by Gilian Neiditch
I. 11:45 pm, Tuesday
It started late last night. Kyle was in the middle of a dream when he heard the opossum’s hiss through his kitchen window.
He’d been sitting on the couch, head slipping forward as he drifted somewhere between a hallucination and a drug trance—a parallel universe in which two gangsters were breaking into his apartment. Kyle was familiar with the hoods, who frequently entered his mind for a heroic ass-kicking.
The taller of the two, the Thin Man, knelt down to pick Kyle’s lock. They joked with each other—Mr. Big laughing in his low, croaky voice as the Thin Man grinned, his long jaw indented with a dimpled chin, like someone took Cary Grant’s face and stretched it about four inches.
“What’s another blank face floatin’ down the river,” Mr. Big said as the door clicked open.
Fast as lightning, Kyle sprang into a triple-flip and landed behind the sofa. He shot a glance at the twenty-four-carat diamond glinting in the alley’s lights.
“I knews he’d be that stupid,” the Thin Man said in a nasal whine. “He’s just a dumb junkie.”
But that had been Kyle’s plan all along. Appear weak when you are strong, strong when you’re weak. Sun Tzu, The Art of War. Being a master at nunchaku, he was about to reverse figure eight all over the Thin Man when his supersonic hearing detected the sound of an injured animal.
“Watch the door,” the Thin Man said, heading for the brilliant stone.
In one seamless move, Kyle leaped over the couch, landed on the Thin Man’s back, and bit the top of his ear clean off.
Wait, what the fuck was that? The alternate universe faded as he came out of a pleasant nod, awoken by a rustling under his window. He scratched the tip of his nose. A noxious odor drifted toward his nostrils and he opened one eye.
The tip of his cigarette rested on the arm of the couch, sizzling and blistering into a solid blob of black plastic.
“Oh, shit,” he said, jerking his hand back. A trail of ash fell on the cushion next to him.
More suspicious noises came from the alley.
Kyle ran his palm over his face and scratched his shoulder. What time was it? He dropped the butt into a bottle of Sprite and lifted himself off the couch. He scratched the nape of his neck; under his arm. He separated the blinds and peered out the window. An upturned trash can tottered a ways down the alley, something underneath struggling to get out.
“I’m coming,” he mumbled in a low, raspy voice, shuffling into unlaced Converse. He stepped outside, onto a walkway that wrapped around the second story of his building, headed down the steps slightly off balance, yawned, and went through the back gate into the alley. The hissing grew more intense as he neared the flipped trashcan.
Kyle crouched, lifted it slowly. A long, pink nose emerged. “Alright, hold up,” Kyle said as a giant rat-like tail shot out.
He dropped the can, gazing up the alley as he picked at the crusting sore on the side of his mouth. It was late, no one around; carports silent with sleeping vehicles. He lifted one side of the can and shined the light from his cell phone underneath. A young opossum retreated, its hind leg soaked with blood.
Kyle flipped the trash can and just in case, grabbed the nape of the animal’s neck to keep it from biting. They weren’t known to attack, but it was better to be safe. The opossum opened its mouth and hissed, revealing a set of small, sharp teeth. Kyle scooped his hand under and flipped it so the claws faced up, unable to scratch.
Its mouth began to foam, eyes glassed over as its body stiffened. It was playing possum.
“Oh, shit,” Kyle said, grabbed it by the tail and held it away. Green fluid oozed out its butt—secretions to make it smell dead and unappetizing. From this angle that hind leg had a chunk of flesh skinned clean off—ripe for infection.
Kyle passed through the gate and carried it upstairs. He had a soft spot for injured animals. Not just opossums but squirrels. Lizards. Birds. Once, a baby raccoon. As a kid, he was always bringing them to his house. His mom called him the patron saint of roadkill.
Once he’d found a dead opossum on his way home from school, hit by a car. He’d meant to kick it to the side of the road until the stomach moved. Five tiny babies in her pouch. He went home for a shoebox and returned to the spot with his upstairs neighbor, Mr. Lee, who pulled the little ones out, nestled them in the box with some grass and told him to keep them warm or they’d die.
They came back to the apartments and Kyle set the box under a table lamp, put tissue over the babies. He spent the rest of the day guarding that little box from his younger brothers, daydreaming about the praise he’d receive. He saw himself on stage in the school auditorium, wearing the contacts he’d begged for but wasn’t allowed to have; healthy opossum babies in a carrier beside him as the principal pinned an oversized citizenship metal to his chest. He imagined himself with a baby bottle the size of a matchstick, holding them in big, fluffy blankets, taking them to bed with him—the packed auditorium watching a photo montage projected on a large screen.
After the ceremony, the tiny opossums would be released into the wild where they’d grow up to find normal jobs and lead healthy, happy lives. And everyone would be sorry for having thought bad of him—his teachers, other kids. No one ever said anything but he was sure they’d thought things, and he wanted them to be sorry.
That evening, after a double shift at the diner, his mom had no patience for infant animals. She snatched the box, said she’d drop them off at a wildlife rescue center. Except she’d left her car key on the counter, and grabbed a beer on the way out. The next day it was the twins that led him toward the side of the house, barely stifling their prepubescent giggles. The empty box sat on top of the trash. She hadn’t even bothered to hide it.
The creepy silence followed him up the stairs toward his apartment. Kyle kicked the front door shut and laid the animal in the kitchen sink. It would be about a half hour before the opossum came back to life. He inspected the injury, a gash the size of a half-dollar. Alcohol was needed. He passed through the bedroom into the bathroom, switched on the fluorescent light and became instantly distracted by his reflection in the mirror. Forget the cold sore, he leaned close to inspect a pimple on his forehead. It was larger than the others but too deep, he’d never pop it. A ton of blackheads covered his nose and he squeezed, white pus spurting out in curls. When that stopped working he ran his finger over the crusted sore, eyed the red mound above his brow. How would he ever get a girlfriend looking like this?
Something rustled in the kitchen. He grabbed the alcohol and ran back—the opossum had tracked blood through the apartment, a zig-zaggy trail as it searched for escape routes.
“Oh, shit,” Kyle said, slapping his palm to his forehead. He definitely wouldn’t be getting his deposit back. “Well…fuck it.” He found the animal half squeezed under the couch, dragged it out by the tail and returned it to the sink. The opossum squirmed, twisting its body in different directions, hissing and baring its teeth. “Be still, you little fucker.” The animal kept wiggling. He held it down, practically choking it. “Stop. Moving.” With one hand on its neck, he poured alcohol over the wound. Blood thinned to a light pink and spiraled down the drain. It must’ve hurt because the opossum went into dead mode again. Kyle ran to the bedroom for a clean sock, returning with the cleanest one he could find.
“Now,” he mumbled, as he opened empty cabinet after empty cabinet, searching for something to stop the bleeding. He found a large box of baking soda under the sink. He poured some on the wound, then ripped a tear down the sock and tied two ends into a knot above the injury.
All this hero stuff exhausted him. He headed to the couch, leaned over the coffee table like a mad chemist, loaded the spoon with a few drops of water and the last of his dope and swirled the flame in circles below. As he drew the heroin into the needle, the opossum thrashed in the sink.
Kyle looked over his shoulder. “If you make me spill my dope I’m gonna rip your guts out through your ass.”
The opossum flopped to the floor. With a sigh, Kyle carefully set down the needle, cornered the animal, picked it up by its tail, tossed it in the bathroom and shut the door. The hissing and scratching started, but he’d done his job. He couldn’t take the opossum outside yet, there was still a risk of infection, so that stupid rat would have to wait. Besides, his favorite show was on TV.
Felicity Smoke and Oliver Queen stood in the entry hall of his mansion. The camera panned close; Felicity’s satiny blonde hair shone like flaxen gold. The blue of her eyes so blue, even behind glasses. Her cheeks glowed red against her pale, soft face. That shit had to be fake.
Her pitch rose and she said his name all breathy, reached behind his neck, leaned up and whispered, “Do you know how many lives you’ve saved?”
Then she got that attitude in season three and dumped him over the stupidest thing. Television people act like they’ve got a million chances to fall in love. Kyle was twenty-three and he’d never loved anyone. Or at least, no one had loved him. He dug around, finally hit a vein and waited for the drug to reach his brain. His eyes closed as he thought about how he’d never really done anything to deserve anyone’s love, and as much as he wanted to play the hero, he’d always be the bad guy.
II. 10:30 am, Wednesday
The next morning when Kyle came to, he sat up and lit a cigarette, turned to look at the bathroom door, suspicious of its silence. He’d passed out on the couch while the stupid animal slammed around with no chance of escape. Now it was morning, and the only sound was a car alarm two blocks away.
He couldn’t have killed it. No way. The thought hurt his stomach. He hadn’t even done anything? He rubbed his eyes. Took a drag. Felt nauseous. His ears hummed. He’d neglected to save enough dope for a wake-up and ten hours later, he needed a fix. Kyle gazed at that door, a spacey look in his eye as he thought about how much he didn’t want to deal. He stumbled to the kitchen and urinated in the sink. If the opossum was still playing possum, he couldn’t let it free in the alley, not yet. Maybe the animal was asleep. Anyway, that situation would have to wait. He threw on his Converse and a hoodie and headed across the street to Balboa Park.
He circled the parking lot, the sandbox, walked around the gigantic duck pond, weaved down the bike trail toward the Los Angeles River, passed the archery range and headed to a flat area canopied by eucalyptus. Housing made out of cardboard, old crates, scraps of corrugated metal and blue tarps littered the ground between the trees. It reminded Kyle of those old Hoovervilles they learned about in history class.
He jogged toward one of the more stable shelters—plywood walls and roof with a tarp, two shopping carts filled with crap and a bicycle all chained together outside the makeshift construction. Its owner had lived there the longest—a toothless junkie nicknamed Papa Smurf because of his long beard and bushy white eyebrows. He always wore an American flag bandana tied around his head and dressed in tank tops and billowy exercise pants decorated with patterns of tropical fruit or dancing cutlery. Winged candelabras.
He’d sell when dealers couldn’t be found, inflating the price to feed his own habit. Kyle only showed up when he was desperate. Black tar was always wrapped tight in water balloons for easy swallowing if the cops approached. Once, Papa Smurf wrapped a used cotton in a balloon and sold him that instead. It had been an uncomfortable evening.
Kyle pulled the tarp aside. Papa Smurf was asleep.
Kyle kicked his foot. “Hey.”
Papa Smurf made a snorting noise and curled into himself.
“Hey,” Kyle said louder, kicking him in the leg.
Papa Smurf popped up. “What’sa problem,” he said, eyes crusted shut.
Kyle squatted. “It’s me. You got anything?” he whispered.
“Fuck off,” Papa Smurf said and dropped back down.
“One bag,” Kyle said, tapping his knee. “You know José turns his cell off til noon. I need something to hold me.” Kyle nudged him. “Move, bastard.”
Papa Smurf bolted up, bloodshot eyes overflowing with rage. “Get the fuck out of my house.” He held an empty Jack Daniels bottle above Kyle’s head.
“I’ve got money,” Kyle said, wiping the sweat from his neck.
Papa Smurf tossed the bottle on the ground. “Asshole.” He dug a small red balloon rolled into a pea from his gumline. “Let’s see.”
Kyle pulled a twenty from his pocket.
“Fuck off,” Papa Smurf said, shoved the balloon in his mouth and fell back on his sleeping bag, knees tucked to his chest.
“Fine.” Kyle pulled another wrinkled twenty out of his pocket. He winced as he elbowed Papa Smurf. “Give it to me. I need it.”
Papa Smurf took the money, wiped the balloon on his shirt and dropped it in Kyle’s hand.
Kyle started to unwrap it as Papa Smurf shoved the money down his pants. “Get the fuck out of here,” he said as he curled back into sleep.
III. 11:17 am, Wednesday
Kyle ran across the street, dodging cars. He took the stairs two at a time, crashed through the door and set to work at the coffee table. His hands shook, making it difficult to hold the spoon. Then he had trouble finding a vein. Slamming in the ankle was just asking for an abscess, besides, there was that bulging vein on his neck that worked so well. But he’d have to use the bathroom mirror to know when he’d hit, see the blood draw into the barrel like swirls of smoke.
He charged into the bathroom, ready to toss that opossum out on its ass when he was hit with the horrible smell of death. Not the fake asshole smell. The animal lay on its side behind the toilet, tail stiff as a round metal file.
Kyle flipped on the light, leaned over the sink and slammed the needle into his neck. Easily drawing blood, he pushed the plunger down until it reached the barrel’s bottom and warmth washed over, tingling his brain, loosening his muscles—making him feel powerful and totally relaxed at the same time. He pulled the needle from his neck and set it on the sink, took a few breaths, walked to the couch and lit a cigarette.
He smoked a second one before he remembered the opossum. He got up, closed the door to his bedroom and sat back down again. He picked up one of the old comics he’d drawn, back when he thought art was his jam. He’d gotten the pages dirty with fingerprints, burn marks. And there were splatterings of blood from when the needle clogged, but he didn’t care about keeping them clean anymore.
Kyle had made the sky apocalyptic, drawing it cracked like marble. And he loved color. Blues blended into greens and oranges. Magenta. The alien landscape was similar to ours, cities with skyscrapers contrasting deserts of parched earth and dead trees. Volcanoes. And the sheen, a mineral providing Crentorians with ageless beauty—it sparkled like gold and diamonds. The eyes of serpents. Kyle’s jaw hung open, his eyes half-closed, saliva dribbling onto the thin piece of matte cardboard.
It was issue one: Crentoria, Lost Planet. The heroes, Prince Kaphalan and his slave Dryssia, were desperately in love. Kyle drew him as a reddish, bald, well-built man/alien, like Den from Heavy Metal. And Dryssia was a hot blonde with huge boobs stolen directly from an old episode of Star Trek. Every time they looked at each other you could see the devotion in her eyes because he’d added a glint of silver to her pupils.
He rubbed his nose. Grabbed the half empty Sprite and spit in it. Stubbed out the cigarette, wondering what the fuck had happened. Hours came and went before he forced himself to deal with his bathroom.
In the past he’d done plenty worse, but Kyle adored these creatures—killing them wasn’t the point. It was that rare feeling he got from tending their wounds. They were small, vulnerable, and he was sure this was the closest he’d ever come to having a genuine, warm feeling. He wasn’t stupid, he knew they were just animals, but for someone who didn’t believe love existed in real time, it was the one thing in his solitary life that felt human.
He’d learned in Alcoholics Anonymous that you could be addicted to things other than drugs. Anything that set off the pleasure center in your brain. Food, gambling. Shopping. This addiction came upon him slowly, hardly noticeable as it was happening. You justify, tell yourself you’ll only do it once. Every time is the last time, and you believe the voice in your head, forgetting that it belongs to you. Seriously, this is it, the voice says.I’m not even kidding.He’d fool himself, the entire conversation existing in his mind, a process which was fascinating and yet, efficient, working day after day, month after month. A perfect example of the profound gullibility of hope.
It started about a year after he’d arrived in LA. Looking back, he saw the decline—in retrospect everything’s so much clearer. If he wasn’t working, days went by without uttering a word. And those random, luckless injuries were so infrequent in a large city, somehow, it made sense to give Mother Nature a helping hand. Always the rationalization—just one more time. They’ll be better off than they’d started—a healthy fear of humans at the very least. But they were always minor traumas, temporary illnesses. Nothing fatal. Never. And the opossum, that was a flesh wound if Kyle ever saw one.
He Googled to see if marsupials could have heart attacks. They could.
He stood in the doorway, the opossum lay in the corner of the bathroom behind the toilet, the bloody sock in a pile by its tail. He stepped in, sat cross-legged on the dirty tile floor. The opossum had torn the bandage to shreds. The wound had gashes in it, much worse than the clean slice he’d pared off. He must’ve swallowed that tiny bit of humanity and shit it out sometime yesterday afternoon because he was now, a killer.
He looked around, there was nothing to move the body, no bag to put it in. It seemed stupid, but he’d never touched a dead animal before. Not with his bare hands. He stretched an index finger toward the tail and, upon feeling the hardened flesh, jumped about a foot back. Its eyeball was literally touching the floor.
IV. 8:49 pm, Wednesday
He’d become friendly with the mustached cashier who worked day and night at the 7-11 a block away. Even holidays, Taj either languished behind the counter or bounced off the walls. When Kyle came in he’d latch on, use the opportunity to rap his latest lyrics about bitches and hoes and money and homie this and that. The lanky kid loved Gorilla Zoe, a rap star he emulated, who constantly referred to his ballin’ life in the hood.
Kyle walked through the glass doors and headed toward the register.
“Yo wassup?” Taj said, his voice rising an octave.
Kyle placed a hand on the counter, his face sweaty. “Dude, I’ve got a problem. I need a favor.”
“You come to the right place, homie. Bitches be like, get Taj, he’s the man. Them hoes be calling me left and right.” He changed his tone pretending to be female. “Taj you gots to help me I’s in trouble, and I’m like, get on my jock then we’ll talk.” He raised an eyebrow. “Oh my God, bro, that’s an amazing line, I have to use that.” He searched under the counter, pushing supplies around until he popped up with a pen and some hot pink post-its. He repeated the line as he slowly wrote it down. “What’d I say, man? You got’s to get on my jock and what? You know this shit flow out of me like magic, I can’t be remembering every single line.”
Kyle felt like smashing his head into a wall. He dropped the other hand on the counter and sighed, looked up to the ceiling as though asking God’s help. “Get on my jock and then we’ll talk.”
“Right! Thanks bro!” Taj replied as he scribbled the lines on the pad.
“So listen, can I just grab a few of those plastic bags you give out. Like a handful.”
Taj looked at him all serious. “Those a nickel. I can’t just give em’ away.”
Kyle pleaded with his eyes. “Cut me a break here.”
Taj held his stomach, feigning laughter. “I’m just fuckin’ wit you! You know you’s my homie.” Taj ripped off a stack of bags and handed them to Kyle. “I don’t give a fuck about these, you want more?”
“No, it’s cool.” Kyle leaned forward, resting his forearm on the counter.
“What else, hit me up bro, I got all day. You want post-its? I’m your man. A pen? Keeping it real. It’s all good.”
“I need a broom?”
“What? What you need a broom for? You gots to sweep somethin’ all of a sudden?”
“That push broom you use sometimes?”
Taj was about to hand it to him and stopped. “What you want it for? You ain’t pushin’ around no puke and shit. I gotta live with that broom. That broom’s like my sidekick when we be hangin’ here all night. It’s my guitar. Shit, I love that broom.”
“No man, I just spilled some baking soda at my house. The box, like, exploded and shit.”
Taj snapped his fingers. “I hate that! Don’t you fuckin’ hate that? Why they gotta make them boxes all childproof and shit?”
“I know,” Kyle said. “It’s ridiculous.”
V. 9:56 pm, Wednesday
He triple-bagged his hands and held out the broom, trying to get the brush end into the corner. It was too long. It wouldn’t fit between the wall and the toilet. He tried coming from the other side but the broom couldn’t bend at angles. He finally set it directly on the opossum lengthwise, intending to slide the animal out with gentle pressure, that didn’t work either—he couldn’t press too hard for fear liquid might leak out from who knows where. He flipped the broom, trying not to touch the part that had touched the dead animal, and used the handle to slide out the opossum.
Then he put five bags inside each other to slip under the animal, but it was no use. He’d have to touch it. The bags wouldn’t just slide under. He’d have to pick up the opossum and place it in the bags. He used the wooden handle to lift the animal and shimmy the bags under it. Then he tied five more bags the opposite way, securing the animal in its plastic casket.
Kyle brought it down to the dumpster and tossed it in. He felt guilty, as if he were throwing a dead child in the trash, looking left and right like he’d get arrested or something. Then he just felt crappy. All that animal was, was garbage.
He went back into the apartment and sat on the couch. Called José. Picked at the crusted sore on his mouth, stared at the comic. He grabbed his cigarettes and shook one from the pack. A cockroach inched toward the bloody sink, its antennas inspecting the terrain. Kyle glanced at his warped reflection on the greenish-brown of the silent television. He knew what the opossum meant. The opossum was the sign. He was out of money anyway, which was another kind of sign. But the opossum, that was clear as day.
The last time he’d kicked he had no choice, he’d been in jail. It was horrible, and yet, he made it through. When he went to court for sentencing, the judge gave him an ultimatum: two years incarceration or six months of rehab. He’d chosen rehab.
Write your dreams down. Put them in a God box. That’s what the sober people said. Check it in a year and you’ll laugh at how small they were.
At the time, he’d believed them. Except nothing changed, and in a little over a year he got that cut at work. Darius made him go to a clinic and instead of telling the doctor he was a recovering addict, he walked out with a Vicodin prescription, starting up right where he’d left off. Everything only got worse. Your problems will have puppies, they’d said.
From the beginning, his problems gave birth to more problems, there was no winning. There’d been so many times he should’ve stopped. When he had the choice.
There was the first time, he wasn’t stupid. Heroin was some next level shit, he knew that. When Gus brought that first bag of tar, it wasn’t necessarily a thought but a feeling that he wanted to punish everyone else by hurting himself. He knew his mom would be sad and she deserved it, she should’ve sent the twins to military school, fucking sadists. Now, five years later, he finally understood—the only person who takes a beating is you.
At this point, he’d passed all those boundaries he’d put in place to contain his drug use. Never get high in the morning. Or before school. Never get high at school. Don’t get high alone. Smoke weed instead of shooting heroin. The sober people called that the marijuana maintenance program. He couldn’t help but think if he had more money, he wouldn’t even be thinking about the possum. To kill an animal was the lowest, most spineless version of evil. Of course he was always the bad guy.
He lit a cigarette, pulled on a pair of jeans and walked shirtless into the evening, gazing up at a full moon. The air held a chill and he enjoyed the breeze; it had been such a scorching hot summer. He jogged across the street and headed through a large, dimly lit parking lot toward an open dumpster behind Vons.
There was no one around and the night felt full of mystery. Prostitutes waiting to be saved. Villains with scars and tattoos about to be flipped on their asses. He pulled the needles from his back pocket. There were seven total. The night looked romantic and desolate and he stood there breathing it in, so full of potential.
About Gilian Neiditch
Gilian Neiditch received her B.A. from UCLA. She’s a writer and an acupuncturist in Los Angeles. This is her first published story. She lives in Topanga Canyon with her daughter.