Even in mid-February the sign on the upholstery shop across the street from the methadone clinic still read, “Jesus is the Reason for the Season,” so Kaitlyn passed time waiting for the clinic to open by picturing Jesus, beard and all, in a little cherubic outfit, complete with wings and sash and diaper and bow and quiver and heart-tipped arrows. The image made her smile absently to herself, and distracted her, so she didn’t hear the dealer sidle up behind her.
“Feeling that good already, huh?” he said, catching the corner of her smile as she gazed across the street at the storefront. She immediately wiped the look, and any emotion, from her face. She cursed herself for the moment of expression and, by extension, weakness.
“Sure, I’m out here living the dream,” she told the vulture. He smiled and nodded sagely.
“I haven’t seen you here before,” he said. “Are you new?”
“No, I usually come later when they’re already open. I like to get in and get out.”
“But not today.”
“No, not today.”
“Just hanging around out front today.”
“Hanging around waiting.”
“Something different today,” the vulture observed. “Maybe looking for something different.”
“No,” Kaitlyn said, and turned to look him in the eyes, trying to project strength the way she’d learned in various residential facilities and halfway houses. Sometimes people bought it. Sometimes they didn’t.
“No, my schedule just got weird today,” she continued. “This was the only time I could come. I need to get in as soon as they open, then leave.”
The vulture nodded his sympathetic understanding. “Crazy day, huh? Lots of stress.”
“Nothing unmanageable,” she said. “Are you waiting to go in?” She knew full well he wasn’t, but was tired of being on the back foot, interrogated. Let this asshole account for his plans for the day if he was so talkative.
“Me? Nah,” he said, scabby hands reaching up to scratch at his heavily tattooed neck, rotating his shaved head so he could get all around his throat. “These places are bullshit.”
“Is that right?”
“Sure, that’s right,” he said. “I was just waiting for my friend to show up, but I guess he’s not gonna. We were gonna share something.” The vulture gestured to his pocket.
“He was going to go into the clinic and then share something you had?”
The vulture nodded.
“Busy day for him.”
“Nah, we were gonna trade his,” the vulture explained. “Get more of this. Always somebody looking to trade something for something else.”
“Ain’t that the truth,” Kaitlyn said, but it must have come off more suggestively than she’d intended, because it perked the vulture’s interest back up again.
“Oh yeah, mama,” he said. “And what are you looking to trade for?”
“Not a goddamn thing,” she said, and fished out her phone to check the time. Still three minutes until the clinic opened. She was done being polite to this guy. He couldn’t take a hint and the clinic security was right inside, prepping the floor if he tried anything. Even this guy wouldn’t be stupid enough for that. Time for him to go bug somebody else.
“C’mon, babe, you don’t want to go in there,” he said. “These places are nothing but bullshit.”
“Yeah, you mentioned that.”
“So come with me,” he said. “We’ll get you fixed up right.”
“Not today,” she said. “Sorry.”
“How ’bout tomorrow?”
“There have got to be girls in this neighborhood easier than this to turn out if you have any kind of decent shit,” she says. “So I assume you’re getting by on your hustle rather than your dope. But I’m not that impressed with your hustle.”
“You’re a mouthy bitch, you know that?”
“How can I not be mouthy if you won’t take a polite ‘no’ for an answer?”
“I ain’t heard a polite ‘no.’”
She turned to him and looked at him, full on. He was scrawny, like he had been skinny all his life and getting on smack was just an excuse that had given him a better justification for his body type. He wore a ratty old black Carhartt jacket over a henley buttoned shirt that was fraying at the neck. His jeans and boots had paint stains and chemical burns and his hands, in addition to the scabs, had black soot under the nails. He looked exactly like about a thousand other men and boys she had known in her life.
“What’s your name?” she asked him.
“All right, Benjamin. What was it you wanted to ask me? No bullshit.”
“I just wanted to see if you wanted to hang out.”
“And do what?”
“You know. Party.”
“With what? Specifically.”
“I’m not getting into all that out here,” he said, his head again doing the swivel, now looking for authority figures or law enforcement. His neck could swivel to amazing angles, like a featherless, beakless owl.
“All right,” she said. “Well, thanks for the offer. I’m not saying I’ve never taken anybody up on one before in front of a clinic. And I’m not saying I won’t ever do it again. For now, I’m working on getting my kid back, so I’m gonna just get my fix and get to work. Cool?”
“Sure, that’s cool,” the vulture said. Was his name really Benjamin? That seemed hard to make up on the spot. “Good luck with your kid. Boy or girl?”
“Girl,” Kaitlyn said. “She’s seven. She’s with my folks right now.”
“Nice that you can see her still.”
“Yeah, it’s better than foster care. You have kids?”
The dealer nodded resignedly, like it was a topic he didn’t like to dwell on.
“You should go see them.”
“I would, but, you know,” he said, rolling his eyes and making a jerkoff motion. “The moms.”
Kaitlyn heard the door unlock and the other patients started to push past her, moving toward the door.
“I’m gonna go in,” she said. “Stay safe out there.”
“Yeah, you too,” the dealer said, and turned up the collar on his Carhartt. He pivoted on his heel and began to dig a cigarette out of his coat pocket.
Sean liked to pass his time waiting for the clinic to open by grouping his fellow patients into porn sub-genres. Latina. MILF. Interracial. Petite. BBWs were few and far between in the world of narcotics abusers, but once people got into recovery some found replacement addictions with food and made up for lost time as they regained the ability to eat (and shit) normally. Heroin was notorious for its constipating side effects.
Even while performing this mental exercise, Sean avoided eye contact. He tried to notice and observe others without himself being noticeable, a skill he had acquired when he was running & gunning. It greatly aided in his attempts to snatch-and-run or pick someone’s pocket. It was hard to look trustworthy and innocuous when the drugs were starting to take their toll on you physically and your lifestyle was preventing you from bathing or changing clothes as often as you’d like, but Sean had usually been able to pull it off.
He was strikingly handsome, tall and long and lean, dark hair and piercing green eyes and a sharp nose that somehow didn’t make him look like a bird, though it probably should have. He was a quarter Korean, and the Eurasian mix in him had always made him beautiful. He would have never had a hard time getting a date, even if he wasn’t a prolific talker and bullshit artist, which he was. At one time he had sold luxury cars at the highest-end dealership in town, but as his use had made him less and less reliable he had steadily worked his way down until he was selling RVs on a weekday shift just outside the city limits.
That had been before in-patient treatment, though. He was on the mend now, or at least he was supposed to be. After discharge he had initially attended his intensive outpatient follow-up treatment, but then his insurance had ran out, and he had to stop. The NA meetings were still open to him, and free, but he had not been consistent in his attendance. The people there scared him. They seemed like hardcore users and losers and, despite his counselors’ advice to see the similarities between himself and them rather than the differences, he couldn’t help but think of himself as separate from those people.
He figured as long as he didn’t use, meetings he could take or leave. He was back to working regularly now. He was making child support payments to his ex and his work performance had picked up since he’d been out of in-patient, the old charm starting to return as his face and arms cleared up and he began to awake to the world again. The kidney failure and the writhing around on the floor of the detox clinic seemed like a long time ago.
He watched a dealer approach a tall woman waiting in line in front of him. He had a hard time grouping the woman into a sub-genre, but he liked the look of her all the same. She seemed to be telling the dealer to get lost, but then softened and struck up a conversation with him. Sean wondered if the dealer had made his sale and the woman would go off with him before the clinic opened. Dealers were always prowling around outside of clinics. It was a ready-made consumer base. As a salesman himself, Sean appreciated the impossibility of resisting such an attractive crowd. Human sympathy didn’t enter into it. The dealers didn’t care if you were trying to clean up and get your shit together for your kids or your spouse or your job or whatever. They figured you were an adult and if you weren’t interested you could sure as shit make that clear.
Sean knew the woman was playing a dangerous game even by being polite to the dealer. Sure, that’s what your brain told itself, that you were just being polite, that it’s rude and dangerous to just openly tell someone to fuck off in the middle of the street. But the brains out here, in this line, were all liars. The brains in this line didn’t care about being polite or being nice. They’d been hurtful and cruel to the people who loved them the most plenty of times. What the brains in this line wanted was to be talked into leaving the line. Not going to the clinic. Going somewhere else. Trap house. For the real thing. The main event. Barnum and Bailey’s. All the circus with all the rings.
Sean knew that if that dealer, or any dealer, approached him, he would pretend not to hear them through his headphones, which is why he always wore them in line. If they persisted, he would tell them to fuck off, in exactly those words and no uncertain terms. That was how you got by in this game. No prisoners. No sympathy. The majority of people he’d been in residential treatment with were already using again, even though they’d only been released a few weeks ago, and when they called or texted, he ignored them. That was how he survived and got by. A lifeboat big enough for one. It went against a lot of what his counselors had told him about recovery being a program of “we,” but they also said that people who hung around barber shops long enough eventually got haircuts. He didn’t talk to dealers. He didn’t talk to junkies. If that made him rude, or an asshole, or unfeeling, so be it. He wasn’t trying to go back. Not again. Not this time.
The door unlocked and the patients waiting outside began to press toward it. Sean watched the tall girl say goodbye to the dealer and then she too began to make her way inside. So he would have lost that bet after all. There were a bunch of ways to not use. But that one still looked risky as hell to him.
Now that he thought about it, maybe all of this isolation and refusal to connect was why Sean thought of real-life, breathing people in terms of porn sub-genres.
Elvin’s father had not been in favor of the methadone clinic getting permitted by the zoning board the year before. Elvin’s father had felt strongly about that. Elvin’s father felt strongly about a lot of things.
Elvin’s father felt strongly that Elvin was a disappointment, though he had never used that word specifically to Elvin. But Elvin had seen parents tell their kids they were disappointing or disappointments or equally crushing things on TV, and when they did, they looked at their kids how Elvin’s father often looked at Elvin when he was telling Elvin something wrong with Elvin’s life. So Elvin assumed that these other things they were talking about meant, in effect, the same thing. Disappointing. Disappointment. Me and you. Father and son.
Elvin’s father was the President of the Downtown Landlord Association and was a big believer in what he called “revitalization” and what the protesters who gathered outside his offices often called “gentirification.” Elvin understood neither of these concepts, though he was not dumb. But when people felt something about something, and especially when they felt strongly about something, Elvin struggled to understand why. Ideas and concepts were not so confusing to him so much as what people did with them and for them. And when Elvin felt that confusion about people, that was his emotion that he felt strongly. That frustration. And it often caused him to lash out. Or else medicate the feeling. Which resulted in problems all its own.
He’d had doctors diagnose him with a number of problems, and he could still remember a few of them. Schizophrenic. Bi-polar. Mid-level autistic. Even sociopathic once. There had been a number of hospitalizations and a number of prescriptions to follow each diagnosis but, in the end, the result was often the same. Either an outburst or the drinking and drugs to medicate the confusion. And then the return to his dad for the next diagnosis and the next cycle of hospitalizations and medication.
But this last time had been different, when he’d washed up on his dad’s doorstep. This time, his dad explained, he would be using something called “tough love.” His father was through “enabling” him, he explained, and Elvin would simply have to find his own way out of a mess for once. Elvin’s dad’s new wife — well, not so new anymore — stood off to the side of the room nodding and all but mouthing the words along with Elvin’s dad. Elvin had noticed a change in his dad’s attitude toward him ever since the two of them had been married six years ago, and it had only accelerated since his step brothers had started being born.
Elvin understood his dad’s frustration, because nobody was more frustrated with his life than he was. He was sick of the cycle of diagnosis and hope then backsliding and loss of hope and eventual just total meltdown. He was sick of being a fuck-up and disappointment, which were never words his dad or the doctors would have used, but terms he picked up from his friends and the people he hung out with when he was drinking and smoking pot. They liked him for the money he often brought, cadged from his dad, and because he would do anything on a dare, especially if he had a few drinks in him. And Elvin was desperate to be liked. So anyone who accepted him he gravitated to again and again even if, through the confusion, he knew he was being used.
When Elvin’s dad stopped “enabling” him, even those not-so-nice people who had accepted Elvin for all the wrong reasons went away. And there were no more doctors to take him. No more residential programs for him to belong in, even for the short amount of time he had been able to keep it together in the past. He was young, he was unemployed, and he was broke. He began to sleep on the streets and panhandle for 24-ounce cans of malt liquor. Collect cans and bottles to redeem the deposits when he could.
But the methadone clinic opening stuck in his mind throughout his time on the streets. It had been the last thing to really upset his dad before they cut off contact, and it floated around in the rest of his confusion until he somehow began to conflate it with his dad’s disappointment in him. The two had gotten mixed up and intertwined and Elvin, in his confusion, felt like he had to do something to resolve them both.
At first, he didn’t know what he could do. His dad was smart about real estate and property and even the things that he didn’t understand, he had lawyers for. They were there to decipher and explain and argue. Elvin had none of that. He had only his confusion and the few rudimentary tools that he used to manage it. But then, over time, as his isolation persisted and increased and his frustration with his inability to solve the problem grew, he realized that really he had been making the thing too complicated all along.
What was needed here was not a lawyer solution. The lawyers had their go at it and they had failed. The stupid thing had opened anyway, greatly upsetting his dad. What was needed here was a simple solution. A fast solution. A solution that nobody would think of but him. A double-whammy that undid the two now-connected sources of aggravation for his dad while also relieving Elvin’s despair and total frustration and confusion. What was needed was one easy move that would take care of it all.
Another thing Elvin’s father felt strongly about was hunting. And guns. Also golf and sailing and any other number of rich-man pursuits that allowed rich men to show how rich they were relative to other rich men, but the guns and the hunting were not about status. He really and genuinely enjoyed them. Elvin could see it on his face when they went shooting together, before the end of the “enabling,” at the range in the city or out behind his father’s house in the country, where they could take out his father’s guns and really let rip.
Shooting had been one way that Elvin had not disappointed his father. Elvin was a good shot, and he took good care of guns. Guns, and machines, had always made more sense to him than people. Less nuance. Fewer cues to read. This gear turned this. This lever flipped this. This hammer struck that. It made sense to him. His father and his father’s friends explained a piece of construction or maintenance equipment to him once and he saw it the same every time after that. His most successful classes in school had been wood and machine shop, and his best stays at residential facilities had been the ones that allowed manual labor with tools. Once he showed what he could do on maintaining equipment, from simple to complex, he was often entrusted with its care.
But the guns he got especially good at because it was one way to — not so much earn his father’s approval, that was out of the question — but one area where he wasn’t a total disappointment. His father would have company over at the country house and have everyone gather around, highball glasses in hand, and watch Elvin shoot tiny objects from far away. Everyone was always suitably impressed, or else deferred to his father enough that they put up an act. Elvin was glad to have one area at least where he was a source of pride for his dad. He knew the other people at the party bragged about their kids getting into law school or medical school. He knew he was the fuck-up kid in that generation of the social circle, but he never felt patronized when they gathered around to ooh and ahh at his shooting. He wouldn’t have understood the word. He was just glad for a brief blip of congratulations in what was an otherwise bleak trudge of disappointing and disappointment.
Elvin knew that his father’s new wife was careless about locking windows and the big plaza doors that opened out onto the back patio at the country house. He knew where his father kept the key to the gun safe and the combination to access the magazines and ammo. Getting out to the country house had been the hard part, but he also knew where his father kept his emergency stashes of hard currency in the house, so he convinced a couple that he knew from the shelters who was currently living in their car to drive him up there. He promised them $200 each and gas money for the trip and back, and as he peeled the bills off one of his father’s rolls, he carefully calculated how much gas should be, then tucked the rest of the money back in its hiding place. It turned his stomach to steal money from his father. The guns were for a good reason, something his dad would appreciate. Like when you lied to somebody but it was for the purpose of getting them to their own surprise birthday party. But the cash just felt wrong. He put it out of his mind. He had promised, and it had to be done to get the guns. There was no way around it.
Once he had the guns he knew he had to act quickly. It was hard for him to keep hold of his possessions on the street. He was forgetful and confused and the pot or malt liquor he could lay hold of to quiet his brain only made him more forgetful with his things. He stashed the guns in a hard-to-reach place he knew about on the banks of the river. They would be safe there for a few days in their cases. He knew they had been properly oiled and cared for before being put away at his father’s house. He had been the one to do it.
After he stashed them he spent the next few days hanging around the clinic. It was hard for him to learn a schedule but he concentrated and made notes on his hands. The largest crowds were there just before opening. The “patients” wanted to get taken care of and get off to work or go check in with their parole officer or do whatever else with their day. He knew heroin users and he knew the schedule didn’t come easily to these people. He knew the showing up on time and the doing what they were told and the taking only so much was not who they really were.
Not that he didn’t like them. Elvin liked most everybody, in stark contrast to his father, who fumed and ranted about all sorts of groups of people, spittle coming from his mouth. Elvin even liked people whom he somehow figured out were being mean to him. Again, it was just another thing that confused him. Elvin wasn’t mad at the clinic workers, or the clinic patients, or anybody, really. He just wanted not to be where he was at, in life, anymore, and wanted to do something nice for his dad. And if his extremely limited skillset was a hammer, then a lot of problems began to look like nails.
Kaitlyn and Sean had just gotten inside the clinic when the shooting began. They both quickly huddled, together, under a long table used for filling out paperwork, which sat just to the left of the large bank of picture windows (if you were looking at them from the inside). Some of the window panels now had bullet holes through them.
Benjamin, the vulture dealer, lay outside, his head split open like an overripe fruit, oozing onto the sidewalk. He had a double-tap in his chest for good measure.
After the initial burst, the situation had now gone quiet, and Kaitlyn and Sean didn’t know whether to let themselves begin to hope that they might make it out of this alive. Neither felt safe where they were but neither wanted to risk leaving it and worsening their situation. Their eyes scanned the room for clues of what to do next. Their ears strained, hopefully, for the sounds of sirens and rescue.
Bodies were strewn around the inside of the clinic, though all the shooting had come from outside. Some were like Benjamin, completely still and leaking out. Others groaned and writhed and cradled injured limbs. Still others were working to crawl behind the counter, seemingly forgetting in their panic that methadone labs were well secured against access to unauthorized personnel. The clinic workers had disappeared quickly after the shooting began, even the security guards, either under the counters or into the back offices and safety. The bulletproof glass in front of the counters, always seemingly unneeded to Kaitlyn, with all the junkies too itchy and agitated to cause harm to anyone, had seemingly done their job. The silence was rarely broken, and, even then, only slightly, quietly. It was unexpected and surprising and oppressive.
After both had finished scanning the room, they finally looked to one another. Catching Kaitlyn looking him in the eye struck Sean as awkward, even in the extreme circumstances, and he smiled uncomfortably.
“Hi,” he said by way of breaking the tension.
“Hi,” Kaitlyn replied, and also counterintuitively allowed herself to smile.
“What do you think?” Sean asked.
“Hard to say,” Kaitlyn said. “Been quiet for a minute.” Kaitlyn was facing away from the door and didn’t dare turn around to see if someone was about to come through it. Sean could see it behind her when he looked at her to speak.
“I’ve never read, like, the emergency procedures of what to do in a mass shooting,” Sean said.
“I don’t, like, work in a school or a government building. I didn’t think I had to know that shit.”
“Yeah, me neither.”
They sat there hyperventilating for what felt like an hour, even though they had both run only a short distance to get under the table.
“We can’t stay here forever,” Kaitlyn said.
“Where the fuck are the cops?”
“I don’t fucking know. I still don’t hear any sirens.”
They both strained to listen again.
“I have a kid,” Kaitlyn eventually said.
“Christ, I’m sorry,” Sean said.
“I don’t know. I don’t know why I said that.”
“Well, don’t say shit like that.”
“Okay, okay. I’m sorry.”
“I have a kid and I need to make it out of here.”
“I get that.”
“I have a kid and I need to get out of here.”
“Okay, so out the front?”
“I don’t know. That’s the question.”
“What’s the question?”
“Whether it’s safe yet.”
“Well, what do you think?”
“I don’t know.”
“How long has it been since the shooting stopped?”
“I don’t know. I haven’t been looking at my phone.”
“I know,” Sean said. “Fuck.”
That seemed to be all there was to say about the situation. They had their options. They could wait and hope or else do something and risk making things worse. It was hard to know what to do, hard to know what the right choice was, although, once they made it, it could be instantly clear that they should have gone the other way. If they stood up and ran for it and the shooter was standing just outside the door, they’d wish they’d stayed under the table. If they stayed under the table only to hear the door swing open and the crunch of glass under boots, they’d wished they’d made a run for it before they’d been totally boxed in.
“What’s your kid’s name?” Sean asked eventually.
“Becca,” Kaitlyn said. “Working on getting custody back.”
“I hear that.”
“You have kids?”
“Two. Live with their mom.”
“Just supervised meetings now.”
After a pause, Sean said, “I wonder if my sponsor would buy it as an excuse that I couldn’t make it to meetings for a while because I got shot?”
Kaitlyn tried to stop herself from laughing.
“Sorry, that’s not funny,” Sean said. “With them,” he gestured toward the bodies lying behind Kaitlyn, “with them still there.”
“No, it’s okay,” Kaitlyn said. “What else can you do?”
“It’s laugh or cry.”
“Laugh or cry,” Kaitlyn agreed.
“There’ll be enough time to cry later.”
“Okay, now who is saying shit?”
“You’re right,” Kaitlyn said. “I’m sorry.”
“Okay, really, let’s make a decision here. Run for it?”
“I don’t know. How long has it been?”
“We don’t know and we’re not going to know and staying here is, basically, making a decision.”
“Okay,” Kaitlyn said. “Let’s go.”
“Yeah, let’s go.”
“I’m not sure my legs will work.”
“They will,” she said. “Don’t think about it. Just run.”
She began to stand up and brush glass off the back of her pants.
“Wait wait wait,” Sean said. “When we get out the front door are we going left or right or across the street or…”
“I told you not to think about it,” she said, still crouching, but also reaching over to him to help him up. “Just get up and move. Now. Fast.”
Bio: Tom Hoisington is a journalist living with his daughter and cat in Salem, Ore.