Tag Archives: drug abuse

Giving Up Glamour: The Magic and Mayhem of Ice Addiction, Angus Dalton

 

Nevermore

 

Will and I walk along the gutter after a summer party gone dull, our bare feet dodging redback webs and shards of glass catching streetlight. An almost empty bottle of vodka swings between us. My hair reeks of chlorine. Will had shoved me into the pool after I swatted a lit fag from his mouth; he’d never have wanted one sober.

He broke the silence. ‘Do you remember that book I lent you?’

‘Book?’

Tithe or some shit.’

I did remember – a black hardback inlaid with a metallic-green butterfly. He’d lent me his copy years ago when we became friends in early high school. I’d never given it back. My slowly sobering brain reached for past imaginings sparked by Tithe’s pages – like remembering a dream with the texture of paper. I get flashes of a girl scorching the underside of a teaspoon with a match, melting a substance the colour of earwax. She draws it up into a syringe and pushes the steel into the inside of her elbow. As a line of beaded blood trails down to her wrist the dark around her manifests into shapes: ogres with hulking muscles, fae wielding swords, changelings with manic faces.

The book is a suburban fantasy novel by Holly Black about a girl named Val who discovers an underworld of fae living in the train tunnels and abandoned spaces of her New Jersey neighbourhood. Humans can access to this faery world – and are afforded the use of magic – under the influence of a drug called Nevermore. Once injected, the human characters become aware of sweet voices drifting out of drains and snarling beasts that skulk in train tunnels. Plumes of coloured light spew from fingertips and ignite alleyways. This magic is called Glamour.

I’m about to tell Will that I do remember the book, it’s at home gathering dust, but he says:

‘I think one day I’ll be an addict.’

‘What?’

‘Yeah. Get on the hard shit. I feel like I have that personality. That it’s inevitable.’

We walk past patches of pale grass guarded by mailboxes printed with NO JUNK MAIL. I run up to one and cover the last word with a finger.

‘Hey,’ I gesture to the sign, grinning. ‘No junk. Okay?’

He doesn’t smile.

When we’re almost at his house he lobs the vodka bottle against a garage wall. He turns around, hugs my stunned frame, and leaps through the open window of his bedroom. He draws the blind behind him. The road is scattered with wet crystals.

That was four years ago. We lost contact soon after.

I wish I had taken that post-midnight conversation more seriously. I thought it was post-HSC anxiety, a brief flash of existentialism in the haze between school and uni. But it proved to be more. The last I heard, Will had moved to Bathurst, and was dealing ice.

In his memoir, The Ice Age, Luke Williams describes a similar conversation he had with his best friend during high school who was comparably disenfranchised with school and the society she was growing up in. At 3am by the fireplace, she said: ‘I don’t really have an identity – I’m not really anyone … I am thinking about becoming like a junkie – it makes you somebody.’ [i] (66)

Almost a decade later, she was regularly taking ice, and Luke moved in with her and some other addicts in Pakenham, an outer suburb of Melbourne, for a journalistic investigation into methamphetamine addiction. But he became addicted himself. The process of becoming hooked on crystal meth and the resulting psychosis and aggression he experienced are all detailed in his memoir. He sees addiction not as a result of one bad decision, but rather a result of a troubled past, and a symptom of his dissatisfaction with suburban living. He writes:

‘It is an anti-anxiety drug in the age of anxiety: a depression-busting, awe-inspiring chemical that brings a tribe, adventure, and excitement to an often monotonous, uneventful suburban life.’ (25)

Reading Tithe was one of the ways I escaped the brain-rot of suburban school holidays. The premise of a gritty faery underworld lurking in the shadows of construction sites and sleepy newsagents was impossible to resist. But I think what appealed to Will about the story is the fact that there is no ‘Chosen One’; no hero elected by fate or by some inheritance of magic from an ancient bloodline – anyone could be fantastical. All they had to do was make a small tear in their veins and let the magic in. Luke writes:

‘I hate rules and limitations, such as the fact that humans don’t live forever, don’t have wings and can’t fly, and I can’t deny that a syringe full of meth brings me pretty close to flying and feeling immortal.’ (33)

Fascinated with his story, I found Luke’s contact email and sent him a tentative string of questions about how and why he got addicted. He wrote back within the hour.

‘I don’t think there is anything wrong with wanting to change your consciousness,’ he wrote. ‘But my advice would be: don’t do it with crystal meth. It is too addictive – you often very quickly confuse reality with fantasy.’

 

Soon We’ll All Be Brilliant

 

‘I think there’s too much clandestine glamour attaching to drugs just now,’ said Ted Noffs in a grainy Four Corners episode from the mid-1960s as he opened Wayside Chapel, one of the first community centres to respond with empathy to drug addiction. ‘I believe that by bringing the issue of drugs out into the open a lot of the glamour will disappear.’[ii]

Noffs’ efforts were valiant in a time where the Church looked disdainfully at his attempts to provide counselling services to the addicts of Kings Cross. But 50 years later, the perceived glamour of drug taking remains. Luke tells me, ‘There are many different reasons why people take drugs – glamour is one of them. I am surprised how interesting people find me because I was a druggo – my goodness, if I had of known all I needed to go was use needles and have psychotic episodes to get people to read my work I would have made it all public a decade ago.’

One of the first incarnations of amphetamine was accidentally boiled up in 1887 by a Romanian chemist who was trying to synthesise fabric dyes. When the chemical arrived in Australia three decades later, it was sold freely on pharmacy shelves. From the 1930s-50s, amphetamine was the most popular anti-depressant in the world.

Australian newspapers touted the chemical, then marketed as Benzedrine, as ‘The Drug that Will Banish Shyness’[iii]. An article appeared in a 1937 issue of The Mail in Adelaide with the headline, ‘Soon We’ll All Brilliant’[iv], reporting that the drug increased confidence, initiative, and articulation. After waxing lyrical about the reported benefits of Benzedrine, it finishes abruptly with: ‘The danger of addiction is stressed.’

After reports of people taking over 200 tablets per day and an epidemic of pharmacy robberies throughout Australia in the late 1940s, distribution of Benzedrine was restricted to prescription, and then finally made illegal worldwide by the UN’s Psychotropic Substances Act in 1976. In city clubs, partygoers started taking Benzedrine, now rebranded as ‘speed’ on the black market. Increasingly pure versions of amphetamine began circulating worldwide, until, in 2011, its purest known form arrived on Australian shores in the form of the crystallised methamphetamine – ‘ice.’

When Luke moved in with his mates, he thought he’d be reporting on the powdered meth he’d partied on in previous years – he’d even planned to take some. But he didn’t realise a far more potent version had infiltrated the suburbs.

‘Crystallised meth is totally different – you are awake for days at a time and often go psychotic – I was pretty much hooked from the get-go. I didn’t realise I was taking crystal meth until after I moved out of the house and started talking to researchers,’ he says.

Taking ice inflates your ego to its highest point, into a state that Luke describes as ‘fantasia’.

‘Crystal meth is a very ugly, atomising, ego-maniacal drug that gives a false sense of achievement leading to a sense of personal superiority and sometimes psychotic delusions of grandeur,’ explains Luke.

The hyper-charged ego boost that characterises a meth high is the result of a dopamine spike a thousand times stronger than a naturally induced rush. Despite that we’re a society increasingly disassociated from the natural world, we’re still at the mercy of a force that has driven every organism since the first cell split 3.5 billion years ago: the manic urge to survive and reproduce.

But we’re evolution gone haywire. Where our ancestors fought fang and claw for calorie-high foodstuffs, we line up in a drive-thru, bark orders into a speaker, and a minute later, a huge dosage of salt and sugar drops into our laps. Macca’s is a juggernaut simply because it has tapped into our basic biological desire for high-calorie foods. The rest of the animal kingdom battle, perform and kill for sex, but a potential partner for us is as close as the swipe of a finger. The reason we spend hours curating Instagram feeds and Facebook profiles has a similarly biological basis. As social creatures, the more people we surround ourselves with, the greater access we have to resources and safety and the more protection we have for our offspring – #safetyinnumbers. Social media tricks us into thinking that we’re part of a huge group, which is why a phone vibration can trigger a jolt of excitement – it makes us feel as if we’re increasing our chances of ‘survival’.

The dopamine-fuelled motivation to chase evolutionary success still churns away in our brains and through our bloodstreams, even if it’s been rendered superfluous by our hyper-successful civilisation. An upsurge of dopamine is the most raw, animalistic and biologically vital feeling we have access to. It is this feeling that is unleashed by an injection or lungful of crystal methamphetamine.

Is the ‘war on drugs’, then, a vain fight against the primordial impulses of evolution?

 

Scare Tactics

 

Luke’s answer to the question of how we should tackle widespread meth addiction is curt: decriminalisation.

It’s a conclusion that’s hard to stomach after you read about the violence that ice users are capable of, and the manic throes of psychosis Luke found himself at the mercy of during his time as an addict. One of the hardest parts of writing The Ice Age was picking through the flaky tatters of memory left over from his bizarre psychotic episodes.

‘There was a weird subtext of men – including myself – becoming sexually obsessed with adolescences when we were on the drug and this collided with the fact I began having psychotic episodes believing the local Coffee Club was operating a paedophile ring in town (possibly an expression of my own guilt). So much of that was left out, because it was all just too confusing.’

Around a quarter of ice users come to suffer from methamphetamine-induced psychosis, which can involve intense paranoia and hallucinations. As Luke succumbed to psychosis, he became convinced that his parents had paid his friends to murder him by slipping small doses of cyanide into his food.

When the dopamine begins to ebb away after a meth high, an abnormal amount of adrenaline lingers in the blood. This, paired with psychosis, can result in astonishing violence.

One case involved the murder of an 18-year-old girl in Ultimo, Sydney[v]. The coroner who examined her smashed ribs and the torn tissue of her heart made the initial conclusion that she had been involved in a high-speed car crash. But the injuries were actually administered by her boyfriend’s bare hands. He was high on crystal meth at the time of the attack.

However, the evocation of the ice-user as a violent ‘monster’ has become a stereotype, to the detriment of the addicts, the victims of violence, and the fight to reclaim regional towns from crystal meth as a whole. The anti-ice ad[vi] currently circulating in movie cinemas and on YouTube features a haggard man elbowing his mother in the face after he robs her, a girl crying on her bed and digging bloody craters out of her skin with her fingernails, and a man head-butting a doctor and hurling a chair at a screaming receptionist before being tackled by two policemen. Similarly, the first hit you get on Google if you search ‘crystal meth’ is the website drugfreeworld.org[vii]. A colour-leached video plays, showing a pale, snarling young man raise a gun at a convenience store worker.

These advertisements are obviously using scare tactics to discourage potential users, but for regular users and people already dependent on crystal methamphetamine – of which there are over 286,000 in Australia[viii] – who are portrayed in this way, the result is alienating and reductive. How can you speak out and search for help if you’re portrayed as a monster?

The installation of a supervised ice-smoking room in Liverpool has been met with outrage and petitions from local residents worried about a spike in violence[ix]. What could be a progressive step forward in increasing user safety is being blockaded because of the alarm these media campaigns proliferate.

Luke says that this ice-smoking room and its staff would’ve actually seen a reduction in ice-fuelled violence, as the people who staff institutions of the sort are trained specifically to deal with drug users.

‘There is so much violence in hospitals by ice users because public hospital staff offer no empathy, no patience and very little understanding of what it means to be in a drug-induced psychosis,’ he says. ‘I have on occasions been into hospitals and actually had nurses antagonise me while I was on drugs – it’s bloody disgusting.’

Prior to reading Luke’s book and our back-and-forth email conversation – during which he was courteous, thorough and courageous with his answers – whenever I thought of Will, I cast him in one of those bleached anti-ice ads. In my mind his eyes were underscored with grit and purple circles, dead skin lodged under fingernails, split knuckles, teeth the colour of Tithe’s ageing pages. In my dreams, he wandered alone in streetlight flinging bottles at walls, watching the glass scatter. What if he was caught dealing – was he now pressed against the cold concrete of a cell writhing against the venom of withdrawals?

Now my imaginings are far less dramatic. Will is not a monster. Nor is Luke. We know that humanity reacts with violence and fear towards things we don’t understand – perhaps another undesirable leftover from our evolutionary instincts – but the greatest leaps forward in terms of human rights are propelled by empathy.

I can’t remember if the characters in Tithe ever manage to untie themselves from the addictive tendrils of Nevermore, or if they ever overcome their lust for Glamour. I pick up Will’s copy from my bookshelf. Mould scatters the cover like track marks. Its pages bloom with fading yellow bruises and the butterfly is decaying in lustrous flakes. I go to read the last page. Then, I stop. I turn to page one and curl up beside a window that looks out over the streetlights hovering in a grid above my suburb.

To understand the end again, I must start from the beginning.

 

Works Cited:

[i]Williams, Luke. The Ice Age: A journey into crystal meth addiction. Melbourne: Scribe Publishing, 2016. Print.

[ii]Four Corners. Facebook. 7. Sept. https://www.facebook.com/abc4corners/videos/vl.335220750154562/10153920129330954/?type=1. Accessed 08/09/16.

[iii]Author Unknown. ‘New Drug Will Banish Shyness’. Border Watch (Mount Gambier, SA : 1861 – 1954) 4 August 1936, pp.6. Web. http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article77934134. Accessed 10/10/16.

[iv]Author Unknown. ‘Soon We’ll All Be Brilliant’. The Mail (Adelaide, SA : 1912 – 1954) 15 May 1937, pp.2. Web. http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article55930408. Accessed 10/10/ 16.

[v]Meddows, David. ‘Sean King bashed teen girlfriend so violently she looked like a car crash victim’. The Daily Telegraph. 9 December 2015: Web. http://www.dailytelegraph.com.au/news/special-features/in-depth/ice-addict-killers-sean-king-blames-the-toxic-drug-for-brutal-bashing-murder-of-jazminjean-ajbschitz/news-story/eb97687dcb45a6e7e958ab4264558c2c. Accessed 09/09/16.

[vi] ‘Ice destroys lives Australia Government Commercial 2015 HD’ Youtube, uploaded by Commercials HD: Abantec, 15 May 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OfB3iK9jQ_I. Accessed 15/08/16.

[vii] ‘Crystal Meth’ Foundation for a Drug-Free World, 2006-2016, http://www.drugfreeworld.org/drugfacts/crystalmeth.html Accessed 15/08/16.

[viii]Degenhardt L; Larney S; Chan G; Dobbins T; Weier M; Roxburgh A; Hall WD; McKetin R, 2016, ‘Estimating the number of regular and dependent methamphetamine users in Australia, 2002-2014′, The Medical journal of Australia, vol. 204, pp. 153. Print.

[ix] Metherell, Lexi. ‘Liverpool community members express unease with plans for Australia’s first ice inhalation room’. ABC News. 24 August 2016. Web. http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-08-24/liverpool-community-uneasy-with-plans-for-ice-inhalation-room/7780070 Accessed 10/09/16.

Black, Holly. Tithe: A Modern Faerie Tale. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2002. Print.

 

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Twenty Seconds, Charlotte Smith

Cindy McMann slept sprawled across her older sister Stacey’s lap, in the police interview room, as Brian watched through the other side of the mirrored glass. He knew he was not going to be their saviour and his heart raced as he listened to the monotonous dial tone on the end of the phone. His wife was a lead caseworker with child services and he would often call her at a time like this for advice. He had worked on a couple of cases similar to this one in the past. Junkies overdose all the time and it seemed as though it was always the kids who found their parents. Usually these kids were already in and out of foster care, and not to say he didn’t care as much about those type of kids, but he did find it a lot easier to hand them over to the authorities. He thought most of them were little shits anyhow. He had proved this suspicion over and over in court. There was no better feeling to Brian than watching their faces as his evidence proved these suspicions.

There was something about the McManns that intrigued him though. The father of the girls, Jason McMann had moved out from Scotland over 30 years ago as a loud mouthed, 18-year-old, leather clad, tattooed lead singer for ‘The Toasties’.  His high school girlfriend followed him and also married him two years later. The band remained a success throughout the 90’s and even won a few awards. They were the Kimye of Australia at the time, with their eldest daughter Stacey always snapped in the papers with her curly blond bob and designer overalls, waddling after her parents at different events.

As the girl got older, she would pose for the paparazzi, wearing her school uniform and showing off trophies she had won at school. The pride for their only child at the time emanated from Marienne and Jason McMann as they would allow the girl to chat away to local journalists and pose for photos.  Brian observed the girl now, with her hair pulled back into a braid. Stacey looked exactly the same, just slightly more mature. Cindy was almost identical to Stacey with brown curls bouncing across the 3 year old’s face. Brian reflected back to 2003 when the girls’ father announced he was leaving the band. Quickly the family had transitioned into living a low-key lifestyle. After a few years the paparazzi stopped recognising him and by the time his youngest child, Sophie, was born even the shows that no one watches on late night television had stopped showing footage of The Toasties.

Although Brian and Meryl were too old to listen to rock music themselves, their son had collected all ‘The Toasties’ albums over the years so they had become quite acquainted to the deafening claps of thunder coming from their son’s room throughout the 1990’s. Now, years later Brian found himself in the position of needing to help the same child who was once plastered over the weekend papers. Interrupting the dial tone was his wife’s soft voice. Brian tried to stop his own voice from shaking as he explained the situation to his wife. In most scenarios like this it was rare for there to be no next of kin. Through the glass he could see the pained expression of Stacey McMann, causing his voice to break as he explained the situation to his wife.

‘They will probably be put in temporary care together until something gets sorted. Not my area to assess Brian, you know that.’ Meryl hated not being able to help her husband, but in cases with no next of kin it was always so icky. She could never let herself get involved, as she was one to get attached. That was the last thing she needed at 57 years of age.

‘It’s Jason McMann’s kids, love.’ He didn’t know why he said it; he knew he was breaking regulation.

Sensing her husband’s emotion, Meryl took a deep breath before addressing him. ‘I know you can’t see it now, love, but rock stars die all the time. They leave lots of money behind too. These kids will be fine.’

As Meryl hung up the phone Brian felt the tension release from his shoulders. He knew nothing about the financials of the McManns, but he assumed his wife was probably right. Looking back into the interview room at the two girls, Brian felt a tinge of guilt over the thought of the girls ever reading his report about their mother. According to his report all the evidence at the scene in which Marianne McMann’s body was found showed signs of an overdose. There were drugs and drug paraphernalia found inside the pockets of Marianne’s leather jacket. The autopsy was yet to be carried out, but he could predict the results of that just by looking at the scene in the home where Marianne was found. Forty years of experience under his belt gave him insight into these sorts of cases, and although he was intrigued by this high profile case, he couldn’t let that blur his judgement when it came to reporting the evidence he had come across. He wondered if he could ever avoid going to the press with the case to prevent the media shitstorm.

Tensely, Brian watched as his partner entered the room and comfortingly handed Stacey a hot chocolate. In fact, everyone in the police station tensed at that moment. The coldness drew closer as Brian was introduced to the child services worker. Brian shook his head thinking he could only hope for the best from then on. Reminded of what his wife said he was comforted with the thought the kids would have lots of pocket money in the future.

*

The heat of the sun snuck through a slit in the curtains and covered Stacey’s face as she squinted and tried to readjust her eyesight to the morning sunlight. The stained walls surrounding the bed reminded her of where she was—the boarding house attached to the private girls’ school. She stared at the bland, off white walls and thought of the colours that splashed her own bedroom, wishing she could go back there. She did have the keys, and it was her home. She knew from the reading of the will that the house had been left to her. Nothing about the boarding school was familiar to her despite having attended the school her whole life. After the death of her mother the school had awarded her a scholarship that provided free boarding and education costs. The musty, sweat-stained air reinforced the unfamiliar feeling that bubbled away in her guts—a feeling that was weening its way into her life way too regularly lately. The shuffling of soft footsteps in the hallway reminded her that a boarding house manager was going to knock on her door shortly to make sure she was awake. The warm sheets surrounding her were the only things stopping her from getting out of bed. The safety and security of the sheets wrapped around her shoulders, replicating the feeling of safety that both her parents used to provide to her. The feeling she would never feel again. Stacey would always be loyal towards her parents regardless of what everybody else thought or said. They had provided her with everything she would need in life so why would she cave to the rumours? She hated how everyone treated her now. The whispers as she passed the other girls in the hallways at school taunted her. They watched her as she walked past, the sympathy etched in their eyes following her in the afterhours. Living in the school meant she could never escape the looks of judgement. No one would ever say anything to her face, their furrowed brows and soft smiles said it all though. Stacey had never wanted the sympathy; she had never understood it. Regardless of the circumstances she knew she was still better that the stupid judge’s A-grade daughter, or the wanker bankers’ prefect daughter.

As Stacey’s mind wandered from the present to the past, the replay of memories that had been unable to escape pushed their way into her thoughts. The image of her mother, Marianne, lying dead on the couch, her face looking so content and dreamy never left her mind these days. She wondered whether Cindy would ever forget the image. She was still angry at whoever leaked the autopsy to the papers. Stacey knew it was because someone had seen an opportunity to make some quick money. She was so enraged when the rumours about her parents came out.  Despite fighting with her self over the lies she knew deep down that her parents weren’t completely innocent and they had used drugs at times. They were not junkies though! Stacey’s body twitched as she felt the hot tears roll down her cheeks and she imagined her father sitting at the end of the unmade bed, smiling his goofy smile and convincing her to go out and face the world. A soft rapping on the door echoed through the emptiness around her. ‘Stacey. It’s time to get ready or you’ll be late.’ Stacey wiped her face and leapt off the bed and across to the door, catching her foot on the pocket of her suitcase and spilling all its possessions on the way. When she reached the door and opened it she shyly tilted her head up to see the school’s social worker standing at the door, sympathy etched in the furrow of her brows. Stacey tried to fight the urge to yell at that sympathetic face. Even the social worker didn’t understand her. ‘I didn’t expect you to get up so quickly. No school today, Stace. By the time we finish with the lawyer and child services it will be too late.’

The tension in Stacey’s shoulders tightened as the thought of Cindy sitting in a strangers lap in the child services office fought its way into her mind. Trying to distract herself from the negative thoughts brewing she turned her attention to the spilt contents of her suitcase. Within seconds she had given up and sat back on the bed. As she drew in her breath, barely letting it reach her sternum, her chest tightened. Staring at the contents strewn across the ugly faded red carpet she caught a glimpse of her mother’s favourite leather jacket. After weeks of arguments with the police, she had won and the jacket was rejected as evidence and handed down to her, the rightful owner. The jacket was covered in zips, the typical attire of her 90’s punk rock mother. As a child, Stacey would play with the zips and it would keep her captivated for hours while waiting backstage for her father to finish gigs, or on the tour bus or planes or whatever other event she had been dragged along to. She remembered how after years of being teased by all the zips she had eventually discovered only 4 out of the 28 zips actually opened and contained secret pockets. Finding the exact zip she wanted she wiggled two fingers into the opening until she felt the plastic slide between her fingers. Pulling the contents of the satchel out of the pocket, Stacey sat on top of her unmade bed and let the tears scroll down her face as she contemplated whether to use the drug or not.

*

Meryl watched her husband curiously. For hours he had been sitting in the dim corner of the living room on the PC their son had bought them a few years back. It had always sat in a dusty corner of the living room taking up the space where her old sewing machine used to be. Meryl had never seen the point in actually owning a computer. She had one at work and something always seemed to go wrong with it. Her husband, Brian, also hated the stupid PC, taking any opportunity to openly voice his hate for technology. Yet, here he was intrigued with something on the clunky thing in the corner of their living room. Her curiosity begging to know what it was that kept her husband so intrigued pulled her out of the reclining chair and walked her to the corner. Brian sat inspecting a photo. ‘It’s Cindy McMann, love.’ Her husband’s words echoed as Meryl observed the girl’s pale skin and brunette curls that complimented the sparkling blue eyes staring back at her. She thought of the little girl in the foster home and her heart sank.

Ever since the death of Jason and Marienne McMann, Brian had been hinting at his wife to help the children. The idea of fostering came up, but Meryl had insisted she wanted to keep her professional life as a foster care caseworker separate to her home life. The eldest girl, Stacey, had since turned 18, so Brian’s latest idea was to adopt the youngest child, Cindy, and provide her with a happy life with the possibility of Stacey being a big part of the little girls’ life. Since this conception, Brian had visited all the specific agencies and had completed all the required paperwork. Although, Meryl still had her doubts she had agreed to consider the idea. She hadn’t signed anything yet, but did feel obliged as it wasn’t often Brian insisted on things. She did have doubts of their capabilities though, especially as Brian approached 60. Adopting a child was not her idea of a quiet retirement. She thought of her son and his pregnant wife and wondered how they would react to the idea.

Feeling her husband’s hand grasp her arm, she turned her attention to him. The creases around his eyes deepened as he stared across to the television, his grasp tightening as he listened to the afternoon news reporter. ‘Yes, that’s correct. It is the daughter of the late Jason McMann. She was a boarder at St Michael’s Boarding House, a prestigious school here in Sydney. At the moment it looks drug related. There was a leather jacket found with what is thought to be heroin. Parents of the community must…’ Meryl listened to the comments from the reporter as they splashed pictures of the teenager across the television. The picture bracing the screen was the cover of an old women’s magazine. The photo, taken fifteen years earlier at Bondi Beach, showed Jason and Marienne McMann cuddling Stacey between them on the shoreline. Meryl had seen the photo years earlier. Looking at it again now, she couldn’t help but to notice the resemblance between Stacey and Cindy.

‘This is fucking ridiculous. Do they not consider this poor little girl?’ Brian angrily banged his fist onto the keyboard, causing the desk to shake and spill the unsigned adoption papers across the floor.

Meryl watched as her husband stormed towards the television remote and turned the news off. She remembered being told once that it only took twenty seconds for someone to die of a heroin overdose. The thought gutted her that it only took twenty seconds to change a life in such a negative way. Catching a glimpse of the adoption papers scattered on the floor she thought of Cindy and she knew what she had to do. It would only take twenty seconds to change and reverse the negativity. She could feel Brian’s eyes burning through her as she picked up a pen from the desk and began sorting the adoption papers until she came to the final page.

 

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Phantom, Rabeah Zafrullah

08/09/15

CARNEGIE POLICE DEPARTMENT

PART 2 OF AUDIO RECORDED INTERVIEW

 

ADAMS: Am I a suspect?

POLICE: The body was found in your apartment, Mr. Adams. We need to know why.

ADAMS: So I am a suspect. [laughs] People keep telling me that the police are getting duller, but shit man, I didn’t believe them ‘til now. Your parents must be so proud.

POLICE: Mr. Adams, I’m going to ask you to remain civil and answer the question.

ADAMS: Right. No, of course! Please continue, I’d hate to stand in the way of justice.

POLICE: Can you explain why Eric Compton was at your residence on the night of the fifth?

ADAMS: Never heard of him.

POLICE: Can you explain why your phone records show that you called him twenty-six times on the day he was strangled? Choked to death in your very room?

ADAMS: What can I say? I’m clingy.

POLICE: So you do know Eric Compton?

ADAMS: Eric Compton the drug dealer? I’ve never heard of him. I’m a model citizen.

POLICE: Mr. Adams, the more you cooperate, the faster you can leave.

ADAMS: I can leave when I want. No handcuffs, see?

POLICE: Alright. Let’s go back to the beginning, Mr. Adams. Can you tell us how you lost your arms?

 

They say war changes you, and I have to agree. There’s just something about getting your arms blown to hell and having surgery in a bloody tent that makes you see things differently. Really changes your perspective – although that might just be because I’m practically blind in my left eye and can’t see for shit. And then there’s the damn morphine. Now that changes you. They like playing God with it, giving it and taking it away. They wean you off it like as if you won’t remember how good it feels to not be in constant agony. You get prescribed other shit, but God, nothing does it. So you bet your ass I was buying it wherever I could find it. I wasn’t an addict or anything, I could live without the drugs. I just didn’t see why I should. But it was getting harder to get the good stuff, even after I pawned off my medal for cash. The monthly allowances barely staved off my hunger, and the pain wasn’t getting any better. They call it phantom pain. You think your wrist itches and you go to scratch it, but then you realise that you don’t have a wrist anymore or anything to scratch it with. But God, the itch doesn’t give a shit about whether it’s supposed to exist or not. It just keeps on existing, starting off small – you could almost ignore it. Then it just grows and grows until it’s a clenched uncontrollable mass of scorching muscle that twists in on itself. It drives you crazy. Panadol just doesn’t kick it.

I’m going to be honest, before I was in the army, I was a bit of a thief. Shocker right? Me – the morally upstanding citizen with the medal of ‘bravery’ in one non-existent hand and a hypodermic needle in the other. It was mostly petty though, nothing too serious, but you start to miss that extra cash. I was good with my hands, could get a wallet from a man while he was still walking. It was easy living. You can’t really do that with a prosthetic. Can’t really do shit with a prosthetic except drop things. I could have gone my whole life living on that money alone, maybe get a crap job somewhere if I had to. I don’t know why I joined the army. I guess I thought I needed direction in my life. Instead I got a bloody IED. I still have the scars from the shrapnel. It’s been six years, and they don’t look like they’ll fade any time soon. Arms don’t show any sign of re-growing either, but you can always hope.

Listen, before I get to the bit about my arms, my real arms, you should know that I didn’t kill anyone. Not even in the army. Call me a thieving druggie, sure, but I’m no murderer. I’m practically a pacifist. Sure, Eric was my dealer and he was a piece of shit, but he’s the one who got the drugs in me. I wouldn’t kill him. I wouldn’t kill anyone, I swear.

*

‘Just one prosthetic arm? You couldn’t afford two?’

‘The army didn’t think I needed another.’

‘I see. Mr. Adams, you were taken in for petty theft before you joined. Have you attempted any other such crimes since then? Theft? Drugs? Murder?’

‘Of course not. I’m armless.’

‘Where did you get the money to purchase drugs from? Did you have someone steal it for you? Or did you owe Eric Compton a lot of money? Is that why you killed him?’

I didn’t kill Eric.’ ‘Then who was it?’

*

I think it was quite early on. I remember Eric had come in to shoot me up and he had brought a friend with him, a guy called Boxer who looked 85% steroids, 14% beard and 1% brain – and that was being generous. Arms like he had stuck balloons under his skin. I think he had come along to have a laugh at the poor tin soldier, but I was too far gone to give a crap about them. Anyway, that was the first time I noticed it. I was in this beautifully tempered bliss, no pain, no nothing. I’d started thinking I’d got my arms back and I was lifting them up and marvelling at the creases and joints. They looked so real I was convinced they’d grown right back. Drugs will do that to you. Stay in school kids.

Boxer and Eric were leaving, either trying to get out before the cleaner came or because they were bored of watching me look like I was about to drop off. Even disability loses its charm sometimes. Boxer had been amusing himself by throwing shit at me all day and yelling ‘think fast’ or ‘catch’, and then just as he was leaving, he tossed the keys right at me – straight for my face. Out of pure instinct I put my hands up, and of course that shouldn’t have made a damn difference, but it did. I swear the keys hit my hands instead of my face and I felt them hit my hands as well. It wasn’t a phantom feeling, God no. It was real.

For a moment, I thought my arms had actually grown back and I was whole again. That was probably the happiest moment in my entire life. It didn’t last. I tried touching my face, but it didn’t work. Later on, I told myself it was the drugs and the keys had really hit my face. I started to believe that was true, but then it happened again and I hadn’t even taken a chewy vitamin. I was at the checkout and the lady was giving me my change when a coin dropped, and instead of going for it with my prosthetic, I went for it with a hand that didn’t even exist. Except I actually caught the damn coin, and it bloody well hovered in mid-air for a couple of seconds. Doesn’t sound like much, but it felt like forever. I checked the cashier’s face to see if she was as shocked as me, but people don’t like to look at you when you don’t have arms, like amputation can be ocularly transmitted or something. But I really had caught the coin and I had actually used my arms – the ones that didn’t even exist. Holy shit, right?

Well, I was psyched. I was convinced that my arms were slowly going to become more and more physical until everyone would be amazed at how I actually regrew my arms. It was the power of love, I’d tell them. I even tried telling my therapist, but she went on about PTSD and hallucinations. Couldn’t prove I was right could I? I had no control over when my arms would work and when they wouldn’t, but they would work sometimes, usually when I wasn’t thinking about it – instinct you know? Impulses and stuff. That’s when I could catch things from the air. I used to pretend that I could see my arms back when they first got blown off and my imagination was never really up to scratch, but now I could actually see them, every single wrinkle and hair. It was mostly through my half blind eye, so they looked kind of fuzzy and vague, but sometimes they’d clear up – those were usually the times when I could use them as well. Sometimes I’d forget I didn’t have my prosthetic on and I’d be using my real arms to do things instead. Of course, the moment I’d realise, it would all fall apart. But it was happening more often and I was getting better at it, not very quickly, but I really was. Soon I could use it consciously. I practised as much as I could, only when there wasn’t anyone around, but the whole thing was exhausting. Lifting a paper was like lifting at the gym when a pretty girl was watching how many weights you put on. Hell, I was getting pretty ripped. It was a damn shame that no one could check out my mad biceps.

Here’s the thing though, my arms were great when I was controlling them, but when I wasn’t, the pain was ten times worse. I’d be staring at my arms and they’d be blurring in and out of focus, mottled red things with the veins squirming like worms and the fingers blackened with oozing gashes, bits of metal shrapnel sticking out everywhere. I’d be screaming like a mad man and I was convinced that somehow my left eye was showing me what my arms looked like before they were cut off by the doctors. My arms started working normally more often, which was great, but I couldn’t stand the God damn pain anymore. Eric and Boxer were over a lot more often. Sometimes Boxer came alone and then afterwards Eric would show up bruised like a bad apple. I didn’t ask questions.

I only had so much money though, and Eric and Boxer were burning through all my emergency savings. I was barely eating once a day, and I still couldn’t really afford groceries after I got my shots and the more shots I got, the less they worked. I needed money badly and I had no way of getting more. And then I had a stroke of sheer brilliance. You remember how I said I was a great pickpocket? Never got caught in my life and I had bet that I’d have an even better record with my hidden arms. What kind of cop was going to arrest a man for stealing when he doesn’t have any hands to steal with? I figured it out on the train one day. This lady’s phone started ringing from inside her bag. So she opens the giant thing, fishes the damn phone out then starts yammering away at it without closing her purse, so it’s just wide open and I can see her wallet right at the top. And I thought, if I can pick up all those other things with my hands, what’s stopping me from picking people’s pockets? It was genius, and even though I wasn’t nearly as good as I was with my old arms, this job had its own perks. Sometimes, you’d get people who noticed what was going on you know, felt something moving in their pockets, and they’d turn around to glare – but I was a freaking disabled man, and they weren’t about to stare at me for more than a second. They’d actually feel bad for suspecting me! It was better than being invisible. It was like I was the Pope. No one thought I was capable of crime. Sometimes I’d take to wearing my camo and I bought a little veteran’s badge type of thing. God, the way they’d blush when they saw me like that. I was a freaking saint, and they were criminals for suspecting me. I started to regret selling off my medal. People would have shit their pants.

The money was rolling in, and you can bet that I got the morphine as quick as Eric could give it. On the days that he couldn’t commit, the pain was incredible. It was almost like it increased according to how much I used my arms. My fingers would be twitching like an electrocuted chicken, and I’d be feeling my heart throb in my arms instead of my chest. Boxer was showing up more often and sometimes he’d watch me screaming for five minutes before he did anything. He liked watching people suffer.

*

‘So you’re saying Boxer killed Eric.’

‘I’m saying I didn’t kill Eric.’

The officer scribbled something down, and I took a deep breath. It had been three days since my last dose and I could feel myself losing control, and this idiot with his questions wasn’t helping.

‘So what happened the night of the murder?’

*

I had started promising Eric ridiculous amounts of money for the morphine, but something was up with his suppliers. I had been in control for the last three days, the longest I’d ever gone, and I knew I couldn’t keep it up much longer. When the pain came, it was all-consuming.

I was on the floor when he got to me, damn insane with how bad it was. My arms were on fire, they just wouldn’t stop clenching and unclenching, making jazz hands at the ceiling then ready for a fist fight. Anyone could see that I needed some damn help, but Eric, bless his soul, just stood there and laughed for a moment. Not an all-out laugh, more like an audible acknowledgement of something funny. And me on the ground, with my hands playing an invisible game of peek-a-boo, faster now that he had laughed, like my arms were glad there was an audience.

*

‘Was Boxer there that night?’

He was looking up at me expectantly now, but I couldn’t afford to lose focus by talking. I couldn’t let my arms take over again. I was breathing faster now, practically hyperventilating. What if I couldn’t stop it?

*

Eric was smiling down at me. If I could have moved my hands I would have punched him. But then again, he also took the time to inject things into my ass, so he couldn’t be that bad. A part of me wondered if Boxer was with him, ready to make me wait five minutes. Eric knelt down and leaned over me, and suddenly my arms stilled, falling to my sides.

*

The officer was leaning over me now, concerned, and my arms were becoming mutilated before my eyes, twitching and clenching. They were turning red now, red and blue and black and now here was the metal, growing out of the dappled skin like pea plants. I couldn’t control them anymore. God, they were shaking. I couldn’t stop it. The pain was snaking up, and my hands were curling in for a clench – shit! Was that blood in my nails? I knocked over a glass of water, and the officer’s eyes widened.

‘Did you do that?’

‘No! No, it wasn’t me!’

They were going spastic now, and the pain, oh God, the pain. And then, with one last clench, they stilled and settled on the table. Oh God, not again. Not again, please no. The officer was too close and he reached for his radio but my arm got to him first, grabbing on to his, I couldn’t control it, I swear, and then, while he was looking at me with those God damn wide eyes, just like Eric’s, my other arm reached inside his chest. It wasn’t me. I couldn’t control it. But God, I could feel my hand squeezing. One hand clutching his heart and the other twisting my face to look at his, look at those eyes that went wide then blank like Eric’s.

 

When the others rushed in, it was too late. The cop was on the floor, leaking blood like a faulty tap. They were looking at me, but I was looking at my hands. Still red and black, still uncontrollable but no longer clenching. Instead they were drumming on the table. Impatient almost.

 

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