Underneath the old bridge, Ginger watched Mac pull up his shirtsleeve. His veins were a map of bruised pathways, traveling up his neck and taking him ever closer to his final destination. It was a dark, bloody road, and Ginger feared it. She feared how far she had traveled it.
She closed her eyes, choosing not to look at her own failing veins, focusing instead on the candle and the pool of amber and the needle.
“Give it here, “ he said. He snatched the needle away from her the second she finished. He did his greedy and biting his tongue. Ginger ignored the gut reaction to the motion, the clenching that both needed and hated the moment in fierce duplicity.
“Okay, okay. Jesus! Don’t be stupid, Mac.”
She heard the words come from her own mouth, but they floated in front of her face like an illuminated soccer ball, all floaty and light and round. Already the drugs were kicking in. Why should she care what Mac took? She already had her fix for the moment.
Mac’s eyes bugged, but he started scratching wildly. Fleas, Ginger thought as she picked up the needle and put it in a pocket. Nasty Mac was tuned out and the fleas always came when Mac started to trip real hard. She knew it. Mac was on his way out. Maybe not today, but real soon. She had seen enough lifers to know when one was about to meet an ugly end. Mac was just a few hits away from too much. She felt the needle in her pocket, careful not to touch the sharp end. As it was, he had used more than his share, and she would have to be ripping and running to make up the difference.
As for her, the pleasant flight had hardly begun, and now it was just a gnaw in the back of her skull. Just a little more, little Ginger, she told herself, fingering the syringe once more. But, she wasn’t stupid. The lines down her arms were not like Mac’s, but they would deepen to death if she wasn’t careful.
There was a scratch of gravel behind them.
“What are you two doing here?” The man looked at them crookedly, a low-slung smile lighting the corners of his mouth, but not his eyes. His eyes yellowed and paled over them, a dead fish flapping on a dirty pier.
“Hey,” Mac stuttered, blinking wildly and dropping the drugs. “Whathefuckdoyerwant?”
“Listen, how’d you like to make fifty bucks?” the man said. He was dressed nicely, and Ginger’s sluggish brain tried to tell her that he was a cop. But she could see the man’s shoes in the lamplight. They were leather, not the scuffed rubber of a street-beat police officer.
Wrong-o, brain, she thought. This is a rich guy with a bad idea.
Mac just mumbled something, then wove his way towards the tent that he called home, just a stone’s throw from the river. He sat with a thud on a small stack of stolen newspapers and recited garbled, passionate nonsense. It wouldn’t be long for Mac. Ginger knew it, and hoped it was sooner rather than later. The tent was a nice one. Sometimes he would let Ginger sleep there with him, behind the canvas zipper he’d rigged with a bike lock, as long as she didn’t fight too much when he stuck his dirty cock wherever it would fit. It was the price she paid for a somewhat safe place to be. Those moments, she would think of birds, of fields of wheat like where she’d grown up. A different life.
Fifty bucks was enough money for a hotel, though. The thought was a bit sobering. Or another good hit.
The man turned away, his silhouette outlined in a sodium light halo. Ginger scrambled to her feet.
“Hey, man. Wait.” Her words thickened in her mouth, but still rang clear in the quiet dripping cathedral of the under-bridge. She managed to extricate herself from the nest of metal and tarpaulin and shambled over to where the man stood. She looked him closer, adding his features up like a math problem. Dark hair, close cut to a clean line at his sharp jaw. Clear eyes, shining like quarters in the half-light. Thirty-five, thirty-six. Taller than her, the perfect size to dance with, maybe, had she been the type of girl to dance. Black coat with a grey scarf. It was soft-looking, like a kitten. She wanted to touch it, but her mind gave a silent warning. It didn’t often give those anymore. She had come to ignore them in order to survive. Still, this one echoed through her and landed in her mouth.
“You a cop? I don’t do any freaky shit, if that’s what you’re after.”
He laughed a dry papery laugh. “Well, I guess that depends. I need a little help.”
“You ain’t look like you need no help.”
The man glanced down at himself, then back at her in his flat smile. “I guess it looks that way, doesn’t it?” He took step closer to her. “But, then. Looks can be deceiving.” He held out the bill to her, and her eyes locked on it.
“So, whaddayou want?”
He motioned her to follow him back into the shadows of the sidestreet that led to the bridge underpass. Her mind gave warning again, but she rationalized with herself. She needed the money to get better stuff. Safer stuff. Maybe even buy some hot electronics and resell them, start a little business and get the hell off the street. It was possible. She could almost think of what it could be like to be a normal person again.
What’s he doing here, Gingie? Her mind whispered. What is a man in a cashmere scarf doing in the fucked-over kingdom of bridges and needles?
“Cashmere.” The word was unbidden, a foreigner from a long-distant past where such things existed. The man stopped.
“Do you like it?” He touched the edge of the scarf with a leather gloved hand. “I would be wiling to throw it in, as long as the job is done to my. . .satisfaction.”
Ginger attempted a seductive smile, pulling her caked layers of sweater up to reveal naked breasts with a ring through the left nipple, slightly infected. It was a automatic movement. Responses varied, but generally it had been successful initiating move. She had been hit, bit, and slapped before, but it was a good way to begin the conversation. A necessary conversation that would end with a $50 bill in her hand. He just smirked.
“I don’t want any of that.”
She flipped the shirts down instantly. “What do you want, man?”
He explained his design twice. The first time, Ginger just looked stunned, the words flooding out of his minty-fresh mouth in a torrent. His eyes sparked as he spoke, and she could almost feel the heat coming from his body. The second time, she cut him off.
“I can’t do that,” she said. “Get out of here. I’m not going to do that.” She turned to walk away.
“Wait,” the man hissed. “I’ll give you five hundred dollars.” There was desperation in his voice, his eyes implored her. “It will be easy. Besides, no one but me and you will ever know. You would probably be doing him a favor.”
Ginger glanced at Mac, dangerous thoughts suddenly scampering through her brain towards him. Mac caught her stare momentarily and began howling, flailing wildly at the monsters in his mind. Her breath caught, the drug-addled idea flashing that he might be able to read her thoughts. Mac turned away, racing towards the water, ripping at his clothes in wild-eyed fury. Stupid Mac, she thought. I could be screaming the words your ears and you wouldn’t notice.
Mac threw himself down at the edge of the water, rocking and humming snatches of Led Zeppelin to himself. Every now and then, he would scratch fiercely at invisible creatures, speak to invisible people. Cashmere’s words rang in her head. Mac’s life was no way to live a life, it was true. It would be so simple to just. . .but, then, she was a good person, wasn’t she? A druggie? Yes. A prostitute? Sometimes. But not a murderer.
But then, what if it was the last sin? What if it was the one that set her free?
“When would I have to do it?” Ginger whispered. The thought of the money lingered in her mind, fighting against the fears that had been slapped and switched into her a lifetime ago. It would be easy. No one will ever know. You will be doing him a favor.
He opened the wallet to show rows and rows of bills. Ginger’s face broadened, her eyes round and wide. Cashmere’s own eyes burned in a dark grin. “Whenever you want the money.”
A new life, Ginger thought. A hotel room. A second chance. A set of clothes. A ticket home. The money mathematically equaled her deepest wishes. It was a simple problem, the solution already done out in her mind. It was a matter of logic. In order to save her own life, she would need to take Mac’s.
She stepped over used condoms and wet cigarette butts, noticing them for the first time. She felt that there was some secret meaning in their organization, as if the universe only revolved around these steps, these breaths. The tattered boxes and dots of refuse were the constellations that marked her moments in the heavens. She looked back at Cashmere. He stood a few yards away, breathing heavily and watching her movements with intent.
Are you a good person, Gingie? Would a good person do this?
It was the voice in her head, but it was her mother’s voice. It was calling from far off, from out in the cornfields. Her mother had made dinner and the words drifted over the stalks of yellow and gold.
Mac was close now. The ugly purple bruise that ran along his arm flared in the dim lamplight. The revulsion of the mark twisted her stomach, but also triggered an inkling of pity at the back of her mind. It was another emotion that she had locked away, like regret and shame. She stopped, just feet from him. Mac looked up at her with bleary eyes, focusing and unfocusing on her.
“Ginger, ginger, ginger,” he murmured. “Good for flying, good for flying.”
Ginger’s legs locked. She willed them to move, but they were trapped in confusion. Her mind telling them to move forward, something secret telling them to stay back.
“What are you waiting for?” Cashmere’s voice was low and guttural. His eyes were tracked on her, glazed over in something like hunger. His face red and flushed, and there was frantic movement beneath his coat. Ginger turned away in shame for the first time in a thousand years.
“Come on, Mac. Time to take a bath.” She reached for his hand, and he took it. She led him clumsily to the water’s edge, the very end of the defunct pier where boats had once docked to unload their wares. It was deep here, Ginger knew. Just as she knew Mac didn’t swim. He balked, afraid.
“Just a little puddle, don’t you see?” she said, her voice catching. “It looks like a river, but it’s not real, Mac. You’re too high. Just jump over the puddle and I’ll get you a burger.”
The river was black molasses, the streetlamps dotting it with undulating light. He stared at the water, scratching and scratching. He leaned over, and she pushed with all the strength she could muster.
There was a short yelp as he went beneath the water. Waves roiled up and around him, magnetized like a tidal moon. The sound was deafening in her ears, the crashing of his hands through the water, the muffled choking coughs that bellowed up from the river.
Mac grappled for the wood of the pier, and she slapped his hands away, taking care not to lose her balance on the slippery forgotten pier. She heard a step behind her. She did not dare look back at the dark man with the plan. She could hear his thick moans, so close now that she could feel the frenzied movement, smell the sex as it pinnacled and peaked. The sound of his climax mingled with the struggling screams. She closed her eyes, and she thought of birds. Kansas red finch. Magpies with their blue-black tails floating through a sun-dappled apple orchard. Her mother’s voice called over the fields of wheat.
Gingie, what are you doing? What have you done?
“Leave me ‘lone, Mama!” Her own voice was odd, out of place. Mac’s head bobbed up, close enough to bite her, and she pressed her hands down on it, sinking him like she’d done a hundred times when playing as a kid. But her arms were wasted, thin and weak from so many years of running instead of fighting. Her strength flagged against the crazy, drug-induced thrashing.
“Finish, finish now!” Cashmere’s voice was insane, close. She saw him over her shoulder, so close she could reach out and touch him. Ginger realized he must have been slowly creeping up behind her to get a better view. She could feel his hot breath on her neck.
Her hand darted into her pocket and snatched the dirty needle. She whirled around and plunged it deep into Cashmere’s leg.
He yelped and groaned at the same time, a strange mixture of pain and pleasure than she could not have expected. Her hair and face splattered with hot droplets, although she didn’t know whether it was blood or semen. Cashmere stumbled, forward, grappling with her, pressing her towards the rotting edge of the pier. Her foot slipped, bringing her slight frame crashing down on a knee. Her mind exploded into flashes of light. Mac floundered at the edge, his fingernails dug into the wood of the pier, his face already covered in water.
Cashmere’s gloved hands were around her neck now, a thin squeal from the leather as they tightened and rubbed against each other. The needle still embedded deep into his thigh, acting as a nail to keep the soft suit material of his pants from falling completely around his hips.
“You think you’re better than this,” the handsome face curled into an insane sneer. “But you’re no better than me. Everyone has their addiction.”
Spots burst into stars, her vision blurred. The sounds of the water faded slightly and her hands scratched at the fine leather, leaving thin, cut lines in the expensive gloves.
The scarf waved exotically above her face, just inches from her. She could see in high definition the soft surface. It was unmarred, gentle, bereft of violence and pain. She would love to live inside of a life like that. A life of quiet softness, clean and dreamy.
She thought of kestrels, pigeons, whippoorwills flying down, taking a piece of the world in each beak and leaving just a black spot in her sight. There was a hole in the world and it was expanding, taking her breath with it. Her mother called her from far away.
Ginger, time to come home, baby.
But it’s too late for me, Mama. I did everything wrong.
Her mother had her dirty overalls on, the ones she used when she tilled the garden and milked cows. Her mouth pursed and she laughed suddenly.
It’s never too late to make the right decision.
With all the force she could muster, Ginger kicked hard up into the man’s center. One of her boots hit the mark, and the man doubled over in pain, loosening his grip. She kicked again, this time aiming for the needle, breaking it off in his thigh.
He screamed in pain and stumbled back. For a moment, Ginger was so shocked that she forgot her plan, but she was quick enough to catch the scarf in time. Grasping it with both hands, she pulled, cantilevered, used the man’s weight and unbalance to turn him, spin him.
Cashmere’s pointed leather shoes could not find purchase on the wet wood, and he stumbled forward, flailing into the water. He choked, sputtered, but pulled himself bobbing with a practiced motion. Stupid Ginger, she thought. Of course he knows how to swim. He’s probably a Goddamned Olympic medalist.
He pulled himself up, grunting. “You’re going to be sorry about that,” he clucked in a low snarl.
A purpled arm flailed up and over Cashmere’s shoulder, hauling him back down. Mac’s crazed face bobbed up, pressing Cashmere down as he tried to scramble up the man like a ladder. There was a frenzy of water and noise, the two men bobbing up and down, attacking, choking, spluttering curses and screams. The men mirrored each other, and for a moment, Ginger could not tell which was which.
Mac, although unable to swim, was tenacious. He grasped the other man with vise arms, holding on to him as if he was a life preserver. Cashmere struggled to extricate himself from the deathly embrace, but managed only a few weak scratches and blows to the addled man’s head. Mac held on until the body started to sink, then began to howl again.
Mac was losing strength, his head barely above the water, his cries being choked by waves that splashed over his head.
I could walk away now. I could make a new life. I could leave all of this to drown in the river.
It’s never too late to make the right decision, baby.
Ginger leaned over the edge of the pier carefully and lowered the scarf down. Mac grabbed at it, aware on some level that she was trying to help. He pulled himself up halfway, and she pulled him the rest of the way out of the river. His eyes were clear, the adrenaline trumping the elephantine dose of heroin. He mumbled frantically, gesticulating to the water and back to her.
The water was calm again. It wouldn’t be long before the slow water brought the man back to the surface, and she didn’t want to be around to see it. Besides, she didn’t belong here anymore.
She touched the soft material to her face, and she could almost imagine that faint smell from so long ago. Corn and sunlight. Red beans and rice. Cows and dirt and mama.
Ginger wrapped the scarf around her twice, tucking the pale ends under her sullied coat. She knelt down and picked up the expensive leather wallet, packed with money. She pulled out all the bills, giving Mac half and keeping the rest.
He snatched the money from her, his haggard voice breaking, “Ginger beer, ginger ale, ginger, gingie, ginger girl. . .”
She walked away from the pier, his voice ringing in her mind. There was a new life out there for her, being revealed in each step away from this one. She had done her traveling and now she could go back to where she had always belonged.
In the sky overhead, the dawn was creeping in. There was a flutter of birds, just waking. She moved with them, towards them—one right step after another. The pier became a memory with each step. And when she arrived at the farmhouse, she buried the scarf in the fields so that she would always remember to forget.