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Loud music filled the room, making it hard to hear anything else. The neon club smelled like sweat and chemicals. I wished I’d put the drugs somewhere less awkward than tucked into the waistband of my corduroys like I’d seen in the movies. Not my drugs, technically, but Zoe’s drugs.
Until that moment, I’d never actually been to a club, or even a party. Never had time to “expand my social circles,” as my mom would say, mostly because my parents made me study on Friday nights. Zoe always promised to take me out sometime to be my wing woman. She was my best friend, even if she was way different. I was obsessive about my grades, a middle-income kid from the suburbs with fast feet that earned me a scholarship at an elite-ish East Coast college. Zoe skipped class, smoked cigarettes, and joked about dropping out to start a punk rock band. I never told my parents about Zoe. They would’ve disowned me after taking one look at her tattoos and mane of bleach-dyed hair. Honestly, I loved that Zoe didn’t care about anything and that she thought it was cool I played the violin. She gave off an aura of zen that pacified my anxiety when we’d hang out to talk about funny, wild hypotheticals instead of college applications and assignment deadlines.
Anyway, Zoe would sell pills on the side to help her mom out and make some extra income because “real jobs are lame.” Her mother couldn’t afford rent the last semester of our senior year, especially when Zoe got sent off to court-enforced rehab after she was caught smoking more than just cigarettes on school property. So, she dialled me on a payphone from the hospital and asked for my help.
I’d never taken any drugs, per se, but I was up to the task. I trusted Zoe, but I also didn’t want to get booked and lose my scholarship. Zoe just laughed. She told me to keep my cool, be straight up, and I’d be just fine ’cause nobody would suspect someone like me.
I really thought that it wouldn’t be too hard to sell them for her, plus it would add some flavour to the summer of my senior year. But by the time I actually walked to the front door of her mom’s place, I was sweating bullets. Glancing over my shoulder for cops, I pulled a fat plastic package from the second potted plant on the right, just where Zoe said it would be. I felt uncertain about Zoe’s advice, but I followed her instructions to the address that I’d scribbled onto a sticky note. The package sat shotgun and my stomach churned while I drove across town, staying well below the speed limit.
I ended up in a seedy club with a handful of truckers tossing dollars to strippers at eleven o’clock in the morning. I waited to meet “some tall guy in a hoodie” while wearing corduroys and a collared shirt, drugs crammed into my pants and no way to back out, all just to do her a favour because I really liked Zoe. Not liked-liked, but I did like her a lot. As a friend. Obviously.
Someone cleared his throat behind me, and a tall guy in a hoodie asked if I was Zoe. The guy stared me down before I snapped out of my trance and nodded yes. He asked me why my parents had given me a girl name, and I told him that they had hoped for a girl and didn’t want to change it. A look of confusion washed over the guy’s face, but he shrugged it off. He asked what I was selling, and I told him that I had a lot of blue pills and pink pills and some pills that were orange circles. The guy squinted like he was trying and failing to figure out if I was being serious, so I threw in a light laugh. He loosened up a little with a chuckle, and I thanked God.
The guy ushered me to a back room. He sat me down next to a tiny poker table covered in partially full bottles of Coors sitting on cracked Radiohead CDs instead of coasters. He took a sip absentmindedly and gestured to pass him the goods. I tugged the package out from my pants, and the guy barely hid his disgust, asking if I could actually just set it on the table. Before I could offer to wipe it off with my shirt, the guy flipped open a pocketknife and cut into the package. Zoe had told me to not let him do that. You don’t let him touch a thing and step out that door ’til money’s in your hands, she had said. So, I demanded the guy give me the cash and give it to me soon. I realised after the words left my mouth that I may have been a little forceful. The guy shot me a long, hard glare, but he eventually pulled some crumpled bills from his pocket and slapped them onto the poker table.
I watched with bated breath and questioned whether I should bail. The guy prodded the tightly wrapped bags of rainbow pills with his knife and spoke to me, but I missed what he said so I asked him, “What?” The guy cracked a smile and asked if I was a cop. I told him of course I wasn’t, so then the guy said okay and asked if I wanted to count. When I said, “Count what?” the guy furrowed his brow and stopped poking the bag. Rubbing the blade between his fingers, he asked if I was dead sure I wasn’t a cop, and I told him that I definitely was before correcting myself to say no, I actually wasn’t, like I actually wasn’t a cop. The guy then asked why I was dressed like I was going ballroom dancing. I tapped my fingers on the side of my chair, trying to steel my nerves before I finally decided to get it off my chest and told him the truth: I was going to a violin recital after this.
The guy asked if I was high or something. I said that I definitely wasn’t, but he seemed uncertain and my stomach felt like lead. I wanted to just melt into the floor, forget the cash, leave the drugs and ditch, but something pulled me back. A bearded man with an earring popped out from the doorframe and asked the guy who the fuck I was. The guy stuttered that I was Zoe, obviously, to which the earring man said that he must be blind or stupid. I said thank you to both of them, my hip knocking into the table as I stood to exit.
I froze. A bottle near the edge teetered before spilling directly on the guy’s crotch, another few smashing onto the floor. The guy cursed like a sailor and threatened to shove my head so far up my own ass that I’d suffocate. In an instant of thoughtless bravery, my heart thudding like a drumline, I snatched the cash from the table, stepped over the broken glass, and bolted out of the back room like my life depended on it. The earring guy reached into his jacket pocket to pull out I-don’t-even-wanna-think what and before he could yell at me again, I was back into the daylight and I went straight to my car. Tires squealing, I came out of the parking lot so fast that I thought I might pass out from the acceleration.
In case you’re wondering, I made it to my violin concert. I played Canon in D minor and got a standing ovation from a room full of parents. I hopped off stage right after and dialled Zoe on the nearest payphone. Smiling into the receiver, she picked up immediately. I told her that I’d survived like she said and the deal was done. Zoe whooped and hollered loud enough that I heard a nurse tell her sharply to quiet down. She told me in a whisper that I was just full of surprises and she was seriously so proud of me. My heart sang, and I promised to drop the wad of cash at the second potted plant. Zoe laughed and said she’d see me real soon.
I waited and waited, but Zoe didn’t make it out of the hospital until the very end of summer. By then, I’d already left for college and arrived on campus feeling like I’d won the battle yet lost the war, happy to have done my part but stuck on the times we had missed. I did get a postcard during my first week, though, my heart lifting when I saw it was from her. The postcard came with a photograph of Zoe, grinning and carefree with an arm wrapped around her mom, a lipstick kiss stuck to the back and scrawled note, a thank you with a promise that if I was ever back in town, she would definitely take me out sometime.
James Maddox Kennedy works in clinical operations at a biotech company. When he's not writing, you can find him experimenting with sourdough starters, sprinting up mountain trails, or researching hyperobjects. He's currently working on his debut novel.