The first time Denny had met Chris-R had been a surprise, to say the least. He was at the San Francisco Public Library in the Civic Center, studying, when he suddenly became aware that he was no longer studying, that his forehead was pressed into the book that he had been reading. With a start, he sprang up, hoping no one had seen him napping. His eyes immediately fell upon a man sitting across from him, glowering.
The man had no book, and despite the balmy weather that day, was wearing a thick woolen cap, pulled down to his eyebrows. His bare, muscular arms were crossed in a posture of disapproval. “You were sleeping,” he had told Denny, his voice brusque.
“I… I’m sorry,” Denny had stammered out, not sure why he was apologising.
The man slapped a hand onto the table between them and then raised it to reveal a small pink tablet. “You could use one of these,” he had said, sliding the pill across the table to sit next to Denny’s book.
“Uh, no thanks,” Denny declined, looking from the man to the tablet and back, but the man was already getting up.
“Just think about it,” he had said, disappearing between shelves of books.
Denny hadn’t meant to take the pill, but he couldn’t leave it on the table out in the open. What if a kid ate it? he wondered as he pocketed it. But exams were coming up and he kept falling asleep. And the pill didn’t look too different from a caffeine pill. What harm could one pill do?
Within days, Denny was skulking around the public library again, keeping an eye out for the man in the toque, fidgeting and biting his nails. It didn’t take long. In fact, it seemed as if the man had been waiting for Denny, materializing almost as soon as Denny arrived.
“You look like you’re looking for someone,” Chris-R growled as he approached.
“Yeah, you could say that,” Denny replied nervously. Lowering his voice into a whisper, he asked, “That pill you gave me… Can I get another?”
Chris-R let out a harsh, cruel laugh. “You can get as many as you want,” he said. “But you’re gonna have to pay for them.”
Swallowing, Denny shifted. “How much?”
“Five bucks a pill.”
Denny bit his lip as he dug his hands deep into his pockets, fingering the twenty dollar bill he was carrying. It was the last of his allowance from Johnny for this week. Without it, he would have to survive for the next three days on only the food left in his kitchen – half a loaf of bread, a few apples, a jar of peanut butter and a couple tiny frozen dinners.
Deciding he could make it, he yanked the twenty out of his pocket. “This is all I got,” he told Chris-R.
In a flash, Chris-R snatched the bill out of Denny’s hand, seconds before pressing four pink tablets, identical to the first one, into Denny’s palm. The transaction finished, he turned and began to stalk away.
“W-wait,” Denny called after him.
Chris-R’s back stiffened and he turned. Denny almost winced as he saw his face, twisted in a furious snarl. His breath seemed to come out in short growls as he stared at Denny.
“Can I get a couple more?” Denny pleaded. “I need this to last through finals.”
“Can you pay for them?”
“That twenty was all I had.”
Chris-R didn’t even respond. He simply turned and continued to walk away.
Denny had carefully partitioned out the pills, sometimes only taking a fraction of one at a time. Finals week went by in a blur, the only clear points for Denny his laser focus on the test materials. When he was finished, so were the pills, and that, he had assumed, was that.
The day after the last exam, Denny had found himself unable to get out of bed. Physically, he felt fine, but somehow it seemed as if the world was crushing him, telling him there was no way he could go on. Eventually he convinced himself to get up, pouring the last of the food in his fridge into his stomach. The food felt insubstantial, and Denny felt weightless, moving through his apartment like a ghost, surrounded by a thick mist that he could barely peer through.
He should have gone to school. He should have gone to find out his grades. Instead, he picked up the allowance Johnny had left for him on his kitchen counter and found himself drifting towards the library. It didn’t take long for Chris-R to find him.
“Another four?” the drug dealer asked, watching Denny hungrily.
“No,” Denny quickly said. “No, I’m just here to study.”
A smirk forming at the teenager’s hasty denial, too fast and too insistent to be honest. Five pills and the kid’s already hooked, he thought, and simply waited. All he needed to do now was let Denny talk himself into another sale.
“And I can’t afford it,” Denny added in protest against Chris-R’s silent argument. He bit his lip. “There’s no way I can afford it.”
To Chris-R’s surprise, Denny got up to leave, apparently having convinced himself he was done. The drug dealer’s mind raced, not wanting to lose a customer he had been so sure about. “You go to school, right?” Chris-R asked.
“Yeah,” Denny turned around, confusion etching his face.
Chris-R, bolstered by Denny’s hesitation, considered the possibilities. High schools were replete with potential sales, but they all remained inaccessible to him. His well-built frame and carefully-trimmed beard meant that he was pretty obviously not a high school student, and would be chased off campus the second he tried to enter. Denny though, Denny was supposed to be at school.
“You need money,” Chris-R pointed out, “So how about this: you take these,” he held out a small baggy with about five pills inside. “And you see if your friends are interested. If they are, you give me twenty-five bucks and keep whatever mark-up you can get away with. If not, give me the bag back. Alright?” he offered.
“It’s a private school,” Denny protested.
Private school. Full of rich kids. Chris-R could almost hug Denny. “That’s fine,” he growled.
Denny took the bag uncertainly. “I’m not sure my friends will want these,” he said, but he pocketed the pills regardless.
Johnny’s small white car pulled to a stop on one of San Francisco’s many hills, the lush greens and vibrant tropical colours behind the glowing neon Open sign drawing him in like a moth to a flame. His favourite part of the day was when he opened his front door and saw Lisa, waiting for him as always, and he took every opportunity he could to make her stunning smile just a bit wider, to make her perfect green eyes sparkle just a bit more, every time he came home. That image in mind, Johnny put the car into park and hopped out, quickly striding across the sidewalk and through the door into the jungle promised by the storefront.
Anniversary Flowers & Gifts had been a landmark in the neighbourhood for as long as almost anyone could remember. Its owner, a small, wizened dog that had never been seen to move from its perch on the countertop, was rumoured to have made its fortune in an astounding array of fantastical ways. Some said he’d found a thick vein of gold during the San Francisco gold rush. Some said he was a former beloved pet of the Romanovs, and had just barely escaped Russia with luggage full of the royal family’s heirlooms. Others supported the more reasonable and less exciting – and therefore most likely – conclusion that he had simply worked hard and invested his money wisely.
Wherever he had come from, the pug was close-lipped about it, often remaining completely silent when asked, or sometimes letting out a low growl if pressed. Customers would sometimes question his employees, thinking they had no particular reason to keep the dog’s secrets, but they had nothing to share. At best, those that had seen the deed to Anniversary Flowers & Gifts could confirm that the pug was, in fact, the rightful owner, but besides that, all they could say was that their pay cheques were always signed and on time.
The dog himself was a dedicated worker, and a fair, if firm boss. He was always the first to arrive in the store and the last to leave, always taking his customary position on the counter and watching his domain carefully. If a customer tried to take something without paying, he would know. If an employee tried to take a few extra minutes on their break, they would hear about it. From his heightened place on the counter, his rotund body, covered in fur growing white with age and looking ever more like a marshmallow, the pug surveyed his shop, ensuring everything ran smoothly.
The shop itself was a kaleidoscope of colours, with a rainbow of blossoms exploding from the vases that covered every available inch of surface area. Most of the containers were utilitarian, nothing more that vats made of black PVC, half filled with water before they were stuffed with flowers. Some, however, had been made to please the eye, and had been painted to appear gilded, and glistened in the afternoon light. Shelves of cards lined the walls, and a customer, a tall blonde woman, picked through them carefully, reading each one, looking for the perfect message.
She had been searching a long time, but then, this was a hard message to give to someone. An even harder message to receive. We express our condolences… She didn’t even finish, closing the card and slamming it back into its slot in disgust. Too robotic. Her hand hovered over the next sympathy card, wondering if it could possible contain the bottomless sorrow she felt.
Johnny strode confidently into the shop. “Hi,” he greeted the woman behind the counter.
“Can I help you?” she asked.
“Yeah, can I have a dozen red roses, please?” Johnny asked, flipping his dark sunglasses up onto his forehead.
“Oh, hi Johnny,” the cashier replied, recognizing his eyes, “I didn’t know it was you.” She retrieved a pre-prepared bouquet from beside the counter and passed it to Johnny. “Here you go.”
“That’s me! How much is it?”
“It’ll be eighteen dollars.”
“Here you go. Keep the change.” Johnny reached out and scratched the head of the flower shop’s proprietor. It blinked and nodded in acknowledgement. “Hi doggie.”
“You’re my favourite customer,” the cashier called out to Johnny’s retreating form.
“Thanks a lot,” Johnny said, leaving through the open door, holding the bouquet upside down. “Bye.”
Less than five seconds later, Johnny was in his car, joyfully driving home to see Lisa.