Miranda's Dance

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Chapter Fourteen

All right, I need to get to work on this plan to get a letter to Charlie. I know it sounds like the easiest thing in the world to you, but out here, it’s a major undertaking. It’s not like I can go home and grab a pen and paper and start writing. I don’t have either of those things. And then I need to find a way to guarantee it gets to him. That might be even harder than finding something to write with. Yeah, that’s the world we live in. Can you believe such a world even exists in this day and age?

Oh, here’s a place I’ve got to check out before I check out. Hey, that was pretty funny, wasn’t it? Check it out before I check out? Aren’t I clever? Anyway, it’s right over there. It’s that old apartment building at the end of Prichard Street that looks like it’s about to collapse. This was a real landmark from my junkie career. When I first got hooked on dope, that’s where I’d go to slam. I was so fucking naïve back then that I was afraid that someone would see me when I hit. As if anyone out here would give a flying fuck! Anyway, the place is a goddamned pit. There were actually a couple of people still living in there when I first got here. By that, I mean they were renting rooms. I wouldn’t call it living. You’d be better off living in a shack in some Third World hellhole. But I liked it because it still had electricity back then. It didn’t have many light bulbs, but I knew enough at the time to steal them from bathrooms and shit and bring them with me. There was something about being able to sit in a lighted room that gave me a sense of relief. Of course, once you turned a light on, you could see what a fucking shithole it really was. And boy, was it ever a shithole! It took months for the city to chase the last tenants out, and the place was already half-destroyed by then. They put a big sign on the front door that said the place was declared uninhabitable. That’s putting it mildly. It’s ten times worse now. It’s still a big junkie hangout, but I stay away from it. It’s just too dangerous. It was even back then. Charlie hit the roof when he found out I was going in there. He told me places like that are fucking death traps and they’re even worse for a woman. Women get dragged into those places and raped all the time out here. It turns out this one is pretty famous for that. It’s famous for a lot of other shit, too. It’s so dangerous that even the cops won’t go in there unless they absolutely have to. Well, except for the crazy ones like Hoekstra. Loomis told me a few cops got seriously fucked up in there. One of them fell through the floor on the third story. It just gave way underneath him. He smashed into the second-story floor and broke his leg. A couple of cops got cut up pretty bad when they walked in on a bunch of junkies unannounced and didn’t see them until it was too late. The junkies got shot. So why the fuck am I going to go in there now? Because it’s the last night of my life and I’m trying to make sense of all of this shit, remember? For better or worse, this place was pretty important to me once. It’s part of what made me what I am. I need to see it one more time. I think that’s the only way I can leave it behind. Besides, I promised you the grand tour, didn’t I? Out here, this place counts as a “must see” attraction.

You can’t get in through the front anymore. The front of the place is all boarded up. Actually, the whole fucking place is boarded up. But I know how to get in. The back windows will be open. I don’t need to see them to know that. Junkies kick out the boards on the back windows five minutes after the city puts them up. The city puts them up and the junkies kick them out and the city puts them up again and the junkies kick them out again. You get the picture. God, I hate climbing through windows, though. You never know what’s waiting for you just inside. I’ll bet you I don’t get ten feet inside before I run into somebody. That’s OK. I’ve got my knife. And I’m not the naïve little shit who used to slam there because she was afraid someone on skid row would see her. How’s that old saying go? You’ve come a long way, baby.

“Hey! Who’s that? Who’s there?”

See? No sooner do I get through the fucking window! At least it’s only one voice.

“Relax. I’m not the cops.”

That should have been obvious. Cops would have lit the place up with a flashlight before they climbed in.

“Who are you?”

“I’m a bitch with a knife! Get any closer and I’ll cut your fucking balls off!”

I’m not being rude. That’s how you say “hello” in a place like this. One guy. He’s skinny. He looks like I could take him with one hand tied behind my back. Good. My luck’s improving.

“I said get back! You make one move and I’ll slit your fucking throat!”

“No, it’s cool, lady! It’s cool! I ain’t gonna mess with you.”

Yeah, you got that right, asshole! I just need to make sure he’s alone.

“Move over by the window where I can see you. Nice and slow!”

I’ve never seen him before. He’s a white guy. He’s young. Younger than me. A lot younger. He looks like a new one. He probably hasn’t been out here very long. He’s shaking like a fucking leaf. Christ, he’s me, back when I first got here!

“What do you want, lady?”

“I want you to stay where I can see you. And keep your hands where I can see them.”

“No problem. I ain’t gonna do nothin’. Hey, are you here to slam?”

“Not tonight. Who else is here?”

“Just me.”

Rule number one in this situation: never, ever believe what some junkie tells you. Not in a place like this.

“Just you?”

“Just me. That’s why I came here. I wanted be alone.”

I know the feeling, pal. Christ, he really is me!

“Sorry to ruin it for you. Don’t worry. I’m just passing through.”

“No, it’s all right! Really! Hey, I’ve seen you around. Your name’s uh, it’s uh, Mandy? Something like that?”

“Close. It’s Miranda, actually.”

“Yeah, right! Miranda! Yeah, some guys over at the mission told me about you. I saw you there a couple of times.”

“And you just happened to pick me out of a crowd?”

“Well, there aren’t many girls out here, you know. I was watching you.”

Girl? People call me “girl” all the time, but no one calls me a girl. I’m either “woman” or “bitch” or something like that. This guy thinks I’m a girl, like what he knew back in the normal world? Jesus, should I be flattered or worried? No, he’s fucking harmless. Too bad for him. Out here at night, that’s going to be his undoing.

“Hey, you got any works? I got some stuff, but I don’t got any works. I was looking around in here…you know, thought I might find some.”

“Sorry. I don’t have shit.”

“Damn, I was hoping you did.”

“Don’t worry. There’s plenty of spikes around here. I just don’t know how you’re going to see them.”

“Yeah, there’s no lights. Oh, hey! I found some candles over here. But I don’t got any matches. You got any matches?”

“Yeah, I got matches. Hold up one of those candles.”

Matches are very useful things to have out here. Matches and lighters. Hey, what’s a primitive existence without fire? Anyway, if you come across a book of matches out here, you grab it.

“Here, light this one. Oh, shit!

Damn! I should’ve warned him to watch his step in here. There’s all kinds of shit you can trip over and break your neck on. But if you live long enough to say “oh, shit” when it happens, then you’re probably OK.

“Are you OK?”

“Yeah! Damn, that hurt!”

“Watch yourself in here. This place can fuck you up.”

“You know this place?”

“Yeah, for a long time, now. I usually stay the hell away from it. You should, too.”

“God, I’m so fucking stupid! I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing out here!”

“Don’t feel bad. Neither does anyone else.”

“No, I mean I don’t know what I’m doing! I don’t know what to do, where to go, I don’t know a fucking thing! I ask someone a question and he fucking kicks the crap out of me! Fuck! Everything scares the shit out of me!”

Oh, he’s new, all right! He’s a fucking babe in the woods!

“Congratulations. You just learned the most important lesson.”

“What lesson?”

“Be afraid of everything and everyone, every minute of every day. Every fucking thing out there can hurt you. It will hurt you if you let it. People out here are assholes. Don’t trust any of them.”

“Not even you?”

“Especially me.”

That one seems to have thrown him for a loop. But it’s true.

“Look, I’m sorry, lady. I know I must seem like a stupid motherfucker, being so scared and all.”

“Didn’t you hear me? Being afraid is smart. It’s what keeps you alive. That’s lesson number two.”

“Got it. Lesson number two. Here’s the candles.”

Votive candles. Someone must have stolen them from the church. That’s great, isn’t it? Stealing fucking candles from a church. Oh, well. The Lord did say “Let there be light.” Of course, he also said “Thou shalt not steal.” Contradictions.

“Hold still. I don’t want to set your hand on fire.”

“Sorry. I can’t help it.”

This poor guy’s shaking so badly, he can’t hold a fucking candle still. Actually, I’m glad he found these things. I’d hate to try wandering through here in the dark. At least now we can see.

“Find a rag or something to wrap it with. You don’t want the wax spilling on your hand. It hurts like shit.”

“Oh, yeah. Right.”

“And check the rag first. Make sure there isn’t any shit on it. People use them to wipe their ass in here.”

Hey, he wanted to learn about this place, right? Consider this a crash course.

“I got one. Is this good?”

“Is there any shit on it?”

“No.”

“Then it’ll do. OK, take this candle and give me that other one.”

“What are you doing? Are you carving it?”

“I’m stripping the wick. You cut the wax away from it to make the wick longer. The longer the wick; the bigger the flame. You can see better.”

“Damn, that’s pretty good. You really know a lot of shit.”

“You’d be amazed what you learn out here.”

“I’m just glad you’re here. I’ve been tripping over all kinds of shit. I couldn’t see a damned thing.”

“Yeah, well, be careful where you step. There are a lot of holes in the floor. If you’re not careful, you’ll end up in the basement.”

“Seriously?”

“Oh, yeah. And like I said, people shit in here all the time.”

“Oh, God! I know! I can smell it! What the fuck’s up with that?”

Jesus, this guy is seriously green! Where the hell has he been shitting since he got here? I probably don’t want to know. No, make that “I definitely don’t want to know.” I don’t want to die with that picture in my head.

“Stay here.”

“Where are you going?”

“I’m going to take a look around.”

“Let me go with you.”

“You’re better off staying here.”

“Come on! This place is scaring the shit out of me!”

“So why do you want to go looking around? It doesn’t get any better.”

“I don’t. I just want to hang with you.”

I was right. He’s just like me when I got here. Scared to death of everybody but even more afraid of being alone. One of a million no-win situations you run into out here. Christ, this place is going to eat this kid alive. I ought to do him a favor and just kill him right now. I’d be sparing him a load of misery and the result would be the same.

“OK. Just keep your voice down and your eyes open. We’re probably not the only ones in here.”

“Yeah, right. I can do that.”

“And watch your back.”

“Got it.”

“While you’re at it, watch mine, too.”

I know the layout of this place. This room is at the far end of the hallway. It’s a straight shot through the door. The apartments are tiny. The rooms are almost as small as my shoebox at the SRO. The doors are offset so they don’t face each other. I’m sure they’ve all been kicked in by now. Take it slow and clear each room as you go. Be ready for anything. Always expect the unexpected. That’s how you move around in these places at night. Charlie taught me that.

You know, it occurs to me that I don’t even know this guy’s name. I guess I should find out, seeing as we’re wandering through this death trap together.

“What’s your name?”

“Huh?”

“I said, what’s your name?”

“Oh, Danny. Danny...”

“Don’t tell me any more. I don’t want to know your last name, Danny. No one wants to know it, except for the cops. You just keep that to yourself. That’s the way it works out here.”

“How come?”

“The less people know about you; the easier it is to fuck you over. We’ll call that lesson number three.”

“OK. I got it.”

“And keep your voice down. We don’t want to be heard. We want to hear them first.”

“OK, sorry.”

What the hell is he looking at? Oh, Christ! Can you believe it?

“Hey, Danny?”

“Yeah?”

“I said watch my back. Not my ass.”

“Sorry.”

How could he even see my ass under this coat? At least he listens. Shit, maybe he can learn, too? He might actually last a week or two.

“Hey, Miranda? Do you think there’s other people in here?”

“I’m sure of it. There’s always someone in here. Especially now that it’s getting cold. And the cops are going crazy tonight. There’s someone in here. Keep your eyes open.”

Always remember: when you’re in an abandoned building, you walk slowly through the halls and try to make as little noise as possible. That’s not just to avoid being ambushed. No, Junkies and psychos don’t respond well to being startled, so you don’t want to surprise anyone. That ends badly. I don’t want to get into a knock-down/drag-out in this place. I get the distinct impression that Danny wouldn’t be of much help in a fight. He probably doesn’t even have a knife.

“Danny, check each room before you pass it. Make sure no one’s in there waiting to jump you. And for God’s sake, don’t startle anyone.”

“OK, what should I do?”

“You do it just like the cops. When you come to a door, you stop, listen, and then look inside. You take it nice and slow. And don’t ever run in one of these places unless you’re being chased. You’ll freak everyone out. That’s a good way to get a knife in your gut.”

God, the smell in here is enough to make you puke! Coming from someone who’s lived on the street for years, that’s saying a lot. It’s like every vile-smelling thing in the world is in here: piss, shit, vomit, mildew, and God only knows what else. I guess it’s like the cologne of the streets. Eau de Skid Row. Not that anyone would ever want to wear it.

“Miranda? Do you see anything?”

Remind me to tell this kid that seeing isn’t everything out here. Shit you don’t see is just as lethal as the shit you do.

“Yeah. I can hear them, too.”

“What is it?”

“People. In that room. See for yourself.”

“In here? Are you…shit! I didn’t even know they were here!”

“Yeah? Well, I’ll bet they knew you were in here.”

Typical. Just like I thought: some of the rooms have people squatting in them. Hey, you know what they say: never let a good shithole go to waste. Well, that’s what we say. I see three…no, four people in there. Fortunately, it looks like most of them are passed out or asleep. Good. I’m not looking for a fight tonight. This place has a bad vibe. That’s to be expected. The light in the room is really weird. Candlelight. Yeah, that figures. People in here are always burning candles. Hey, it’s what we’ve got. Unlike the cops, we don’t have flashlights. If you want to see and there’s no electricity, you need candles. Even if you have to steal them from a church. Shit! What the fuck is Danny doing?

“Hey! Stay behind me!”

“Jesus! There’s a bunch of them!”

“Yeah, well, welcome to skid row. If there’s an empty building out here, it’s going to be full of people. They’ll be all over the place. Most of the time, you won’t see them until they’re right on top of you. Remember that. It might save your ass someday.”

“I will.”

“Hey, I fucking mean it! If you want to make it out here, you need to know this shit!”

“OK, I’ll try.”

Jesus! Talk about a babe in the fucking woods! Doesn’t this guy know anything?

“How long have you been on the street?”

“Shit, I don’t know. I think, maybe four weeks now. Something like that. I kind of lost track. I know it sounds stupid.”

“No, it doesn’t. That’s what happens out here. You lose track of time. You lose track of a lot of things.”

“Yeah. I never thought I’d end up like this.”

“No one ever does.”

“So, uh, how long you been out here?”

“Almost seven years now.”

“No way! Seven years?”

“Almost. Give or take, I suppose. I lose track of time, too.”

“You don’t look it. Damn, you don’t look like you’ve been out here a week.”

“Why? Because my hair’s clean and I don’t stink like shit?”

“Well, yeah. But not just that. You’re pretty, too. Really pretty. Hell, you’re the prettiest girl I’ve seen since I don’t know when.”

Is he fucking serious? Christ, this poor kid must be worse off than I thought. Maybe he’s just trying to flirt with me? He probably hasn’t gotten fucked in a while. Maybe he thinks I’ll fuck him if he’s nice to me? If this was any other night, I might. He could probably use a good fucking. Both of us could. But getting fucked isn’t on my list of things to do tonight.

“Thanks. I guess I look better in the dark.”

“No, I mean it. You look really nice. Not like the other people I’ve seen out here. I like your hair.”

“That’s because I wash it. Most people don’t.”

“How do you wash your hair out here?”

“You mean if you can’t rip off a bottle of shampoo from a bodega? Easy. Get a bar of soap from a bathroom or steal one. Stick your head under a spigot in an alley and there you go.”

“Good to know. You know, you look really good.”

Jesus! This guy is fucking pathetic! I’ve heard smoother lines from would-be rapists. But I guess I shouldn’t be so hard on him. Give it a month and he’ll be a mean fucking asshole. That’s all it takes.

“Thanks. I appreciate the thought. The truth is, I haven’t looked good for a long fucking time. It wasn’t too long ago I looked just like everyone else out here.”

“What happened?”

“I got a room at an SRO thanks to Social Services. A roof over your head and the occasional shower makes a world of difference.”

“What’s an SRO?”

“Single room occupancy. It’s sort of a cheap-assed hotel room that the state pays for.”

“How’d you swing that?”

“It’s a long story. Let’s just say I got lucky.”

“I wish I was lucky like that.”

Yeah, don’t we all. OK, we’re almost at the end of the hall. Jesus! Look at that! The whole fucking staircase is gone! It’s been completely ripped out! I don’t remember that happening. It must be something recent.

“Well, I guess we won’t be going upstairs.”

“Damn! Look at that shit! What the fuck happened?”

“I don’t know. The city probably did it when they boarded the place up.”

“Seriously? How come?”

“Security. They do it to keep people from getting upstairs. They think it’ll discourage them from squatting in this fucking dump. As if that’s ever going to happen.”

“You mean there’s more people up there?”

“Probably.”

“How’d they get up there?”

“Same as everyone else. You climb up the wreckage. I’ve done it a few times. Not here, but in other places. They’re all pretty much the same.”

“This shit is beyond belief!”

“Now you’re getting the hang of it.”

He’s getting a hell of an education tonight. Well, better from me than the hard way. There’s one more room on the left. This one’s bigger than the others. I remember that. I always check behind the door, or where the door used to be. That’s where people usually hide when they want to catch you by surprise. The doorway is the most dangerous place for an ambush. Believe it or not, I learned that one from the cops. So let’s see what we’ve got in here. I can see someone…oh, mother fuck!

“Oh, shit!

“What is it?”

“Over there! Look!”

“Holy shit!

Holy shit is right! It’s a body. A dead body. Over by the window. I wish I could say I was surprised. Even in this light, I can see he’s covered in blood. That’s no death by natural causes. Not by a long shot. Someone killed this motherfucker.

“Is he dead? Miranda? Is he…”

“Sure looks like it.”

“What do we do?”

Is he fucking serious? Does he think we’re going to call the police? God, I hate the new ones! Fucking ignorant motherfuckers!

“We don’t do anything. There’s nothing to do. Hey, don’t touch anything. Don’t get your fingerprints anywhere. And don’t step in the blood. You don’t want the cops to know you were here. Just watch the hall. Make sure nobody comes in behind us.”

“What are you going to do?”

“Check him out.”

“For what?”

“Anything I can use.”

I guess looting a dead body isn’t something he’s prepared for. Then again, who is? At least it isn’t somebody I know. He’s a white guy; maybe thirty-five. He looks like he was a real hardcase. Probably an ex-con. Oh, yeah, this guy’s fucking done for! He’s got a few rips in his t-shirt at the top of his chest. I know what those are: knife wounds. I’ve seen plenty of them. They stabbed the living shit out of him. Shit, they slit his throat, too. Whoever did it cut him from ear to ear. I guess they wanted to be sure he was dead. Damn! They fucked him up good! I can see the fat and the tendons and shit. That wound’s deep; all the way through the windpipe. Christ, another two inches or so and it would’ve taken the guy’s head off! Whoever did this was one serious motherfucker!

“Yeah, he’s dead, all right. They really did a number on him.”

“Jesus! What the fuck happened?”

Is he kidding? I think the blood and the knife wounds answer that one.

“Uh, someone killed him. That’s what happened.”

“Why?”

“Who knows? He probably pissed someone off.”

“Are you sure he dead?”

“Are you kidding me? He’s beyond dead. This is fucking overkill.”

“Fuck! Look at all that blood!”

“I see it. Remember what I said: don’t step in it. If the cops see blood on your shoes, you’re fucked.”

“Why would someone do this?”

Oh, he has got to be fucking kidding me!

“What makes you think they needed a reason?”

“Huh?”

“Danny, you don’t need a reason to kill someone out her. You just do it for the hell of it. It happens all the time. Make sure it doesn’t happen to you.”

“Do you know who he is?”

“Nope. He’s pretty fresh, though. The blood hasn’t dried, and he doesn’t stink yet.”

“What do you mean?”

“Nothing stinks worse than a dead body when it starts to rot. Once you smell it, you never forget it.”

“I never saw a dead body before.”

“And now you have. Welcome to skid row.”

“You’ve seen this shit before?
“More times than I care to remember.”

Young Danny looks really scared. I’d be scared, too – if I hadn’t been through it about a thousand times already. The first time’s always the worst. I guess I should cut him some slack. I totally lost it the first time I saw a dead body out here.

“Hey, should we call the cops?”

“Are you fucking kidding?”

“But he’s…”

“Hey! You need to think if you’re going to make it out here! Do you want to spend a week in jail while they try to figure out whether we did it? Because that’s what’ll happen if we call the cops! Fuck him! Just leave him be. There’s nothing we can do for him now.”

“So what do we do?”

“Not a damned thing.”

Honestly, what do you do when you come across a guy who’s had his throat cut? There’s a question you don’t run into in the real world. It’s not a question my parents ever faced, that’s for fucking sure. Well, first things first. When you find a dead body out here, the first thing you do is look through his clothes for anything useful. There’s nothing in his pockets. Jesus! Nice going, Miranda! Roll a fucking dead guy on your last night on earth! Yeah, God’s going to love that when you see him!

“Christ, Miranda! What are you doing?”

“I’m looking for shit.”

“Looking for shit?”

“If you’re going to live on the street, then you have to learn how to scavenge. Whatever he’s got; he sure as hell doesn’t need it anymore. Maybe we can use it?”

Let’s see what we’ve got. Well, there’s a couple of syringes on the table. Four of them, in fact. Brand new. Courtesy of the do-gooders and the needle exchange program, no doubt. Grab them. They ought to hold Danny over for a while.

“Here. Here’s your spike. They’re new. You don’t have to clean them.”

“Thanks.”

Typical fucking new guy. He can’t take his eyes off of the dead motherfucker. It’s like his whole fucking world’s turned upside down. I guess it has. I should try to remember what it was like. He’s new. I was new once.

“Get used to it, Danny. You’ll see plenty of this shit out here.”

“Are you kidding me? Fuck this shit! Fuck all this goddamned shit!”

“Exactly.”

“Are we just going to leave him here?”

“Why not? What do you want to do with him?”

“I don’t know. I just…It just doesn’t seem right, you know? To just…leave him like that.”

“Fuck him. Nobody gave a shit about him when he was alive. Why should we give a shit about him now?”

And now he’s looking at me like I’m the most heartless bitch on the face of the earth. Well, why not? It’s the truth. And in a month, he’ll be just like me. That’s if he isn’t dead by then. Such is the lot of the people of the street. Just ask this asshole lying here.

“Is there something you want to say, Danny?”

“No, it just…”

“Just what?”

“That’s some cold shit. I mean, I’m not saying…”

“I know what you mean. That’s just how it is out here, Danny. Get used to it. Your life will be a lot easier once you do. Now, come on, let’s get the fuck out of here.”

Look at him. He’s frozen. He can’t let it go. Fuck! I don’t have time for this shit!

“Hey! Are you coming?”

Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Like a deer in the fucking headlights. He can’t move a muscle.

“Fine. Suit yourself. I’m out of here.”

“Hey! Where are you going?”

“I’m getting the fuck out of here; that’s where I’m going.”

“How?”

“The same way I came in: through the window. Are you coming or not?”

I guess the thought of staying in here with a corpse is enough to snap him out of it. Christ, he may end up killing himself before I do. Maybe he should? It would save him a lot of pain and misery.

Fortunately, going out is a hell of a lot quicker than coming in. I’m not worried about anyone hearing me on the way out. Everybody on the first floor already knows we’re here. Hell, maybe the whole fucking building knows we’re here. Who cares? I just want to get the fuck out of here before anyone else finds that corpse. They might start screaming; especially if they’re stoned. Junkies do that, you know. That could bring the cops in a hurry.

“Let’s go, Danny! Out the window!”

“Wait up!”

“Watch your hands on the window sill. There’s broken glass in there.”

“OK.”

“Hey, grab that rag over there!”

“Where?”

“Over there. On the floor.”

“Yeah, here you go. What are you gonna do with that?”

“Wipe our fingerprints from the windowsill.”

“Fingerprints?”

“I don’t want to leave any. You can’t be too careful.”

I don’t know about Danny, but my prints are on file. They can ID me. I don’t want the cops hanging a murder on me, even after I’m dead. They’d probably go find my parents and tell them I killed that asshole. There’s no way I’m going to let that happen. It’s bad enough they’ll eventually find out I ended up out here and killed myself. It’ll be devastating for them. But a murder? No fucking way. They’d never be able to handle that. Not in a million years. So it’s rub your fingerprints from the window sill time. A little water from a nearby puddle always helps complete the job.

“Will that work?”

“Probably. Soak the rag in a puddle, like this. Then scrub it down good. It’s not perfect, but you’ve got to do what you can.”

“Oh, yeah. That’s good thinking.”

“Toss those candles down the sewer at the end of the block. You don’t want to keep anything that was in there.”

“What about the spikes?”

“They’re not going to trace a fucking spike. But hey, you’re only going to use it once, right? Just dump it after you slam.”

“Dump it?”

“You can always get another one, Danny. They hand them out like fucking gumballs around here.”

“Yeah, right. Jesus, this is just too fucking much!”

“You’re right: it is. But get used to it. It isn’t going to get any better.”

“God, I can’t handle this shit!”

Now he’s really starting to piss me off! I don’t have time to listen to a newbie whine!

“You’d better fucking handle it! If you’re going to live out here, this is how it’s going to be! Now, remember what I said: When you get to the end of the block, you toss those fucking candles in the sewer!”

“OK, yeah. Hey, wait a minute! You’re not coming with me?”

“You’re on your own, Danny. Good luck. You’re going to need it.”

“Wait! Can’t I hang with you?”

“No. I’ve got things to do and I can’t have you tagging along.”

“But…I…I don’t…I don’t know anyone out here. Come on! I’m…I’m really fucking scared!”

“Yeah, you and everyone else.”

“Come on! I won’t cause you any trouble! I just…I just don’t want to be alone out here, that’s all. People fuck with me all the time! Shit, I got my ass kicked the first fucking day!”

“Yeah? Me, too. Welcome to the club.”

“But I didn’t even do anything! These guys just came up and started wailing on me!”

“That’s how it works. People out here don’t need a reason to fuck with you. They just do it. It’s the law of the jungle.”

“Look, I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing out here!”

Christ! Can you believe this shit? I can’t believe I’m actually starting to feel sorry for this guy! What the fuck is wrong with me tonight? Why should I give a shit about this asshole? Because he reminds me of me when I first got here, that’s why. I did exactly what he’s doing now. I tried to find someone decent to latch onto. That’s how I got my ass kicked a couple of dozen times. Thank God I found Charlie when I did. But I can’t be Danny’s Charlie. I’m done. I’ll be dead before the sun comes up. Still, I just can’t help feeling something for this guy. God damn it! What the fuck is wrong with me tonight?

“All right. Sit down. Just take it easy. Catch your breath. So tell me: how’d you end up on the street?”

“Huh?”

“I said, how’d you end up on the street? What happened to you?”

“I…I don’t…”

I guess I don’t really have to ask. It may be dark out here, but I can see the look on his face. The look of failure. The look of self-loathing. The look of someone who came from a nice, normal life and fucked everything up and ended up with no place else to go. I’ve seen it a million times. I see it every time I look in the mirror. That’s why I don’t like looking in mirrors. I’ve broken more than a few of them since I’ve been out here because of that.

“It’s OK, Danny. I’m not judging you. Christ, look at me. I’m no better than you are. So what happened? How did it all go to shit?”

“I don’t know. I fucked up. That’s pretty much it. I always fuck up. If there was a way to fuck something up, I did it. I never did a goddamned thing right in my life.”

“You and me both. So what happened? Was it the dope?”

“Pretty much, yeah. I started messing around with coke. Then I got into meth. The next thing I know, I’m shooting heroin. Just looking for something new and bam! I was a fucking junkie.”

“Believe me, I know. Most of us junkies do. Be careful what you wish for.”

“I thought I could handle it. I guess I was wrong.”

“You and me both.”

“Is that why you’re here? On account of dope?”

“No, it wasn’t the dope. The dope came later. I wound up here because I’m crazy.”

“Crazy? You mean like mental?”

“I’m afraid so. I didn’t start slamming until I wound up here. How’s that for crazy? But I know what you mean.”

“Seriously? You don’t look crazy to me.”

“Give it five minutes. You’ll change your mind.”

“You’re the smartest person I’ve met since I got here. I don’t think you’re crazy.”

“Smart and crazy aren’t mutually exclusive. I wish it was that simple.”

“I don’t know what to do. I mean, I can’t…I just can’t figure it out.”

I hope he doesn’t think I have any answers. I’m just praying to God that I find some before I kill myself tonight. Not all of them but a few, at least.

“That’s to be expected. Take it from me, Danny: you’ll never figure it out. So don’t try. Smarter people than us haven’t figured it out, and they’re not going to, so neither are we. It just is what it is.”

“Just like that?”

“Just like that.”

“But I’m fucking scared shitless! I can’t stand it! It never stops! I can’t stand being scared all the fucking time! I can’t get away from it!”

Well, he’s learned that much, at least. It’s usually the first thing you learn about being out on the street.

“No one can. And I’m afraid it doesn’t stop. Ever.”

“So what do I do?”

“You get the fuck out of here, Danny. Now.”

“And go where?”

“You go home.”

“I don’t have a home. That’s why I’m here, remember?”

“No, I mean go back where you came from. Go back to your family.”

That definitely wasn’t what he wanted to hear. I can relate.

“I can’t go back there! They don’t want anything to do with me! Can you blame them? Shit, look at me! I’m a fucking junkie!”

“So am I. So are a lot of people out here. You’re no different. We all fucked over everyone who ever gave a shit about us. We sure as hell fucked over ourselves, didn’t we?”

“You got that right.”

“But it doesn’t have to be that way. You’ve still got a chance. This place hasn’t gotten its hooks into you yet. You can still get out of here. It won’t be easy, but you can do it. But the trick is, you have to do it now. You can’t wait. Another week or two and you’ll be just another worthless piece of shit stuck here forever, just like everyone else. Assuming you’re still alive, that is.”

“I’m already a worthless piece of shit.”

“No, you’re not. You’re close, but you’re not there yet. Trust me, I know. You’d be amazed how far you can fall. This? This isn’t shit. Not yet. But you stay here long enough and before you know it, you’ll end up strung out, filthy and sleeping in your own piss and shit. You’ll be sucking someone’s dick just to keep even. You’ll get your ass kicked every fucking night. And that’s if you’re lucky. If you’re not lucky, someone will stick a fucking knife in your back just for the hell of it. You’ll end up like that asshole back in that room.”

“I know! I know!”

“Or maybe you’ll just end up in prison? It happens. Maybe you’ll get caught in a dope sweep? That happens, too. The cops are out in force tonight. They’re just looking for people to fuck with. You want to end up in the system? You want to get locked up? You want a fucking record that follows you everywhere for the rest of your fucking life? Then you’ll never get out of here.”

Oh, God! Now he’s crying! Nice going, Miranda. You made the guy cry. Aren’t you just the tough fucking bitch? What the hell is wrong with you? Did you forget what it was like to be new here?

“Look, I don’t mean to be a bitch. But I’m serious, Danny. You stay here and before you know it, you’ll be walking up and down these alleys and talking to yourself. You’ll start seeing shit that isn’t there. You’ll lose your fucking mind. You think this is bad? Try doing it while you’re fucking crazy. Then you’ll be just like me. Is that what you want?”

“No.”

Maybe he’s not as dumb as I thought? Let’s hope so.

“Then you’ve got to get out now. Now, Danny! While there’s still time.”

Yeah, I know, I know. Easier said than done. Look at him. He’s getting really anxious. Maybe I’m being too hard on him? No, there’s no such thing as being too hard out here. And hey, it’s not like I told him anything he doesn’t already know. Shit, I’ll bet it’s all he’s been thinking about since he got here.

“I don’t think I can. I don’t think I can do it.”

“Trust me, you can do it.”

“I can’t go back.”

“Yes, you can. Short of having killed somebody or raped somebody, you can go back. And you don’t strike me as the type of guy who could do those things. Go home, Danny. Go back to your family and beg them to take you back. I don’t care what it takes. Throw yourself at their fucking feet and beg for mercy if you have to, but do it. Whatever it takes; you do it now. Before it’s too late.”

Oh, shit! He’s got his arm pulled against his stomach. Remember what I said before about the junkie squeeze? There you go. He’s got it. It’s something junkies do when they really need a fix. I’ve done it plenty of times myself. The stress is probably just making it worse. Oh, shit! I didn’t even notice it! Yeah, he’s got the shakes, all right. He’s almost in withdrawal. He needs a taste fast or he’s going to be in a world of pain. Then he’ll be the perfect victim.

“Are you getting sick?”

“Starting to.”

“How bad are you in?”

“Bad enough.”

It usually comes back to that. It’s like I can read his mind. The poor guy just doesn’t think he can shake the dope. Maybe he’s right? It takes some serious shit to throw the monkey off of your back. I told you how I did it. I wouldn’t wish that shit on anybody.

“Look, you said you’ve got some stuff, right? OK, then do what you need to do. Trust me, I’ve been there. You need a boost? Fine. Go ahead and slam, crash for the night and as soon as daylight comes, get the hell out of here and swear to God you’ll never stick another needle in your arm as long as you live.”

“I wish it was that easy.”

“It is that easy. It took me a while to figure that out, but it’s true. You can do it. It’ll be hell, but you can do it. Seventy-two hours of hell on earth and you can have your life back. I mean, Christ! Look around you! Anything’s better than this shit! Is this what you want for the rest of your life?”

He looks like he’s going to lose it. He knows I’m right. It just scares the hell out of him, that’s all. Believe me, I can relate. I’ve been there and as usual, I made the wrong choice.

“Listen to me, Danny. I know what I’m talking about.”

“So how do I do it?”

“One step at a time.”

“One step at a time?”

“You start walking. You start walking out of here. That’s how you do it. Start walking and forget every fucking thing you ever saw or did out here and never, ever come back. Don’t ever tell anyone you were here. Just wipe this fucking place from your mind like it never happened. That’s how you do it. But you have to do it now. Now! Before it’s too late.”

Jesus, he’s really losing it now. Maybe I pushed him too far? He’s crying like a fucking baby. Most guys his age would rather die than cry in front of a woman, but a junkie has no shame. He’s scared to death. He’s more scared of going home than he was of that butchered body back there. Christ, what am I saying? A scared junkie? Is there any other kind?

“Hey, Miranda? Why don’t you come with me?”

“I can’t.”

“No, you can! It’ll be great. Just the two of us. We’ll both get out of here. I know where we can crash tonight. And tomorrow…”

“Forget it, Danny. I can’t go with you. I wish I could, but I can’t. All of those things I said would happen to you? Well, they happened to me. A lot of times. This place got its hooks into me and now I can’t just walk away from it. Not anymore. I don’t know if I ever could. It’s too late for me, OK? Don’t wait until it’s too late for you.”

That look on his face is half pleading and half sheer terror. I know it well. It’s graced my face more times than I care to remember. He really wants me to go with him. I guess he hoped he’d found a kindred spirit or something. Maybe he just wants a girlfriend. Come on, Miranda. See if you can force a smile for him. One last good deed before you die. It might smooth things over with God. You just rolled a dead body, remember? You’ve got enough explaining to do as it is.

“Trust me, you can do a lot better than me.”

“I’m not so sure about that.”

“I am. You’re not as bad as you think you are.”

“You’re not as bad as you think you are, Miranda. Shit, you’re the only person I’ve met out here who’s treated me decent.”

“Then that’s as good a time as any to get the fuck out of here. Go out on a high note.”

The poor guy is shaking like a leaf. He’s on the fence. I need to get him over it.

“Come on, Danny! Do it! Go! Go now!”

“Yeah, OK. I’ll do it.”

“You’d better. If I see you around here after tonight, I swear, I’ll kick the living shit out of you!”

Not that there’s any chance of that, but he doesn’t know it. God, if I told him what I’m planning to do, I’d never get rid of him. Or he’d insist on joining me.

“I’ll bet you would. But I promise. I’ll do it.”

“There you go. Now, remember what I said. You’re only going to get one shot. Don’t blow it, Danny. Believe me, you don’t know how lucky you are.”

“Yeah, well…I’ll take your word for it.”

“You do that. And don’t worry. You’ll see I’m right.”

“OK. Hey, Miranda?”

“Yeah?”

“Are you going to be OK?”

Now there’s a loaded question!

“Probably not. But don’t worry about me. You just leave it all behind. Every bit of it. Don’t take any of it with you.”

“Not even you?”

“Especially me. You take care of yourself, Danny. Remember: you owe it to everyone who didn’t have a chance to get out. We’re all counting on you. Don’t fucking blow it, OK?”

“I won’t. And thanks. I owe you. I won’t forget you.”

“That’s all any of us can ask for.”

I wanted to be remembered, and it looks like I will be. If he makes it out of here, he’ll never forget me. It’s nice to know I’ll be remembered by someone as more than just a crazy junkie. I guess I got my wish, huh?

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