Tag Archives: drugs

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 leant 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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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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The Answer To That, Sir, Is Nothing, Georgia Buley

There’s a matchbook, in case I want to set myself alight.

It didn’t happen yesterday, nor the day before—

My cheeks were wet so the sparks can’t catch—

But one day. Maybe.

 

          But there is no lighter.

It’s the only bright light in this sea of addictions;

I’ve never sought to taste death on my lips

And blow it back through my teeth.

I’d celebrate if I could breathe deeply enough on my own.

I can’t blame the catch on smoke.

 

          There’s a tiny little turtle that snaps and begs at my skin

And reminds me with frozen beats that I’m not who I say I am—

Not who I write I am.

I take the turtle out and paint him gold

But it always rubs off in the light.

 

          There are pins and needles in my fingers

Where the feeling’s gone and the cold creeps in.

It doesn’t get past my knuckles or up into my wrists—

My heart beats too strongly with that warm warm blood—

But one day. Maybe.

 

          There’s a whistle that screams brightly into the night.

Sometimes I think it’s broken—

Last time I tried to use it, it didn’t work—

It deafened me as it shrieked

But not a soul came running. (Someone told me since that I probably should have shouted ‘Fire’.)

I like to hope that lightning can’t strike twice, but it could happen.

One day. Maybe.

 

          There’s a model of a train

For no reason other than I like to turn the tiny wheels with my fingers

To keep them from flying around another’s neck.

There is a chess piece with its tiny head torn off

With sword and shield prepared for the battle that doesn’t come

With soulful hands carved in prayer to the unfeeling marble.

He comes from the battle of Troy. He comes from the losing team—

A pawn in a game gone way over his little head.

(Wherever it’s gone.)

 

          There are some coins—

Not enough for anything worth buying, mind.

A ten cent piece coated in grime

A silver dollar with an American eagle

A twenty that had been run over by a train

Dali’s clock-shaped, her Majesty’s great visage melted in a gory rendition of The Wizard of Oz.

 

          I like to think my insecurities take the form of hedgehogs

Who prickle and growl and stick out their tongues

And hobble along in their own little way.

They snuffle at the skin of my thighs from inside.

I keep them on hand at all times, ready to bring to the light at a moment’s notice.

It doesn’t do to ignore them for so long: they can go feral—

At least this way I’ve got them under rein.

Maybe.

 

          There’s a heart all wrapped up in butcher’s paper.

It’s leaking out the sides, some thin warm thing that still beats angrily on my thighs.

I touch it sometimes, but it’s too hot to hold;

I can feel it beat against my skin like oceans.

 

          There is a pen. There is always a pen. I find it harder to write on paper.

(Maybe there’s an element of sadism in that.)

The ease of keys under fingertips dulls my sense of the page

I crumple more sheets than I can afford to buy

Notebooks fall into the trash filled with meaningless scribbles across the margins

(And sometimes I ask myself, aren’t they all meaningless scribbles?)

But there’s something of value to them if I demand there to be.

 

          I type my thoughts out into an online void, and I’m applauded by one hundred greyed-out faces.

None of them know anything of me. There’s no joy in this capitulation.

And it’s certain, now, that there’s almost nothing to the thoughts that run rampaging rhino through my mind.

But I write them down anyway, with little scraps I keep handy

And the pen.

Somewhere in there, there’s a ticket stub or five

Train tickets and musical tickets, coffee cards with four holes left to punch—

There’s no real regency in a temporary life.

Tissues long since turned to scraps, tumbled through time

And a vibrant scrap of fabric that once might have belonged to something beautiful—

Or someone.

 

          There are scars and chips and wrinkles all across my hands

Some are from accidents—

And some not.

If pure recklessness causes accidents, then perhaps it might tip the balance back

But it’s clear I’m not as clumsy as I appear.

 

          There’s a few photographs, too.

Not of anyone I know;

I find them in garage sales and fold up so tiny they fit onto one fingertip—

Creasing them makes them feel somehow more authentic—

So I remind myself that when I’m gone I’ll be more than aged sepia.

I’ll be almost more than that, at least.

 

          I draw my hands out and find them empty

Clutching at the banknote-crisp air like if by the reaching I could will it to appear.

And what?

Oh. Something. Anything.

 

          Someone once asked me what I keep in there

And I feign ignorance with those big ol’ baby blues flutterin’ like butterflies

‘What could you mean?’ I say.

‘What could you possibly mean?’

 

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Peroxide and the Doppelganger, Rebecca Fraser

 

Johnny ‘Peroxide’ Steele placed his sweating palms on the cool ceramic of the basin. He closed his eyes briefly to offset the bile that clawed at his throat. Christ, it had been a big night. Again. He took the weight of his body on protesting arms and leaned forward to inspect himself in the mirror.

A pair of bloodshot eyes looked wearily back at him. Peroxide took stock of the apparition in the mirror. His cheeks, boyishly fleshy less than a year ago, now looked as if they’d been carved into his face by a maniacal sculptor. A congealed streak of yellow – mustard? – ran from his pierced lip to his chin. It matched the overall pallor of his face with unsettling accuracy. Peroxide ran an unsteady hand through his shock-white hair, and he poked his tongue out as far as he could. He instantly wished he hadn’t. The surface was furry with a creamy substance.

He turned on the tap and cupped water to his mouth. It tasted metallic. He swished it around his cheeks a number of times before spitting it back into the sink. He turned the tap back on and watched as the water swirled the noxious glob away.

When he looked back up, his reflection was smiling at him. It was not a cheerful top-of-the-morning smile, rather it was a sly, knowing grin that didn’t reach his eyes. Peroxide gaped. His reflection didn’t gape back. It just kept up its malevolent leer.

He took a step back in alarm. He careened into the shower cubicle and clutched at the plastic daisy-embossed shower curtain to steady himself. The curtain rings splintered under his weight, and he fell to the floor. The curtain descended on his shoulders like a floral cape, and he wrenched it free.

‘Johnny, what the hell’s going on in there?’ Kaylene’s voice was muzzy with shattered sleep.

Peroxide kicked brutally at the curtain and got to his feet. ‘Nothin’, babe. ‘S’all good.’ He looked back at the mirror. It was just him again.

Kaylene appeared in the bathroom doorway. Even with her long honey curls dishevelled from sleep, and the oversized Ramones t-shirt she wore to bed slipping from her thin shoulders, she looked unbelievably wholesome. The sight of her freshness made Peroxide feel even more soiled.

‘The curtain’s broken,’ Kaylene said evenly, surveying the crumpled heap.

‘Sorry, babe. I’ll fix it.’ He moved to pick it up, but a wave of dizziness overcame him.

Kaylene steered him back to the bedroom and made him sit on the bed. ‘It can wait,’ she said. ‘Why don’t you just sleep it off here today? You’ve got a gig again tonight, don’t you?’

‘Yeah, over at The Bluebird. Don’t kick off ‘til half ten. It’s okay, Kaylene, I’ll head home, get myself cleaned up.’ He looked at her apologetically. ‘Sorry, I’m such a mess, babe. I’m trying.’

Kaylene didn’t say anything; she just regarded him with her usual sad serenity. It was a look that cut Peroxide deeper than if she had expressed her disappointment.

 

The midday sun smarted, and Peroxide groped in his jeans pocket for his sunglasses. They weren’t there of course. Another casualty of the night. They were probably abandoned; left on a sticky table at some seedy nightspot.

Peroxide berated himself. Kaylene had bought him the glasses as a gift. He recalled with a pang of guilt how excited she had been to find them. Black Buddy Holly frames with a set of faux rubies ostentatiously encrusting the arms.

‘Perfect for a rock star.’ She had laughed as she pushed them up the bridge of his nose, and stood back to admire him.

How in God’s name he had found such a girl, and why she stuck with him, was a mystery to Peroxide. She was nothing like the others. The endless bevy of groupie trash with their predictable tattoos, shrill voices and cut-rate perfume. Kaylene was on another plane entirely. Calm and intelligent, caring and funny. She seemed to dig him in a way no one else ever had, or had ever wanted to.  It had only been two months, but he knew that he loved her.

If he could only stop fucking up.

Lost in introspection, and with his head still throbbing like a demon, Peroxide turned left into Chirn Street. He could see his apartment block at the far end through a Jacaranda haze. It was November and the trees that lined the street, hueless for the better part of the year, were ablaze with magnificent blue-purple blooms.

Up ahead, someone with hair as blonde as his was walking towards him. Peroxide squinted. There was something about the walker’s gait; a familiarity of stride. He made his way beneath the footpath’s mauve canopy. The distance closed between them, and Peroxide felt an ice trickle of fear run down his spine in spite of the heat of the day.

At twenty metres distance, he saw a glint of red beside the other man’s head, like a crystal’s prisms throwing light in the sun.

At ten metres, he saw the source of the red. It was reflecting from bejewelled sunglasses: The Buddy Holly kind with faux ruby detail.

At five metres, Peroxide stopped dead in his tracks. It was him. The other him. The one from the mirror; he was wearing the same unpleasant grin.

He – it – didn’t slow down. It brushed past Peroxide so closely that he could smell its cologne. Globe – the kind he wore. Peroxide spun on his feet and watched as his other self continued along the footpath. He could see the outline of the crucifix that dangled from its right ear, and he whipped a hand up to his own ear to make sure his earring was still there. It was.

‘Hey,’ Peroxide tried to shout, but his throat felt as if it was stuffed with wool, and nothing more than a feeble croak punctuated the afternoon heat.

His other self heard though. Its shoulders tensed and it stopped. Slowly, very slowly, it turned on its – his – heels and stared back at Peroxide. It was too far away for Peroxide to read the expression on its face, but it cocked its head to one side in a whaddaya-want fashion.

The wool in Peroxide’s throat knitted itself thicker, and he found he couldn’t speak at all. Up ahead, his other self seemed amused. Its shoulders rose and fell in mirth, in the exact fashion that Peroxide’s did when he was trying not to laugh out loud. After what seemed like an eternity, it raised one hand and fashioned a finger gun. It then extended it until it was pointing in Peroxide’s direction. Its index finger pulled the trigger. Bang. And then it turned heel and was striding off back down Chirn Street in the direction Peroxide had just come.

Peroxide’s knees buckled. What the fuck had he taken last night? He remembered drinking first beer, then bourbon, and then they had moved on to shots. But he had stayed off the drugs, he was sure. It was part of his resolution to keep Kaylene. Unless the boys had been messing with him and tripped his drink?

It had been an awesome gig; that was for sure. Since he and The Regrowths had first taken to a wooden box stage at one of the grimy local clubs only a year ago, they hadn’t looked back, and last night’s crowd had to have been somewhere near five thousand strong. They played bigger venues now of course, and the after parties were bigger too. Since Kaylene had come into his life, Peroxide had been struggling to keep a balance between the two. It wasn’t easy, but like he had said to her that morning, he was trying.

Whatever had gone down last night, he must be still under the effects of some powerful hallucinogen. First the unnerving mirror incident, and now this. If he found out one of the crew had spiked his drink, he was going to tear them a new arsehole. With this thought on his mind, he walked on down Chirn Street.

 

His apartment resembled the state of his life over the past twelve months: hectic, uncontrolled, and messy. He prised open the windows to let the afternoon breeze have its way with the pungent smell of negligence that hit him like a physical force, when he opened the door. He was going to have to get his shit together on the home front if he was going to have Kaylene over on a regular basis. So far he’d been dodging that one by sleeping at her home.

He lit a cigarette and searched about for something to use as an ashtray, settling on an aluminium takeaway container, that judging by the coagulated remains, might once have contained cuisine of the Asian variety.

The green light pulsed urgently on his answer machine, and he depressed the playback button. It gave an agreeable little blip, followed by the machine’s androgynous voice: “You.have.one.new.message.”

It was Troy, The Regrowth’s bass player. ‘Yo Johnny, you home, bro? Pick up, dude. What a fucking night, aye? D’ya see that chick up front? She flashed her tits at me, man. Dave reckons it was for him, but …’ An almighty crash interrupted Troy’s flow. ‘… Ah, fuck-it, that was me guitar, gotta go, Johnny. Catch you tonight at The Bluebird for set up. Bring those Midas vocal chords.’

Peroxide couldn’t help but smile. He was starting to feel a little better. It had been a huge night, and he probably had been spiked, but so what? He was okay now. Wasn’t he?

That grin. That awful cunning grin.

He stubbed his cigarette out and peeled off his evil smelling clothes. A long shower and sleep was what he needed. He reckoned he could get a good six hours in before it was show time again.

The shower felt good. He let the hot water drum on his head and shoulders for a long time, cleansing away the craziness of the day, and the detritus of the night. He towelled himself dry, cinched it around his waist, and searched the vanity for toothpaste among the various bottles, disposable razors, and half used tubes of bleach that helped him create his on stage persona.

His fingers paused on the box that contained his Globe cologne. It was empty.

Doesn’t mean anything, his mind yammered at him. Probably in the bedroom. Or the kitchen. Hell, you know what you’re like, it could be anywhere. But his heart was pounding like a backbeat from Davo’s snare drum, and he was already racing to the bedroom. Suddenly it seemed very important that he knew where his bottle of Globe was.

It wasn’t in the bedroom. Nor was it in the kitchen, or the lounge room, or under the bed. He went shakily back to the bathroom. He had just missed it; that was all.

His twin was in the mirror.

It wasn’t grinning anymore.

Oh, it was smiling alright, but it was a deadly, elongated smile. Too wide for its – Peroxide’s – face, so that every tooth, right down to the back molars, were impossibly visible. Peroxide focused on the crown that he’d had fitted four years ago, and distantly felt the warm-wet sensation of urine on his legs as his bladder gave way.

The reflection threw back its head and laughed. It was an obscene sound that prickled at Peroxide’s scrotum.

‘What do you want?’ Peroxide’s words were barely more than a whisper through numb lips.

His likeness stopped laughing. It fastened its eyes on his, and leaned forward. Peroxide watched in horror as the face first flattened against the glass, then pushed hard against it. The surface of the mirror rippled and stretched with the shape of its face, until finally it broke free, and swam at Peroxide in three-dimensional horror. A pair of leather clad shoulders followed, and it kept coming until it levelled with Peroxide’s ear.

He felt the chafe of stubble against his own as it leaned close.

‘You,’ it rasped.

Something in Peroxide snapped. He launched himself at the thing with pure adrenalin. His fingers, hooked into claws, found purchase on nothing but the smooth surface of the mirror. The last thing he remembered before his head connected with the glass, and a blessed red curtain of unconsciousness dropped on his mind, was that terrible word.

You.

 

It was dark. For the second time in a day, Peroxide found himself prostrate on a bathroom floor. But this wasn’t Kaylene’s house. He was in his apartment and …

The mirror. The mirror. The thing in the mirror.

Peroxide lurched to his feet and jabbed frantically at the light switch. The mirror was broken. Shards of glass clung precariously to each other in the frame; the rest glinted here and there from the linoleum, tiny fragments that threatened his bare feet, and reminded him of his frenzied head-butt. He felt the egg on his forehead, but when he inspected his hand, it was clean. No blood. Small mercy.

Good Christ, the gig! It was nighttime. How long had he been out? He blundered back to the bedroom and snatched his cell phone from the bedside table. The screen threw up 10:17pm in its electronic font. Thirteen minutes until he was due on stage. The Regrowths would be cursing him six ways from Sunday by now. He could imagine how Davo, Troy, and AJ, would have cussed him darkly as they struggled with the last of the amps and lighting. Set up was always a bitch.

Peroxide checked his phone, resigned to the barrage of missed calls. The ‘where are you?’ The ‘you’d better not be stoned again?’ and the ‘get the fuck here, right now, we’re on in halfer’. Peculiar. There were none.

There was a voicemail from Kaylene, however, but no time for that now. No time to worry about the bump on his head either. And definitely no time to worry about his malevolent twin.

It was show time, and he was late. And so, Peroxide came alive.

Without a mirror, he applied his trademark makeup freestyle. He hastily dabbed on rouge and glitter shadow, and applied thick kohl outlines to his upper and lower lashes. A handful of gel set his namesake white hair into edgy spikes, and he pulled on his usual costume of leather and mesh in record time.

He was out the door and sprinting for the train station in less than seven minutes. It was only when he sank into the torn vinyl seat of a carriage that he relaxed enough to pull out his phone again. He tried Davo first. His phone was switched off. So was Troy’s. AJ’s rang out until it switched to message bank, so he left a garbled message. ‘AJ, it’s me, man. Listen, it’s been a crazy night, I got knocked out, but I’m on my way, okay? Hold the crowd. I’ll be there. Ten, fifteen minutes tops.’

The train rattled through the urban night. It was only a blessed few stops to The Bluebird. Peroxide punched at his keypad to play Kaylene’s message.

Oh Johnny, yellow roses. How did you know they were my favourite?’ Kaylene’s mellifluous voice floated through the phone. ‘Thank you, this makes up for … well, so many things. I’ll see you at the show tonight, okay? Love you.’ She laughed. The sound hurt his heart. He had never given Kaylene flowers. But someone had. And it had made her happy in a way he never did.

Peroxide reeled in his seat. No, he hadn’t give Kaylene flowers, but all of a sudden, he had a terrible notion of who had. A panic rat gnawed at his stomach as the train pulled into the station. He sprang onto the platform and pounded up the stairs into the street above.

He could hear music pulsing from The Bluebird from where he was. Surely, they hadn’t started without him? But there it was – the unmistakable electro backbeat of ‘My Society’, one of their firm crowd pleasers; and the crowd was pleased. He could hear them roaring every word to the chorus, drowning out the vocals.

The vocals?

Peroxide felt as if he was moving through water as he crossed the street and entered The Bluebird. Time took on a dreamlike quality. The crowd heaved and surged around him. There was Davo, thumping away at his drum kit with abandon. AJ and Troy were working the stage, bass, and lead guitars in perfect harmony.

But the real hero of the stage was him. Leather and mesh, makeup and hair. Bent over the microphone in classic rock stance as he belted out the last lines of ‘My Society’. As Davo pedalled his hi-hat to deliver the crisp culmination of the song, the Doppelganger flung his arms wide as if to embrace the audience. The crowd went wild.

A slim figure with honeyed curls pushed her way up and onto the stage. She threw her arms around the singer.

‘Kaylene!’ Peroxide elbowed his way through the crowd. He was dimly aware that he was screaming, but his terrified chant of ‘No, No, No, no, no nononono,’ was drowned out amid the cheering.

Someone to his left said, ‘Cool Peroxide, get up, dude. You must be, like, a total fan.’

He shoved and pushed at bodies blindly, oblivious to everything except his need to get to the stage and Kaylene. He was almost there – he could see the pale-soft down on her cheek, illuminated by the stage lights – when he felt heavy hands fall on his shoulders.

The security guards were unceremonious in their ejection of Peroxide from The Bluebird.

He bucked and kicked and fought, but they were irrefutably strong. As they muscled him back through the crowd, Peroxide strained against the headlock to catch a final glimpse of the stage. He moaned as Kaylene planted a kiss on the Doppelganger’s cheek. As the crowd roared their approval, it raised the finger gun in the same fashion it had on Chirn Street. It pointed it squarely at Peroxide and pulled the trigger.

Bang.

 

Peroxide roamed, his mind askew with shock and anguish. He let himself become one with the city night and the pedestrians that coursed through its streets like a tidal current. At one stage, he passed by a shop window. He stopped and looked into the glass for a very long time.

He had no reflection. None at all.

 

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Nicki, Vivienne Psaila

I have a black and white photo of Nicki. Not some digital wish wash but the actual thing, one that I can hold in my hands and rip up if I want to. He’s hunched over the kitchen table scribbling into his notepad smoking a cigarette. He didn’t know I was taking the picture. He was lost in whatever he was doing. He’s bare chested so you can see the bits around his collar bone that look hollow because he’s so skinny. He never ate anything because he was constantly smoking. Still, he had a boyish masculinity about him that girls seemed to like. But they all babied him in a way, like they were trying to fix him up or be that special girl that could change him. But I don’t think anybody can change anybody else. I remember this one girl Elyza, bought him skin stuff with mud masks and everything. She got all clinical on him and told him he had to use it three times a day. Nicki’s skin was pretty bad, but whatever. He just used the products as a type of paint and drew portraits of Elyza wearing trannie makeup. We stuck them around our place and called it art. I think I still have one of them somewhere. Whenever Nicki drew self portraits, he drew a little stick figure with a huge head. He could laugh at himself. That’s important. I remember after I took the photo I made him bacon and eggs. I always cooked the cheap home brand bacon because it tasted the saltiest. Once Nicki made me watch a YouTube clip of pigs chewing on their cage bars as these fat farmers ripped piglets off their teats. He told me I had to stop buying it. But I still buy it.

I think the last proper meal I ate with Nicki was at Star City over in Pyrmont. He licked the plate clean. He picked the thing right off the table and held it up to his face so that his nose squashed against the plate. He said, ‘that’s some good tucker.’ We went to see his mum at the pokies after that. That never took long. Especially this last time.

‘Hey Ma,’ he said. I’ve never seen him look at someone’s face the way he did at hers. She didn’t even look at him.

‘Hey Ma.’

‘I’ll give ya twenty bucks to piss off.’ That’s all she said, so we left.

We met about three years ago at a house party in the western suburbs. He was wearing a gold cowboy hat and his hair was long like Kurt Cobain’s. It was cold because people started tearing pages from books to make a fire in the backyard. They were tearing up all kinds of books. They even tore up 1984. It was the penguin cover with Big Brother’s face all patched up in a collage of different coloured paints. I was leaning against the fence getting all hot and not doing anything about it when Nicki turned around to me and said, ‘that’s the kind of thing that could get me to go to war’.

He moved into Glebe with me soon after that. Amidst the chain stores and the plastic glow of the world’s 7/11s. The bloated and gluttonous franchise that is Westfield. The Lansdowne pub with half of its signage broken so it read ‘DOWNE’ in pink neon. We drank coffee and tallied the number of girls flaunting wrist tats, slobbering over tally hoes, rolling their own cigarettes. We flicked through Brag and Drum Media, looking for the boldest band names we could find. ‘Milk Titty’ still takes the cake. We laughed at hipsters that carried ripsticks about like handbags and girls that had obviously spent hours perfecting the ‘homeless-chic’ look. We were there, amidst our instagramming, tweeting, hashtagging i-generation, slopping through all the caffeine and bullshit trying to figure out what it all meant.

Glebe became a real home to Nicki and he worked three jobs to keep it that way. He did his best to cover rent, but I usually paid it. He wasted most of his money on alcohol and cigarettes. I get money off my parents. They own a big house in Edgecliff and go travelling all the time so I never feel guilty about it. I don’t see them much and I guess that probably bothers them. My brother James still lives with them. He doesn’t get out much. He’d fuck his computer if he could.

We used to spend heaps of our nights at the Kings Cross Hotel. It’s right opposite the big red Coca Cola sign on William Street. Every weekend the street was teaming with girls stomping about in their cheap plastic heels. I was always so curious about those girls because I never felt anything like them. Usually we’d drink at our place before we went out. Then Nicki started drinking alone before I was home to join him. For his nineteenth birthday last year, we were supposed to have friends over for drinks at our place. I came home from work around six and there were beer cans and bottles and scratched records all over the floor. Nicki had written ‘Meet you fuckers down on Jubilee Street’ on the wall. He’d blue-tacked my Push the Sky Away vinyl there too, so that it made up one eye of his self-portrait. The face looked demented, like something Francis Bacon would get off on. I wiped the walls with a wet chux and collected all the empty cans before everyone came over. Lucky he’d drawn the whole lot in chalk.

When I met up with him at Kings Cross Hotel, he was sitting alone on the first floor balcony wearing a stupid red party hat. The ones that look like upside down ice cream cones. I stuck my finger up at him as I was crossing the street. He just stared and sort of flicked his wrist at me. I bought a round and sat with him outside.

‘Hey, Happy Birthday fella.’

He raised his party hat to me and took a swig of beer. Three girls with noticeably orange skin came and sat down at the table next to us.

‘Oh my gawd Laura, how much was your skirt?’

‘Like, twenty dollars from Mink Pink.’

‘Actually? Looks literally, so amazing.’

Nicki turned to me blankly. ‘I unenrolled from uni today as a birthday present to myself,’ he said.

‘But you only had one semester to go.’
He shrugged. He was watching a homeless man walking along the street asking people for money. He never wanted to talk about why he dropped out so we never did. I remember the next day there were stacks of old papers by the front door. They were Nicki’s poems and essays. He had been doing an arts degree or something at Sydney uni. I read through some of his stuff. Almost everything he wrote had something to do with a girl. ‘She’ this and ‘she’ that. Some of the poems were pretty nasty and I guess those were directed at his mum. The others I’m not so sure about. He mostly got marked distinctions, if not better.

After he dropped out of university, he went to work with his dad as a mechanic. His dad’s name was Bruce, so we called him Springsteen. Springsteen punched Nicki in the eye when he found out he quit uni with only six months to finish. He had a black eye for a week. All he said about it was, ‘Springsteen’s just in a big old wax right now, that’s all.’ When I asked him what his mum thought he said ‘yeah yeah, enough chit chat,’ and walked off. He suited the look of a mechanic in an innocent kind of way. He would come home all black and greasy and I used to imagine he jumped in a vat of black milk and swam around like a baby all day. He seemed pretty happy around that time. Maybe it was just being around his dad that made him that way, but I liked to think it was because he floated in that tub of black milk and felt weightless for a bit. It probably would have been good for him if he could feel like that some of the time. Maybe that’s why he drank so much. After work with his dad, he taught English as a second language to people in Pitt Street. One time he brought a student called Ashvindar back to our place because we were having a party. We called him Ash. He was quiet. Probably uncomfortable with the wayward air we had about us. Some guy named Stuart was there. He had the Southern Cross tattooed on his forearm. What a knob. No one had ever met him before, he was just someone we knew through a friend. He offered Ash a VB but Ash didn’t want one.

‘What? Australian beer not good enough?’ he said. Ash looked at Nicki because he didn’t know what to say.

‘It’s VB, that’s Victoria Bitter,’ Stuart continued, ‘and I reckon you better love-it or leave-it.’ Then Nicki did something pretty weird and smashed his beer bottle against the table and shoved it at Stuart’s face and told him to get the fuck out. Stuart scrunched up his face at Nicki like he was crazy, but he got out of there pretty quick. I always thought Nicki had an okay temper, but not after that. I made a joke and said, ‘that’s how we do it here in ‘straya.’ Everyone laughed except Nicki. Even Ash laughed. Nicki disappeared into his room and stayed there for the rest of the night. I didn’t want to make a scene so I left him alone. Now I think of it, nobody ever went to see if he was okay. I saw Ash out at the end of the night. After that, Nicki didn’t bring any more of his students home, or anyone at all really.

The next day I had to put baking soda on the carpet stains Nicki made when he smashed the bottle. The carpet was green and always laced with cat fur. ‘We don’t even have any pussies!’ Nicki used to yell and that always got us in a chorus screaming ‘I got the no pussy blues, I got the no pussy blues!’ We’d bang on the walls and roll around thrusting at each other like depraved sex addicts. He never did treat me like much of a girl. Our neighbour owned some cats. He never let them outdoors so whenever I passed by in the hallway, I heard them scratching at the door. Nicki used to coax them into our place with a little butter on the nib of his finger. He liked animals. He told me when his parents were still together they owned a black cat named Roger Waters. He showed me a photo of the day they found it shoved in a pillow case on the road near their house in the western suburbs. They were all crouched over it and kissing it. The photo was probably ten years old and they all had huge smiles on their faces. Nicki had the biggest.

At our place in Glebe, the bathroom door was broken. Lucky my parents never visited me or they would have lost their shit about it. I had to use a case of Tooheys as a doorstop. It worked well enough. Nicki walked in on me once. I was standing side on to the mirror looking at my boobs. I’d put a pencil underneath each of them because a guy told me that was how you tested if they were a good size. Anyway, he walked in and I jumped and the pencils hit the floor. We looked at each other awkwardly for a couple of seconds then Nicki goes ‘people are funny things.’ He lingered at the door like he wanted to say something else, but I told him to get out.

Yesterday I saw Nicki at Coles in the aisle where they sell birthday cards and soft porn magazines. I almost didn’t recognise him. He’d cut his hair off and it was super short at the sides. He had filled out and his pale arms were all bloated and spotty. I followed him for a while, watching from a distance. I haven’t seen him since we had to move out of Glebe. His dad made him move back in with him because he got done for drink driving. When my parents found out, they got all serious on my arse. Like I had something to do with it. I wasn’t even in the car. I tried to visit him but he lived so far away in the suburbs. He stopped coming into the city so I stopped inviting him to come out with us. People just sort of forgot about him I guess. I said hello to him.

‘What’s that for?’ I asked, pointing to the card in his hand. It was a tacky photograph of a blue rose overlaid with the word Mother.

‘Mum.’

‘How is she?’

‘She’s alright.’
But today my friend Carl told me she was in rehab. I told him I was surprised because Nicki didn’t say anything to me when I spoke to him. I wonder if Springsteen is taking care of her. After we spoke for a bit Nicki said he had to go but he didn’t say why. I don’t even know why he was in the city. I said goodbye and watched him wander off ahead of me. He paled against the clean white light of the grocery aisle like a dying flame, only more delicate. Then he turned down another aisle and was gone. I don’t think I’ll see Nicki again. I just have a feeling about it.

Nicki wrote me something once. I found it in my desk today. It’s mostly rubbish but I kept it anyway. He wrote it while we were having breakfast one morning. Right after I took the black and white photo actually. I was throwing cornflakes and bits of dried eggshell at his head trying to lodge them in his hair.

‘You should wash your hair Nicki,’ I said, ‘you’ve got food in it.’

‘One sec.’

‘Nicki Nicki Nicki! I’ve put some cornflakes in your hair to take for lunch.’

‘Hold up, one sec Frankie.’

‘I packed some for old mate Springsteen too.’

‘A-huh, ‘preciate it.’ He was still trying to write.

‘Hey, do we have to see your mum again tonight after dinner?’

‘Yeah, we do.’

‘Gay.’

I think that really annoyed him because he stopped and scrunched up whatever he was writing and threw it at my face.

‘I’ve got uni now, I’ll see ya.’

I read it that morning and I read it again after I saw him yesterday. And again today. It reads:

beneath this skin
rests a nightmare
two hundred sleeping hands
all lifeless, bloodless
but one

supine golden
warm as the sun
she

Then it just stops because he never finished it. I like it. But I still wonder what Nicki meant by all that stuff.

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From Above, Lydia Tasker

Lorne shifted into fourth and below him the gears gnashed angrily. He stamped on the unresponsive clutch again, shoving the gearstick down. With a crunch the cogs found each other in the greasy darkness of the gearbox, and the whine of the engine moved down a key.

‘Piece of shit,’ he muttered, and Sally grinned at him from the passenger seat. She laid her pale hand on his and squeezed. A hot gust from the east danced through her window, tousling greasy hanks of her hair across her face. Swaying gently, her whisky breath floated on the wind. Lorne wondered how many more she’d slammed back while he’d been in the toilet. Mick at the Brass Monkey started pouring her Jack Daniels, no ice, as soon as she walked through the door, greeting them with a nod. The wrinkles around Lorne’s mouth puckered as his lips twitched with affection and he accelerated.

Sally cackled, and her lips spread tight across her stained teeth. As the quivering shell gathered speed she hung her head out the window, and the steady flash of neon streetlights caught her in freeze-frames. The light snagged in the deep grooves around her mouth, and fractured hieroglyphs traced paths across her face. Lorne reached down to spin the radio dial and Pearl Jam filtered through bursts of static.

Sally squealed and turned up the volume, filling the car with the grating guitar intro of ‘Smile’. ‘I miss you already, I miss you always,’ she sang tunelessly and leant back out the window. In the glow of the next streetlight she blew Lorne a kiss. He shook his head and kept his eyes on the road, but his mouth twitched with affection again.

 

Morning light spilled through the bedroom window and moved across their naked bodies sprawled on the mattress. As he opened his crusty eyes, Lorne’s world reeled. The sheet clung to his sweaty legs and he writhed to free himself, his breathing laboured. The air swam with the stench of stale alcohol and urine. Lorne glanced down at Sally asleep next to him and studied the angular shape of her body beneath the sheet. He imagined her as an unearthly arachnid suckling from him. Sweeping a strand of hair off her cheek, he reached across the peaks of her shoulders for a cigarette.

Lorne gazed through the dirty window, past the pitching treetops and into the open sky. His tongue rasped as he licked his cracked lips and he wondered if the air was fresher way up there. From far above they would make the tiniest of scabs on the land. He blinked as the mattress squeaked with Sally moving beside him. The greying fabric of her face split into a smile and the scar tissue on her upper lip stretched tight. With a grunt she rolled to the side of the bed, going through the familiar motions of cooking up. Ash toppled onto the sheets from Lorne’s cigarette and the TV opposite squawked with tinned laughter as Seinfeld played.

‘Baby,’ he murmured when she had finished, drawing her close to him, ‘We don’t need no one else.’ The leather strap creaked as he slipped it from her arm and pried the empty needle from her fingers. Her eyelids flickered as her flat grey pupils rolled back into her head, revealing bloodshot whites. Outside, the clouds skittered past and Lorne imagined being so light, far above. Her breath crackled through her burnt-out lungs and Lorne pulled her closer, the emptiness of the sky suddenly making him uneasy.

‘You’re my girl,’ he whispered into her hair. ‘You’re my girl,’ and he hummed as she relaxed into his arms. He pictured her floating high above him, and the red gums flailed against the hollow sky as he listened to her breathing.

 

The darkness of the bedroom swam with noise, and Lorne smacked the snooze button, falling back into the empty ether just above sleep. His mind drifted with dream currents and scenes swam behind his eyelids. As the braying sliced through the air again he switched on the lamp. 3:45am. Beside him Sally lay face down on the bed, her sharp elbows jutting from beneath her like wings. With an index finger he traced the crests of her vertebrae and imagined her as a prehistoric beast while she snuffled in her sleep.

The slow rhythm of pain began to pulse through Lorne’s joints as he dressed. Already he ached to return to the mattress, to Sally and a fix. But there would be no gear without the pay from his shift, and so he forced a cocktail of painkillers down his dry throat. As he kissed her cheek he felt the roughness of a scab against his lips. The bedroom was cold in the silent darkness and he pulled the sheet up to cover her shoulders.

 

A biting wind stung his face as he rode on the back of the truck and hung his head out the side. The air was sweet with the change of season, yet an iciness still whistled hollow nothings in Lorne’s ears. Above in the dusky morning sky, stars shifted and morphed into each other and a Smashing Pumpkins song played on the radio.

He sprang from the moving vehicle as they pulled into the curb, grasped the handle of the wheelie bin with gloved hands and swung it into position. The huge mechanical claw groaned and reached down from the sky. The bin discharged its contents onto the heap with a squelch. Bill, in the driver’s seat, caught Lorne’s eye in the wing mirror and gave him a thumbs-up. A sudden discharge of cramps shot through Lorne’s legs and he grimaced. The stench of the rubbish drove into his eyes and mouth, making him gag. Mixed with the rotting bin juice odours hung the scent of artificial frangipani. The sweet scent swam up his nose, and Lorne was drawn into a fog of memory.

Rain beat heavily on the battered roof of the hatchback as it sat overlooking the stormy ocean. Sally grinned at him from the passenger seat and handed him a plastic bag.

‘To christen your new ride,’ she told him, and he pulled out a tacky air freshener in the shape of a frangipani flower. ‘Now you’ve got no excuse for a stinky car!’ She giggled and kissed him quickly with glossy lips.

Lorne gazed at her as she strung the air freshener from the rear-view mirror and started rolling a joint. Her silvery eyes danced as she chattered about a new job and strands of sun-bleached hair fell across her face as she chopped. A shell necklace that clung to her neck moved as she spoke, and the white shells made her tan look darker. Sally glanced up to find Lorne watching her and laughed.

‘It’s rude to stare, you dickhead! Are you ready to get baked?’

They hot-boxed the car, watching the waves boil against the wet sand and the ocean swallow the torrential downpour. The earthy smell of the weed mixed with the sweetness of the air freshener. Sally opened her window a crack, sticking out her tongue to catch the raindrops. Lorne caught sight of himself in the mirror. His sandy hair curled wildly about eyes the colour of the turgid ocean before them. One side of his mouth sagged a little, and his voice still wavered despite being well past puberty. Sally called these his broken bits, and she told him she loved them the most.

‘Lorne! For fuck’s sake mate!’

Lorne flinched and found himself hovering uselessly beside an emptied bin. Bill hung out the truck’s window waving hairy arms and shouting. As Lorne grasped the bin, a hefty weight once more settled onto his shoulders. He wondered how it would feel to be the sandy-haired boy in the beat up hatchback again. Raising a hand to scratch his head, he felt the close-cropped hair beneath his beanie, and he shivered as a cold layer of sweat swaddled him. The rhythm of his pain beat louder through his thoughts as the truck made its route through the streets, and he wished he had more pills to drown it out.

 

Tiny flakes of paint drifted like confetti scabs onto the bed as Lorne sank back against the peeling wall. Need pumped a bass line through his body and the spiking pain in his head kept the beat. The leather bit against his skin as Sally’s thin fingers pulled the strap tight, and the chink of her cooking up relaxed him a little. The lighter smouldered the bottom of the Pepsi can, and the smell of the hot metal made muscles in his leg quiver in anticipation.

As the cold metal pierced his skin and entered a vein he exhaled. Relief flooded his bloodstream and curled through his mind. Pain dissolved, soluble in this ecstasy and Lorne’s breathing slowed. He slumped into the mattress and Sally wrapped cold legs around his body, rocking him. Drifting upwards and outwards from between drooping eyelids, Lorne traced the track marks down her arms.

‘Get free, baby,’ she whispered with stale breath, ‘get higher.’

 

Dusk was already swaddling the house when the ute pulled up in the driveway. The last of the sunset still bled through the gum trees and Lorne squinted in the red light. His hair was slick with a cold sweat and he heaved himself from the driver’s seat. In the silence of the evening the slam of the screen door was deafening, and his legs were unsteady beneath him. As he took the small plastic bag from his wallet he sat at the table in the dusky kitchen.

‘The fuck are you Sal?’ he groaned, and shrank into himself. His hands caught his head and blackened fingernails scratched rhythmically through damp hair. The bag was small, only enough for the two of them until tomorrow and then he would have to find more. But Sally wasn’t here, the bed was cold and he wouldn’t cook without her.

Wood rasped against his cheek as he slumped forward onto the table and fell into fitful dreams of cramped rooms with no windows. His hand hung from the table, twitching, and a pool of saliva gathered beside his open mouth. His eyes roved restlessly in their sockets: searching, pursuing.

 

The crunch of tyres on gravel wrenched Lorne awake and for a moment his mind spun madly. Then agony settled over him again as he stood and lurched to the door.

‘Sal?’ he called into the dark, his voice broken. ‘Baby, that you?’ A door slammed and headlights blinded Lorne as the car swung from the drive. Sally came striding from the shadows, her hair loose, coat flying behind her.

‘Babe,’ she murmured, wrapping herself around him. Lorne shoved his face into her hair and inhaled the stench of booze and cigarettes. She pulled back and held out an open palm. In the dim light from the kitchen Lorne saw she held a large bag of yellow powder. Her eyes flashed darkly, and she grinned.

‘Where’d you get that?’

‘It’s for us! There’s at least 400 here. Call in sick to work tomorrow and we’ll go on a trip.’ She chewed the dry skin on her lip.

‘No.’ Lorne took a step back into the light from the kitchen. ‘Where’d you get the money for it? You didn’t have five bucks for cigarettes yesterday.’

Sally rolled her eyes and elbowed past Lorne into the kitchen.

‘Chill out. I called in a favour. Can we cook? I’m aching.’ She spotted Lorne’s small bag on the table and grinned at him. ‘You don’t wanna cook that, do you? C’mon babe, let’s do this.’

‘I’m not cooking that fucking gear until you tell me why you were out there so late,’ Lorne said quietly.

Sally’s eyes hardened, and she pulled her coat tight around her, crossing her arms.

‘Don’t you get on your fucking high horse with me when I have to sit here all day just waiting for you to bring me back some gear.’ Her words were clipped and her breathing shallow. ‘That’s bullshit, Lorne.’

Lorne wrapped his arms around his shoulders and pulled at his hair. His body throbbed, and he squeezed himself tighter. He shut his eyes and wished the squirming doubt in his stomach would dissolve. When he opened them she was walking towards him, her eyes soft again.

‘We’re both hurting,’ she told him quietly. ‘Let’s just cook, please. I need it baby.’

Lorne looked into her and saw the same pounding rhythm as he felt in himself and his mind surged with a yearning tenderness. Bending to kiss her pocked cheek, he froze mid-air. With a finger he stroked a fresh bruise on her neck, picking out the four dark points where teeth had marked skin. Wrenching the coat off her shoulders, he exposed her back and found the familiar fingernail scrapes covering her pale skin.

‘Are you serious?’ He croaked, his voice thick with anger. ‘Did you think I’d forgotten what this looks like? Did you think I’d forgotten about Jonny and what he makes you fucking do?’

‘Wait, wait,’ she pleaded, her voice shrill. ‘You don’t understand babe, I need it! Jonny gives me good gear for cheap, not that scummy shit Davo’s pushing. I can’t deal with that smacky gear anymore! It doesn’t mean anything. It’s gross, but then we’re all alone and we’ve got enough for days. It’s for us baby, it’s all for us!’

‘That’s not the fucking way I want it!’ Lorne spat and swept his bag of brown powder from the table into his pocket. Blood screamed in his ears and tears sprang hot in his eyes. She grasped at him as he tore past her, but he threw her back against the fridge. He tripped as he reached the ute, and found himself on hands and knees, the sharp ground biting at his flesh.

‘You’re a fucking failure,’ he hissed to himself, and pulled himself into the car. In his anger, Lorne forgot his pain and gunned the ute up the drive in a whirl of flying gravel and crunching gears. Darkness swallowed the silent house behind him, and the screen door wailed on rusty hinges.

 

In a shriek of ancient brakes the ute juddered to a standstill and Lorne threw the door open, falling onto his knees on the asphalt. He retched and neon bile came driving from his gut. Wave after burning wave spilled from him until his body felt it would cave in. The smell of the acid made his eyes water and as he pulled himself back into the ute a fit of shivering gripped him, sweat trickling into his eyes mixing with tears. He caught sight of himself in the mirror, eyes sunken in purple sockets, shoulders hunched, weighed down with shadows. Lorne punched the steering wheel, cracking a knuckle. Should have taken on more shifts, he told himself, should have never let it get back to this shit. He watched the blood from his knuckle slowly trickle down to pool in his palm and his shoulders shuddered with silent sobs. It’s your fault, he thought, you’re a bloody failure.

Reaching into the glove box Lorne took out the sharp and a lighter.  As he stepped from the car again he splashed through the puddle of his vomit to rifle through the bin and find a can. A tear fell to mix with the smack as he cooked. As it purred through his blood, his jaw fell slack and the belt loosened around his arm.

Resting his head on the wheel, Lorne’s pain dissolved and he gazed vacantly through the bug-spattered windshield. His tears had made tracks down his face, and they dried into sticky trails as the smack covered his guilt in a blurry forgetfulness. City lights blazed to the west, the sky hung with their orange glow. A dry wind blew in from the east and he turned his gaze up. The glittering mass of stars swam against the sky like manic fireflies, and it swelled above him as he gazed upward and outward.

‘Get free,’ he murmured to himself, drifting on a warm breeze into the obliterated cosmos of his mind, ‘get higher.’

 

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