Coming Downer


The album was over. The record spun around and around with a minor click at each rotation.

Natalie sat with a quilt draped over her shoulders and her hands wrapped in the edges of it and tugged towards her stomach.

She turned to Matthew. He crouched with his knees pulled up and his feet on the couch, his bare chest covered with a swirling pattern of fine-tip marker lines. The lamp beside the couch floated above his head like a cloud. His eyes were closed tight.

She turned the other way. Trevor looked back at her with big saucer eyes. His hair, still wet from when he had gone out for a cigarette, seemed nearly spiked. He blinked.

“I need to pee,” she said and she stood.

She walked unsteadily across the soft carpet, pulling the quilt behind her like a cape. Matthew’s family portrait stared towards her with tinted smiles. She let the quilt fall behind her when she reached the hall.

She turned the cool chrome doorknob and pushed forward. Globs of shadow hung on the painted window. She slid her hand along the wall in search of the light. Flicked it. The bathroom lit up in overexposure.

She drew in a jagged breath.

Natalie turned and closed the bathroom door. She pushed in on the doorknob and locked it. She stared forward at the cream colored paint on the back of the door and debated whether she wanted to look.

She did.

She turned and faced the mirror.

Her eyes were big and her pupils were bigger. Her hair hung reared back like a cat about to hiss. Natalie pulled her dried lips apart with a cottonmouthed smack.

There was still some life to it, she knew, as her head swayed, glitch-like, from side to side. Her vision zoomed in and she placed her hands on the edge of the sink. The veins that ran up to her inner elbow looked blacker than blue.

“I think I’m gonna tell her,” said Trevor, soft, from the other room.

She met her own eyes in contact, her heightened pupils alerted.

“Oh, man,” said Matthew, also audible, “I really don’t think you should.”

Natalie nodded at herself, and, across space and time and one thin wall, towards Matthew.

“When we were back there. Painting you. She looked like a god with her hair in her eyes.”

She pulled a strand of bang back behind her ear.

“Okay but don’t do it like this. Not now. It isn’t fair to put that on her.”

Natalie looked over at the window. The toilet was just out of sight behind the rear wall of the shower.

“If I don’t tell her now, I don’t know if I’ll ever tell her.”

Natalie turned back to the mirror. Her face seemed gaunt now, whitened, like a witch in a storybook.

She heard Matthew say, “Maybe you shouldn’t.”

Natalie pushed off from the sink and stepped back until her back was against the door. The faucet seemed to be shrugging now, bowed by some unseen weight. The shadows in the window shifted.

“How loud are we speaking?” asked Trevor.

Natalie closed her eyes. An orange spiral hovered spinning in the splintered void behind her lids. She watched its arms detach and swirl.

“What do you mean?” asked Matthew.

The spiral stuttered and spun the opposite direction.

“Can you hear people in the bathroom? When you’re in the bathroom? How thick are the walls?”

Natalie opened her eyes again. She realized she didn’t know if she had been breathing. She took in smooth air.

“I usually listen to music when I shit,” said Matthew. “If that’s what you mean.”

Natalie stumbled forward, her feet stamping down on the cold tile. She reached the window and turned towards the toilet. Lurched forward and jabbed down on the handle. It erupted in a groaning, slushing torrent. Natalie reached for the golden knob that locked the window.

The water died down like the end of a sigh. She heard someone knock twice, gentle, at the bathroom door.

“Hey, Natalie,” said Matthew.

She placed both her palms against the bottom window pane and hoped that it wasn’t painted shut. It slid smooth. Night air slipped in against her torso. She raised the bottom until it fit neatly under the top pane.

“How’s it going?”

Natalie swung her right leg out into the darkness, brought her torso down to her knee, and spun her body forward and out. Her left leg got stuck behind her until she shifted. She sat perched in the window facing the line of trees that ringed the creek.

“Did you hear everything we just said?

Natalie dropped soft into the mud.

She walked, slightly crouched, down the edge of the house. Her feet felt molten in the muddy grass. She peered out around the corner. The porch light was still on. Trevor had left the beach ball on the steps.

Natalie sneaked towards her car and tried the passenger door. It was locked. She went to the driver’s side door and tried to open it, as well. She peered through the narrow window into the backseat. The light from the street lamp lit her spare sandals in orange glow.

She turned. A pair of headlights commandeered her vision from the intersection, bright and searching.

Natalie spun and rushed off the pavement and towards the creek. She jogged down the bank to the hole in the chain link fence. Almost slipped in the mud of the trail, steadied herself against the grass, and crab walked through.

She tiptoed her way down the trail towards the brush and the trees. Turned far to avoid a branch and felt packed ground give way to rocky creek side. She paused there by the trickling waters and tried to pick out which rocks to hop upon.

The creekwater nearly swallowed her right foot. She saw a blast of blue in her peripheral vision and froze. There was nothing in the dark with her, though, nothing but a bull frog on the bank, bellowing.

Natalie made herself move. She found another slimy rock and jumped forward onto the bank. She used her hands to bear her way up the trail until she could stand straight again. Then she started up the far bank towards civilization.

Her head swam as she stepped out onto the rear lot. Some pop song echoed from distant speakers. She thread her way past the dumpsters and down the alley that separated the restaurant and the movie theater. The parking on the other side seemed full enough for a Tuesday night in the summer.

Natalie looked back when she reached the corner. She could barely see Matthew’s house past the trees in the creek. The porch light was still on.

She turned out of the alley and under the eaves of the restaurant. There was a man with a pierced septum smoking by the column nearest her. He dropped his gaze towards her bare feet.

“Could I bum one of those?” she asked.

The man nodded. He reached into his faded jean pocket and pulled out a pack of Menthols. He flipped open the lid and extracted a thin, white cigarette. Held it out to her. The sides of his fingers were tough and calloused.

Natalie, clutching the cigarette like a joint, brought its filter to her lips and left it there. The man stepped forward to light her cigarette. She watched the flame waver and then she closed her eyes and inhaled.

When she opened her eyes again, the man was sliding his lighter back into his pocket. He tapped the ash off his cigarette and asked her, “What are you on?”

Natalie shook her head. She lowered the cigarette and exhaled. The smoke expanded outwards like a water balloon exploding.

“I’ll deal with it later,” she said, and then she turned and waltzed across the parking lot towards town.



* Originally published in Inscape 2017.