Tiara stood before Fran, next to their bunks. The telltale white holes of a bandit tanner ringed the girl’s eyes; blue circles necklaced over her collarbones and toppled down an elbow. Was that Mary Poppins riding them? Tiara, probably in her thirties, with a kid who’d been taken by the relatives.
I mean no harm, strange creature, she seemed to telegraph to Fran, who was white, stolid by over a decade, and single. Fran was just home from work, still in her green scrubs. “I’m on the bottom bunk,” Fran said. The small, pearl-gray room was crowded with a dresser and a nightstand. Hooks laden with coats and purses bulged from the wall. “And I have the bottom two drawers,” she added.
The new girls, named Tiara and Sierra—all crowns and deserts—belonged to the opioid gang. They had their own codes. When you stole an aquarium, you were on Xanax. When you stopped to ask a cop if he’d seen your pills, you were on Suboxone. When you climbed into a car that had already been jacked up and chained to a flatbed and turned on the ignition, you were on meth. Fran recognized the formulas, x=y, but there was a blank where the because should be.
Fran just drank. It was an antique addiction at Dover House, like playing banjo or figuring fractions on a pad. In college she drank a lot and smoked a fair amount, like everyone.
Afterward she was supposed to grow. She didn’t have the slightest idea how. Most of her friends just succumbed. Even the lesbians and gay men did with houses and jobs and impatience with her desire to go out at night.
“All they want to do is kill the past,” Ginny told her before she left for an intentional community in Virginia. Who? Fran asked. The hilltop people eventually sent Ginny back to her family for treatment. She died a decade later from the medication that stabilized her.
The past was not dead. She left them sealed in it.
“Is there a ladder?” Tiara asked, looking behind her. Fran let her find it. “Oh, there, okay.” She patted the blue comforter on the top bunk.
Tiara’s chin steered away from the rest of her face. A clue, Fran thought. Maybe to a kind of habit she hadn’t heard about yet. Did a particular drug affect mandible formation—
Fran pulled her eyes away. “So you work at Amazon?” Everyone without a felony did.
Tiara nodded. “Is there any more closet space? I have a lot of clothes.”
Fran shook her head back and forth. Like the others, she’d wind up leaving them all over Fran’s lower mattress. But Fran wanted Tiara because Tiara would be gone for the hours that Fran spent there.
Their room shared a wall with the bathroom. The night before people thumped seals against it. The creature occasionally squealed. Groggy, Fran groped for her glasses and her phone in a tray next to the head of the bed.
Upstairs bath! she texted with a clockface emoji grimacing a flat mouth. It was almost midnight.
Sorry, sorry, pinged back.
When Fran got up in the early dark, she walked into a floor soggy with wet towels and a purple gorge of sink. Something monstrous had been slain there. Worse, they hadn’t left any dry towels.
Tiara turned away to the bureau, bent to take a multicolored stack of panties from her backpack.
“And you’re a nurse? I bet you can get anything you want,” she said.
“Please don’t vape in the room,” Fran said as Tiara stood and opened the narrow closet. “It gives me a headache.”
* * *
Fran had sixty-four days. This time she was making it to ninety. She hadn’t reached that basic benchmark in three years. The most she’d gotten to was seventy-three days. During that middle stretch her sister loomed everywhere, behind a scrim. Fran felt her skin was shrinking, and she had to get out of it, shrug it off, pursue Ginny. But she’d had seven years of sobriety before that. She returned to school while working full time. She’d needed to prove to her family how completely she had overcome her failure. She finished the degree. Then drank. Dover was Fran’s fourth halfway house, the most comfortable in a plush, bright way that she didn’t trust. Perhaps it was the downstairs carpeting. The whole world, Dr. Griswold had once said, is covered in a thin layer of feces, and carpets made her wonder what had collected underneath all the chemical floral cleaning smells her housemates adored.
Fran had liked her second relapse house best. It was more fifties institutional, a red-brick, two-story building of apartments that hid nothing about your situation but didn’t insist on metal bars and clamps to do it, the way jail did. The inhabitants were more various, not all white, suburban types of some variety. There she’d met Nekeshia, fifteen years younger than Fran and sharper than anyone at Dover. Nekeshia’s pregnancy lasted for almost a year before she admitted that it was imaginary. Otherwise she was very smart, a Black woman from Fort Wayne. “You get me,” Nekeshia had told her. Fran didn’t get the pregnancy fantasy, but she did get the rest of Nekeshia. She’d gotten the boyfriend that she tried to run over to testify for her as a character witness. He had, after all, slapped her first.
Addicts and drunks all come out of the same general story, they were told at meetings. Fran accepted the premise. Yes, she, like they, knew how to make jailhouse eyeliner from instant coffee. And yes, she was a liar, as they were liars. But Nekeshia, like Fran, put some thought into most of her lies. They both wanted some control over the story. There was a kind of power in convincing people to see her the way she wanted them to and she usually could. At least for awhile.
* * *
As a crown Tiara differed. She disrupted the opioid genre that Fran had understood. She paid Fran back for the McDonald’s Fran picked up for her. She didn’t vape at all. Or bring up pills again. She borrowed one of Fran’s mystery novels and actually tried to talk to her about it.
“Can’t you tell from the start that it’s going to be the best friend’s husband?” Both in gym shorts, they sprawled in the kitchen on basket-woven chairs glued to metal tubing. Fran was sipping her Starbucks French Roast—she’d slept until two—and Tiara a diet Dr Pepper. She offered Fran a Pop-Tart.
“Well—maybe that’s a distraction,” Fran said. “To mislead you.” Fran pulled one haunch off the webbing, making a peeling sound. They both stared at their phones.
“Why don’t you just tell me whether I’m right?” Tiara asked.
Fran’s right eyebrow tented. She let a beat pass before she replied. She looked up at Tiara.
“How far are you?”
“Dunno, chapter three?”
“That’s not very far,” Fran said.
“You think I’m slow?”
“No—it’s just—wouldn’t it ruin the book if I told you?”
Tiara raised her shoulders and dropped them without looking up. “But being right makes me feel smart.”
“I like being right too,” Fran admitted. “But with a mystery you have to wait to find out, or there’s no point in reading it.”
Fran was beginning to like Tiara, with her listing teeth and actual awareness of the existence of other sentient beings. She was no Nekeshia, whose cell was disconnected after she moved back to Fort Wayne last year. Tiara had the unnerving blankness of the opizoids. The pills must have supplied their only animation.
“Do you have a hard time with reading?” Fran asked carefully. “One of my brothers did. I mean, does it seem like a lot of work to you?”
“Yeah. You make it look like it would be, umm, fun, though.” She let out a half laugh.
“Maybe you’d do better with an audiobook,” Fran said. “You could listen on your phone.”
Tiara’s phone dinged twice but she looked up from it. “Or you could just tell me,” she smiled.
“It’s not the husband,” Fran said. She got up and took her coffee cup to the sink. Time to go home and feed her cats. She’d asked her neighbor Jodie to do it Friday. If she’d come last night, tired and frayed after a long week, she would have craved a beer after feeding everyone. She’d have earned one. Then more than one. The whole weekend would cave into it, that one beer that overcame her with sensation. Drinking didn’t know a suture, it dissolved anything into one porous sponge of feeling. Drinking was the end of complaint because Fran was inside it when she rode one hour into another and then to sleep. She would go back to work Monday hung over and stop again, but she would be kicked out of another sober house.
At her last rehab the woman who ran the place repeatedly scolded Fran: she’d never get sober again if she didn’t sell her house.
“The writer just wants you to think that for awhile,” she said to Tiara. “It can change. You don’t have to know.”
* * *
Fran drove across the quick stone bridge—one of two over the canal—to get to her neighborhood. The village had become a cul-de-sac of converted and enlarged summer cottages on a flood plain full of people who liked to shoot guns in the air and people who liked to heal the air wounds with crystals. Dogs and cats wandered freely in the streets.
When she turned into her gravel driveway, the cats scattered and collected around the car. Many of them were feral and lived outside. After a few months beside Fran’s gravel driveway, the scabbed and emaciated grew plump and even furred. Even got picky about the food—wet instead of dry, cream instead of milk—though they still wouldn’t come anywhere near her. LeJuan and Bristles were her indoor cats, one tabby and one black with a white nose and chest, strays she’d adopted long ago.
She went inside to open their cans of food. Then she came out into the long grass out front and sat in the rickety Adirondack chair to wait for them to come out the dog door. If she’d been gone too long, LeJuan turned to bite her lightly after settling on her lap. Bristles turned over on her back in the grass for a belly rub.
No one at the houses seemed to understand in the way Fran did: To clean the mess up, she first had to slice it open. At work she didn’t do the actual cutting, but she handled the instruments, helped scoop the yellow gobs of fat aside with the retractor or suction out the pus, to clamp the pools of blood or waste that had leaked into the wrong cavern and made sepsis. When she’d sobered up long enough, she’d close the flesh drapes and dully endure the bruises of healing.
Once she got to ninety days, Fran could stitch it up. At ninety you got a token and a round of applause at your meeting. You came out knowing exactly what was going to happen all the time.
She sat in the sun for a long time, then took the cats for a walk over to the canal.
* * *
Tiara became Fran’s friend like a halfway house stray, adopted because she turned up at regular intervals.
“I did kind of like the tricks,” she said one September Saturday when Fran had recruited her for yard duty at Dover. A lot of the others preferred to do their chores indoors with the curtains closed and the television blaring. Fran couldn’t start the irritable electronic mower.
“Damn this thing. What did you like about it?” Fran asked her. “Being wrong?”
“No, c’mon,” she smiled. “I liked getting into it. I wanted to find out but I didn’t want it to end. Here, let me try.”
Fran stood back while Tiara squatted over the machine. “Do you want another one?” Fran asked. “I have a ton of them at home. There’s an Irish writer who’s really good.”
But the mower kicked in, drowning her out.
Fran didn’t care for insoluble puzzles. Only the kind that could be solved with analysis. What word could be sorted from the letters unabimslto? How could she get a cup of coffee at work with only two minutes to vanish and no machine in her own suite? Not, for instance, why Tiara whimpered in her bed that night and stayed face to the wall, making small sounds. The next morning Fran texted Ashley, one of the dye culprits, could she check in on Tiara.
That afternoon Tiara came down and sat next to Fran on the gold couch in the TV room.
The Colts were playing.
“You okay?” Fran asked. Tiara’s face was buried deep in a pink hoodie, blocking Fran’s view of her profile. The peak pointed up sharply. It dipped yes.
“Could you maybe drive me to Kroger?” Tiara asked during a commercial.
“After the game,” Fran said. “Maybe sooner if they start losing.”
* * *
On day eighty-five, all of a sudden, Fran became eligible for the single left by a woman who’d flunked her pill count and had to leave.
“You get to have the bottom bunk now,” Fran told Tiara. “Congratulations.” She was collecting her stuffed giraffe and shoes and, by the armful, shuttling it all across the hall. She’d found a rug on Craigslist with blue and gray Mondrian patterns on it. It was another incentive for a long-term stay.
“But I don’t want you to go,” Tiara said. She was facing the closet but sounded pathetic. She turned to face Fran and made a pout.
“I’ll still see you as much as I do now,” Fran said. She stepped over so that the giraffe could buss Tiara on her snout.
“I’m already having a hard time.” Tiara fiddled with her zipper. “But who knows what I’ll get? She’s coming tomorrow.”
“I’ll help you,” Fran said. “I’ll still be here.”
* * *
“I can’t fucking sleep with that,” Tiara complained to Fran on day eighty-eight. “Guess what, she lied because she was living in a van in Muncie. She’s totally janky. In and out, in and out.” Tiara moved her hand back and forth jerkily and pulled her face down. “She’s coming off meth.” They were supposed to detox before arriving.
“I know.” Fran had had one like that at the Sunrise house. The girl’s bones had seemed to shake within her skin sheath. The whole bunk trembled. “But I give her a week. She came too soon.”
“Well, that’s easy for you to say now,” Tiara said, looking away.
“No, actually it’s not right now,” Fran said. “We’re all going through shit.” For the last three days, her nerves felt winched across her skin, especially her face, and she felt empty with dread. When, at the weekly meeting, the house leader told Fran to “chillax,” Fran wanted to punch her in the nose. Have it flatten the way it would in a cartoon. Pop out again with a “boink.”
She tried to text Nekeshia at a number someone who knew someone in Fort Wayne gave Fran at a meeting. Why should she feel bad? Nekeshia would ask her. Fran had helped Tiara out plenty. Nekee would say that Tiara was just slagging her, like they all did when she finally said no to a favor.
She got back a selfie of a woman in a gas mask. Not Nekeshia. Where you at? it asked.
* * *
No sleep, Tiara texted when Fran was leaving the hospital on surgery day. She was worn out too. Fran wondered whether she should offer her own bed during the day. But she didn’t know where it would end if she did that—would Tiara wind up slowly moving into her room? She squashed the impulse and just sent a frown face.
Fran got her ninety days on Thursday. 90 90 90 she wrote to the house.
* * *
She got her recognition on Friday night at the meeting—they called out has anyone gotten ninety days, and she stood up to whistling and clapping. That felt great. As soon as she was in the car, she felt weepy and deflated.
She texted the neighbor could she feed the cats and sat waiting for a reply so she could go straight back to Dover and get in bed. She could watch the Danish Killing on her phone.
Everyone but Tiara had replied to her ninety with celebratory emojis.
* * *
She knocked on Tiara’s door the next night.
Muncie meth—Kendra?—answered Tiara’s door without a tremble.
“Hi, Tiara around?” Fran asked. Her mind was racing. She’d had a nightmare about her old cat Maria, her fur alive with maggots and her flesh mushing. The cat had died wedged under the bed on her back, her claws gripping the mattress springs. Fran had been on a bender.
She needed to know Tiara was alright.
The girl was wearing a T-shirt that said I’m not your bitch in little studs with sparkles. One part of her head was shaved, the other long and blunt cut. She answered as if she were talking to the school principal.
“Okay, since when?” Fran asked.
“Did you let anyone know?”
Meth shook her head. “I mind my business.”
Fran walked down the short stairway to the main floor and texted the all-residents list.
Haven’t seen her.
Fran turned to climb the stairs again halfway. “Ashley?” she yelled. “You here?”
Her belly was starting to clutch.
“Hey, what?” Ashley padded into the hallway, barefoot and pushing the sleep out of her eyes.
“Have you heard from Tiara lately?”
“Yeah, last night. She was in a trap house.”
“Why didn’t you tell me? Or someone?” she asked. She flashed on Tiara’s neck lolling out of the pink shell of her hoodie, flung out into the yard like the murdered woman splotted with mud who came in when Fran was working nights at the ER years ago.
“She didn’t want anyone to know. Anyway, can we go get her? I think the guy won’t let her leave.”
“He’s trapping her physically?”
She looked at her phone. “She says she’s at the infant bookie’s.”
Fran stared at Ashley.
“What—does—that—mean?” Fran asked Ashley in the flat voice she used at the hospital when patients’ relatives raved.
“Her old boyfriend’s cousin, I think? Could we go get her? I think he can get rough when he’s buzzed. I went to score a few times before I went to jail. But I heard it changed.”
“Where?” The fog was leaking into her own head.
“Noblesville.” Ashley turned back into the hall. “Wait, I’ll go get my tennis shoes.”
“Does this mean she’s using or something else?” Fran called after her. “He might hurt her, he’s done that?”
In the car Fran asked again about the baby junkie or whatever the mangled handle was. “Has this guy ever tried to hurt anyone?”
Ashley checked her phone. They had the name of the street but not the address. The disappearing messages sounded more and more like someone jumping on someone else’s stomach. All the air whooshed out.
“I’m not sure her. But he does steroids and I think he beat her cousin.”
“What is she doing there then?” Fran asked stupidly. “Did she tell you she was being held hostage?”
“After we rescue her do you think we could stop at the vape place? There’s one right there.”
“Sure, why not now?” Fran snarled.
“Well, I think we should…” She looked up. “I said we were coming.”
“In five hundred feet, turn left onto Sadler Drive,” Ashley’s phone instructed.
Fran’s heart was starting to knock. She couldn’t figure it out, so her mind was spinning a flywheel turning on danger, danger, danger. The neighborhood wasn’t that bad, 1940s houses like little boxes that hadn’t all been well maintained. Not as bad as she’d pictured. A little tumbledown. But maybe that was part of the trap.
“You see anything familiar?” Fran asked. “Could you look?”
“Could you look?” Ashley’s face turned to her, a puss. “For the house? Anything familiar?”
“You don’t have to fuck with me, Fran. I mean, where have you been in all this? She was pissed at you—oh,” she said, pointing at the windshield. “There, I think that’s it, next to the corner. Right there. I remember those wooden slats.”
Fran curved the car into the drive and up the driveway of weedy cement.
With sudden animation Ashley swung open the door and jogged toward the door. “Be careful,” Fran called. She grabbed her phone so she could call 911 if she saw a gun.
But then there Tiara was, running out of the house and stumbling out over the scrubby grass. She stopped in front of the hood of the car. “It’s all your fucking fault, you bitch,” she screamed at the windshield. Ashley came up next to her and tugged her arm but Tiara windmilled it. “Get off me,” she screeched. Her face was puffy but not bruised. No hoodie. She pointed at Fran.
“You have a whole house. You just left me there, don’t need your own room. I had to get some sleep.” She flopped onto the hood of the car.
“Get in the car, both of you, NOW,” Fran yelled out the car window. Ashley was trying to wrestle Tiara up.
“Get in the car, NOW,” Fran barked out the window. Put it in reverse.
But then, out of the corner of her eye, she caught a movement at the house. The wrought-iron safety door swung out. A shadowy figure took a step. Fran had known, hadn’t she? Somewhere under the mattress, with its tangled claws? Tiara was ejecting something of her own on the hood and they had to go. They had to go now. But no one would let them.
“Go ahead,” the infant bookie communicated without even showing himself. He had no mouth. But she heard him. “Bet you can’t.”
It felt something like permission and she took it.
Jean M. Kane is a professor of English and women’s studies at Vassar College. Her work has appeared in numerous publications, including Prairie Schooner, The Georgia Review, and others. Her book of poems, Make Me, was published by Otis Nebula in 2014. She is a recipient of the Otis Nebula First Book Award.