Authors: Nic Sheff
BY THE TIME I
get home the sun has nearly set on the horizon, so the brightest stars are already shining through the settling dark and the faint orange glow of city lights.
Because Janey and I can't start watching the movies I rented (
Harold and Maude
my favorite Hal Ashby films) until after dinner, we are busy working together on a drawing on a card table set up next to the fireplace. The drawing we're doing is part of a larger project. I mean, it's kind of silly, really, but we're trying to put a comic book together. It's the story of these two characters she createdâthey're 1920s flapper girls named Mabel and Pearl. Honestly, Janey draws way better than I do. But I try to keep up.
My mom has taken a pill and gone to bed, apparently, and so I put on that Washington Phillips record that I bought the other day at Amoeba. I'm not sure what my mom was talking about. The music's not depressing at all. If anything, this guy must've been, like, a preacher or something, because every song is about God and Jesus and how great everything is going to be in heaven. I'd love to be able to believe in something like that. Plus, the man's voice is so sweet and pure and beautiful.
It's a good album.
“Hey, if you like this, you should check out these other records, too.”
My dad walks over and crouches down next to the dark wood cabinet where he keeps his vinyl collection.
“Here,” he says, piling a couple albums up on the table next to our drawing.
My dad is wearing a collared dress shirt rolled up to the elbows and open at the neck, flannel pajama bottoms, and plush, furry slippers. The pajamas are loose and hanging off him a little.
“Blind Willie Johnson,” he says, standing up straighter to show me one of the records. “He really was blind.”
Janey's gap-tooth smile is just the greatest, and my dad musses her hair with his large, calloused hands.
“And check this out,” he says, passing her one final record. “Robert Johnson. People say he made a deal with the devil. That's how he learned to play the blues.”
“Wow,” Jane says. “Can we listen to this now?”
“Here, I got it,” I tell my dad. I take the record from him and carry it over to where the turntable is set up.
“You guys hungry?” he asks.
“Yeah,” says Janey.
“Yeah, me too, I guess,” I say.
He goes to open the refrigerator and kind of grumbles, “Hmmm, slim pickings in here. How about some fried egg sandwiches? And bacon?”
I put the record on, and it crackles and pops loudly as the guitar music starts to play. The singing is pained and full of gravel and broken glass and dust and mud. It is beautiful.
Jane keeps on drawing while I go over to the kitchen to help my dad fry up the bacon. He makes some black coffee on the electric burner and some hot chocolate for Janey, then he cooks up a bunch of thick pieces of wheat bread in the grease from the bacon and fries the eggs right there in the same pan. Really, there's not that much I can do to help but just make the plates up.
“Hey,” my dad says to me. “If you want, maybe you and me can play some music together later. Pull out the ol' guitars.”
I smile. “That'd be great.”
He lays the bacon and egg sandwiches out on the plates, and I pour the coffee and cocoa and then go over to turn on the TV.
Janey sits next to me on the couch, and my dad sits on the floor. He always likes to watch
on Sunday nights, so we all watch it together. There's that part at the beginning where the anchors take turns saying, “I'm Steve Kroft,” and, “I'm Lesley Stahl.” And Teddy would always jump in, saying, “And I'm Teddy Cole.” He thought that was just the funniest thing ever.
But now it's like we all have to talk over the opening so there isn't time to think about it.
“Thanks, Dad,” Jane says. “This sandwich is really good.”
“Miles helped, too,” he answers, and she says, “Thank you, Miles.”
And I tell her she's welcome.
We all watch the show and eat together and the fire is going and the wind rattles the screen door outside.
Everything is so nice like this, right now, with my family, and I wish I could just stay in this moment forever and never have to deal with Eliza or medication or doctors or go back to school, and never have to do anything ever again except to be here with my dad and sisterÂ .Â .Â .
And Teddy, of courseÂ .Â .Â . Teddy would be here.
He would be watching the show with us like he used to.
And then my mom would be here, too, just like she used to.
Someday it will be like that again.
So I kiss Jane's forehead quickly and take her and my dad's plates and go wash them in the hot water in the sink. My phone is there on the counter, and I see the little blue missed-call light is blinking. I dry my hands on a checkered dishcloth and pick up my phoneâeven though I know I probably shouldn't, that I should just forget everything until tomorrow.
But I can't.
I can't do that.
The number is one I don't recognize, but it's got a 415 area code, which is San Francisco. I scroll through the menu options and then dial my voice mail, waiting, my stomach tight, my lungs contracted.
Her voice sounds sweet and beautiful and sexy even through the slight electronic distortion of my phone.
It's Eliza, of course.
She says that right off:
“Miles, hey, it's Eliza. Call me back, okay? I'm so sorry people are talking about this. Please know I didn't mean to tell anyone. I was just worried about you last night. But I should've just kept my mouth shut. Can you forgive me? AndÂ .Â .Â . uhÂ .Â .Â . please. I want to hang out with you again. And I don't want you to be, you know, embarrassed at all, all right? You didn't do anything wrong. Do you want to, like, get coffee after school tomorrow maybe? Okay, thanks, Miles. It was so good to see you again. AndÂ .Â .Â . I don't know. ShootÂ .Â .Â . just, uh, call me. Okay? Bye.”
I erase the message quickly.
My hands tremble.
“You all right, Mie?” my dad calls from the living room.
“Y-yeahÂ .Â .Â . I'm fine. I'll be right there.”
“What are you doing?” Janey asks.
“Uh, nothingÂ .Â .Â . I gotta take my medicine. It's okay. Just keep watching. I'll be back.”
I leave my phone on the counter and walk into the bathroom and turn the lights on. The bulb overhead is out, but the one above the small mirror flickers on after a moment. There're some tiles with painted pink roses and white daisies all lined up at about eye level. The sink is stained and the faucet is white with calcium deposits. I open the top drawer and take out the different prescription bottles. Fluoxetine, 60 mg per day, which is just generic Prozac, an antidepressant, and then there's the Lamictal, 200 mg a day, which is a mood stabilizer. Then there's the lithium, 800 mg a day, and the Depakote, 300 mg a day, which build something called gray matter, whatever that is, and are supposed to help with the racing, paranoid, delusional thinking. And then there's the Abilify, 10 mg a day, which is specifically for schizophrenia. And the Zyprexa, 10 mg a day, the newest of the drugs. It's supposed to make you put on a ton of weight once you start taking it, but it hasn't for me at all. I'm just skin and bones.
The mirror reflects my sunken image, my eyes swollen and bloodshot. The color around my pupils is a golden yellowish brown. I stare straight into my own eyes. I turn on the tap so the cold water can run a minute. There's an empty plastic cup next to the toothbrushes, and I fill it with water. The light flickers overhead.
When I close my eyes there's an image projected on the back of my eyelids of Eliza the way she looked yesterday. I see her smiling. I see her leaning forward to kiss me. I see her and I reach out and take her hand in mine. There is the smell of her there with me suddenly. I inhale deeply and take the smell of her into my mouth and down the back of my throat and into my lungs and into my belly.
I remember that smell so clearly from when we were kids together. When her mom and dad were driving us back from the beach one time, I remember Eliza falling asleep with her head on my shoulder and her hair getting all tangled in my mouth and I wanted her to stay sleeping like that forever on me.
But last night should have been even better.
Last night she actually kissed me.
It really did happen.
I open my eyes.
I can still feel her with me.
And I want to keep feeling her with me.
I want that more than anything.
Maybe someday, after I find Teddy and he's safely home, then I can start worrying about girls and all that normal high school stuff.
For now, I have to put that aside.
I look down at the bottles lined up there on the tiled counter.
Just the thought of those pills sticking in my throat, the taste of them going down, slowly dissolving in my mouth as I try to gulp the water downâit's enough to make me want to throw up right now.
I pour the four capsules of the powdered lithium out into my hand. They are an off-colored, sickly pink, glossy, with tiny numbers printed along the center seam.
I put the pills in my mouth and start to swallow, but they seem caught somehow, and I cough and gag as they stick there.
I try again to swallow, but I can't. I can't do it.
I choke and spit the pills out into the sink.
“Goddamnit,” I say, gasping, fighting for air.
I grab the already dissolving pills out of the sink and drop them into the trash. Then I open each of the individual pill bottles and empty their entire contents into the toilet. I flushâtwice, actually, because they don't all go down the first time.
I splash some water on my face and then turn off the spigot.
“I can't,” I tell my reflection, shaking my head. “I can't do it anymore.”
I dry my face and hands on a ratty towel hung over the shower.
I switch the light off and close the door.
The medication is gone.
And now I am ready to make things right hereâat homeâwith my family.
Tomorrow I will go to the police station.
I'll talk to Detective Marshall.
And it will be all right.
THE CENTRAL BRANCH OF
the San Francisco Police Department is located right on the border between North Beach and Chinatown, in an unassuming two-story building behind a nameless liquor store and directly across from two different strip clubs, Big Al's and the Garden of Eden.
North Beach is maybe my favorite part of the city. It's a little touristy, I guess, but that's just because it's so beautiful. I've never been to Europe, but from the movies I've seen, I think it must look something like the streets here in North Beach. The roads are very narrow, built on the steep, complicated, crisscrossing hills leading up to Coit Tower. The Victorian-style buildings, cafÃ©s, and trattorias pressed right up against one another.
There are a few grand old churches, built out of white marble and surrounded by stone courtyards. Before Jane and Teddy were born, my mom and dad lived with me not too far from here. My dad used to take me on walks down around Washington Square Park, and then he'd write at Caffe Trieste while I drew in a notebook and drank hot chocolate and ate these raspberry ring pastry things.
Actually, now that I think about it, once I was older, my dad used to take me and Eliza to that same Caffe Trieste every Sunday to listen to opera music while he worked on his stories for the paper. Walking through North Beach after schoolâwhere I basically spent the whole day hidingâcan't help but think back on those times with Eliza.
It's only a little after three, but already the sun is low on the horizon, setting behind the high-rise buildings along the Marina to the west. Everything is gray with shadow, and the wind tunnels down the alleyways, blowing the streets clean, as pigeons scurry like rats across the sidewalk.
I light a cigarette, but then throw it away immediately once I see all the cops hanging out around the front of the stationâsince I'm still under eighteen and could probably get a ticket or something. The cops outside are talking to one another in loud voices, drinking coffee out of Styrofoam cups, their uniforms crisp and polished-looking. Police cars are parked and double-parked all up and down the street.
Inside the station is all cheap tile floors, colorless, threadbare carpeting, and dark-paneled walls. There are posters taped up advertising different police services, along with a bunch of missing person flyers and mug shots. Against the far end of the main room there's a reception desk, where a rather large woman is sitting behind an ancient-looking computer, wearing a bright blue police uniform. There are a couple of wooden benches set up in front of the reception area, but, surprisingly, no one seems to be waiting.
A big cop with a really big mustache pushes past me so I almost fall back.
“Hey, watch it,” he says gruffly. “Don't stand in the door.”
I take a deep breath and hold it, walking over to the receptionist lady with my eyes fixed on the ground. My heart beats fast and hard.
“Can I help you?” the woman asks, but without looking at me.
The computer screen lights up her broad face, and I can see what must be some kind of spreadsheet reflected in the framed, oversize printout of the department's antidiscrimination policy behind her. She has short silver-gray hair and thick tufted eyebrows and quite a bit of fur on her upper lip. Her mouth is turned down at the corners, and there are deep-set lines around her eyes and crossing her waxen, pale forehead.
“Yes? What is it?” she tries again. “What do you want?”
“IÂ .Â .Â . IÂ .Â .Â .” My voice trembles, though there's really no reason why it should. I guess I'm just nervous, is all. I'm nervous to talk about Teddy.
“Spit it out, kid, I don't have all day.” She speaks in a monotone, still typing at the computer and not looking at me.
“IÂ .Â .Â . IÂ .Â .Â . I'm here to seeÂ .Â .Â . Detective MarshallÂ .Â .Â . Detective Kerry Marshall.”
The woman's head swings back and forth slowly, her eyes fixed on the screen. “Nope. Detective Marshall was transferred to Santa Clara last year.”
My breath catches in my throat and, instinctively, I take a step back. “Wh-Â .Â .Â . what do you mean?”
“He was transferred,” she says, without any inflection whatsoever. “Detective William Demarest has taken over all of Detective Marshall's cases. Would you like to talk to Detective Demarest?”
“WellÂ .Â .Â . IÂ .Â .Â . I don't know. Do youÂ .Â .Â . uhÂ .Â .Â . remember the case of the little boy who went missing from Ocean Beach?”
She keeps typing, still not looking over at me. “Lots of children go missing, I'm afraid.”
“Yes, but this was Detective Marshall's case. A boy, Teddy Cole, was kidnapped from Ocean Beach two years ago. It was in all the papers. Teddy Bryant Cole.”
Finally the woman stops. She moves her hands off the keyboard and turns to look at me full-on. Her eyes study me. For the first time, there is a hint of color behind the dull gray of her irises.
“Teddy BryantÂ .Â .Â . That case was never solved.”
“No,” I say timidly. “That's why I wanted to talk to Detective Marshall. Teddy Bryant Cole is my brother.”
The woman shakes her head, her lips held tightly together. “I am so sorry,” she says. “I am so very sorry for your loss.”
My nostrils flare and I grit my teeth.
Teddy is not dead,
I want to tell her, but she interrupts me, saying, “I'm sure Detective Demarest will be happy to speak with you. Just wait over there for a moment.” She gestures with her head to the empty benches.
I nod. “Yes, okay, thank you.”
“It'll just be a moment.” And then she smiles again, this time showing off a row of stained yellow teeth.
I sit, waiting on the bench, my legs crossed.
There's a loud noise as the front doors seem to slam open and two police officers, one male and one female, carry a screaming man, hog-tied, through the main entranceway.
“Fucking cocksuckers!” he screams.
Two more men are dragged in the same way behind the first, so all three of them can be heard screaming together.
The receptionist woman comes back then, walking just in front of an extremely short man with close-cropped hair and a dark-colored suit and necktie. The man introduces himself as Detective William Demarest, but tells me to call him Bill. I shake his hand and thank the woman, who smiles at me before heading back to her desk.
Detective DemarestâBillâsays that I should follow him, and so I do, walking behind him through a side door and away from those three different hog-tied men screaming profanities.
“I-I'm sorry,” I stutter out as we make our way down the cramped hallway past identical windowless offices with different nameplates tacked up on each door. “You must be really busy.”
There are trophy cases piled high with different awards and a collection of different badges framed on the yellowed walls.
“Oh, yes, busy, busy, busy,” he says in a booming bass voice. “It sure does get crazy in here sometimes. This city's just full of themâcrazies, I mean. I've been here goin' on twenty-five years, but I still can't get used to it. Suppose you never do. I thought goin' from homicide to missing persons was gonna be easier somehow. Don't know what the hell I was thinking.”
He turns in to the office with his name on the door, and I go in after him.
“Take a seat there,” he tells me, pointing to the only chair in the room.
“AhÂ .Â .Â . are you sure?” I ask, considering, as I said, there's literally no other chair in the office.
“Yeah, sit. I'm all right. HereÂ .Â .Â .” He pushes some papers onto the floor and moves the lamp and then sits on the corner of the desk so he looks like a little kid, maybe, or like Kermit the Frog, his legs dangling.
Besides the desk and the papers and the lamp and the one chair, the rest of the office is nothing but filing boxes all stacked one on top of another. The walls are completely blank, and there's not even an inch of free floor space.
“Sit down,” he tells me again.
And so I do, holding my backpack on my lap as I lean against the hard metal chair.
“Are you just moving into this office?” I ask dumbly, not sure of what else to say.
He laughs good-heartedly, running his stubby hand through his lack of hair. His nose is very wide, and he has a scar on his chin running straight across like he's been divided into segments.
“You'd think it to look at this place, wouldn't ya?” he says, smiling. “But, no, I've been here a whole year. Took over for Detective Marshall. Did you know him, then?”
“N-Â .Â .Â . no. But he was working on my brother's case.”
Demarest nods, still smiling. “Yes, yes. Louise told me. Let's see, I've got the file here. I'm sorry, son; I know your family's been going through a hard time.”
He begins rummaging through the boxes of files scattered everywhere.
“Believe it or not,” he continues, still riffling, “there's a whole system I got worked out here. I got every case filed just so. OnlyÂ .Â .Â . only sometimes I outsmart myself, you know what I mean? I think myself into a corner. You ever do that, son?”
Standing up straight, he turns and looks at me as though trying to read in my face the answer to his question.
“Nope, nope, I don't figure you do. You're a smart one, I bet, always got everything put back in its proper place. Isn't that so?”
He goes back to looking while I try to say something.
“IÂ .Â .Â . IÂ .Â .Â . IÂ .Â .Â .”
“Oh, that's all right,” he tells me. “I've got all the respect in the world for good organizational skills. Now, take that Detective Marshall who was here before me. Why, he kept the most detailed notes I ever read in my damnÂ .Â .Â .” He clears his throat. “Darn. Darn life, that's what I mean. And I respect a man like that. I came in here and started reading his case files and, sure enough, it was like reading literature. William Shakespeare. He had a real talent. And organized! Me, I've got my own system. But sometimesâ”
“So you read about my brother's case?” I ask, interrupting him this time.
“Sure, of course I did. Tragic stuff.”
Emerging triumphant, he lays the surprisingly thin file folder on the table and takes a seat on top of it.
“I've been doing a lot of reading, too,” I tell him. “I think my brother might still be alive. That's what I wanted to see you about. That witness, Dotty Peterson, I saw her the other day. She seemed pretty sure that Teddy really was kidnapped.”
He frowns at me, his jowls shaking like the gristle on a burned piece of meat. “Ah, yes. Well, the sad truth is, that woman, the witness, she's really not, uhmm,
Of course, I can't discuss too many details of the case, but her storyÂ .Â .Â . it didn't hold up, not at all.”
“What do you mean?”
He pulls the file out from underneath him and begins flipping through it absently. “Well, from what I understand, Detective Marshall had a sketch drawn up of the suspect based on Ms. Peterson's description. Here it is, in fact, right here.”
The photocopy of the drawing is in black and white, and I hold it, trembling now, staring down at that faceâthe face of the man who took my brother.
“What we normally do in a case like this is to both circulate and cross-reference the sketch with our database. These kinds of abductions are almost always perpetrated by sex offenders. So we pulled up every registered sex offender within a thirty-mile radius from the spot the victim, your brother, was taken. Anyone fitting the physical description was immediately brought in for questioning, 'specially if the subject had any contact with the victim. Most times we find the suspects have seen their victims at least once before. Often they've even had some sort of interaction with them. So we cross-check all those different pieces of information. And, from what I can see here, looks like they came back with a list of four possible suspects. OhÂ .Â .Â . and there was the car!”
He says the last part as though surprising himself, pausing to read for a moment before continuing on.
“That's right. That same witness identified a carâa white Ford Explorer. So we ran a check to see if there were any registered Explorer owners on the sex offender list. It looks like there was one relevant match, butÂ .Â .Â .”
Grimacing, he turns the papers over one after another.
“From what I can see here, kid, I'm sorry to say, none of the leads panned out in any way. And then, again, just between you and meâI mean, off the recordâthat witness didn't stand up real well under questioning.”
He closes the file, then reaches in his jacket pocket and pulls out a packet of Trident gum. Spearmint, I think.
“Gum?” he asks, holding it up to me.
“No, thank you.”
He takes a piece for himself and starts unwrapping it. “Quit smoking a month ago,” he says bitterly. He chomps on his gum and finally says, “I'm sorry, I really should be getting back to work. Is there anything else I can tell you, son?”
“No,” I answer, bowing my head. “I just wondered if there was anything new, I guess. Do you think I could look at that file?”
“I'm sorry, pal, can't do it. But the truth is, there's not a lot here. The general opinion is that the witness was mistaken. Chances are, Teddy Bryant drowned that day. Ninety-nine-point-ninety-nine percent. I'm very sorry. I wish I had better news for you. If you want, I canâ”
But just then another detective sticks his head into the officeâa large man with a bald, shiny head, reflecting the buzzing and crackling fluorescent lights overhead. “Hey, Bill, sorry, can I get your signature in here for a second?”
Demarest nods. “Sure thing.”
And then to me, “Wait here a secondâI'll come walk you out.”
He leaves, jumping down off the desk with a thud.
And so I'm left staring at the file.
Drowned, this guy says. But what does he know, really? He's not even the original detective. Plus, this whole place seems a little crazy.