There’s an unsnoozeable alarm clock in your head. Your room has a lopsided bed and no sheets and unscuffed running shoes near the wilted hydrangeas. Sushi Paradise rolls float in greasy mold. The journal on your nightstand has a shiny golden latch in front. Its pages are scrawled with I wills that never were: Will swim thrice-weekly, will call your mother, will run your skin under water, will find your front door, will breathe.
If you pull the curtains, there’s a gold ball in the sky. Baby steps take you there. Force the rise. Sweep lube-stained wads into a bag. The bottles too. Dial your mother’s number. Wait for voicemail. Call again. Apologize. Hear her soul rekindle. Hear her corny jokes about the Holy Ghost. Laugh. Like you mean it. Find a sidewalk. Inhale. Yes, there’s a mulchy sort of rot from the construction near the lake. But do you feel how the wind makes you more?
Your friends are a relic of the past. There’s a room full of them in your head. They’re passing around croissants and sour grape juice and trading stories about you. No one is perfect, they say, but there’s a tolerable kind of badness. They describe oceans between texts, your empty chair at a small cottage-side wedding, missing necklaces from the night you slept over, a blackened pipe in the trash from the morning you left. Without a word too, nada, until the resurfacing, the sorry-sorry-sorry, but also I need, just until payday, the slamming of a door, the shower afterward, them scrubbing and scrubbing to wash off your stench.
If you squint through the fog, you’ll find a door. Baby steps take you there. Knock. Even if the hardwood does not budge. Spend a portion of your new grocery store paycheck on that piece of topaz. Mail it with a handwritten apology—I know it doesn’t begin to replace. Give them space. Fill this void with the breadth of you. Cross a line off your journal. A pottery class in some woman’s basement studio. Turn over the matcha mug fashioned from clay, wrinkled but yours. Say thank you when the man next to you says good job. Accept his invite for drinks, first at the pub uptown, then at his apartment. Marvel at the alchemy—strangers to friends. Rise. Don’t despair at the detritus creeping back around your bed. Perhaps it never really leaves. Keep walking. Chase the ice-cream truck. Let yourself giggle. Knock. Watch the hardwood budge. Hand him the Pinot—from now, you only add. Talk about old crushes, scraped knees from childhood bike rides, his fear of failure, your fear of raised hands. Gasp when the silhouettes start to rise. Is it seven already?
Let the melody of new friends loop in your head for weeks. Feel it stutter to static the day you come home to new mail. Shards of shattered topaz in the envelope. Your handwritten apology crossed over with sharpie’d loops of fuck you. This is your doing, seven years of knowing reduced to two words. This is you—the annihilator, the Great Reducer, unless it’s your filthy room, which only ever grows. Look around—isn’t it all back?
If you peek down, down, down, you’ll find a pit without end. Baby steps take you there. Start with the returned mail. Feel how smoothly it rolls into a cylinder. Stuff it tight and green. Watch clouds of marijuana mist against the ceiling. Ignore emails from work. Ignore his incoming messages about missing you in pottery class. About maybe meeting up for a soccer game. About are you okay? Pick up his call a month later. Ask what the fuck’s wrong with him. Tell him you ain’t a fucking homo. Exhale when he hangs up. Good. You won’t hear from him again—except up there, in the dark with all the others, his voice slurring between gulps of grape juice. Silence him. No, not the TV. No, not the clatter-clank of early-morning tractors. Yes, the old alleyway, its spray-painted walls, its skulking cats. Its hooded man, limping your way, a white-powdered Ziploc bag tucked in his fist. Beneath your itchy blanket’s cocoon, inhale. Don’t stop till the feel of it turns your stomach. Miss the toilet bowl when the puke backs up your throat. Splash it all over the tile. Rub your face in its slime. It’s where you belong. You’ve heard it before, your father’s words older than memory. Drift away now, cold, sweating. Focus on things without faces. Without voices. Like the moon, a prism against the bathroom’s window. Like the constellation of shadows. Focus harder. Fail. Let his voice slither in, that sweltering basement too, the I will that was, the sincerity of a “good job” offered so freely that you felt whole and capable, infinite. Like you could believe in you. Let the thought of this newest loss thump your heart into overdrive. Dial his number. Again. On the voicemail’s third beep, leave your message. Your brain is scrambled. The words are soup. Sound them out. Baby steps take you there. Blame work’s stress. Blame your hateful friends. Blame your father’s fists. Blame little green aliens from fucking Andromeda. Blame anyone but yourself.
Vincent Anioke is a software engineer at Google. He was born and raised in Nigeria but now lives in Canada. His short stories have appeared in SmokeLong Quarterly, Split Lip Magazine, Fractured Lit, Pithead Chapel, and Carve, among others. He is the 2021 Austin Clarke Fiction Prize Winner and was also shortlisted for the 2021 Commonwealth Short Story Prize. Find him on Twitter at @AniokeVincent.