ONE - CHANDRA
Thirty-year-old Chandra Johnson would never forget her nightmare. Images of the graveyard flashed through her thoughts, gradually stealing away her desire of “getting high.” But that didn’t mean her craving for the drug had disappeared. Smelling the smoke and burning liquid in her presence, sometimes she’d slip up again. Her fellow associates wondered what her problem was; but lately, while living with them in the abandoned shack she felt like a foreigner in a strange land. What was she doing with herself? And why was she here? It wasn’t the typical place anyone expected to find a preacher’s kid, that’s for sure.
Dread and remorse weighed down her shoulders, watching the others dancing, talking, laughing, and getting their highs whichever way they chose, celebrating the evening. Tonight was Mario Valente’s thirty-first birthday, but there wasn’t a cake with candles. Neither were there wrapped presents anywhere. There was only the steady, ear-splitting thump of rap music from Bo’s boombox and the white, chalky substance everyone in the house knew all too well—cocaine.
If she could wind back the clock to her college days, she would. She never imagined a prescription could lead to her becoming a drug addict in a crack house. After all, she had it under control. But little did she know it was only the beginning of a downward spiral of her experimenting with harder drugs.
Chandra sat on the old, spring bed in the middle of the small, red-lit room, hugging her legs to her chest. She frowned and observed the commotion around her. What’s wrong with me? Why do I feel so different? Maybe it was her mother—that woman knew how to get a prayer through. After her bad dream, she remembered her mom’s voice calling her name. She didn’t know if she was hallucinating from her high, but it was so loud, like an echo in her ear, waking her out of her sleep. She hadn’t experience anything like it before. Others thought she was crazy or making it up, but she knew what she heard.
She leaned her forehead on her knee and released a slow breath. For the past six months, her family had been Mario, the group of homeless addicts, and Quincy “Bo” Jackson, the claimed owner of the place. She missed her parents and sisters, though she had never told them. Besides, what would it matter anyway? She had caused too much pain in their family for them to believe a word she said, sewing lies together into a quilt of theft, manipulation, and broken promises. Why would they believe her? How could they trust her again? And why in God’s name would they love her anymore?
“Come on, Andra! You’re missing all the fun!” one of the female addicts said.
Bo’s deep baritone filled the room. “Yeah, girl. Get with the program.” He snickered and took a drag from his Cuban cigar. Though he drank and smoked, he was the only one who didn’t abuse cocaine, but he did offer street addicts a home.
Chandra sighed wearily. “I don’t feel like it, guys. I think I’ll pass for tonight.” She raised her chin and straightened. Worry snaked through her as she looked at Mario. He was the young man she found lying facedown near rows of tombstones in her dream. Within her nightmare, she had turned over his body and discovered he was dead, only to walk a little distance ahead and likewise find herself.
Tonight Mario didn’t look too well.
He was sitting slumped over in a chair, resting his head aside on the desk table in front of him. His jet-black, curly, medium-length hair covered his face, and his olive skin was very pale, as white as his sleeveless T-shirt. He had a syringe in his limp, right hand, and his needle-etched left arm was laid out across the table. He was clearly out of it, and the others didn’t seem to care or notice.
Guilt ate up Chandra’s heart.
Mario was a bright, handsome guy and one of her closest friends who was on his way to becoming a doctor and the first college graduate of his Italian family. She had caused his downfall and staring at him in his condition made her nervous.
She licked her lips, her heart thumping in her chest. “Hey, Mario doesn’t look too good. Is he okay?”
Another one of the female addicts sucked her teeth. “Quit worrying. What is it with you?”
“Yeah,” Bo said, “he’s probably just asleep.”
Radar, one of the guy addicts, walked over and nudged Mario’s shoulder. “Yo, man, get up.”
Mario didn’t move.
Radar grabbed Mario and lifted him upright in his chair. “Get up, man.” He slapped a side of Mario’s pale face and shook him. “Aye, Chandra’s right. I think he overdosed.”
Chandra’s heart sank. Oh, no . . . please, don’t let it be true. Immediately, her nightmare came back to her and she imagined herself turning over Mario on the ground—seeing the look of lifelessness in his still face, as time suddenly seemed to slow down before her.
“Is he breathing?” Bo approached Mario and stood beside Radar.
Radar listened for his breath and shook his head. His face contorted with fear and devastation. “No, he’s unconscious. What are we gonna do?”
“Maybe we should call an ambulance,” Chandra suggested.
Bo and the others looked at her, their faces filled with shock and aversion.
“And risk having a possible drug bust? Are you crazy?” Bo said.
Chandra stood from the bed and rushed over to Mario. “Well, you gotta do something. We can’t just let him die here.”
“Andra’s right,” Radar said, panicking. “We gotta . . . we gotta do something.”
“Cool it, Radar! Look, we gotta get him outta here,” Bo said. “Help me get him up.”
Chandra looked from Radar to Bo with wonder. “Where are you taking him?”
“Outside across the street,” Bo sneered. “Somebody will find him. He’ll be fine.”
Disturbance wrinkled Chandra’s face. “You can’t do that.”
“Watch me!” Bo wrapped one of Mario’s muscular arms around his neck. “Help me, Radar.”
Radar whimpered and hesitated, staring at Chandra.
“Come on, man, or get out!” Bo urged.
Having no place else to live in the city, Radar helped Bo and took Mario’s other arm around his neck. The two men carried Mario’s body out the door, his legs dragging across the hardwood floor.
Chandra’s eyes welled up. It was just like her nightmare. She had to do something and get help for Mario before it was too late. If she didn’t, his father would blame her for his son’s death. Ever since they were undergraduates, he never liked her or her family very much. The Valentes weren’t religious, but were hardworking people dedicated to their Italian pizzeria family business on Green Acres Street for generations. That is, until Mario wanted to become a doctor instead of a restaurant owner. It was a hard pill for Mr. Valente to swallow, but he supported his children’s dreams in whatever they wanted to do and made the choice to give the business over to his nephew after he retired.
Chandra rubbed her arms and turned to the single window in the small room. Liquid worms squiggled down the cool, glass pane. It was a gloomy and drizzling Thursday night, and the wind blew strongly swaying the yellow traffic lights on the cable at the street corner. Fisherman Lane was a narrow street paved along the sidewalk of a row of small, single-floored trailer homes, which many were safe havens for addicts, like Bo’s place.
“Girl, you gonna get your butt kicked out talking like that to Bo,” one of the other female addicts said. She pursed her lips and glared at Chandra, flicking her pick comb through her thick, black hair. “You know you ain’t got nowhere else to go, and your Daddy sho’ nuff will be a fool to welcome you home.”
Chandra pinched the bridge of her nose. She lowered her head and sighed. Imani sure knew how to crush a girl’s self-esteem, but at the same time what she said held some harsh truth. She had been one cunning, deceptive daughter. A good-for-nothing junkie. Playing her older parents for fools, she had swindled money and possessions from them before they even knew what happened. Taking drama in college made her a class act. But they had grown tired of her excuses and eventually her father sent her away to fend for herself.
Her mother cried and begged her father not to do it, but deep inside Chandra knew she deserved it. Now she was a homeless drug addict, gradually killing herself and bringing about her own demise. It was a wild jungle outside on the streets and alleyways. It helped feeling good from using cocaine and having a roof over one’s head, even if it wasn’t suitable and one that didn’t belong to her. For months, she had been grateful to Bo and him having a soft spot for people like herself.
Thunder crackled and lighting skittered through the slate gray sky.
A few minutes later, Bo and Radar returned to the house, their clothes sprinkled with droplets after dropping Mario off.
Chandra immediately faced them. “Where did you put him?”
“What does it matter to you?” Bo said.
“Because he’s my friend,” Chandra answered.
Bo sat in the chair at the desk table. “I’m sure he’ll be fine. We left him behind the Post Office across the street. He’ll probably wake up and shake it off by morning.”
Anger roared through Chandra. “What kind of man are you? How can you leave him in the street like that?”
“Listen to Bo, and chill, girl,” Imani said.
Chandra shook her head and studied Bo. “I thought you said we were family. That we had one another’s back. You lied.”
“Yeah,” Bo said, “and I guess you did too, suggesting we call an ambulance. I don’t know what’s going on with you, Andra. You’ve changed. I can’t be havin’ some chick like you dissin’ me. You get your things and get out.”
“What?” Chandra wore a stunned expression.
Bo knitted his brows and stood from his chair. He looked down at her. “You heard me. Get out!”
Weakness filled Chandra’s eyes. “But . . . where am I supposed to go?”
“You figure that out,” Bo replied, holding out his hands. “Now get out!”
Chandra blinked and looked at the others who booed and frowned at her in agreement.
“I told you, girl,” Imani said, snickering. She scratched her head and walked off to a spot in a corner of the room.
Chandra opened the door of the desk and took out the only thing she had besides the clothes on her back—a black college diploma case. Imagine that. A college graduate of Frederick Douglass University with a Bachelor of Pharmaceutical Sciences who still couldn’t stand on her own feet. Shame and guilt were powerful emotions that led her to punish herself. Besides, what was she gonna do with it anyway? She still needed a Doctor of Pharmacy to reach her primary goal of becoming a licensed pharmacist. But her life had been so screwed up she was too scared and unmotivated to try to accomplish her dreams. What would her parents think if they knew how she earned her bachelor’s degree? Knowing her dishonesty, it made it harder to push forward, not to mention, considering how her bad habit began, working with pills and prescriptions wasn’t exactly the perfect job for the addict she had become.
Chandra stepped outside in the wet weather, hugging her case.
The door shut in her face, and the cool wind fluttered the hem of her peach day dress.
A chill rose up her spine. Wherever she went she needed to find shelter and fast. She tugged her chocolate-brown knitted sweater around her shoulders tighter and held her case in her other hand, wandering down the slick sidewalk. Night owls stood and roamed under the orange-tinted streetlight poles. Some of them waiting for customers, and others going shopping, eating out, or checking in the cinema to see the latest movies. Saint Vincent was a community neighborhood near Harlem in the borough of Manhattan, a small part of the five-piece puzzle that formed ‘The City That Never Sleeps’—New York City.
Chandra bit her nails and studied her dimly lit surroundings, overhearing the mumbles of dealers bidding her to come over and get their stuff. She hoped she wouldn’t run into Spade, her pusher. He was the last man she needed and wanted to see—the poisonous spider that had entangled her in a web of indiscipline and addiction she struggled to break loose from. Spade didn’t care about anyone, maybe not himself. All he cared about was his bling-bling and money.
He always looked at her with a smirk, sometimes dangling baggies of dope in her face. He knew she depended on him and he had power over her whole being. The thought of their toxic relationship sickened Chandra’s stomach, recalling the times he teased her, and she fell to her knees, sobbing and pleading for him to give her a dose. She was like a baby crying for a milk bottle to soothe her—so desperate and out of her character. But it didn’t start with Spade—it all started back in college with peer pressure and bad choices.
“Come on, now, girl. Come on and get some of this here,” a heavyset dealer bellowed.
Chandra paused and looked his way. Her dark brown eyes widened as she licked the rain from her lips, but though she was tempted, she had no money in her pockets. Maybe it was a good thing she didn’t—keeping her from killing herself that much more.
Rolls of thunder came from the distance and stole her attention. Mario. I have to find him. God, help me find him. She walked across the street to the parking lot of the red brick Post Office. There wasn’t a car in sight, but she found a man lying behind a big, green dumpster. It was Mario—it had to be him.
Chandra gasped and rushed over to his unconscious body. Like in her nightmare, she turned him over to see his face. There it was again—the look of a life long gone. His eyes were dilated and darkened, and his lips had discolored to blue. She sobbed and brushed his wet, dark tendrils from his face and kissed his forehead. I’m so sorry, Mario. Please, forgive me. She’d kept it secret and never told him, but she loved the man. He was a sweet person, a nice guy who just needed help. Together they could’ve had a better life than what they amounted to. They could’ve had successful careers, maybe had gotten married and started a family, but instead, they were two drug addicts who lost their meaning of life.
“Mario . . .” Chandra said weakly. “Mario, I’m here.” She knelt and listened for his breath, but heard nothing. She knew he was probably dead, but she couldn’t give up hope. Too much time had passed already—it was time to start CPR. She placed her diploma case aside.
“I love you, Mario. Please, come back to me, okay?” Chandra tilted Mario’s chin upward and panicked, surveying the street corner. “Hey! Somebody help!” She breathed in his mouth and began chest compressions, counting in her mind. She gave another breath and continued compressions again. “Please, somebody help!”
Cars and trucks rushed by down the street, splashing puddles of water on the sidewalk. It seemed nobody would stop to lend a hand, but then an African American, young man in a raincoat and driving a red 2005 Volvo stopped by the curb and climbed out of his car.
“Ma’am, what’s wrong?” the man walked toward her.
Chandra sniffled and choked on a sob. “It’s my best friend. He’s overdosed and needs help.”
“Alright, just stay calm. I’ll call 9-1-1.” The man took out his cell and dialed the number. He reported their location, answered a few questions, and hung up. “The ambulance is on its way.”
Chandra nodded in silence, holding Mario’s hand. She whimpered and looked heavenward. God, have mercy on Mario. Please, help him.
Sirens whined throughout the neighborhood and an ambulance with flashing lights zoomed up the street and stopped in front of the man’s vehicle. Paramedics leaped out of the truck and hurled over to the scene as Chandra moved out of the way. The two men placed Mario’s body on a stretcher with wheels and rolled him over to the truck, trying to revive him with an air mask and pump.
Chandra stifled a sob and held a hand to her mouth. Her tears blurred her vision of the white ambulance truck, as it sounded off its alarm and rushed down the street to the hospital. It could’ve been her on that stretcher. She would be next if she never admitted she had a problem and stayed committed to changing her ways.
She felt it in her gut.