Next morning was bright and freezing cold. Sunshine glinted off a fresh blanket of snow outside. The apartment was filled with the scent of Saturday morning French toast and freshly brewed coffee.
After brushing my teeth and pulling my hair into a messy knot at the top of my head, I trudged to the kitchen. “Morning, girls,” I greeted Sarah at the stove and Cat reading the morning paper at the counter.
Sarah rubbed at her swollen eyes, the broken capillaries looking particularly painful. “Morning.”
“What’s wrong with your face?” I asked her, grabbing a mug and filling it with dark liquid from the coffee carafe. I added a splash of vanilla cream.
“She left her contacts in for two whole days.” Cat sighed. “Even slept in them.”
“Ouch.” That was me before taking up the bar stool to Cat’s left. “Occupational hazard?”
Cat rattled a bottle of her wheat grass pills to cover her warning. “Shut. It.”
“Some of us don’t have the luxury of family money,” Sarah said in a defeated tone. She was a tiny brunette, not nearly five feet tall. When I’d first met her, two years ago, she’d been chubby and happy. Now, because of the cocaine, she was haggard and irritable. I wasn’t sure if the coke led to her current profession of being an exotic stripper, or vice versa. Either way, there was little excuse.
“Yeah,” I replied with mock empathy and a lazy shrug. “We all have our struggles. You don’t have family money, I don’t have genital warts...”
“I don’t have sex with anyone,” Sarah defended, feebly.
“Aaaah,” I said. “So, you’re practically a nun.”
“Laura, that’s enough,” Cat told me.
I tried to look confused. “What?”
“It’s so easy for you to point out everyone else’s flaws from your golden pedestal!” She lectured. “Just wait until you have one bad day and there’s nobody around to give a shit!”
“Guys...” Sarah begged as she passed out plates of thick French toast she’d sprinkled with powdered sugar. There were even slices of orange coiling fresh sprigs of parsley. She mumbled something about having a headache and not wanting us to fight as she left the kitchen without eating.
“What is wrong with you?” Cat asked me. She was scowling and pouring syrup.
“Me?” I turned to face her. “What’s wrong with you? You call yourself her friend, and you don’t even have the guts to tell her the truth about her life. She’s destroying herself in every possible way!”
“Berating her isn’t helping.”
“Babying her isn’t helping either,” I returned. “She needs to wake up.”
“She will.” Cat sounded so sure. “She just needs time.”
I took a long drink of my now-tepid coffee. “How much time does she have left? She’s not eating or sleeping much. She stays up all night. She’s strung out and unhappy,” I added, thinking how she’d given up on her dream of being a chef. “And she won’t listen to me.”
“Gee, I wonder why,” Catrina offered with a roll of her eyes.
“Yeah, I do wonder why. I’m the only one who’s honest with her.”
“Seriously?” Cat swallowed her bite and sighed. “You’re awfully judge-mental for someone who’s never had a struggle.”
“I am not judge-mental. I’m a realist. And I’ve had struggles!” Like when Smith called me Heals Later, and I had to NOT hire someone to hunt him down and smash his computer.
“Look, you’re my best friend, Laura, but you’ve had a free ride your whole life! You’ve never experienced a single moment of desperation. So it’s real easy for you to be a realist.”
She was right. I avoided eye-contact and drank the last of my coffee instead.
Cat sighed, pushed her black glasses up her nose with one long finger, and turned a crisp page of the paper. I had to admire how elegantly she pulled off the traditional gothic look. “I realized when all of this,” she waved at the room, “started, that I had two choices. I could push her and push her to change until I eventually pushed her away. Or, I could wait patiently for her to ask for my help.”
“That sounds so poignant now.” I slid from my seat, feeling the tingling in my heels as they hit the wood floor. “But you’ll think differently when it’s too late. She needs an intervention.”
Cat snorted laughter. “Are you the pot or the kettle?” she asked me.
“Whatever.” I headed to my computer, not admitting I had a clue what she was talking about.
Saturdays were usually very peaceful. Catrina worked a half day at the clinic as a veterinary assistant, and Sarah slept all the way until she had to get ready for work. It was a pretty messed up situation when the one roommate who didn’t work for the man was the one paying the rent on time.
I staved off the urge to get on the game, made a quick phone call to my widowed father, and turned on the electric fireplace before doing a little yoga. I even pulled out my pink laptop and wrote a couple of humorous poems about animals and drug use - poems that would never be published as long as I refused to admit what I really wanted to do with my life. Writing often involved rejection, and we all know how well I handle that...
By four o’clock, with the sound of Sarah snoring from the next room, I found myself at my desk, scrolling through the list of servers. Without thinking, I clicked Winterhoof and watched my level one character appear on the login screen. She was certainly ugly, now that I had the time to take in the fact that she was missing the lower part of her jaw and most of her hair. Why people chose the undead class was beyond me.
My mouse wavered between two buttons. One said ‘enter world’, the other said ‘delete’. I should just eliminate Healslater2, I thought to myself. I would never log onto her again anyhow… I didn’t need to re-open that box of worms. Then again, what if Smith mailed me back? And if so, did I want to read it?
Curiosity won, and I hit enter instead of delete. Then I sat on the edge of my seat and watched the little green line fill up from left to right. At one point, I was certain it was stuck, that I’d never get this over with. But finally, my ugly character was standing, or hunching rather, just where I’d left her.
At the top of the screen, next to a mini map of the surrounding areas, a little envelope beckoned.
I had mail.
Just then Sarah’s socked feet trod down the hallway. She poked her face into my room. “Hey, I have something for you.”
My chair arched away from a very pressing issue. Had he written me back? Or was the letter from a game administrator. If Smith had put in a complaint about me, my account might get suspended.
Hurried, I asked, “What’s up?”
Sarah cleared her throat. After this many hours without her drug of choice, her face was showing actual signs of life. Her cheeks were pink again; her eyes were brighter but still lacked the glow of vibrant health.
“Rent.” She tossed a stack of fives, tens, and ones on my bed. It was about three inches thick.
“Oh.” I hadn’t really expected to be paid. Not with her addiction having worsened lately. “I didn’t…”
“I know what you think of me, okay? I know you think I’m a flake.”
I pulled in a deep breath of air. “I just don’t like what you’re doing to yourself.”
“You think I’m selfish.”
“Aren’t you?” I asked. “Look, it doesn’t matter. And I don’t need the money. Why don’t you put it in an account, so you can go back to culinary school?”
She scoffed at me, turning toward the door. “Right.”
“I’m serious.” Before she could leave, I scooped up the cash and flipped through it.
“I don’t want your charity,” she seethed.
“It’s not charity. I’m just trying to help out a friend.” I almost choked a little on that last word as Sarah and I had never actually been friends. We’d only ever put up with each other (and barely), for Catrina’s sanity. “Just take your rent each month, and put it into an account. When you have enough, you can quit that demeaning job of yours and finish school.”
Sarah crossed her spindly arms over a non-existent chest. She narrowed her eyes, suspicious of my true motivations. “Real-ly?”
“Really, but there’s one catch.” I drive a hard bargain. Something I learned from my high executive, no bullshit father. I used to get sent home from school for trying to use rhetoric against my teachers. All of them, from kindergarten up.
“And what’s that?”
“No more coke. Not at work. Not after work.”
For a minute, she looked to be seriously considering my offer. But then a shadow crossed her features and the wan smile that nearly reminded me of her old happy self was gone. “No, thanks.”
I rolled my eyes. “Fine.” And in a moment of hostility (remember my little anger management problem?), I tossed the stack of money into the trash. “Just throw it all away, then.”
I meant her life.