This Heaven and Hell We Create

It’s not the dizzying hunger and lack of sleep that finally makes me lose my shit after nearly two days of wandering my city’s butt-ugly backstreets. It’s also not the guys in rusted pickup trucks hollering how much for a blowjob? or the spandexed moms who catch me talking to myself and flash me a she’s-so-crazy look before sprinting away behind huge strollers. Not the soothing yet diabolical voice in my head reminding me there’s no need to suffer, the wobbly Walmart toilet seat where I fall asleep, the filthy gas-station sink where I wash my sticky underwear or the way time in an all-night restaurant slows like a weighted blanket smothers the sleeping city. Not even the blisters, the doubt, the too-frequent dog-shit landmines, the warm wind whispering words like insane and liar and sinner into my ear, the moisture-heavy lilac sunrise I should find dazzling but don’t, the agitated thoughts that almost make me wish I had taken my anti-psychotic meds or, worst of all, the haunting memory of Mom digging her nails into my shoulders and saying, I wish this never had happened to you, like she didn’t have her own mess of problems.

No, what finally makes me toss my head back and release an unshackled crazy-ass wail is a single piece of paper displaying the words, MISSING PERSON, in bright red ink.

The Miami-Dade police department missing person poster I’ve stumbled upon is stapled slightly crooked to a large notice board outside my high school’s football bleachers. And front and centre on the poster is the impossibly smiling and unmedicated face of a girl that everyone knows was too stupid to see the shitload of trouble coming her way. A girl who would soon be known as someone who stood by and did nothing as her father died; as someone who didn’t have the guts to hang around and watch the same thing happen to her mother.

I want to swear I don’t recognize that girl’s cowardly face, that year-ago glimpse of naïve glee, but the photo, my photo, is accompanied by my name, description and where I was last seen.

Before I know it, I’ve pulled a dark-blue pen from my purse. My hand starts moving, the word I print messy and uneven. I hear a strange, distant sound and realize it’s leaking from me. Laughter. Or cackling. But there’s funny about any of this. Nothing maybe, except that I can’t even begin to pretend I’m writing something useful, like the location where I can be found tonight, if I knew such a thing, or maybe even the word, HELP. That’s because anyone watching me would recognize the pathetic truth. That I’m cruelly defacing the photo of a girl who deserves whatever stones are thrown at her.

I step back and examine what I’ve written. One word, all caps, apparently undeniable. KILLER.

Something desperate forces me to raise my hand and add another single word, LOVING, like it would cancel out the other, though I quickly see it’s not enough. That it can never be enough.

I step back and wrench my eyes away from the bulletin board and look around me. It’s late afternoon and the school grounds are neutron-bomb empty. Still, I know I need to do what I do best: tuck my head down and get out of this place where I’ve always been about as welcome as an STD, this place I should never have come today. I wave goodbye to my poster, but when I do, I’m overcome by second thoughts. I rip the poster from the board and, determined that no one ever reads what I wrote, pull a lighter from my purse and turn my words into beautiful black smoke.

I move on and a few minutes later find myself at my school’s running track. It’s another place I shouldn’t linger, hell no, but I’m overcome by memories. This was where three years earlier, as a 13-year-old, I would each morning collapse my disappointing body, the one without a thigh gap, onto a dull grey cement bench. Beside me I could usually sense that familiar and dangerous presence. And I would sit and watch the same people, each day dressed in the same dreary clothes, as they labored around the track like they had seeped in from a zombie movie and gotten trapped, like the rest of us, in the same-old three dimensions of space and one dimension of time. This isn’t real, I would tell myself. Life really can’t suck this much.

I didn’t know it at the time, but back then life wasn’t so bad, at least not yet. It would be another two years until I had my first sexual encounter, which, sadly, turned out to be an unwanted and clumsy groping by one of my parents’ weed-stinky friends. Another six months after that until I would lose all my friends temporarily and almost everyone I loved forever, mostly because of what I did. A little longer still until the really crazy shit began and I vanished.

Of course, I obviously know exactly where I am. I run my fingers along the top of that depressing cement bench, and I decide to sit and take a break and watch the pre-dinner-time crowd shuffle around the track.


I nearly jump out of my skin at the sound of my name. Some random guy sits down at the other end of the bench and gives me a nod. He’s in his 30s, balding, no taller than me and almost as pale. He wears expensive Asics sneakers, a bright-orange shirt stretched tight over his round belly and glasses with lenses as thick as a car’s windshield.

Fuuuuuck, I want to scream. Instead I say all polite and all, I think you have the wrong person, sir.

He holds up his phone, and I can see my missing person poster on his screen, and I know he’s gonna start casting major shade. I look down and consider my fate. Under the bench someone has dropped part of a hotdog, which is being swarmed by hundreds of ants, all moving in unison as they break up and carry off their prize with a startling absence of individuality or free will. I curse myself for falling back into habit by returning to my own neighborhood, this place where I once felt safe hiding in the seams of everyone else’s life.

I’m a police officer, Ashlee, the man says. And I’m here to help you.

You don’t look like any cop I’ve ever seen, I tell him, hoping that doesn’t sound mean.

He nods like he’s heard this a thousand times. Policing has changed. So many of our interactions now are with good people who struggle with mental illness and deserve to be treated with intelligence and compassion. People like you, Ashlee.

I don’t have a mental illness. I’m actually super stable.

He nods at this too. The biggest worry, though, is your history of depression, especially as you recently lost someone you love.

I’m about to argue with him again. To pose the mother of all rhetorical questions: How can I be depressed or suicidal when I’m filled with such a great longing for something better? But, more than anyone, I understand that you can be two things at once. Depending on who is looking, you can be a sheath of acned skin and sunken bone covering a clot of misfiring brain cells AND a beautiful, imperfect consciousness bursting with love as it waits to be set free.

The man continues, like our little chat is about him. Believe me, he says, folding his hands across his belly, I can understand about depression. About family dysfunction. About getting bullied. People not seeing the real you. It can get you down.

Part of me is whispering to myself that this man’s pretty fat and that I can outrun him. But the part saying this forgets what science has taught me about reality: That this reasonable-sounding man and the bench we are sitting on and the sun shining down upon us are all constructs of the mind of the person viewing them, in this case me, because, after all, our eyes don’t really see people and objects, they collect billions of bits of light that our brains then process into useful information. And our practical brains don’t show us the binary codes and magnetic fields that are actually there, because that would be tedious, so they instead show us video-game-like icons that, thanks to natural selection, give us enough information to survive long enough to mate, which in my case apparently has about a zero per cent chance of ever happening.

All this science, it turns out, doesn’t only get me questioning what I see, but what I hear. Like whether my bench-mate full-on knows everything about me like he claims or whether what I know about myself is bleeding into my perception of his words.

Anyway, even if I don’t see any of this ending well, I decide his sympathy could be legit, meaning I will sit a little longer and hear whatever other insight he has about the forgettable girl people are so sure has broken through the crazy wall. The nerdy daughter of an almost-famous artist father and an almost-glamorous hairdresser mother who both couldn’t get enough heroin.

The man shrugs and says. I don’t know. Sometimes we all need a little help from someone who knows how to listen.

I don’t need help, I say.

He smiles and says, I did see what you did to your poster.

We sit in silence for awhile, and he asks, So what exactly are you running from?

Who says I’m running?

Missing people often are.

I know I shouldn’t answer, but I can’t help myself. Same thing as everyone else. The evil that’s always pursuing each of us. The evil that targets our most vulnerable weakness like a wild dog that rips at an exposed throat. That rips away until the fight is over.

He doesn’t say this sounds like crazy talk. He does say, So what evil is pursuing you?

I nearly laugh, which would sound a little crazy. Well, it’s not addiction. That particular weakness doesn’t run through my entire family.

My ass has fallen asleep from the hard bench. As I fight to keep the rest of me awake, a group of girls struts out from the school wearing matching green practise jerseys and black soccer cleats, their hair in long ponytails. I recognize enough of my classmates to know it’s our school’s Grade 10 soccer team, and they’re walking across the track to the playing field in the middle. And worse, their coach is Mr. Mathews, my history teacher, the former Gulf War veteran who likes to get involved in just about everything at my school. I pull my hoodie over my head.

The smell of a fresh-cut lawn wafts down from a nearby baseball diamond where I can hear a mower buzzing away. It’s a comforting scent until I remember I once read that this smell is actually a distress signal emitted by the grass. It’s another reminder how evolution has shaped our senses to hide the truth from us.

From his end of the bench, the supposed cop watches me closely. I find the courage to study him too, because once you start to doubt reality, you really do begin to question everything. Unfortunately, his mind is not exactly an open book and I sense he’s hiding something.

Can I see your ID? I ask.

Do his eyes narrow slightly?

I already displayed my badge, he says. Before I sat down.

I’m pretty sure that’s not true.

Well, I’m pretty sure you’re suffering from an illness that detaches you from reality and affects your memory.

Rude. I think of telling Mr. Know-It-All the truth. My truth. That I don’t have a mental illness, not really. I prepare to give him the detailed explanation that I’ve rehearsed and delivered far too often over these past few months, a six-minute-long lecture, and yes I timed it, that even details how a psychiatrist confused my synesthesia with some horrible disorder and my hyperphantasia with delusions. I start to speak but decide I’m too tired to justify a single damn thing. Besides, I know he won’t listen either.

It’s still more than an hour from dark, yet the lights above the playing field begin popping to life. They don’t hum at half the intensity of my mind, which, eager to free me from this messiest of situations, pushes forward something it suggests is helpful. As always, it at first seems harmless enough; it’s just a thought, after all. A thought I’m free to toss aside. But even I know how much a single idea can change everything. Especially this one. That soothing yet diabolical whisper that it wouldn’t be the worst thing if I was suddenly gone from this world full of pain, this world where the people you love always go away.

The man looks up at the grey clouds racing past. Is that a storm coming? he asks.

Yes, I say. Some rain. You know, I better go.

The man shakes his head. Not an option. The two choices are sitting here talking things over with me or getting into my car, which is parked behind us, and going home to your mom.

I left home for a reason.

Which was?

When I don’t answer, he gets cop-like in a hurry. Under our state’s mental health act, I have the power to apprehend you for your own safety, or put another way, to help you save your own life.

Even if I’m pretty sure what I’m seeing and maybe hearing isn’t exactly reality and is a construct of my own mind, I do know I need to take it seriously, just like the danger presented by a train barreling down the track at me or a poison symbol on a bottle’s label.

The man leans forward and asks, in what could pass for a kind voice, the million-dollar question, Don’t you want to be with your mother at home where you’ll be safer and happier?

At this I hear that cackling sound again, even though there’s still nothing funny about any of this shit. The sound is so loud I wonder if it will reach the soccer girls, but it doesn’t seem to, because they go about their business, finishing their stretching before starting to kick the balls around. It’s a fun, chaotic drill, so much life wrapped inside its unpredictability, but I don’t wish I was out there enjoying it with them, not really, because, after all, I have better things to do, like getting the hell out of here.

I think I would die, and maybe Mom would too, if I had to return home, I say.

Mr. Cop, obviously unmoved by my dead-serious expression, waves my answer aside like it’s nothing more than teenage melodrama.

You need to be back on your medication, he counters.

He even knows about that? About the Seroquel to treat some disorder no one ever heard of?

I’m not on any medication, I insist.

You’re supposed to be. That’s what your mother told me.

He extends his arm, and in his palm rests a single white tablet that isn’t the shape or size of my usual prescription. Why don’t you take one to take the edge off, he suggests. To quiet your mind a little.

Even my parents stopped making me take my meds. I needed a clear head to help support our family.

I expect him to scoff at this. But he doesn’t. He says, or at least I think I hear him say, You mean to help them with the gambling?

His words hit like a sucker punch, and I nearly leap to my feet and bolt. Because what scares the living hell out of me, of course, isn’t someone who openly smirks at crazy little Ashlee and her incredible visions and her amazing intuition, which apparently can be put to use for gambling. No, I’m terrified by those who don’t question my sanity.

I can’t tell if the man’s question was serious or mocking, but either way I don’t want to risk it, so I stand and start walking away.

The man calls my name and I hear a voice shout a question I suspect is not rhetorical. You truly believe you will get away from me, don’t you? What is it you think you possess? Luck or something more divine?

I turn to him, and see he’s standing, his face as overcast and agitated as the sky. I say, You’re not who you claim to be. You are the darkness that exists to snuff out the light, or at least absorb its wonderful powers.

I can help you, Ashlee, he says, closing the distance between us with startling speed.

Before I can turn to run, he’s taken my wrist with his hand. You’re coming with me, he says firmly, walking toward the parking lot and dragging me behind.

I try wrenching my arm free, which makes everything worse, because he tightens his grip and soon he’s picked me up and is carrying me awkwardly under one sweaty arm.

I scream, not just Help, but Rape, Murder, Child Killer, and he cups a hand over my mouth, and I bite down hard on a couple of fingers, and I’m sure I hear the word, bitch. I’m still screaming when the man repositions me in both arms like a heavy package from Amazon. When he does this, I can see the soccer girls watching, their perfect lipstick-heavy, blowjob-giving mouths open wide, and Mr. Mathews, who’s still built like a soldier, or maybe a tank, charging across the field like he’s gone nuclear.

My possible abductor must spot Mr. Mathews too, because he hesitates and turns his gaze toward a small bright red compact that looks nothing like a police car. I think he’s making a calculation. Then, instead of easing his grip on me and awaiting Mr. Mathews’ thundering arrival so he can show his badge and explain about apprehending me under some mental health act, he drops me. Hard. On the cement. And I know he plans to run to his vehicle, where I’m sure he’ll jump inside and lock the doors in the seconds before Mr. Matthews arrives.

I have all the confirmation I need, and I pick my bruised self up and, bye-bye, book it in the other direction. I know if I listen carefully, I can hear Mr. Mathews yelling as he pounds and maybe kicks at the car’s windows. Next will come a screech of tires, though by this time I’m on a path leading to another street.

I run for blocks until I’m on a busy six-lane road lined with shops. No one has followed me, not the fleet-footed soccer girls or the persistent Mr. Matthews, who probably chased the red car out onto the street and down the block in the other direction. In the distance, a police siren or two grow louder. I duck into a shop’s doorway at a crowded bus stop and catch my breath. The half-dozen people waiting don’t give me a second glance, and when the bus arrives a few minutes later I get on and take a seat facing the aisle behind the driver and stuff my hands over my eyes and fight back the tears I know are never far away.

When I can bear to face the world again, I pull my hands from my face and hit the Exit button and step off the bus in what looks like an industrial area near downtown Miami.

As I cross the street, a car horn blares behind me, making me jump. It’s like a reminder to focus; to get out of my own head and shake loose the unproductive thoughts that consume me. Right now, I couldn’t even answer the tiniest questions, like whether Gina’s new crop top from Forever 21 is too slutty to wear to school. So how will I ever answer the bigger ones, like, If the universe itself is full of the exact same consciousness as found in people, does it radiate out from a single physical location and is that location God’s warm and loving heart? And, If he wasn’t a cop, who the fuck was that guy on the bench?

When I realize I’m staring at the ground, lost in thought like any number of the perma-fried passing by me, I want to scream.

I’ve never bought any type of drugs in my life, but soon I’m haggling a tall teenager with shockingly clear blue eyes down to eighty bucks for four hits of heroin. He then points me to a needle exchange where I get a kit containing a syringe, an aluminum cooker, a packet of citric powder, a small bottle of clean water and a rubber tourniquet, plus a sympathetic smile from a public health nurse who says, Stay safe.

I wander some more, and while I do, I try and figure out my next move by deploying my best ability. Not my mind, hell no, but my intuition. The sun is dipping low, and as I walk, I notice an abandoned warehouse I passed the day before. It’s covered in graffitied plywood sheets that don’t quite reach up to its broken skylights. Out front sits a sign promising some new condo project. I don’t see decay before me, but rather a damaged soul awaiting its rebirth, its glorious transformation, and I know this is exactly where I need to be.

There is no obvious way in, and I’m circling the building when my intuition flairs up again. Before me approach three twenty-something girls in clingy dresses, their faces thick with make-up, their high-heeled steps eagerly taking them to some bar or nightclub or restaurant where there’s something to celebrate. When my eyes stop on the girl wearing a blue dress and large hooped earrings, the dread that races through me is instant.

Don’t go out tonight, I blurt out, blocking her way. Something bad will happen.

Her nose twitches like it’s been hit with a bad smell. Fuck offfff, junkie.

One of her friends says, We’re not giving you any money, so go.

I start walking backwards so I can watch them, almost sure a car will jump the curb and take out the one girl. But it’s me who goes down when I trip and fall on a tree root bursting up through the broken sidewalk. That’s okay, because it’s right then I notice two guys and a girl peel back a sheet of plywood and squeeze inside the warehouse.

I follow, cringing as I wind through a maze of damaged rooms and broken people before finding an empty room and a patch of cement floor that doesn’t reek too much like ass pie. Around it lays a free-for-all of torn-apart arms and legs and torsos and heads, some smashed or burned by lighters, all mundanely naked. Someone has attacked these mannequins with a nasty anger. In a corner of the room sits a twisted heap of yellow rain-proof coats, a few dozen toques and several crushed cardboard boxes stamped Miami Rescue Mission Shelter. I kick aside a tangle of spent syringes and bent spoons and, ugh, sit down on my tiny sliver of fertile sanity in this great desert of madness.

It starts raining through the building’s shattered skylights, and even though I have my new weather-appropriate coat with its most handy hood, I struggle against a yearning to whine like an unhappy little princess, because I am fresh out of strength and ideas. The only thought that gives me even the smallest piece of comfort is the darkest one of all: that at least I won’t have to endure this much longer.

When I’m finally sure I can no longer escape the contents of my own mind, I turn my attention to, ta da, the mind-numbing heroin.

I’m definitely not into drugs. I’ve never shot or smoked or even snorted heroin. I’ve only done drugs twice in my life, once with near-disastrous results. Yet how many times have I sat in a room full of fucked up people and watched them do what I’m about to do? Enough that I’m sure I can draw the cooked drug through a filter and into my syringe. Enough that I can tell a vein from an artery. How many times have I studied my own mother’s veins, the ones on her wrists that had collapsed, the thicker ones further up her arm that stretch out like a wide river fed by a network of winding tributaries? I can see her eyes meeting mine as I inspect a second distinct pattern on her arms, the mad jumble of sick scabs, in the seconds before she tugs the soft wool of her sweater down over her cool skin.

I lay out my supplies and get to work, only resting once the needle is ready. Good thing, because soon the daylight fades, and I am alone in the dark and rain. Alone except for one thought. The fucking dangerous one. The one that reminds me how much I’ve lost and how much suffering is still to come. The one that points out I don’t need to wallow in pain anymore; that something better awaits in the next life. The one that whispers two important questions whose answers suggest I’ve already made up my mind: Why, after two days of walking aimlessly around my city, have I finally settled in an isolated place where it would be oh so easy to fatally overdose alone? And why have I loaded a single syringe with all four hits of heroin?

I almost jump when my eyes fall on the four empty heroin packets scattered on the ground next to the very full syringe. The dangerous thought encourages me to pick up the needle; to stick it in my bony arm, to finish the damn job, because isn’t that what I deserve?

No, I scream, rising to my feet and kicking the needle across the room. Desperate for a distraction, I pick up a mannequin’s leg, and then an arm, and a torso, and go to work. Yet as I labor, I know that I’m trying to delay something as inevitable as my next breath; I’m trying to forget something that can never be forgotten.

My mind is so freaking jumbled. It’s like someone ripped out my brain and threw it onto one of those machines that mixes cans of paint. I can’t remember the face of the guy who sold me drugs, the clothes the fake cop wore, the name of the restaurant where I tried to kill time last night. Yet I can recall every detail of my life before I left on this little misadventure, even those moments I’d rather forget, like when the psychiatrist I didn’t want to see diagnosed me with a batshit berserk disorder that only proved how crazy he really was and when this same man, Dr. Gregory, called Mom and Dad into his office so he could toss about terms like psychotic depression and body dysmorphic disorder before finally proclaiming the bigger problem, Cotard’s Syndrome, and prescribing anti-psychotics for me. Same with later that night when I tried to convince Mom and Dad I wasn’t crazy, because after all, some people have been given the spiritual gift of prophecy, meaning they can look at a stranger walking down the street, or a car stopped at a fork in the road, and sense what will happen next. I can recall exactly how my parents looked at me when I described the strange dreams that turned out to be symbolic out-of-body experiences and when I told them I could read a person’s thoughts or make predictions that often came true. How they gave each other a fearful looked that screamed, our little girl really is fucking crazy, until something changed; maybe it was the hit of heroin they took after disappearing to their bedroom, maybe it was realizing that believing what I said was better than the alternative. Predict something, Dad finally said, and so it began, the three of us looking down at the street from our apartment and me predicting who would walk by next, with mixed success. And how this game morphed into something more, my dad taking me to the casino, because wink-wink he couldn’t leave me alone, and giving me money for the adjoining hotel’s video arcade and the ice cream shop but only after I pointed out the winniest slot machines, which I did from a distance and, apparently, with fucking awesome accuracy. And how my dad’s week-long lucky streak was really my lucky streak. And how this gave him and Mom not just enough money to pay the rent but to make sure they never ran out of heroin, which at the time in Miami was often cut with deadly fentanyl.

So, yes, there’s a lot I can never forget, especially this: I didn’t just watch my father die; I put the damn needle in his hand.

I finish up on the last mannequin and sit back down beneath the falling darkness. I’m way past crying so I laugh. I laugh about possessing the wonderful power of prophecy but not having a future to peer into. I laugh about not needing to be clairvoyant to know that my beautiful soul and the crap tangle of flesh and bone that people call Ashlee cannot together survive the guilt that is slowly suffocating us.

Which is why my own physical tomb sits inside a metal and glass and concrete tomb as it waits for the evil that’s been stalking me to finally get its shit together.

I nod off a few times, I think. I add my urine scent to a corner of the room, I know. At some point time starts moving differently, like this drunk guy in my neighborhood who loves to dance on the sidewalk and would lurch forward, then back, and maybe forward again in some random pattern only he understood. I forget where I am and what I’m doing, only to remember a few seconds later when time accelerates again. Mostly I just listen: Sirens wailing on the street; two men in a distant room arguing over a score of crack; the air around me thrumming; my dully incessant heart beating well past the point anyone wants it to.

When I hear a sound that doesn’t quite belong, my first thought is that I’ve managed to slip into a fourth dimension where space and time work differently.

The strange sound starts out as a whisper followed by hushed laughter in this place where no one laughs.

Through the doorway I see something that perhaps only I can see, because maybe it does hang out in a fourth or fifth dimension, which scientists believe exist, even if these realms usually can’t be detected by our eyes. It’s a beam of light from a flashlight or phone or some unearthly object, and it’s moving through a distant hallway.

More whispers, like whoever’s talking doesn’t want to be heard or seen in this primitive world.

My body stiffens and I stand and move behind the eight mannequins I have reassembled and dressed, just like me, in yellow coats and toques and other discarded rags and arranged in a phalanx of thin-bodied soldiers that now shield their always-retreating queen. My mind scolds me for this choice, for even caring what happens to me, though I guess fear is a hard habit to break.

The flashlight beam strikes the floor outside the room where I stand. I know I should shrug and say whatever. But I stoop down and pick up the syringe I had kicked aside, the one with a deadly dose of heroin, and conceal it in my hand and wrist, like a weapon. Just in case. And I stand perfectly still in a glamorous pose like my mannequins, hoping not to be noticed. Just in case.

The flashlight beam, which turns out to be a very common cellphone beam, swings inside my still room. And I am noticed.

What have we got here? a voice explodes. Looks like a junkie and her homeless friends, all of them a drain on society.

Three men. Two of them shout with delight as they begin knocking my mannequins back to the ground while the third one lights up his companions with his phone. When the mannequins are down, one man gently grabs my chin and leans in, staring into my eyes. She’s in La La Land, he shouts. He smells like expensive cologne and the same Dove men’s soap my dad used. His breath is like peppermint and tequila. Even in the phone’s dim light I see his face is clean-shaven, maybe handsome, probably a few years older than mine. He’s dressed like someone going clubbing, not someone living on the street.

I think I will be okay. I think I will be left to return to my own death watch.

I think this right up until he grabs my neck and forces me to my knees. The man beside him moves behind me and slaps the back of my head, which is still covered by the hood of my new yellow raincoat. Okay, junkie, he says. At least you were smart enough to dress for the conditions.

Nothing happens for a few seconds. Then water begins raining down on my head and back and I realize the man is pissing on me.

Their laughter is more upsetting than the urine spray that I know is bouncing onto my jeans. I lower my head and want to cry, and when a hand pushes my face back up, I finally grasp that they are filming me.

While they laugh and shout and say some of the worst things I’ve ever heard, I repeat the same words, This isn’t really happening. And when they my mock my words, I know something really is happening and that salvation won’t come through begging or even praying for a miracle. It will come from understanding that good conquers bad and remembering that this flawed gift from God that I inhabit may be full of limitations and may not be what it appears but is more than capable of lashing out from the darkness and plunging a needle into the enemy’s heart.

I wait until one of them reaches down and shoves a handful of bills in my face. He says, So, junkie whore. Are you ready to suck all three of us off for fifty bucks? Or will you do it for ten, just enough for your next hit?

I pull the syringe from my sleeve and slam it down at his neck. Only it’s almost like he expects this, or maybe I’m just too slow, because he grabs my hand and twists the needle loose. Their laughter is gone, and just as quickly as they disarmed me, one of them clutches the hair at the back of my skull and uses his other hand to slap my face. They take turns slapping me, not like I’m a worthless mannequin but something worse, which seems to raise their spirits, because they begin laughing again. Each time I’m slapped on the face or the side of my head or somewhere else, one of them shouts, Reject all drugs, junkie.

All I can do is close my eyes and wait for it to end.

Like always, time makes little sense, and I don’t know how long they attack me. Something deep inside me shifts and detaches. I move, yet I don’t move.

On their own, the men stop. They lean in, maybe trying to hear the words I moan over and over. When the words return to me, like in a loop, I hear the raw determination in my own voice.

Harder. Harder.

Hit that bitch harder.

Kill her.

The men are surprised, I think, and they begin laughing hardcore. Their feelings, though, are nothing compared to mine, because I swear my joyful heart is about to burst open. What has been revealed isn’t just my newfound faith and conviction, but something equally unexpected: a separation of body and spirit; a soul shaking its earthly shackles and drifting up.

A voice calls out from the hallway, Someone need help in there?

An older man who I’m sure heard my screams enters the room. He’s followed by a second man, who wields a pipe.

My attackers back out of the room and are soon gone, their laughter trailing behind them.

The filthy girl with the bloodied face rises to a knee and shouts at the fleeing men like the prideful, foul-mouthed sinner she is. I guess I’ll see you never, assholes.

The two men study her, their bodies shaking with addiction from beneath their filthy coats. The older man asks, You okay, girl?

She stutters, confused. She understands something is missing. She’s just not sure what, as duality is not a concept that an unconscious creature would understand, so she asks, You can still see me?

The man’s voice is deep and sad and kind. I can see you there, girl.

And he may be right, though not for long. Even the girl knows she will soon fade to nothing, like the spots you see after staring into a great and blinding light.

The girl glances up at me, and even though I now exist to shine love and purity down on others from a safe and heavenly distance, I have nothing for her. The two men follow her gaze, squinting up into the darkness and seeing nothing but more darkness, because casting your tormented eyes on a transcended soul takes a shitload a faith that most people don’t have.

Jeff Beamish is a daily newspaper journalist who has published one novel, Sneaker Wave, shortlisted in 2014 for a national fiction award in Canada.