Doug lay on a scrap of plywood between two joined retaining walls. Together, those walls encased a half-mile portion of median between the north and southbound lanes of Route 47. When he looked up, mostly all he could see was concrete. He couldn’t stand it anymore. He cupped his hands around his eyes and tilted them, so that all he could see was a slash of sky. “I hate it here,” he said, “Why doesn’t it ever get dark?”
Roxanne sat on a cinder block beside him and stared at a spread of tarot cards. “It does get dark, or I wouldn’t need this,” she said, adjusting her headlamp.
“But the sky. Look at it. It just looks orange,” he said.
Roxanne frowned at the cards.
“What,” she said.
“Why’s it look like that?”
“It’s light pollution.”
“Seems like heavy pollution, if it could change the color of the sky.”
“Christ, Doug. Light pollution,” she said, stabbing a finger against her headlamp.
Doug didn’t think that sounded right at all. Toxins caused pollution, and garbage. He sat up and scanned the enclosure, which, despite the brightness of the sky, was blanketed in shadow. Only the white carcasses of crushed Styrofoam cups seemed recognizable in the darkness. “We should leave this camp, live in the woods,” he said.
“In the woods,” she said and scoffed.
“Yeah. I could take care of you in the woods. I’m serious, Rox. I’m as good with rope as you are with those cards. I could net fish, trap hare with it. Whatever we need.”
Roxanne lit a clove cigarette. “Yeah. You really are the salt of the earth, Doug,” she said through the smoke.
Doug looked up at her, searching her face for some clue as to what she’d meant. She was always saying things like that. Things he didn’t understand, and he wondered if she’d been making fun of him. He didn’t feel like he could blame Roxanne if resentment was edging out her warmer feelings toward him. He felt useless, and at moments like this, he felt sure that if she wasn’t terrified of leaving the enclosure, she would leave him. Even cast in the dim orange glow of the sky, under the white-yellow beam of her headlamp, Roxanne looked cool as stone. She wasn’t laughing.
“I’ve been providing just fine for both of us,” she said, gesturing toward the cards. She looked back at Doug and took another drag of her clove. She motioned to a notebook beside him, and he reached out to hand it to her. She lowered her gaze to the crease of his arm, and the beam of the lamp settled on a small constellation of fresh punctures. The flesh beneath them was scarred and bruised. She scoffed. “Live in the woods.” she said.
“But I could kick,” Doug said, “I’m really going to this time.”
Doug searched Roxanne’s face, hoping for some indication that she’d taken his words to heart this time, but her face was hard to read in the strange light. He thought he saw a flash of teeth. Maybe she smiled, he thought.
“You’re not going to,” she said.
“What does that mean? It’s like you’re telling me not to.”
“Don’t have to,” she said, “You’re predictable, Doug. It’s my favorite thing about you.” And when she smiled that time, Doug was certain that before, she hadn’t been smiling at all.
The following day, Doug had no trouble getting over the wall with his ropes. He began to unknot them the moment his boots hit the pavement on the other side. He knew if he didn’t, the fibers would weaken. As he zippered his backpack closed, something in his gut loosened and sank. The pull of the passing cars and trucks felt as though they might suck him away from the wall and into traffic. That, plus the climb, and the certainty of illness to come, left him giddy with nerves. He walked the narrow shoulder on wobbling legs and waited for his chance to cross.
He was already feeling ill when he arrived at Isobel’s Metaphysical. His entrance set off a string of bells above the door. As they tinkled, he scanned the room. It always reminded him of a headshop, or a pawn shop—filled with potions and mysterious antiques. It made him uneasy to be in such a place no matter how many times he’d been there. It always reminded him of his life before Roxanne.
Doug reached to grab a candle from a small display, but when he heard the bead curtain at the back of the room clack and rustle, his hand shot away from the candles, as if he’d meant to steal one. He turned toward the curtain and his face reddened when he realized Isobel had seen. He would never steal anything from her. He hadn’t stolen anything from anyone, since Roxanne had started helping him, but his past had marked him, like a brand. “I guess you startled me,” he said.
Isobel sashayed toward him, breasts spilling from her corseted tunic. Below the corset, soft flesh bulged against the gauze blouse. She smiled and gestured toward the rack of candles. She’d set her intention with the new moon and now, the moon was nearly full. She couldn’t take her eyes off of Doug in his tank top. She couldn’t help but feel the world was opening, allowing her a coy glance at the fruit she was soon to harvest. “Roxanne wants to bind someone,” she asked.
“Buy someone?” Doug said.
“To bind someone,” she said, adding an extra syllable to help her catch the “d.”
Doug rubbed the back of his neck, “What? No.”
Her belled sleeve grazed Doug’s arm as she reached over him. “You were looking at the spell candles,” she said. She rolled the wick of the candle between her fingers. “When I saw you reach for this candle, I thought she’d finally decided to take my advice.”
“Roxanne doesn’t believe in spells or curses, only karma. She thinks people get what they deserve no matter how hard they try to avoid it.”
Isobel stood still, like someone listening to a whisper in another room and a silence settled between them. “What do you believe?”
Doug squinted. “About magic?”
“About life, “she said.
“You mean, do I think people get what they deserve?” Doug contemplated this while studying his hands. He noted the old fight bite and the wandering tail of his track scars. New callouses scored each palm and cushioned new blisters on the layers beneath. He hadn’t noticed, until that moment, how dirty his fingernails were. He eased his hands into the front pockets of his jeans and said, “I’m starting to believe people just get more of what they have already.”
Isobel made no attempt to disguise the hint of persuasion in her tone. “But you want something different than what you have,” she said, and raised a brow at him.
Doug wondered if she meant it as a question. It didn’t sound like one, so he didn’t answer. Instead, he fidgeted with the zipper of his backpack. “Before I forget,” he said. He grasped Roxanne’s notebook and extended it toward Isobel.
Isobel’s eyes locked on Doug’s, as she grasped the notebook. “If she won’t help you, Doug. I will,” she said.
“Help me how,” Doug asked.
“… with your problem,” she said. She moved closer to retrieve the notebook and rubbed her thumb over the crease of his arm. “I’ll do the binding on you, keep you from harming yourself.”
“I don’t see how it could help,” Doug said, gazing back at the rack of candles, “I’ve tried everything.”
“You’ve tried a spell before?”
“Then you haven’t tried everything,” she said. She pointed a finger at him and smiled. “Do you have a picture of yourself?”
Doug pulled a picture from his wallet. “You don’t need to cut Roxanne out of it do you?”
Isobel bit her lip as she walked to the counter and slid the photo into the register. “I shouldn’t dream of it,” she said. “I mean wouldn’t.” She could see that Doug hadn’t comprehended the implications of her misspeak, but she still felt a jolt of panic rise within her. She felt a trickle of sweat snaking through the hair behind her ear. Play it cool and you’ll get what you desire, she reminded herself. The world is opening.
She handed him a stack of bills left by Roxanne’s clients, along with a scrap of paper, upon which she’d recorded the cards they’d drawn for Roxanne to read over the following week. Doug tucked the paper in his pack and began leafing through the bills. “Business is good,” he said when he finished counting.
“There will always be people who want someone else to tell them their future,” she said.
Doug nodded. “You’re not one of them?”
“No,” she said, “are you?” She made a show of glaring at his arm.
Doug rubbed his hand over his stubbled jaw, then sighed and handed her two crisp bills. Having seen the chalk board sign out front for years, he knew it was what she charged for spells. “This’d better work,” he said. “If it doesn’t, I’m gonna be sick,” he said.
She tucked the money into the pocket of her long, wide skirt. “Oh, Doug.” She laughed, patted him on the shoulder. “You’ll be sick, but then you’ll get better.” She guided him down a narrow aisle of cluttered shelves and stooped to pluck a glass tube from one of the displays.
“If you’ve got a potion for dope sickness you can have it all,” he said, reaching for his wallet.
She waved her hand dismissively. “The only potion for that sickness is Heroin.”
Doug started to speak, but she shooshed him. “I’m trying to tell you something here, Doug. All magic has a price. Your addiction: it has a price. You, getting better: It’ll have a price.”
Doug nodded, “What makes it magic then?”
“Intention,” she said. “Once my intention is released. It’s up to the universe, as it sees fit, to manifest that intention.”
“What’s that mean? Manifest?”
Her face was kind. She didn’t roll her eyes or snort or scoff like when he asked Roxanne what things meant.
“Manifest is to show or demonstrate,” said Isobel. “Your future without heroin already exists among many other realities. I’m going to choose it for you, Doug, and then the universe will show it to you.” She smiled and he smiled back, exhaled through his mouth, in a sharp burst, and smiled again. She handed him the glass tube.
Doug rolled it back and forth in his palm, “What’s this?”
“Peppermint oil,” she said, and then she told him how it could be used to ease the symptoms of withdrawal.
Doug was doubtful a plant oil would help much, but then again, heroin was from a plant, wasn’t it? He thought of asking her that, but something else came to mind. “You know what ‘salt of the earth’ means?”
“Salt the earth?”
Doug nodded, assuming he’d gotten it wrong. “I heard it somewhere. You know what it means?”
“It’s from olden times. It was punishment for those deemed unvirtuous.”
“Yes. They’d pour salt on a person’s land, and nothing would grow,” she said.
Doug felt something twist in his gut. What, exactly, had Roxanne said? Did she think he was poison?
Isobel kept talking, but Doug couldn’t focus. He felt as though his whole core had been scooped out and was spilling onto everything around him. I’m poisoning myself, poisoning Roxanne, he thought. Then, something in Isobel’s tone of voice shifted, made him pay attention.
“There’s one more thing I’ll need,” she said. “You use a rope, right? For getting in your camp?”
Doug believed this was his last chance to make things right with Roxanne. Whatever Isobel had asked for, just then, he would have given her. He unzipped his backpack and uncoiled one of the thin, shorter ropes he used to assist his climb on the main rope. Isobel untwisted it, removed a few cords, and handed the rest back to Doug. As he tucked the weakened rope into his bag, he thought of the land he shared with Roxanne, the sharp gravel strewn over grease-soaked construction soil. It was a wasteland, but he felt hopeful that soon, they would both be free of it.
When Doug left the shop, Isobel tracked his progress through the window. When he was out of sight, she reversed the “open” sign and locked the door. The moon would be full in just over three hours, and she needed to prepare. Everything was coming together perfectly, but she didn’t want to overlook a thing. She would perform two binding spells. One for Doug and one for Roxanne. They were both to blame for Doug’s addiction. It only made sense to bind his enabler too. If she forgot the part that was supposed to keep Roxanne from doing harm to herself, Doug would never know. He’d probably blame himself, and then, finding himself alone, would it be unreasonable for him to feel a sense of love and devotion toward her afterwards? It would just look a lot like Doug falling into a well-worn groove. Perfect. It’s decided, she thought, and she began preparing her alter for three spells.
On Doug’s third sleepless night after visiting the shop, he remembered the oil and left his squat on the north joint for the main camp. Roxanne was snoring softly beneath the tent. Doug made as much noise as he could, crunching over the gravel. Maybe he was jealous of her ability to sleep. Maybe he really felt he couldn’t trust himself. He was too raw to be sure of his intentions.
When Doug closed his bag after retrieving the oil, he balked at the sound of the zipper. It had always been the first, in a series of sounds that would launch him back into his routine. Zip! Then, the slap of the ropes, his feet hitting the dusty shoulder of the highway, his fingernail flicking the seam of a glassine bag, the squeak of leather tightening around his arm. The sounds roared in his ears and the lead-brick feeling in his gut doubled him over. Roxanne stirred, and he felt something within him unclench. Then, she rolled over and began, again, to snore.
Doug felt the snoring, more than he heard it, rattling along the end of every nerve. He wanted to tear down the entire camp. He wanted to shake her awake and yell at her, but even at his worst, he knew he could never hurt her. He was the kind of guy that punched walls, not people. He’d never be like Xander, her ex—a drug dealer, who wrote all the rules for her and changed them without notice. It’s why she’s with me, Doug thought, but the thought only made him feel ashamed. He threw the vial of oil at a cinder block in the corner, and it landed with a crack. The smell of peppermint filled the small space and burned Doug’s nostrils as he squatted beside her.
“What the hell?!” She said, pressing her fingers against the bridge of her nose where she could feel the cool burn of the oil. She reached for her head lamp and flicked it on.
“It’s like you don’t even care if I go back out,” Doug said.
Roxanne’s eyes began to water against the sting of the oil fumes. She pulled the neck of her shirt up to shield her face.
“It’s just oil, Rox. Could you stop thinking about yourself for one goddamn minute?”
Roxanne pulled the shirt down to reveal her face, underlit by the headlamp in her palm. It twisted with disgust. “Thinking about myself?” she said. “If I was thinking about myself, I’d have…”
Doug was breathing hard through his nostrils and the menthol fumes ripped through his sinuses. He pinched the bridge of his nose against the onslaught. “You’d ’ve what?”
“Never mind.” Her hands trembled as she brushed shards of glass aside with the sole of her empty boot.
Doug’s eyes watered and burned. He was barely resisting the urge to bat his way out of the tent. “Why won’t you help me?”
Roxanne looked frightened, and her panic only spurred Doug’s mounting rage.
She reached into her bra and slipped a damp twenty-dollar bill into his palm. “You won’t get high with that. Just take the edge off, Doug. Please. You’re scaring me. I feel like I don’t know you when you’re like this.”
He threw the bill at her feet, then caught his shoulder on the flap of the tent as he stomped off. “You’re supposed to be supporting me through this,” he said over his shoulder. She yelled something back, but the crunch of his footsteps swallowed the words. He returned to his exile at the north joint.
For the next three days, the sky was cloudless, and Doug had only the buzz of flies and the stench of his own sickness for company.
He’s too stubborn, Roxanne thought as she pulled Doug’s unknotted ropes over her palm. She toyed with them, trying to replicate the knots she’d watched Doug tie a thousand times, wishing she’d paid more attention.
Roxanne approached Doug in his corner, and he fought the urge to kick his chuck bucket over in anger. I’m really not myself, he thought. He wretched and doubled over the bucket. Only dry heaves. Something seemed lodged inside him, unable to work itself out. He spat and heaved again. Roxanne handed him a jug of water. He took a sip and held it in his mouth awhile before swallowing. She convinced him to go back to the tent with her, where the smell of peppermint lingered, and would help ease his nausea.
They walked to the tent and sat together on the plywood board. Roxanne’s sleeping bag was rolled in the corner.
Roxanne took Doug’s hand and said, “I was trying to help you, you know. I don’t see why it has to be cold-turkey.”
Doug knew that she knew why it did, but he said nothing. He let her rub his hand as he stared at the dark patch of gravel in the corner. Every visible shard of glass had been removed from the tent. He wondered if there was still glass, fine as powder, sinking deeper with the vibration of every truck that passed.
Roxanne cleared her throat. “I thought it might help you feel better, if you keep busy doing something you like.” Doug’s eyes rose to meet hers. “Why don’t you show me some knots?”
Doug cracked a smile for the first time in days. He could talk knots for hours and he did. The sun rose in the sky and began to sear Roxanne’s back through the tent. She grew impatient. It was only a matter of time before he’d lose his cool and start ranting and raving like Xander. It scared her to think that a person could change. She’d seen it happen before. She loved Doug, and trusted him, but still, when he expressed any negative emotion, all she could see, was Xander diminishing her world, until he was the only thing that fit. “Show me the one you use when you climb,” she said, trying not to sound eager.
“Ah. The prusik,” Doug said. He tied a short thin rope to the long thick one. Then, he tied a loop into the end of the thinner rope. “It’s too easy. You just slide it up and step into it, then when you take your weight off that one, you slide the other rope up. Then, you step into that.”
“Yeah?” She’d been rummaging through her purse for another clove. As she uncrossed her legs to retrieve her lighter from her jeans, she realized how dead her legs had gone. Just keep him talking, keep him happy, she told herself, trying not to wince as a sharp, tingling pain crawled down her leg. Just keep him tying those knots.
In the wake of so much peppermint, she felt almost stupefied by the warm scent of the clove. He kept droning on, and all she could do to stay awake was tune him out, coach herself through her next moves.
“Your best instincts can kill you with that knot. Even expert climbers grab the knot when they’re falling sometimes. They know the knot won’t catch if they grab it. It’s one of the only things that’ll make it fail. They know better in their head, but for some reason the hand just grabs it and won’t let go. They need to let go though, for the knot to catch.”
When he looked to her for some reaction, she considered asking him to repeat himself, then, thought better of it. Why risk angering him? She scanned his face. “Woah” she said, without missing a beat. She rubbed his back and reassessed just how much more rope talk she might have to suffer through to get that harness tied around her. “I’ll try to tie the other one and you tell me what to do as I go,” she said.
Doug shook his head no.
“That one’s frayed and it’s too thin now,” he said.
Maybe it’s too thin for you, Roxanne thought, but not for me. “It wouldn’t hurt to do it just for practice,” she said.
“No point,” he said, “A prusik won’t do its job if the rope’s too thick or too thin.” Doug rolled the cord of rope between his fingers, held it close to his eyes, and squinted at it. “Well, it’s borderline-too-thin. It might just work.” Deep creases formed in Doug’s brow as he worked at the knot and when he finished, he held the main rope taught between one hand and his boot. With his other hand, he slid the knot up and tugged on the end to test it. “I’ll be dammed,” he said with a grin. In the next instant, he was doubled over in pain.
Roxanne rubbed his back and waited for him to stop groaning. “You just have to keep distracting yourself. Everything physical comes from the mind, right? Here,” she said handing him another length of rope, one Doug didn’t carry in his pack. It was the rope Doug had used to harness her on her first and only descent.
Doug frowned and opened his mouth to say something.
Roxanne spoke first. “Just for fun, Doug,” she said, “Make me a harness. Hook me up to the rope.”
Doug sucked his teeth and glanced, again, over her shoulder at the patch of gravel, dark with oil. He sighed in reluctant agreement, and bound Roxanne’s pelvis in the ropes. Then, he connected the thicker, of the two thinner ropes to her harness, and connected that to the main climbing rope with a prusik knot. He’d spent countless hours imagining the day he’d weave those ropes around her hips and watch her ascend. Doug smiled at her. Maybe that day was closer than he thought. Maybe when he stopped being sick, when his mood was stable again, she wouldn’t be so scared of him, so scared of everything. Maybe then, they both could leave this awful place.
“You’re still aching,” she said placing a hand on his shoulder.
“I’ll give you a back rub.”
“You don’t have to,” he said, but that was Roxanne, always taking care of him, taking care of everything. I’m gonna be the one taking care of her soon and everything will be different, better, Doug thought as he lay, face down, on the plank. She straddled his hips and the ropes, still fastened around her, pressed against Doug’s flesh. She worked her hands over his shoulders and his pain subsided. Doug closed his eyes and drifted into the first sleep he’d had in days.
Roxanne wasn’t nervous about the climb. She had a harness, after all, and she was glad she’d tuned out whatever Doug had had to say about it. It would’ve only scared her. It was simple physics. Anyone could learn to tie these knots and use them. She had a loop for her foot on a prusik knot and a harness on a prusik knot. That was all she needed. A person could climb that way. She’d heard him speak of it before. She could swear there was even a name for it. Texas style? What did it matter? Soon she’d be back over the wall with the heroin, and everything would, once again, be predictable, safe—back to how it was.
Doug awoke suddenly, his heart thrumming in his chest. He couldn’t tell how long he’d slept, but he could see the sun through the tent and its position hadn’t seemed to change. He struggled to force his aching body up and out of the tent, and as soon as he did, he wished he’d done so sooner. Roxanne was near the top of the retaining wall, suspended thirty feet from the ground.
He noticed that she hadn’t bothered to knot the end of the rope. Cold sweat beaded on his brow. That knot needed to be there to catch her if her prusiks failed. He ran toward her, but the world seemed to slow around him, as his thoughts raced. He had to tie it for her but feared he’d make it worse. It might put on extra tension or add extra slack. Could that cause the prusiks to fail? He couldn’t think of a time he’d seen a safety knot tied after a climber had ascended.
Roxanne saw him approaching and she couldn’t let him stop her. She couldn’t explain it to him when he was like this. When she came back with the heroin, that would be the time to talk. He wouldn’t be able to resist if it was right there, and once he was through with his miserable sickness, he’d be docile as a kitten again, dozing in the sun and playing with his yarn. The top of the wall was inches out of reach. She was nearly there. She pressed her weight into the loop around her foot and it broke, just as she was sliding up the loosened prusik, the only knot tethering her harness to the main rope. The prusik started slipping down the main rope and she grabbed it as tight as she could, but it was still sliding, slipping faster and faster. She was falling.
Doug shouted, “Let go!” It’ll catch, he thought, if she’d just let go, the safety knot won’t matter. He was still a yard away, when he heard the sickening crack of her head as it struck the base of the wall. He checked her pulse, it was faint. I should get some help, Doug thought, but he couldn’t bear to leave her. Not yet. These could be her final moments, he thought as he cradled her in his arms and sobbed, “Why couldn’t you have just let go?”
When Doug was released from police custody, cleared of murder, he was given bus fare and a desk appearance ticket for trespassing. He boarded the bus, planning to get high, but when the bus rolled past Isobel’s shop, he found himself pressing the tape, exiting through the rear. The doors closed behind him. It was too late to turn around. My body’s just doing what it knows, he told himself. She’d been part of the run for years. Maybe she’d loan him some cash.
Isobel led him into her tiny apartment above the shop. She folded her bed back into a sofa and offered him a seat. When Doug told her what had happened, she ran her hand along his shoulders. Beneath his grief, he felt a new emotion stirring, something like excitement, but rounder, fuller, like the sound of a deadbolt clicking into place, if a sound could feel like something. That was what he’d felt the day he met Roxanne, and the more the feeling swelled in him, the more he believed some divine, or cosmic force was drawing him to Isobel. And as ashamed as he was to admit it to himself, he couldn’t help but notice all the little ways that Isobel was different, better. It wouldn’t be for years, but Doug would come to understand the feelings that he’d had that day. On a scored stool behind the beaded curtains, he would fill a special order, one that called for oils of cedar, spruce, and vetiver. He would hold the mixed vial to his nose and inhale deeply, longing for the woods.
Alison Kaiser is a former associate editor of Mudfish. Her work has appeared in literary magazines such as Skidrow Penthouse, Meat for Tea: The Valley Review, and Café Lit, among others. She has work forthcoming in Yellow Mama. She lives with her husband and son in Brooklyn.