(A story for Chuck Wendig’s Flash Fiction contest, based on a randomly selected title, first line, and last lines.)


Three days without sleep was the least of my worries. Charlene was out there, slouched in an alley or a flophouse, a needle dangling from a vein, and no one else cared enough to look for her. Harry hadn’t taken his Lithium and he was soaring like a condor on the heat of his mania. Momma called with her end-of-the-month rant about the disability check running out before she could stock the shop. And I was broke, but that was normal. I was used to being broke.

Her mouth felt more open than it had ever been, but no noise was coming out. She tried to laugh but it was just too dry. A little more sleep would get her back to normal. She wondered without caring if she had overdone it last night.

“Neptune’s rain, now, that’s something else entirely. Not like here. There’s almost more minerals than water in that rain. You gotta wear protective gear or you’ll get sliced up. Cuts like diamonds.” Little Harry flipped a hammer over his shoulder and caught it behind his back while he chanted.

“Harry, Harry, listen. I need you to do something,” I pleaded. Harry looked at me with coal-black eyes, unblinking. He was flipping a hammer and catching it behind his back, sweat dripping down his flat, hairless chest. He stopped when I spoke to him, looking at me with accusation and wariness. The hammer fell behind him; I was the only one who jumped at the noise. Neither of us cared about the dent in the worn wood floor.

“Can you make a plan for me, Harry, old man?”

Whatever had been flinging through Harry’s mind when I interrupted him was now a ghost trail out the broken window of our flat. “I’m your man,” he answered. He lifted his feet from the exact spots where they’d been rooted for the last forty-five minutes of hammer tossing and I heard the sticky release. His intensity was something you simply had to celebrate, since he wasn’t going to stop. He called it going “off-med”, like he had invented Esperanto. He said it was even more pure than never having taken lithium at all: “I rebound into even higher states of off-consciousness”. If I could implant a plan in his mind, I’d get him hooked on another, slightly less dangerous, frequency for a while.

“You know Aunt Dani, next door?” She wasn’t really our aunt; we called her Auntie because she was old. “She needs us to make her a dog house, because she’s going to get a dog. A big one,” I added, improvising. “The door needs to be…”

“Shut up! Don’t tell me! I’m gonna work it out. What kind of dog?” He picked up his phone, ready to research any breed I might mention.

“Either an akita or a wolfhound,” I answered, pulling the breeds out of a grab-bag of memories from an elementary school book report I’d done. “But of course she’ll be getting it as a puppy, and winter’s coming, so…”

“The doorway’ll have to have a gasket of some sort,” Harry said, mostly to himself. “One that can open up more as the dog gets bigger, without letting the cold air in. OH GOD I LOVE BIG DOGS!” he finished with a shout. While he cleared off his drafting table with a sweep of his long, sweaty arm, I grabbed my purse and told him I was going to source the materials, and that he shouldn’t leave till the plan was done. This last, I said as offhanded as I could, hoping against hope it’d stick in his fevered mind for the next few hours. Too much emphasis and he’d focus in on it, worrying it open, picking at the scab of my parting words until he had ripped them open and, I don’t know, went off looking for me. Too little emphasis, and he’d forget.

“My T-square!” he shouted, pulling up a rusty metal L from under the sheaves he’d recently slung to the ground. I rotated the doorknob quietly and slipped out to look for Charlene.

She tells herself it’ll be over quick, and she’ll get a hit for free afterwards. Easy enough. He always has the best in Seattle, which is saying something.

The rain was soft, lulling us all into false security, encouraging a hoodie instead of a rain jacket or umbrella. Charlene would be without, wherever she was. But that cut the list down: she would at least have tried to find cover, if only so she wouldn’t wake up with pneumonia. Nothing puts the hurt on your buzz like the fluorescents at a hospital while they pump you with antibiotics. I started at Geary Street.

“I just want to get her something to eat. I like knowing she’s okay, you know? You sure you haven’t seen her?” Getting a junkie to reveal something is like jumping between Jackie Chan and a bad guy, wearing only a bathing suit. There’s just no trust. And any second now the fists are gonna fly. I left Geary and headed for a house they called The Parlor.

The Parlor was a bit more upscale. It had couches and a chandelier, though covered with dust. It was comfortable, safe and dry; there were bathrooms with toilet paper, and the minifridge offered sealed water. Nigel, this English guy, ran the place and would give you a clean needle he got from the city. You could say he was looking out for the kids, or you could say he was taking advantage: when you watched him charge a cover you tended to believe the latter.

There were two kinds of kids there: the rich Bittersea kids who only partied once a month or so but wanted to do it someplace “nice,” and the ones who were willing to suck up to the rich kids for a high.

“Charlene? Yeah, she was here, last night. You know Melinda? They did a show for the cunts from Bittersea.” So he charged a cover. At least he was friendly and open with information.“Where’d they go? Were they with anybody?”

“Dunno mate. Nobody gave me an itinerary.” Also a bit of a smart-ass. I left without thanking or tipping Nigel, as he must have been hinting. I looked back after I left, wondering if he really did know something, if I should have been nicer, if I should have given him… what? I had exactly zero, except my debts. I hopped a fence to get to Hellsberg more quickly and shoved my hands in my pockets to get warmed back up. This hoodie was such a stupid choice: I was that kind of soaked-from-inside that wouldn’t go away till I’d had a hot shower. Yeah, I’ll get to that, sometime in 2019, I thought.

He took advantage, then took her hit. She was furious but there was nothing to be done. She’d have to find some at the Mint. It makes her sick to think of going back there, but…

My phone vibrated. The screen told me just what I didn’t want to hear: Harry had gone next door to ask Aunt Dani about the dog, and found out there wasn’t one. That made getting home more urgent – with Harry it was either the Lithium or monitoring 24/7. If I couldn’t watch him, I’d have to pick him up from jail.

I was right by Melvin’s junkyard so I risked the time to stop in and take care of the problem of Momma’s stock. I opened a chain link door to where my buddy Melvin was honor-bound to help me out.

“I was there for you… you gotta do this… I’ll owe you! It’s not like I won’t pay up!”
Melvin’s look was articulate: “You’ve never paid me anything,” said the look, and it was spot-on.

“But Momma needs stock for the store. You know what’ll happen if she doesn’t get it? There are five days left in the month!”

“It’ll happen to you, not me. That’s textbook ‘Not My Problem’.”

I had to resolve this, just this one thing, to be able to keep going on this impossible day. “Okay, I know what you want. I’ll get you six.”

“A baker’s dozen or just stay home.”

Melvin was crazy about Charlene’s Nuvigil, a drug used to treat narcolepsy that she only took when she was clean. And she wasn’t, so there were bound to be some in her cabinet back home. If I ever got caught with these, they’d send me to prison – these were powerful amphetamines with a street value over $50 a pill – but without them, I had no currency at all.

“Fine, but you have to pick them up. I’m on Harry duty. And – hey! – you have to drop off the stock with Momma, too.” Finally I might catch a break. If this one thing might go right today, I might just possibly not explode and leave my various whacked out family members to their own dangerous devices.

A picture of Charlene floated up in my head as I left Marvin’s place, not waiting for his half-assed attempt to negotiate more Nuvigils. I won the battle, but I had to get to Charlene, and suddenly I knew where she was.

The Mint did not fail her, in that she got a hit and didn’t have to do anything too perverse to get it. On the other hand, the hit had more filler than drug. She spread her wings and stepped off the cliff.