Here it is, THE story, and likely the final chapter of the Into the Darkness series, at least that I’ll be posting here. As with most memoir, I’ve messed with the timeline to improve narrative continuity and dramatic effect, and not all of the dialogue will be exact, but all events are real, and “emotional truths” (as they say) have been preserved intact.
I’m posting this publicly against some of my better instincts, because I believe it’s a good way for this blog to segue into its new identity: part of my social media platform. I will still be posting all my short stories and weirdness, but my internet presence will soon be getting an overhaul.
If you have not read any of my previous Into the Darkness anecdotes, you may want to read at least the very first one, for context. Otherwise, our hero (and perhaps our heroine) will be unlikable, as this was not their finest moment. You can find the first anecdote here.
Thank you, as always, for reading, and for your support. Any of you that appear in this anecdote and wish to have your names changed (or whatever), please accept my apologies, know that I love you, and contact me immediately.
So, here we go…
By September, it had been summer for about sixteen years: the seasons were a skipping record, and we’d been stuck in the triple-digit doldrums of July forever. All the patience and good spirits were slowly baking out of our little town, and fights were breaking out twice or three times a day. Pretty much everyone was in and out of jail, except for Phoenix and me. We managed to keep our knuckles and our rap sheets clean, because the two of us lived in our own little world where the everyday drama couldn’t touch us.
Phoenix kicked rocks across the pitted pavement, clutching the three dollars his mom had given him. I twirled the red flower he’d given me between my fingers, singing a Neutral Milk Hotel song under my breath.
Primo and Tim were loitering in the shade in front of Sang’s Market. As we walked up, Tim nodded in greeting and Primo looked us up and down.
“Phoenix!” Primo said. “And, what the shizz, Liz?”
I blew a raspberry.
“What you guys up to?” Primo asked.
“Chillin’,” Phoenix said. He did a wild spin kick and ducked into the store.
“Chillin’, huh?” Primo pursed his lips at me. “What kind of chillin’?” I shrugged, and he gave me a conspiratorial look. His glance darted to Tim, who was gazing distantly out at the quiet street, smoking a Marlboro, then spoke to me in Spanish.
“You love Phoenix, right?”
I shrugged, rolling my eyes. “Of course. He’s my best friend.”
“Boo.” Primo smirked and held his hands out about eighteen inches from his crotch. “Is he this good of a friend? That’s why you love him?”
I kicked at his ankles and he bounced away, laughing. “It’s not that,” I said. “You’re such a cabrón.”
“Oh, wow, what’d you call me?”
“Cabrón.” I snatched his hat from his head, but he grabbed it back from me and smacked me lightly across the face with it.
“Ew, you’re gonna give me your lice, don’t touch me with that thing.”
Primo abruptly straightened, his expression sobering as he adjusted his hat back over his bushy, black hair. I followed his darting glance and saw Phoenix coming back out with a forty of King Cobra.
He uncapped the beer and tipped it back, draining a third of the bottle in one. I watched with a mixture of dread and amusement. He burped proudly, wiped most of the drips from his shaggy beard, and aimed a fake left hook at my nose. “Pow!”
“Oooh, watch out, punk.” I mimed punches at his belly and nose, which he blocked easily with his free hand, his expression a study of boredom.
“Get a beer with me,” he said, taking another swig of his. “You’re getting a beer, right?”
“No. I’m gonna get a soda, though.”
“Soda’s bad for you. Why would you want a soda?”
I gave him a look and went into the store.
Sang grinned as I brought my Diet Pepsi to the counter. “How you doing? You so beautiful today.”
I concentrated on pulling money out of my purse, trying not to roll my eyes. “Aw, thanks.”
He squinted at me as he handed me my change. “Your boyfriend need to brush his hair. He look crazy.”
I laughed. “Of course he looks crazy. And he’s not my boyfriend.”
Sang’s dubious expression followed me out the door.
When I got back outside, I froze, clutching my soda. Phoenix had Tim backed up against the chain link fence, a cruel smile on his face. Tim gazed up at him wide-eyed, sweat beading on his tattooed neck. The empty King Cobra bottle rolled around at their feet.
Primo stood back from the scene, stroking his mustache. He glanced over at me. “Shit. Phoenix loves you.”
“What the fuck is going on?”
He shrugged elaborately. “Tim said some shit about how he could have any girl he wanted, and Phoenix flipped out, saying he’d better not talk to you or look at you or anything.”
“Shit.” I went over and laid a hand on Phoenix’s arm, and felt his muscles twitch under my fingers. “Phoenix, let’s go to the park.”
His eyes didn’t leave Tim’s, his lips curling up even more as he muttered unintelligible threats.
“We’re friends, Phoenix,” Tim said. “It’s cool, alright?” He held up his fist in salute, knuckles out.
Phoenix glanced at it, then at me. He scowled, but he slowly raised his own fist, bumping it against Tim’s as if afraid it would contaminate him.
I let out the breath I’d been holding. “Let’s go to the park,” I repeated.
“Yeah, right, the park,” Phoenix muttered.
I glanced back at Primo as we left. His face was contorted in silent amusement, and I shook my head in exasperation.
Phoenix glared at his feet, taking big strides on his long legs. “I don’t know why you’d want to fuck Tim.”
I scampered after him like a toy dachshund. “What? Why would I want to fuck that doughboy?”
“He was my sister’s boyfriend. It’s unhygienic. If you fuck him, just tell me. I mean, I don’t think I could be friends with you if that happened.”
That statement stung. I opened my mouth to ask if it were really true, but then thought better of it. “Well, you don’t have to worry about it.”
“I don’t know what that guy has that I don’t have,” he said, and I hid my face in my hands.
“Ohmygod, Phoenix.” I wanted to throttle him, but then I realized that, if I were worried about him fucking any of the more disease-ridden park sluts, I’d try to intervene, too. I took my hands from my face and held my tongue.
At the park, they were grilling chicken and blasting classic rock. Phoenix and I sat in the grass and threw sticks at each other. I cheered as I lodged one in his burgeoning dreadlocks, and he pulled it out and tossed it back at me, his expression stony.
“You’re the chick that I hang out with,” he said, “and I don’t want it to be like that with other guys.”
My chest deflated with a slow sigh, and I flung the stick at him halfheartedly. “Are we going to start in on this again?”
“I’m not starting anything. It’s your fault for wanting to fuck Tim.”
I glared. “It’s not my goddamn fault, and I don’t want to fuck anybody.”
“I thought that you hung out with me because you liked me. Why do you even want to hang out with me if you’re going to spend all your time with other guys?”
I pounded the grass. “Oh. My. Fucking. God. What are you talking about?”
He didn’t respond, but just stared at me, crumbling the stick between his fingers.
I pinched the bridge of my nose. He was so frustrating when he got like this. “Phoenix, you’re my best friend, okay? You’re probably the best friend I’ve ever had. You don’t have to be this way. You’re making it too complicated.”
He continued to stare, his expression not changing a bit. Sometimes his thoughts got so loud, he couldn’t hear me.
“Phoenix…” I put my hand on his knee.
He flung it off and stood up abruptly, stalking over to the cooler and grabbing a Coors Lite. He popped it, downed it in fifteen seconds, and crushed the can with one hand and tossed it to the grass. Then he grabbed a handful of chips from the table, plunging them into the nacho cheese dip before shoveling them into his mouth. Neon rivulets of cheese ran into his beard.
He went still, his eyes fixing on something behind my back. His hands gathered into fists, and that little evil smile bloomed on his lips again.
“Oy! Oy! Oy!” he said, singing along with AC/DC on the stereo. “Oy! Oy! Oy!”
Hesitantly, I glanced behind me. As I’d suspected, Tim was sitting at the next table with a couple of his friends. He appeared to be pretending Phoenix didn’t exist.
“Oy!” Phoenix said, his eyes glittering with violent glee. His beard was still full of cheese.
“Jesus,” I muttered. I stood and laid my hand on his arm. “Phoenix, stop. Let’s go on a walk or something.”
He gave no indication he’d heard me. “Oy!”
I gazed at him a moment longer, but he didn’t look at me, so I flopped back down in the grass with my back to him and bummed a cigarette off Denny.
Phoenix continued to antagonize Tim, but I resolutely didn’t watch. Eventually I heard Tim come up and talk to him.
“You’re my brother, Phoenix. We’re friends. Do you know what a friend is?”
“I know what a friend is, you retard. Oy!”
“I don’t want to fight you.”
Maribel, who was sitting in the grass next to me, caught my eye. “You’d better stop him. Tim’s gonna kick his ass.”
I glanced over at the commotion, and cocked an eyebrow. Phoenix loomed over his adversary, almost a foot taller; his wiry muscles bulged in his tensed forearms and the full force of his schizophrenia shone in his eyes. Maribel didn’t know how strong he was, but I’d spent more than half a year wrestling him, being tossed around like a baby in her daddy’s arms. Tim may have lifted a lot of weights in prison, but he’d gotten out months ago and hadn’t done anything but laze around drinking since.
Plus there were the political considerations. “Tim won’t touch him,” I said. “Phoenix’s mom and sister would have his dick in a jar if he did.”
Deborah chimed in. “Yeah, but if it keeps up, someone is gonna call the cops, and you don’t want that.”
I got a jolt of panic, and bowed my head in reluctant agreement.
I didn’t delude myself that I had personal charms that could soothe my friend’s inner beast. I slouched to my feet and went to the cooler.
“Phoenix,” I said, stepping between him and Tim and putting a beer in his hand. “Let’s go.”
The demonic glint in his eye dulled slightly. He looked down at the beer, back up at Tim, down at the beer again. Some of the tension went out of his shoulders, and a sheepish expression crept over his face. “Will you have a beer with me?” he asked, not quite meeting my eyes.
He allowed me to lead him away, and we sat back down in the grass. Phoenix got me a beer, which I opened and sipped without enthusiasm. He downed his own and looked off towards the dry hills with a philosophical expression. “Why do you think people worship cows? Is there something special about them?”
“Oh, for fuck’s sake.” I rubbed the back of my tense neck, wondering why I didn’t just go home. But, despite the tedious drama here, the notion didn’t appeal to me. Juniper was playing videogames, and Eric was working on his lesson plans. He’d been much calmer and nicer since they’d adjusted his medication, but my stomach roiled when I was around him: some part of me was just waiting for him to explode and start calling me names again.
I grinned wryly at Phoenix. “You still have cheese in your beard.”
“Good,” he said, grabbing another beer.
He kept drinking, but he seemed to forget about Tim, and eventually wandered off. I sat and talked with other people for a while, picking at a plate of chicken, until Maribel came striding over.
“You better take care of your boy,” she said. “He’s getting in my mom’s face.”
I glanced up in alarm. Phoenix was standing toe-to-toe with Kandace, who looked thunderous. I leapt up and rushed over.
“Phoenix,” I said, tugging at his arm.
He jerked it out of my grasp. “Get the fuck off me.” He turned back to Kandace. “A man’s nipples are his own business. What business are my nipples of yours?”
Kandace and I exchanged a glance. “Phoenix, please,” I said. “Walk with me. Let’s go watch a movie or something.”
“What the fuck do you care? You don’t even care. Don’t pretend you do.”
“I do care.” I put my hand back on his arm, and his lips tightened, but he didn’t fling it off this time. “Please, Phoenix.”
“Go back and fuck Tim, or Domingo, or whoever.”
“I’m not gonna do that. I don’t want to fuck anybody.”
He still didn’t look at me. My heart pounded. Then he whirled and stalked off towards his house.
With a final, apologetic glance at Kandace, I ran after him.
We walked in silence, our feet crunching in the gravel. When we got to his gate, he picked up his special rock and used it to open the latch, so he wouldn’t have to touch it. “I don’t like it when people treat me like that,” he said.
He spun on his heels to face me, and I was startled to see he had tears in his eyes. “What do you mean? What’s wrong?”
“I don’t understand why you have to talk to those other guys. You’re my girl.”
I opened my mouth to tell him off, then closed it again.
The eight months that Phoenix and I had known each other descended on me in flashes of color and feeling. Hikes through fields of wildflowers, fights, institutionalizations, road trips; he’d stuck by me when I’d been kicked out my house, and somehow managed to make it into an adventure. He’d sat with me all that long night when I’d been pulled under by my own psychosis, treating me gently and cracking jokes until I found my way back to sanity. Most people would have called the sheriff, or given in to panic or exasperation.
Phoenix was a true friend. I cared about him, and liked being around him enough that I’d put up with it when he had days like today.
I swallowed. “Yeah, I’m your girl. You’re the best friend I’ve ever had.”
He blinked, tears streaming down his cheeks.
I reached out and took his hand tentatively. “Please, go lie down. Please.”
For a moment, I thought he’d smile. I thought it would be okay. But then he snatched his hand from mine. His lips drew tight, and I saw the veil fall over him.
To someone who didn’t know him, it might look like he was actually getting more rational, because his eyes got clearer, more focused and certain. But I knew better, and my stomach dropped to my shoes.
“You’re lying,” he said. “You don’t care at all. I know the game you’re playing. You want to touch my nipples? Huh? Is that what you want?” He bumped into me, pushing me back towards the gate, and I stumbled.
“Stop lying,” he bellowed. “You don’t care at all! You want to rape me and have my baby, so you can steal my SSI!”
“You’ve been following me around and getting in my way! You won’t leave me alone! You’re ruining my life, trying to steal my sperm!” He was yelling loud enough to make my ears ring, and I backed up against the fence.
“Get the fuck out of here, and don’t come back!” he screamed. “Get the fuck off and die! American woman, get away from me…” He sang at the top of his lungs, glaring at me viciously. Across the street, a woman stopped to stare.
“Phoenix, stop, please, or someone’s going to call the cops.”
“American woman, just let me be. I’m not fucking kidding! Go the fuck away! Leave me alone!”
I stared at him hopelessly, my feet shuffling, not knowing which way to go. There was no one else home, and I didn’t want him to be alone like this. I was usually able to calm him down. Hopefully it would be the same this time.
A lump rose in my throat. “Phoenix…stop, please, I love you, just stop.”
“Don’t come hangin’ round my door, I don’t want to see your face no more.”
“Everything okay, neighbor?”
I turned to see the guy from next door leaning on the gate, watching Phoenix closely.
“Oh, hey, neighbor guy,” Phoenix said. “You ever listen to the classic rock station? American woman, get the fuck away from me…”
“Listen, man,” the guy cut in, “you can’t be yelling like that around here. I’ve got kids and stuff.”
“Yeah, but, you see, you understand, this American Woman here has been raping me and not leaving me the fuck alone…”
The guy glanced at me, his crooked teeth showing in a wry and incredulous grin. “You shouldn’t talk about your girl like that.”
Phoenix didn’t hear him. He was screaming Guess Who lyrics at me again.
“It’s okay,” I told the guy, over the noise. “He’s gonna be alright. He’s just crazy sometimes.”
He raised an eyebrow, looking me over, then turned and walked off. I could see him fishing his cell phone from his pocket as he went, and I cursed. “Phoenix! You gotta stop, or you’re gonna get hauled off to the loony bin!”
But he didn’t listen. He kept yelling, backing me up against the fence, and he was drawing a bigger crowd now, neighbors and passers-by gathering around to watch. My brain was screaming at me to leave, but I still hesitated; what if he hurt himself? What if the cops came, and no one was here to defend him and explain the situation?
Then I saw Tracy marching down the street from the park, her lips pursed in fury. I sidestepped Phoenix, grabbed my backpack and rushed out the gate.
Phoenix followed me. “Yeah, run back to your husband!” He stepped in my path, grabbing my arm.
“Whoa, take it easy,” one of the onlookers said.
Tracy ran up, shoving him away from me. “Did you lay hands on her, Phoenix? Don’t you ever fucking lay hands on her!”
He stumbled, but kept to his feet. “Don’t touch me! Both of you are a couple of satanic cow worshipers!”
“Tracy, don’t call the cops,” I begged.
She glared at me. “Just get out of here, Liz!”
I nodded, wiping away tears. I could hear them screaming at each other as I walked off.
I cried all the way home. I should have just left immediately: then he wouldn’t have gotten so agitated. I shouldn’t have left at all: I was abandoning my friend in a bad way. I couldn’t decide which was true.
My inner struggle about this situation in particular mirrored my bigger one about the situation with Phoenix in general.
Eric and I had fought all summer, when my kid had been away, her restraining influence absent. He’d told me to get the fuck out a few times, and I’d spent many nights and weeks living in my car. But, since then, Juniper had come home, and Eric and I had settled into a tenuous peace. I’d cut back on my drinking and a lot of my more impulsive behavior, and Eric had had his medication adjusted. Our relationship was slowly improving. We hadn’t had a serious fight in weeks, and were actually talking again, like normal people. He’d apologized for telling me to quit writing, and told me he wanted me to stay and try to make our marriage work.
But that summer had knitted Phoenix and me tightly together, and pulling those stitches out now was a painful process. I didn’t know if I should. I didn’t know if we’d be better off without each other, or if we’d both just feel miserable and alone.
Eric tolerated my relationship with Phoenix, but we were too close for it to be really right. It made all three of us nervous, and was the unsteady leg that threatened to topple our acrobatic pyramid, sending us all sprawling. Was this friendship really important enough to risk my marriage? Or would it eventually evaporate like spilled ether, leaving me with nothing?
I was nearly hysterical by the time I got home. I tried to hide it by launching into a frenzy of housecleaning, but Juniper noticed, and came up to put her arms around me. “What’s wrong, mommy?”
I clung to her, pressing my nose into her hair. She was almost as tall as me now, and twice as smart. “Phoenix is really bad. I’ve never seen him this bad. He was screaming at me…I’m afraid Tracy’s going to send him back to the institution.”
“No!” Juniper said. “That’s no fair! She can’t do that!” Eric stared at us over the back of the couch, pulling at a lock of his hair.
In my pocket, my phone buzzed, and I disentangled myself from my daughter and pulled it out.
My throat closed up. It was Whisper, Phoenix’s sister. I punched the answer button. “What’s happening? Is he okay?”
“Have you been drinking?” she asked.
“You need to dry your eyes and get down to my house. The cops are there. The neighbors told them he was beating on you, and they want to take him to jail.”
“Fuck!” I imagined Phoenix trying to perform his tooth-brushing and hand-washing rituals in lockup. It would never work. He’d freak out and get beaten down by the guards within fifteen minutes. “I’ll be right there,” I said. I hung up and ran out of the house, leaving my daughter and husband to stare after me.
I clutched my steering wheel as I drove through the deepening twilight, my thoughts a hissing blast of white noise. I held my foot stiff so I didn’t floor it and scream down Center Street at sixty miles per hour.
When I got to his house, I had to park on the side, because the sheriff’s cruiser was parked in front. When I got out of the car, I was afraid I’d hear Phoenix still screaming, but to my immense relief, I didn’t. The house was dark, and the falling night had encased it in impenetrable shadow, but I could hear Tracy talking in a low voice to someone on the porch.
The gate opened just as I walked up, and Tracy came out, her expression hard. “You need to leave him alone, Liz.”
“I’m just here to talk to the Sherriff,” I said.
A tall, bald man in uniform stepped out of the darkness behind her, into the glow cast by the streetlamp. I didn’t even wait for him to introduce himself.
“Phoenix didn’t hit me,” I said breathlessly. “He was just yelling. He’s a really good person, he’s just schizophrenic and he gets ideas in his head sometimes. He really can’t help it, but he’s never hurt me. He would never hurt me.” I heard Phoenix’s voice in my head, repeating his mantra: Never say never. I grimaced and pushed that thought away.
The sheriff nodded. “Could I see your I.D., please?”
I fished it out of my backpack and handed it him. He unhooked his radio mic from his belt and spoke into it, reading off my information. “This is the other subject listed on the report,” he said.
Oh, great, I thought.
He said a few more things into the radio, codes I couldn’t understand, then he put it away and handed me back my I.D.
“Please don’t take him to mental health,” I blurted. “That place doesn’t do him any good.”
He glanced at Tracy. “Do you think he needs to go to mental health tonight?”
“No, not tonight,” she said. “He goes on these tangents sometimes, you know. He’s schizophrenic and sociopath and all the rest of it.”
“And the alcohol doesn’t help that at all,” the cop said.
“Yeah, I try to keep him from getting it,” Tracy said, “but he gets it from here and there, people give him drinks.”
Flashing lights illuminated the scene, and another cruiser came to park catawampus next to the first. A deputy climbed out and strode over, exchanging one of those faint cop grins with his partner. This guy was younger, with a sandy buzz cut.
“The subject’s inside,” the first guy said, jerking his chin towards the house.
The younger cop hooked his thumbs in his belt loops. “Let’s go talk to him.”
“Be good to him,” I begged. “He’s one of the best people in the world.”
They didn’t respond. I backed up into the shadow of a tree as they disappeared through the gate, Tracy following them.
“Phoenix,” Tracy called, rapping on his door. “Come out of there. The sheriffs want to talk to you.”
After a few moments, I heard the outside door to his room creak open, and Phoenix spoke with affected joviality. “Yeah? How you guys doing tonight?”
“We came because we got some calls about there being a disturbance here,” the older cop said. “You want to tell us about that?”
“What you have to understand,” Phoenix said, “is that this girl, she comes over here, and she has a husband. He’s a biochemist. It’s a fucked up, crazy situation. And I’d like to report that she’s been molesting me.”
I clamped my chin to my chest, cursing inwardly.
“Phoenix, knock it off,” Tracy said. “Liz is his girlfriend,” she explained.
I cursed again.
“Well, she’s been date raping me or whatever, when I’m asleep or blacked out. That’s because she wants to have my baby and take my money away. She and my mom have been working together at it, thinking their witch spells and thoughts at me, because they’re a couple of vegan cow worshipers.”
“We have Ms. Roderick here, and we could talk to her about that, if you’d like,” the younger cop said.
Oh, you morons, I thought, stepping further back into the shadows.
“What, she’s here?” Phoenix said. “Liz is here? American woman, get away from me…”
“No, no, that’s okay,” both cops said at once. “No, she left, she’s not here anymore.”
“American woman, just let me be…”
“Sir, we’re gonna have to ask you to sit down.”
What the fuck did you think was going to happen? I thought.
“Phoenix!” Tracy barked. “Sit the hell down.”
He quit singing. I heard the porch boards creak.
“That’s better, sir, thank you,” the older cop said.
“You like that better?” Phoenix said. “What, you like me to be at dick level? Do you want to rape me too?”
“Do you guys worship cows also? Is that’s what’s going on here?”
I clutched my elbows and began to pray, but things just degenerated from there. Phoenix never became threatening, didn’t even raise his voice, but before long they were leading him out the gate in handcuffs, with no shirt on, the hems of his pajama pants dragging around his bare feet. I pressed my hand over my mouth so he wouldn’t hear me sob.
I watched the cars drive off, trembling. Tracy came out and handed me a cigarette.
“They’re taking him to mental health?” I asked.
“No, they’re taking him to jail.”
“What? But he didn’t do anything wrong! I told them he didn’t touch me!”
“They’re charging him with a drunk in public.”
“But he was in his yard, not in public! And he was quiet when they came. He wasn’t doing anything wrong. He’s just schizophrenic. He can’t help it!”
Tracy shrugged, frowning. “Shouldn’t have accused them of wanting to rape him.”
“He’s going to freak out in there. It’s going to be bad.”
“He’ll be out by tomorrow morning, and he’ll be fine. He was calmed down by the time they took him.”
I nodded, hoping she was right. I told her to text me when she heard anything, and drove home.
I sat in my driveway when I got there, leaning my forehead against the steering wheel. Everyone asked me why I put myself through this, why I involved myself in Phoenix’s life when it was so much trouble, drama and hurt. It was a hard thing to explain to people. It was hard for my friends and family to understand that, despite the fact I periodically got accused of rape and idol worship, Phoenix made me happy. He made me feel whole, and good, and like I belonged. He was the only one that seemed to understand my worldview, and who could follow the flow of my thoughts.
And I had to admit, my thoughts were strange. I had this feeling his and my relationship was made of dreams and nightmares, that it was fate and magic made solid through belief. I’d felt a surreal compulsion to seek him out since the moment I laid eyes on him, and the synchronicity that kept drawing us together was bound up in my mind with the concept of an ordered universe, a universe where things can have meaning instead of being senseless chaos. I felt like we were meant to know one another. Our friendship helped me to understand myself. More than that, it help me comprehend the human mind and condition better. It had led me to write books that might teach people to be more accepting of people like him, and people like me.
This was the higher purpose that drove my life. I knew that this might be a delusion, but it was a beautiful one, and very difficult to let go of. But, at times like this, that happy dream began to suffocate in the stifling atmosphere of the real world. I was being crazy. I was ruining my life, and Phoenix’s to boot.
I’d spent countless hours meditating on this situation, trying to convince myself to cut him loose, but I hadn’t been successful. The few times I’d told him I wasn’t going to hang out with him anymore, I’d only go a few days before seeking him out again. It caused me almost physical pain to be away.
I hadn’t forgotten that Invisible Friend Jesus had told me that this situation would resolve itself, but I was smart enough to know that it wouldn’t happen on its own, and that I wasn’t helping matters. I knew that, no matter what I did, it would hurt. And, even when the stifling weight of guilt and self-loathing threatened to crush me, I couldn’t bear to ditch my friend. That pain was worse.
Even though I wasn’t sure Invisible Friend Jesus wasn’t another part of my beautiful delusion, I squeezed my eyes shut and began to pray. I don’t know what to do. I’m a piece of shit and everything I do is wrong. I keep hurting people through my selfishness and I don’t know how to stop.
You’re not a piece of shit, Invisible Friend Jesus said.
How do I know that? How do I know what’s real and what’s not? How do I know I’m not just crazy? That night, curled up on Phoenix’s floor, I was so convinced that someday I’d get my books published, and make people see that beautiful delusion can become a reality if you believe it hard enough. That so-called sanity can be just as insane as mental illness, and that people like Phoenix and me have something to offer the world, just like everyone else. But all I get is rejection, both for my writing and my ideas in general. I’ve been fooling myself all along. I’m an immature, selfish idiot, just like my husband says. I need to wake up, and grow up.
You’re not any of those things, Tinkerbell, Invisible Friend Jesus said. You can do better, but we all can. And your belief that every person has relevance, even those with unconventional minds and lifestyles, is correct. People who live and believe the way you do are bound to have a harder time in society than those who take the well-beaten path, but that doesn’t mean you’re wrong. I mean, you’ve read about some of the people I hung out with, right? I got loads of shit for it. And now, look at me. He gestured expansively. I have the best-selling book of all time.
I snorted. Yeah, but you never got wasted and got kicked out of a casino.
He grinned. You’d be surprised. Like I said, we all can do better sometimes.
I took a deep breath and wiped my eyes. I need something to help me believe. I need something to help me feel better about myself. And I need to know I’m not going to ruin my kid’s life by acting crazy.
He gave me a look over the rims of his sunglasses. You’re going to be alright, and so will Juniper. No matter what happens, you’ll be able to take care of yourself and her, because you’re a good person who knows how to get by. Just be strong.
I nodded, sniffing, and wiped my eyes again, staring at the darkness outside my windshield. Invisible Friend Jesus was right: I would be able to take care of myself and my kid, no matter what happened. The world may think I’m crazy, but that’s okay. I’d survive.
I pulled out my phone to text Mari, to tell her what had happened. She always knew how to cheer me up.
When I unlocked it, my email came up automatically, and one of the subject lines caught my eye. Limitless Publishing Contract Offer, it said. I blinked at it a few times, wondering if it would change, but it didn’t. I tapped it with a trembling thumb.
Dear Ms. Roderick, it said. We’ve read your manuscript, Love or Money, and have enjoyed it very much. We’d like to offer you a contract for publication. If you’re still interested, please respond, and we’ll send you the contract for review.
“No freakin’ way,” I said, and laughed. “High five, Invisible Friend Jesus.”