Habit

Darryl made it a whole six days before the craving kicked in this time. He didn’t even bother locking the door to the basement and all its coffins, he just grabbed up a few things and ran.

His sleep-deprived logic being what it was, though, the things he packed didn’t have much in the way of practicality.

He tied the cigarettes and the cough medicine up in the one extra shirt he brought and abandoned the awkward weight of the umbrella after three blocks. Then he just ran and ran, sucking oxygen greedily as he pelted the asphalt with his feet. He ran without a plan or a map, on and on in a straight line. He felt strange in the naked daylight. He knew he must look strange to the people passing by, with his patchy stubble and his greasy, much-worn t shirts.

He collapsed on a street that was far beyond his starting point, but still not far enough. His blood wheezed in constricted veins. His stomach pinched.

On the street, between a boutique and a hardware store, was a diner. He scraped himself up off the pavement and went in.

The diner was practically empty. A sour old woman sat in the far corner booth, glaring out the window. Two men sat at the counter, five seats apart, each nursing a coffee. The waitress was topping off one of their cups. She looked too young to be working at such a place. Her name tag had metallic backing, he couldn’t read it with the glare from the front window.

The waitress looked up. “Sit down, if you’ve a mind.”

It sounded less like an invitation and more like a stern missive from a teacher. Darryl immediately dropped to a stool. His weight fell too close to one edge and he tilted dangerously. Darryl grabbed the counter to save himself. The other two counter-dwellers glanced over then away.

The waitress came over, steaming pot in her hand. “What do you want?”

It had been so long since anyone had asked him that question, Darryl felt he had to savor it. To stall for time, he took another look at the waitress’s name tag.

“Suzanne,” he pronounced carefully.

She looked taken aback. “Yes?” she asked.

Darryl set his elbows to the counter and tried to look as natural as possible.

“Well—” he began.

He stopped.

He had never even considered money. When money was required, it was given to him in very specific amounts. His pockets were so empty they were practically vacuums.

Suzanne read something in his panicked expression. Without being asked, she set a white cup on the counter and filled it to the brim. She left and returned with cream packets and the white sugar dispenser. Darryl waited until she drifted to service another customer before he accepted it. He dumped half the sugar into the cup, washing down the syrupy mixture by sucking down each individual cream packet.

The man on the end left, pulling on a trucker’s hat. The old woman crankily called for ketchup. The man to Darryl’s right got up, spilling change on the counter. The old woman demanded a fresh pepper shaker, hers was stale. Suzanne lingered over a spot on the counter, wiping in patient circles. The old woman got up and walked to the door, teetering on orthopedic heels and shooting venomous glances at the counter.

As the door swung shut, Suzanne muttured, “penny tip. Worse than nothin’.”

Darryl could not tell if he was being spoken to, and said nothing.

Suzanne gave up on the counter, tucking the rag at her waist. “If the service is so terrible, she’d do well not to come here. But then,” she sighed, “she’d have nothing to complain about.

Suzanne looked directly at him for the first time. She smiled understandingly.

“How long?” she asked.

Darryl wished he had left something in the cup, so he could tip the last little dregs into his mouth and have some barrier between the two of them.

“How long since what?”

“That’s what I’m askin’.” Suzanne said. She took a notebook from her pocket and a pencil from her hair and wrote something.

“I’ve got a place, if you’re kicking the habit,” Suzanne said, “not like a church group or anything. Believe me, I know what that’s like.”

Darryl said, “I’m not sure—”

“It’s okay,” Suzanne said, ripping the paper off and pushing it face-down across the counter to him, “you don’t have to say anything. Like I said, I understand. You can go if you want or not. It’s up to you.”

She left the paper on the counter and walked away. Darryl just looked at the paper. And looked.

 

The street lights were already coming on. They were the orange kind, they made blue shadows. Darryl sat beneath one because he did not want to step out of the pool of light.

The place just looked like a plain white house. That stalled him more than anything. The plain facade could be hiding a flophouse, or even a feelgood cult interested in liberating his soul.

His pathetic bundle dangled from one hand. The cough syrup made a liquid sound. To stave off the pangs of withdrawal, he had sloshed down several helpings of the stuff. It did not help.

He heard the rock of bad springs as someone got out of a car. Darryl’s heightened senses told him who it was before Suzanne even stepped out of the Dodge Caravan.

“Well, come in if you’re comin’,” she said. She started forward without looking to see if he would follow. He did.

Suzanne knocked on the door four times and rang the bell twice. The door opened on a pudgy Hispanic woman in sweats.

“I found the codeine,” Suzanne said, “and the Epsom salt. This is Darryl. Have you already started dinner?”

And just like that, he was in.

It was not at all what he expected. People in plain sweats or pajamas lounged around a TV or stood chatting in doorways. A few had the telltale drawn look of heroin users. One woman couldn’t stop grinding her teeth from side to side. But they were all relaxed and talking and didn’t look pursued.

Darryl almost turned and ran.

He hadn’t been in such a well-lit house in so long. It was being lived in, rather than inhabited. The prospect that he could possibly, probably, perhaps stay in this world was almost more terrifying than the prospect of being caught.

“Can you help me with the groceries?” Suzanne asked, proffering an armful of bags.

He hid his hands behind his back. His fingers were scarred with chew-marks from desperate times, when he’d sliced his incisors through his own flesh in an attempt to stem the craving.

“I’m not—” he began, but she cut him off with a smile.

“It’s fine if you’re not feeling well. Sit down, then.” She retracted the offer and went off to the kitchen. Her understanding made him feel more ashamed, so he lurked in the doorway.

Dinner was a thin stew, with tiny, easily chewable meat chunks and vegetables so overcooked they practically disintegrated. Darryl watched the others eat. Some didn’t have any teeth and pulped the stew with their gums. He had a feeling this was how most meals went.

Afterwards, Suzanne beckoned him.

“Would you mind, terribly, helping me get the linens?” she said.

Feeling a bit braver with a bowl of something warm inside him, Darryl nodded.

Calling them linens was charitable. A bunch of refugees from suburban closets of the past few decades; torn sheets with filmation cartoon characters and zebra patterns populated the cabinet.

Suzanne smiled as she handed him a pile of neatly-folded sheets. “Thank you. it’s a help.”

She touched his arm, and that was all he needed. He followed her to the beds, larger rooms partitioned clumsily in half with drywall. Some with mattresses. Some with cots. Suzanne took the sheets from him and spread them over the bare beds with care. She did everything with care, Darryl noted.

“If you’re wonderin’ why I haven’t asked you any questions,” Suzanne said out of nowhere, “it’s because if I don’t ask you anything, you don’t have to lie.”

Darryl felt he should defend himself. “I don’t lie.”

Suzanne smiled. “Well then, we should be happy with each other. I’m not gonna ask you to work, I’m not even gonna ask you to stay. That’s not what this place is about.”

She tucked in the corner of a sheet, smoothing out the wrinkles.

“You’ve got a look about you,” she continued, “and I’ve seen that look before. You got a habit you can’t kick. I can’t save you from it. No one else can save you from it, the only one who can is you.”

She patted the bed, turning to him with a grin.

“Good one, huh? Momma beat the liquor, but it beat her liver before it left. Well, we don’t have many open spaces. You can sleep in Leonard’s room, he grinds his teeth, or you can sleep with Marcy. She’s a snorer.”

Darryl suppressed the urge to chew on his fingers. “Somewhere light.”

Suzanne raised an eyebrow.

“I have nyctophobia,” he lied, “I’m…I can’t stand being in the dark.”

She smiled at him. “Well, if you’ve a mind, you can sit up in the living room with me. Always keep a lamp on to read by.”

An old cowboy movie fuzzed in and out of being on a TV so old it had rabbit ears. Suzanne sat in an easy chair missing a leg so it had to be pressed up against the wall. There was a large black man dozing on the sofa, so Darryl sat with his legs splayed out on the floor next to Suzanne. He felt like a kid.

God, he couldn’t remember being a kid. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d used a stove. Tonight had been the first cooked meal in…years? Decades, maybe.

Suzanne licked her thumb and turned a page.

Maybe he could learn it all again. Maybe if someone else had the patience to teach him, he could have the patience to learn.

Maybe…

There was a rattle outside.

Darryl froze.

Suzanne sighed. “Damn kids.” she made as if to get up. Darryl beat her to it,

“I’m—I’ll go—I should check it out,” he stammered as he walked to the door.

Suzanne sank back down with a shrug.

It was dark outside. Darryl shrank into the porch light, making himself as small as he could. He couldn’t see anything. Maybe it was just neighborhood kids.

Burt landed soundlessly in front of him. The red plaid of his shirt and darker maroon of his vest were nearly black in the streetlight, his dead-white skin was an unwholesome orange tint.

“Now Darryl,” he said calmly, “you really need to confine your errands to a smaller field, we can’t keep coming to get you when you get lost.”

Darryl didn’t scream. Years of training went into effect and he went limp.

Burt extended his hand. Darryl obediently stepped forward for examination. Burt looked him over like a horse, even checked his teeth.

“They fed you,” he said, “such a nice gesture. Deserves a good turn, wouldn’t you say?”

Darryl was too frozen to feel horror.

Burt’s wife landed on the lawn. Save for the neckerchief that was at least twenty years out of fashion and her bored, flinty gaze she could be any other housewife.

“Stacy,” Burt said, “our Darryl’s made a few friends.”

Stacy didn’t even look at him. She was sweeping her gaze up and down the exterior of the house, sneer curling her pretty mouth.

“Well, since you’ve gone and gotten social, I suppose we can’t hold it against you.” Burt patted Darryl amiably on the head. The pat turned into a press and Darryl was borne down to the yard. “You did have us worried, but as long as this doesn’t become a habit—”

The door creaked open, spilling more light onto the lawn. Burt and his wife nimbly moved away from it in a movement so natural it was like a dance.

“Darryl?” Suzanne called out. “What’s keeping you?”

Burt made the first move. He stepped into the pool of light, squinting as he smiled so Suzanne wouldn’t see the red in his eyes. “Howdy do. Name’s Burt—”

“—and Stacy—”

“Daughtry.”

Suzanne furrowed her brow, looking over at Darryl’s rigid form. Burt moved forward a little more, drawing her attention away again.

“We want to thank you for watching after our…Darryl like this,” Burt said, extending his hand to give a firm handshake, “we don’t mean him to be any trouble. We would love it if you invited us in for a cup of coffee.”

Suzanne’s gaze was on the perfect white of Burt’s grin.

Darryl ground his face into the dirt. He almost screamed ‘no, you are worth so much more, just forget saving anyone and just run, do what no one before you had the sense to do.’

Almost.

“That’s sounds great,” Suzanne said in a dazed voice. She opened the door for the couple and shut it behind them.

Darryl was still on the ground when Burt came back out with a bowl.

“Now Darryl,” he said reasonably, “you can come help us clean up in a bit. And after that, when we get home, maybe you should take a rest. You seem to have been overdoing it lately, but we don’t blame you.”

And he set the bowl sloshing with blood directly in front of Darryl’s face.

The sickeningly sweet smell made him want to vomit through his traitorously watering mouth.

Burt was above him. Burt was all he could see.

“Come on now,” he said, “there’s a good boy.”

Tired as Darryl was, that did not stop him from crawling hand over hand to sink his face in the bowl and drink every last drop.

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