Rob’s palms were sweating, making it difficult to grip the steering wheel. He was breathing quick, his heart racing just thinking about what he was about to do. He pulled his truck into the driveway next to Billy’s battered SUV and sat there for a minute. He saw the window blinds part for a second, and he knew Billy was watching him. Billy was always watching. Rob got out of the truck and stood there for a second with his arms at his sides, so Billy could see they were empty. He walked onto the porch and knocked on the door. Billy pulled it open a couple of inches.
“What you want?”
“It’s me Billy.”
“I’m not blind. I asked what you want.”
“You want me to talk about it out on the porch, where anyone could see?”
Billy opened the door a little more and stuck his head out, looked left, looked right. His cheeks were sunken and covered with a week’s worth of hair. His pupils were pin narrow. He stepped back and pulled the door open wide enough for Rob to slip inside.
The curtains were drawn, but all the lights were on. There was a battered, cigarette scarred puke green couch against the far wall and an oak coffee table in the center of the room that bore the scars of a thousand tiny razorblade cuts. There was a Bowie knife stuck an inch deep in the center of the table. There were beer cans on the floor and stacked in a pyramid on top of the television, which was playing a porno without sound. A girl in a latex nurse’s outfit was getting it from behind from a couple of studs in labcoats and nothing else.
Billy slammed the door, threw the locks and turned around.
“Been a while.”
“Want a beer?”
“Sure,” Rob said.
Billy disappeared into the kitchen and came back with a couple of beers. Tossed one to Rob. He caught it, glad to have something to do with his hands. He popped the top and downed half of it in one gulp.
“How’ve you been, man?” Rob asked.
“Fine. Fine,” Billy replied. His eyes flitting around the room. “Do you hear that?”
Billy shrugged. “I thought it was the refrigerator at first, but that’s not it. It’s starting to bug me.” He put his beer on the coffee table, pulled the knife out and began scratching his arm with its tip. “So, what brings you around?”
“You know. The usual.” Rob said.
“Heard you’d cleaned up your act.”
“A man’s entitled to a relapse every now and then, isn’t he?” Rob asked. “Besides, I’m more interested in making some money than I am in using. I thought maybe you could get me a deal.”
Billy started poking a mole on his arm with the tip of the knife. “I don’t cook much anymore man. Ever since they put the goddamn Sudafed behind the fucking counter the Mexicans have taken over. You can buy pounds and pounds of that shit for pennies down there. It’s hard to compete with that shit, man. The goddamn politicians think they’re protecting people when they do that shit, but they’re not. They’re just giving money to the spics.” Blood started to run down Billy’s arm. He spun around and plunged the knife deep into the wall. “Fucking politicians.”
Billy grabbed his beer off the table and chugged it. Tossed the empty on the floor. Kicked it across the room. “I think I might be able to help, though. I got a pretty good connection. You want to buy at least ten grams I can get it at ninety a gram. Good stuff too, glass, not kitchen sink shit.” Billy pulled a baggie out of his pocket. “Wanna try before you buy?”
“That’s all right,” Rob said. “I’ll take your word for it.”
Billy wasn’t listening. He was shaking the meth out onto the coffee table. He pulled a razor blade out of his pocket and started chopping the crystal out into lines. He pulled a well worn dollar bill and rolled it into a tube and held it out. “Come on, man.”
“I’ve got to go home to the wife,” Rob said. “She’ll kill me if I come home high.”
“Come on,” Billy said. “What’re you? A narc?”
Rob took the rolled bill from him and snorted a line. He winced at the burn and his eyes watered as he welcomed back his old friend.
After Rob left Billy’s, he drove around for a while, not wanting to go home. He knew his wife Angie would be there, and she had a sixth sense for he was using. There would be another fight. He had thought cleaning up would solve the problem, but Angie, he had found, just liked to fight.
In the end, Rob he went home because he had nowhere else to go. The light in the bedroom was on. Rob got out and unlocked the front door. He stepped inside and closed it. Took off his jacket and hung it in the closet.
“Who else would it be?” Rob yelled up the stairs.
“There’s no need to be a smartass,” Angie replied. “I was just asking.”
Rob bit his tongue and went into the kitchen. Got a soda from the refrigerator. Went to the living room and turned on the television. Put on ESPN.
“Keep it down down there.”
He turned the volume down and watched sports highlights until he couldn’t stand it anymore and started flipping channels. He fell into a rhythm, not watching anything. The initial rush had passed. His heart no longer pounded in his ears, and his hands were steady, but he wasn’t ready to crawl into bed. What he really wanted was another line.
Once Angie turned out the light upstairs, Rob turned off the television and lay down on the couch. He didn’t expect to sleep.
He must have drifted off around dawn because Angie woke him up with a smack on the head.
He sat up and she kept on moving, going into the kitchen and starting the coffeemaker.
“What the fuck did you do that for?”
“You can’t even bother to come upstairs now?”
“I didn’t want to wake you up.”
“I was awake when you came home.”
“Yeah, but I wanted to watch some TV and unwind, and when I was ready to go to bed the light was out, so I just crashed on the couch,” Rob said.
“You could’ve come upstairs and said ‘hello.’ I mean, Jesus Christ, we share a house. Do you have any idea how it is living with someone who barely speaks to you? You get up and go to work and we don’t see each other all day and then you come home and you don’t even want to speak to me? How is that supposed to make me feel?” Angie opened the refrigerator door and slammed it shut without taking anything out.
Rob stood up and walked into the kitchen. He could only imagine how nice it would be to share a house with someone who didn’t want to speak to him.
“I’m sorry,” Rob told her. “I just thought you’d want to sleep.”
“Yeah, well. Now that we’re talking, we need to talk about what we’re going to do about the minivan. The brakes are going, I think.”
Rob sighed. “Can’t it wait until next month?”
“Can’t you get some overtime?”
“I would if I could, but it’s not like the construction business is exactly booming right now. I’m lucky to have work at all. Can’t you get more overtime at the hospital?”
“Oh, I’m sorry. Is sixty hours a week not enough for you?” Angie snatched the coffee pot and poured herself a cup of coffee. “Would you run out and get some half and half? I didn’t see any in the fridge.”
Rob didn’t need to hear it twice. He grabbed his keys and jacket and headed for the door. As soon as he was in the truck he called Billy. He answered but didn’t say anything. Rob could hear him breathing.
“I’m coming over,” Rob said.
“All right,” Billy said and hung up.
Rob knocked on the door. Billy looked through the blinds, and then opened the door. Rob stepped inside and he slammed it behind him. The place looked the same. Only the porn on television had changed. Now a brunette in ridiculous boots was spanking a blonde, who had her hands tied above her head and a red rubber ball strapped in her mouth.
Billy didn’t speak. He sat down on the couch and went back to lining up meth on the table with a razor blade. He divided the pile of powder into four long lines, making sure each one was of equal length and width. Rob’s heart started to beat faster just watching him. Once Billy was satisfied with the quality of the lines, he picked up a piece of straw and snorted a line in each nostril. When he finished, he stood up and held the straw out to Rob, who grabbed it and snorted the two lines, not even bothering to switch nostrils. His face burned. Tears ran down his cheeks. The burning faded, his vision cleared up, and a fist started to hammer his ribcage from the inside. He felt fine.
“I ought to be able to get the stuff this week,” Billy said. He was watching the television. He didn’t look away when he spoke.
“The sooner the better.”
“How much you want?”
“Twenty ought to do it.”
Billy nodded. “Doable.” He looked around the room, his brow furrowed. “Do you hear it?”
“The buzzing. The same buzzing as the last time you were here.”
“I don’t hear anything,” Rob said, rubbing his nose.
“It comes and goes.”
They sat and watched the television for a while. The women had switched positions. The brunette was the one getting spanked now. It didn’t seem to faze her much.
“I think my wife might suspect I’m up to something,” Rob said.
Billy looked away from the porn. Suspicion got his attention. “Yeah? Maybe you ought to postpone your plans, then. I don’t need any more people watching me man. I’ve got unmarked police cars driving up and down the street all the goddamn time. I sit here and watch them, man. They’re onto me. That’s why I don’t go out unless I think it’s clear. They’re waiting for a chance to get in here man. Plant some bugs. Figure out what I’m up to.”
“I can’t put it off man. I need to make some money, like right now.”
“I hear you man, but you can never be too careful.”
“I’ll be careful.” Rob said.
Billy got up and started his meth preparation ritual again. They each did two more lines, bigger than the last ones. Rob’s phone rang. He looked at it. Angie. He let it go to voicemail. Fuck half and half.
Billy broke out the beer and some Percocet. Rob swallowed a couple. They helped take the edge off, but he was still all edge.
Billy motioned Rob to the window. “Watch this shit,” he said.
Rob peered through the blinds. There was an SUV driving down the street.
‘That’s them,” Billy said. “Fucking cops.”
Rob opened another beer and popped another pill. Angie would be wondering where he was, but he wanted her to wonder. He was having too much fun to go home. He felt good. Better than sitting around with Angie watching television. Why in the fuck had he ever gotten married?
Billy went over to the wall and pulled the knife out from where he had stuck it yesterday. “Do you hear it?” He asked.
“Yeah. You finally hear it?”
Billy disappeared upstairs. Rob sat on the couch and watched some more television. When he realized he hadn’t seen Billy for a while, Rob went upstairs. Billy was on the floor with a computer monitor in front of him. He had pried off the plastic casing and was poking around in its guts.
“I remembered I had the computer on. I thought it might be what was buzzing. Maybe they put a camera inside,” he said, not looking up.
Rob went downstairs. Did another line, took a beer from the fridge and left. He drove home. It had gotten dark. The lights were still on, and Angie was sitting on the couch, her back straight, looking straight ahead.
“You son of a bitch,” she said. “You’re using again. I thought maybe you were, and you are. You’ve got a lot of nerve coming home high like this. You fucking promised.”
Rob took a swig of beer. “Look honey, I need a wife, not a probation officer. I’ve got one of those.”
“Maybe I’ll just call him, then.”
Angie started to reach for the phone. Stopped. She shook her head. “Just go. Just leave. I’m not going to have police cars pulling up and embarrassing me in front of the neighbors. Just go.” She pointed.
Rob turned and left. He went to an ATM and pulled some cash. Then he stopped by a dealer’s house, and got five grams of speed. It wasn’t the same quality as Billy’s, but it would do. From there, he went to a motel. Once inside, he got down to business. After the first couple of lines, Rob noticed he was scratching his left arm. He stopped, but when he did, his arm started to tingle and burn. He went back to scratching it. The skin started to get red. Then it started to bleed. He did a couple more lines, and the sensation started to spread, so he jumped in the shower. The cold water worked. He stood there a long time. He got out and toweled off with a scratchy hotel towel. As he tossed it onto the bed, he saw something out of the corner of his eye, by the door. Rob turned his head. Nothing. He did another line. Then another. Then another. He started to pace back and forth. Time disappeared. The sun went down and came up and Rob didn’t notice. He kept doing lines. Then he saw the cockroach. It came out from under the dresser, skittering at high speed.
Rob leapt over and crushed it with his bare foot. Pulled his foot back. The bug still wriggled. He stomped it again. He wiped the roach slime off his foot with the towel and threw the towel in the corner.
Rob dressed. Did another line. Then another. Then another.
His cell phone rang. He answered it. Angie.
“How could you take all that money from our account?” She was yelling. Crying. “You know that was for the bills. I went online and checked. I’ve had it Rob. I’m fucking done. I’m turning you in. I’m calling your PO.”
‘Angie, baby, I’m working on something. Trust me.”
“Look where that’s got me.” She hung up.
The burning sensation returned. He decided to take a drive with the windows down. He did a couple more lines.
The wind cooled his face, but the rest of his body burned. He pulled into a gas station with a pay phone. There was a roach on the receiver. He swatted it away with his hand and dialed Billy.
Rob started talking when he heard him pick up. “I think it’s my…”
Billy cut him off. “Not on the phone. Can’t you hear the buzz?” He hung up.
Rob stepped on another cockroach on the way back to his truck.
Billy undid the locks and let Rob in. The place was quiet. The porn was gay. He slammed the door and put his finger to his mouth. He pointed to a note pad on the table, made a motion with his hand that Rob should write instead of talk. Rob picked up the pen and scrawled,
My wife knows. She could send us both away. I need you to take care of her. Cops will suspect me.
Billy read the note and nodded. Then he pulled out a lighter and burned it, let the ashes fall to the floor.
Rob looked at the walls. They were covered in roaches. The bugs writhed and squirmed, living wallpaper.
“Where the hell did all these bugs come from?” he asked.
Billy got wide-eyed, and started waving his hands. He grabbed the note pad, scrawled, Act like you don’t notice them. Cops can’t know we know.
Rob took his advice. He wrote down instructions for Billy.
Go in through the front. The door will be open. She will be alone.
Billy read it over a couple of times. Nodded. Burned the note. Rob nodded and got the hell out of there. There were bugs all over the floor, crunching under his feet. Once back in the truck, he took a bump.
Rob got home a couple of hours before Angie came home from work. He went upstairs and made sure his shotgun was loaded, so it would be ready when he had to shoot Billy. The place was a mess, so Rob started cleaning. He was down on his hands and knees scrubbing the kitchen floor when he saw the roaches marching across the linoleum toward him. He scrambled over to the cabinet under the sink and grabbed the bug spray. Stood up and let loose. The fumes pushed them back, but they weren’t going away. He grabbed a broom and began to beat at them, but that just made them scatter. Soon they were under the kitchen table, climbing the walls, and circling around his feet. He heard the front door open.
“Angie,” Rob yelled. “Stay out of here. We’ve got a bit of a bug problem in here.”
“What the fuck are you talking about?” She kept coming, walking though the roaches like they weren’t even there. “What is that smell?” She started to cough. The bugs started crawling up her legs, crisscrossing her stomach, entangling their legs in her hair. Rob grabbed the bug spray, and gave her a spray. She covered her eyes and screamed.
“Keep still,” Rob yelled. “I need to get them off of you.”
“There’s nothing on me!” She wailed.
The spray wasn’t working. They were making themselves at home in her hair. Rob grabbed a frying pan from the drying rack and started trying to hit them. Angie put up her hands to block the blows, and scrambled for the phone on the wall.
“I’m trying to help you!” Rob screamed, as she pushed buttons. Angie screamed too. She screamed, “He’s trying to kill me! Help! Help!”
Rob kept hitting her, trying to get the bugs, but they always ducked out of sight in her curls. She collapsed in a heap. He heard a car pull up outside, and sirens in the distance. He heard a door slam.
“Fuck, fuck fuck,” Billy bellowed from the living room. “I should have known it was you. You were the one planting the bugs. That’s why you pretended not to hear the buzz. How else could the cops have known I was coming?”
He fired a blind shot. Rob ran for the stairs, going for the shotgun.
“Fucking rat!” Billy hissed, firing his gun a couple more times. Rob heard Billy charging up the stairs just as he managed to get the gun out from under the bed and bring it to bear. When Billy appeared in the doorway Rob could see his glassy black eyes and the antennas protruding from his forehead. He pulled the trigger. Billy’s head exploded in a burst green ichor. Rob reloaded. At the foot of the stairs, he saw two more roaches, both about six feet tall running toward him, standing on their back legs. They started gibbering at him in some sort of insect language. He raised the shotgun. There was a sustained roar and a cloud of smoke. Rob felt the bullets tearing through him, and all he could think was that the world was in trouble if the goddamn bugs had figured out how to work guns.