I closed my eyes as the needle pierced my skin and the stuff found a vein. A sound like giant eagle’s wings filled the space between me and the world. My eyes opened to a place that was not Shell Tyson’s place. To my left was the ocean, blue green waves slowly sliding up the beach. To my right was the beach, warm soft, laced with a rainbow of umbrellas and beach towels. I looked behind me and I saw miles of my own footprints. It was very perfect. I squat down and put my hand in the cool water. This was a wonderful hallucination. But I prefer the real thing.
A vibration passes through me, like a record scratch, that’s the only way I can describe it. I am back in Shell’s apartment, and she’s staring at me, wide eyed and a dumb grin on her pretty face.
“Where did you go,” she asks.
I sat the now empty syringe on the coffee table next to the other.
“I went to the beach. The perfect beach. But it was too perfect.”
Shell lights up a cigarette and squints at me.
“The point of this stuff,” she tilts her head toward the vials. “Is to make a better place. So, the beach you went to was too perfect. Who cares?
I cross my arms and sigh.
“The problem is I know the difference between real and fantasy.”
She exhales a cloud of blue smoke.
“The problem, Sue, is that you are trying to tell the difference. There isn’t one. I have been doing this stuff for a month and—”
“A month,” I say, my eyes as wide as her’s had been. “Do you know how dangerous that is?”
She gave me a throaty laugh.
“As long as you smoke a little tobacco afterwards, you can do the stuff all day.”
I look away from her. Ever since this little drug came out, everyone had a way to prevent the side effects. Shell’s made as much since as the rest of them.
“Where do you go? What imaginary reality do you go to?”
“It’s not a hallucination, you know? The place you see? Your ‘too perfect’ beach? It’s real now. That is what the stuff does. It creates a new world.”
“You might need to stop doing the stuff,” I say, reaching for my highball glass.
“No, I mean it. Think about my apartment. This apartment that we are in. We started out in your place. I came over to your place earlier today, remember? And you said you didn’t want to do the stuff at your place, so, boom, I made us here.”
“You got it wrong,” I say, trying to coax my memory awake. “I came over here. This is where we started out. Right?”
“I used the stuff, you see? It stays in your system for a few weeks. I don’t have to use it all the time to use the side effects. I made it so we had been here the whole time.”
I closed my eyes and tried to conjure up the memory of the events as Shell laid them out, but I just couldn’t.
“Why can’t I remember?”
“Because it’s reality now, silly. It happened. I only remember it because I am the one who did it.”
“I always thought it was just a hallucinogen; that’s what the media calls it”
“The stuff changes reality,” she laughs. “Of course, they’d keep it quiet.”
“So,” I say. “We were at my place and then we are here and we ate the red velvet cake I bought.”
“Ah, you see? Again, you didn’t buy any cake. I used the drug and we had cake. And you filled in the blanks. It’s impossible for a cake to magically appear. So, you must’ve bought it earlier.”
“I have the receipt from the bakery,” I say, a frown deepening on my brow. “I can show you my bank account on my phone where the money was withdrawn.”
“But you never bought a cake.”
I search my mind. I try to trace the journey of the red velvet cake, from the bakery on Memorial drive, to my Chevy Spark, to my apartment, to my fridge, to the plate for me and Shell. I follow it, but it seems shadowy. Like trying to hold onto a shadow. Was she right?
“Red velvet cake is just chocolate cake with red food coloring, you know,” she says. She has picked up the half empty vial of the stuff and watches it closely. “I think that is so sad. It looks so pretty, you know? And I know that’s why you like it so much. So I made this one taste more like cherries. And I liked it so much, that now all red velvet cakes taste a little like cherries.”
I felt a tremor inside of me. Down deep. And I remember the first time I ate a red velvet cake. I was five and I loved the red cake and the creamy icing. And It tasted of cherries now.
I stood up, suddenly nauseous. I wrapped my hands around my belly as tears came to my eyes. She did this changed my life. Changed the flavor of my favorite cake.
“What did you do, Shell?”
“It’s just cake, Sue. It tastes better now.”
I was five years old and I was watching my mother and father baking a red velvet cake. Stirring and mixing and laughing. I got to lick the spoon. Cherries.
“There were no cherries in the cake,” I wept now, tear streaming down my face. I feel my knees give and I collapse on the floor next to the couch. “My mother was allergic to cherries, Shell. My mother!”
I closed my eyes and tried to not remember. It was impossible. I was six and I was inconsolable. I was at my mother’s funeral and my father was stoic and he held me in his arms. I remembered being eight and finding Dad crying in the bathroom every night. I was twelve and I came home from school to find my dad passed out in the armchair, the smell of stale beer and vomit from his shirt. I was twenty and my dad had taken his life in the bedroom.
I hear Shell pick up a syringe and fill it with the stuff, but I don’t care. I relive a life I never knew. I hear Shell as if from a million miles away
“I forgot your mom was allergic to cherries. Here, let me fix that.”
I heard a crack somewhere and the world collapsed into a big white ball. I was falling through reality and I reached for something to stop me falling.
My hand lands on the arm of Shell’s couch and I turn to look at her. She grins embarrassed at me.
“Sorry,” she says. I don’t remember why but I feel grateful to my friend. “This stuff is pretty dangerous, I guess.”
I look at the vial next to the small dessert plates, the crumbs of the red velvet drying as they are exposed to the air. Then I remember. And I am not grateful any longer.
“You are dangerous. You don’t think. How many people have this drug?”
She inches away from me and a sheen of sweat pops out of her perfect forehead.
“I don’t know, Sue. A lot of people have used it.”
“Do I know how much of my life is real or has been changed by the stuff?”
“Well,” she says, through a nervous laugh. “No one really knows, after a few seconds reality locks in and it all becomes real.”
I pick up the vial and fill up a syringe past the recommended dosage. I just don’t care. I think that has always been my problem. Now, I care. Now I know what matters. Somehow, I fit the entire vial into the needle. I shoot up, not even looking for a vein this time. I close my eyes and there is no Shell. No friend who is kinda shitty sometimes. I hate this couch of her’s. It always smells of wet dog, but she doesn’t own a dog. The past is prologue and I am at the beach. The water is on my right this time. The water is green with seaweed. On my left, the beach is too hot to walk on and there are only a few umbrellas. I pass a large shell, baked white by the sea and sun. I pick it up with both hands. I feel a pang of sadness as I turn it over in my hands. I lift it high and I toss it into back into the sea. I look behind me and see two sets of footprints in the sand. I start walking and now there are only my prints. I turn and go up to one of the beach chairs and brush of the sand. I sit in the warm canvas chair and bury my feet in the sand. I watch the waves come and go and so do I.