There was nothing in this world that James Taylor wanted more than to wake up next to his girlfriend each morning, and to know that his son was sleeping soundly, safe in the next room. He’d listen, with a tired smile on his face, to his girlfriend complain about how he left the orange juice out the night before, about her asshole manager at work and how he would “accidentally” brush up against her, her friends with better jobs, and how different things would be had she not gotten pregnant and could have stayed in school. For James, that would have been enough. That would have been perfect. But he did his best to lose everything the night he got high and misinterpreted a text message on her phone from a guy that she worked with, and threw her against the bedroom wall.
James had plenty of time to agonize about his missed opportunities, stupid mistakes, and shattered dreams while sitting in a cell, his head still pounding from his last Robitussin trip. Thirty counts of burglary, thirty counts of breaking and entering, thirty counts of grand larceny, five counts of felony identity theft. The public defender said twenty years if he plead guilty. That was the best the state was going to offer. In twenty years, James would be forty-eight years old. To a twenty-eight year old, forty-eight might as well be ninety-eight. He found himself wondering how it got so bad, so quickly.
This is the last time. I’m only going to trip one more time. That thought got James fired from Walgreens five months earlier. Stealing cough syrup from the pharmacy was just another stupid decision in James’ life. One of many. The new store manager had been keeping tighter control on the store’s inventory, and James had begun acting erratically the past few weeks. He seemed scatterbrained, and unable to focus on the simplest of tasks. Two weeks before he got fired, James showed up at work for the wrong shift, two days in a row. Something had to be done. To a sober person, addiction may sound like something obscure or foreign; but the high that James felt every time he got to the bottom of a Robitussin bottle was unbeatable. The crushing feelings of sadness and guilt had met their match. It became a necessity. Before James was fired, it was a daily routine for him to grab a bottle off the shelf as if it were for a customer. James then would take the bottle to the break room, concealing it in his sleeve. Once in the privacy of the break room, the bottle made its way into James’ hooded sweatshirt that he stored in his locker. When it was time to clock out for the day, James would carry his sweatshirt under his arm, and no one ever noticed. This was how James supplied the poison for his addiction for the better part of a year.
It would start with some lightheadedness. James would begin to feel extremely tired, but he had to fight through that. Nausea would then set in, like clockwork. If he could fight through the nausea and keep from vomiting, his mouth would begin to foam a little, like some sort of rabid animal. James was used to this and used a small cup to spit in. Not vomiting was the most important part. He had to keep it down. James would lay in his bed and the overwhelming sensation of floating would set in. He felt as if he could roll over and look down on his body, which was sprawled out on the bed like a corpse. James Taylor was weightless, not sure if he was spinning, or if it was the room. This sensation was what James was hoping and waiting for. This was the sensation that James was willing to steal for. James’ arms felt like they weighed a ton. Stuck to the bed. Peaceful. No collection agency or landlord could get to him here. No one else was allowed in these moments. James wanted to switch lives with somebody else. Anybody else.
It was cold, even for January. James sat on his couch in his living room, trying to put his mind elsewhere. He was ashamed to even think about what he had to do later that night. In his mind, James really didn’t have a choice. The child support calls weren’t going to stop until he paid them. The landlord’s good grace was eventually going to run out when the checks stopped coming. The utility company didn’t even call before they shut off the power a month earlier. He had considered filing bankruptcy, but didn’t really even know what bankruptcy was, or how to do it. He had heard of bankruptcy court, but didn’t know what that was either and definitely couldn’t afford a lawyer. He was a mess. James mulled numerous possibilities: get rich quick schemes, pyramid schemes, work-from-home jobs, stuffing envelopes, donating plasma, and basically everything an addict would think of before he ultimately faced the one glaring fact: he needed money, and he didn’t have any. James wanted desperately to be able to pay his bills every month. He didn’t want to be a deadbeat. Normal people pay their bills on time, and if he could, James would have worked himself to death just to be normal.
As the minutes and hours of the day crept by, James felt each tick of the clock reverberate in his body. The day progressed, and the butterflies in his stomach turned into piranhas. For James, each tick of the clock was a one tick closer to the moment he’d sell his soul.
The clock struck 3AM and James, solemnly, donning all black, made his way out the front door and towards the apartment complex at the end of his street. It was the kind of night where it was so cold that even a scream couldn’t cut through the frozen, piercing air. The night air, although frozen, felt thick to James, as if he was on a plane, breathing recycled air. James was amazed how different the world was at night. Calm. Frozen. Silent. The night air didn’t care that he had back child support, and certainly didn’t judge him for stealing. As James made his way closer to the apartment complex, he felt a sharp pain in his lower back. This was the kind of agonizing stress pain that is normally brought on by lifelong affairs, devastating secrets, and family shame. The pain hit James like a stray bullet, meant for someone else. The cold did its best to numb the pain, but as he got closer to the apartments, the pain became more intense, more shooting. James was amazed he could feel anything at that moment.
He walked at a brisk pace, noticing every car parked on the street. He couldn’t help but see people sitting in the driver’s seats of each car, staring at him. Judging him. He knew they weren’t really there, but it bothered him just the same. Who were these phantoms to judge him? They didn’t know James or the hell he was going through. They never had to deal with crippling debt or looming legal obligations. They weren’t battling addictions. They had never lost a child in a custody battle. They weren’t real. There was a battle going on in James’ head. James was losing it.
Tar River Estates was in sight, and James slowed his pace, taking great care to notice everything around him. The parking lot was mostly empty, as college students had not returned from Christmas break. If there was ever a perfect time to hit his first apartment, this was it. He made his way through the dark, empty parking lot, and the occasional “kicking on” of heating units startled him. Each “bang” James heard was loud and jarring enough to stop him in his tracks, and might as well have been a gunshot. Maybe had it been a gunshot, he would have fewer things to worry about and it could all be over. As James approached the back sliding door of one of the apartments, he had a moment of pause. What if I get caught? Maybe that wouldn’t be a bad thing. Maybe then he’d be forced to change. He knew that breaking into
apartments wouldn’t fix what mattered, but he had no other choice.
James entered the apartment. It was dark. He looked at his watch. It ticked twice, and stopped.
Brandon Frisby is a fiction writer from Greenville, North Carolina. He received his MA in Creative Writing from East Carolina University. Brandon currently teaches English at the high school level.