwire that car we wouldn’t have needed to climb.
Of course, but that was the problem, wasn’t it? “I don’t know what happened. I’d done it thousands of times, but I just couldn’t remember the details. Gerard said I’d lose things. I didn’t think those things would get us killed.”
By the time I’m finished, I’m fighting off another bout of nausea. I don’t know what kind of body this is, but it seems like the suffering might be the point.
Who’s Gerard? Isabel says.
“He’s the one pulling all the strings.” I focus on his face, which I know he’s since changed, but focusing on it bring back crystalline memories of Victoria’s last moments. I can’t lose anything else that matters to me.
Why are they killing you?
“I was hired to steal something from him, but he caught me in the middle and killed me. They’re killing me over and over because they think I know who hired me, but I have no idea.”
She lets that hang, and once I finally have enough strength I lift my head to glance myself over. I’m frail and bony, with unnaturally thinning hair. My joints are bulbous, my limbs gaunt and skeletal. Lifting an arm or a leg, in between cramps, is a chore. My forearms are littered with needle marks. I am sickening to look at, but at least I’m still a woman.
There’s a hand-written note scrawled onto a piece of notebook paper on the ground next to me, the text of which is still clear through the small splatters of vomit and slowly flowing rainwater:
“I thought you understood who was in control here, but apparently I didn’t make it clear enough. You breathe when I let you breathe. You walk when I let you walk. You live when I let you live. YOU DIE WHEN I HAVE YOU KILLED. It’s your fault Jenny’s own brother killed her. I wasn’t going to go that far, at least not yet. This is MY game you’re playing. My hunters track you down and extract information from you. There are no other options. You do not run from my game.
This life is punishment, since repeatedly dying was somehow not enough. Welcome to day 3 of rehab, Yvonne. The next 24 hours will be torture. Keep in mind that your only respite is to tell me who hired you, which you can do at any time.
Also, in case you didn’t feel enough incentive, you’re at the point now where even the strongest start slipping. I heard you fell from a tree. Is that something you did often in your original life? Can you still remember your name? Your Family? You may not think dying is bad enough. You may even make it through the heroin withdrawal. Those are nothing compared to completely losing yourself. Don’t think it won’t happen to you. I’ve been doing this for 1000 years. You’re nothing special.”
A light chuckle escapes from my throat. A thousand years seems a bit too long to be doing anything, let alone torturing poor girls just caught in the middle of something out of their control, but I suppose if a man can keep bringing them back from the dead then he can probably beat Father Time as well.
The mirth fades as I try to picture the faces of my family. My dad’s mustache jumps out, the rest of his features dull. I convince myself that’s how it’s always been, the mustache being so prominent that everything else falls by the wayside.
My brother Donavan’s smile is the first feature the jumps out at me, and I construct the rest of his face around it. The bright, white teeth. The intelligent and vibrant eyes. The mini-afro he would get when he put off cutting his hair for too long, which he always told me he’d turn into dreadlocks someday. I smile as I remember how close we were.
My mother’s eyes come back first. I remember them being stunning, but after several moments I still cannot quite place the rest of the features of her face. The relative shape is there, the nose, the mouth, the cheeks, but they’re less sharp than I imagine them being, less clear in their details. The woman I recreate in my mind is only an approximation of her. There’s a knot in the back of my throat. I could try to brush off forgetting parts of my father’s face, but with my mother too it’s now impossible to ignore. Have I really lost so much so soon?
“Damn him,” I squeak out through another cramp.
What are we going to do?
“We’ll have to play his stupid game,” I say. “I don—”
Nausea cuts me off. I roll over and spew onto the floor beside me. Coming off is just as bad as they said it’d be, which is why Victoria Simone stuck to the more recreational drugs. This Yvonne woman, she went too hard and it blew up in her face.
Don’t worry, throwing up doesn’t gross me out or anything. I can’t tell if it’s a joke.
“Makes one of us,” I say, rereading the note and paying particular attention to the etched-in texture of the words. It looks like I finally made him mad, which I admit I find at least a little satisfying. Once finished, I crinkle it up and toss it aside.
I decide I need some fresh air and struggle to my feet. The room is still spinning. My stomach is rumbling. My headache makes every eye movement a struggle.
Gray sunlight washes over my face as I step onto the deck. I’m in the projects of some sort. The only view is of the apartment across the way on the same floor of what appears to be an identical building. There’s a rickety rocking chair on my deck and a small, glass pipe on the table next to it.
The cushion is worn down but fits my skeletal frame. My thoughts turn back to Gerard. It’s obvious by now that he will accept nothing less than a name, a name I never knew and never even wanted to know. Javier received a phone call from a blocked number. The man gave terms, which we accepted. A suitcase of money, half the payment, was left underneath a park bench exactly two minutes prior to my arrival. The gem would be placed in that suitcase and returned to the same bench the next day. An identical suitcase carrying the second half of the payment would be sitting there waiting for me.
I can feel the nausea on the periphery and my headache is throbbing, but I push them both off.
The job was clean and easy. We didn’t always operate in such secrecy, but it wasn’t out of the ordinary either. Nothing unusual from the day of the job. Nothing even all too unusual about the job itself, just another rich guy with an artifact of some unspecified value that he thought was well-guarded when it wasn’t. If you’ve done it once, you’ve done it a thousand times. In fact, I was even a little disappointed in how easy it was going to be.
There’s a cramp in my calf. I reach down and pull my toe toward my shin, which only gives me another cramp, this one in my shoulder.
And I was flawless. Javier was flawless. We didn’t get caught, we were betrayed. The man who hired us? Maybe, but why? A set up? There are easier ways if you want to get back at us for stealing something in the past, and none of our marks would have had any knowledge of some secret, immortal organization that specialized in sadism. No, the man who hired us was just as surprised as we were. It was someone else, but who?
It takes me a moment to remember. We weren’t betrayed, at least not on purpose. They brought in another man alongside us, beaten unconscious. Gerard called him a rat. I wonder where he is now. Going through the same torture as me? Would he even be worth finding if I could?
Then there’s the man in the back. I remember him looking guilty and ashamed. He didn’t celebrate with the rest. I considered him weak back then, not cut out for the job. In hindsight, it looks different. Everyone in that room knew what was going to happen when that little glass orb came out. The guilty man was not some new recruit, he was just as experienced as the rest of them.
There’s a quickly approaching tide. I know my thoughts will be a blur in only a few seconds, but I will myself to continue.
The other times I might have seen him flash through my mind. Could be that Isabel nearly ran him over. I didn’t get a good look at his eyes. Jenny may have seen him in the hallway but shrugged him off as a flirt. Hayley saw him in the plane. He was frightened for her.
It seems I have a few options if I’m indeed going to play Gerard’s game. The Guilty Man is my main target, but his appearance is never guaranteed and it’s entirely possible I’ve only seen him once and am just imagining the other times. Javier’s apartment should be my second. There might have been more to this job than he let on, and if there’s any proof left it would be in his home. At this point, anything I can give to Gerard is worth a chance. A distant third is the man they called the rat, if he’s even still around.
Then, of course, there’s the building I was killed in. Owned by some downtown billionaire. Would someone like that really be in this clan of immortal killers? Or do they just use him because he has what they think is a safe vault? I’ll have to find his name and answer these questions for myself, but the building is worth investigating if nothing else. me out of this whole damn game and free to live out the rest of my unnatural life.
Yvonne’s nausea is almost too much, and I’m barely keeping it down. It seems I’ve forced my own hand. She was on the right track getting clean, but it’s killing me and at this point it’s more an impediment than anything else. If I’m to be in any way functional, to get out of the infinite loop I’m stuck in, I need to get rid of this withdrawal.
“Isabel, is Yvonne in there?”
I sort of feel her, I guess, but it’s not like it was with Jenny. I think it’s the same with this Hayley person you mentioned earlier. They’re around, but not in a state where I can talk to them.
“Then I’ll do it all myself.”
You can’t be serious.
Trust me, I’m not proud of what I’m about to do, but I need a clear head. Without it, I’m going to get Yvonne killed.
Her body is weak but motivated. I turn her slum upside down looking for a needle or bag or anything that looks like it could get me high, but it’s to no avail. The only evidence I find that any drugs ever existed in the apartment, other than its general disarray and shoddy construction, is a small scale and a thin layer of white powder in the kitchen sink, residue left from when she emptied whatever was left of her stash down the drain. I’ve got to hand it to her; she really wanted this to be over.
As long as my mind is focused on finding what I need, the withdrawal dissipates. It’s when I realize there’s nothing in the apartment that it all comes back.
My mind blurs. What was once a clear plan of getting high and playing Gerard’s game becomes a single-minded mission that can see nothing beyond the drug-induced stupor I know is coming. My skin crawls at the thought, which I suppose must be whatever remnants of Yvonne remain within me. I can almost feel her whimpering in the corner just beneath the surface.
A phone buzzes from underneath a pile of clothes somewhere in the corner of the room. It’s in my hand a moment later. Someone is texting me, but that’s unimportant. What’s important is the phone itself.
A woman like Yvonne has a dealer, and that dealer’s number is probably one or two on her list of most frequently contacted numbers. A quick search through her last few conversations gives me a man named ‘Darryl’, who she’s been texting back and forth with for months in thinly-veiled code.
“Hello?” He says it as if he doesn’t know who I am, but I’ve got about a hundred texts that say I’m one of his favorite customers.
“Darryl, I need something strong,” I say over Isabel’s protests. “Whatever you got.”
“Yo, what the fuck? You don’t just call me up say that shit.”
“You know better than that. What if I’m on speaker? What if someone’s listening?”
I stutter for a moment as I run through all the possible codewords I could use. “Sorry… I need some of your fruit roll-ups… preferably your strongest.”
“Fruit roll-ups? That’s what you come up with?” He’s laughing. “Damn, you’re better than this.”
“Sorry, I just—”
“I’ll be right over. Meet me outside.”
The phone clicks and then goes silent. It strikes me that I don’t know what he looks like and walking up and asking any random person on the sidewalk for ‘fruit roll-ups’ is probably not the most inconspicuous course of action. A quick search of Facebook tells me he’s a red-headed man with an afro. It also tells me that my full name is Yvonne Gresham, and that I was once much better looking before my teeth started falling out.
I’ve been waiting outside in the rain for twenty minutes, ignoring Isabel’s pleas to go back inside, by the time Darryl finally shows up in a heavily dented, golden El Camino that looks like it’s on its last legs.
We lock eyes. My feet move before I tell them.
He speaks first, still sitting in his driver’s seat. “Yo, I thought you were off this shit.”
“Well I’m back on it.”
“I watched you throw it all away.”
“What are you, my mother?”
“I just wish you hadn’t wasted such good product if you were going to come back for more.”
“I don’t have time for this.” I throw a few bills at him and yank the brown paper bag out of his hand. “Keep the change.” Do they even add up to what he wants? I don’t care.
It’s clear back in the apartment that I have no idea what I’m doing. I see a syringe and a baggy of white powder but don’t understand how to make the two work together to give me what I need. I can feel my body longing for it now that I have the drugs in my hand. My heart is palpitating. My fingers are twitchy. Even my mouth is watering. But there’s a barrier here I do not know how to cross.
Victoria! You can’t do this! Isabel says for what must be the hundredth time. She’s trying to get clean!
“I know she was, but her suffering is getting in my way and if I don’t want anyone else to die I need to have a clear head. It’s for everyone’s good, even if it’s at her expense. I promise this is the last time I do something like this.”
I have to Google how to use the drugs, and by now I’m so desperate I’ve almost completely forgotten that this was originally just a means to an end. Getting the syringe in my arm is now the end, the beginning, and everything in between.
Three-quarters of my little baggy seems like it will be enough, but I have no idea. It measures out to about 450mg on my scale. There’s a rush of euphoria as soon as I press the plunger on my syringe and I lie back onto my bed, not even bothering to loosen the belt around my arm or withdraw the needle from my skin.
My mind is completely blank. I expected relief, which I’ve gotten, but also clarity I now see was foolish. Forming a single thought is a chore and stringing two together is futile. My heartrate slows. My breathing slows. The world around me drifts to darkness, which I unwisely take as a sign that things are going well.
I’ll nap this off, and when I reawaken I’ll be ready to pursue all the options at my disposal, which I’m sure I’ll remember the finer details of by then. Somewhere in the back of my mind, Yvonne knows what’s happening before I do. There’s a ball of anxiety in the pit of my stomach, which quickly snowballs into outright terror. I try to move, but I cannot. My body is limp. My heart is too slow. My breathing is nearly stopped altogether.
Then I feel it. She rips through my subconscious into the space where Isabel resides with such a fury that it feels like my brain is breaking in two. It’s incomprehensible, or at least the words are. The scream isn’t. The scream will haunt me until the end of my days. How could I do this to someone trying to get clean? The last thing I feel are the tears welling in my eyes. Yvonne Gresham is dead.
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