I couldn't believe how hot his skin felt on my fingers as I wrapped my hands tighter and tighter around his neck.
It kinda felt like he swallowed fire, and I was feeling the heat of it as it worked its way down his throat. Like lava. Like he swallowed hot, molten lava. His skin was so hot that I was tempted to snatch my hands away, but I was strangely hypnotized by the heat. He clawed and tore at my hands, struggling to free himself from my grasp. His face glistened with sweat. I could see the life draining from his face, but all I could think about was the heat of his neck, burning into my palms. Would my hands be noticeably singed? Would people be able to glance at my hands and know that I killed a man with them?
"Do you have any idea how much you've hurt me, Chris?" I said in a quiet voice as I watched him fighting for his life. Chris was almost a foot taller and 70 pounds lighter than me, but none of that mattered. This time, I was in control. This time, I was the one killing him slowly, just like he'd done to me.
"Subrena," he gasped. "We can work this out. We can... get you some help..." His body jerked, and he stopped talking. His throat just felt hotter and hotter the tighter I squeezed.
Was I feeling the heat of his soul leaving his body? His eyes bulged as he clawed at my fingers, trying to loosen my grip. His lips turned blue. He took what I knew was his last breath. He stopped fighting. I smiled in triumph and satisfaction...
...and then, drowning out the beautiful sound of his imminent death, that annoying buzzing started.
I jerked my head up from my desk so fast, I got dizzy. The bright light of the abrasive overhead florescent lights burned my eyes as I struggled to get my bearings. Where am I? Did I kill him? What is that noise? Shaking my head to get rid of the fog, I finally figured out that the buzzing was my cell phone, and I had no idea where it was. I'd fallen asleep on top of the mountain of papers that had taken permanent residence on my desk. I gave up looking for the phone and gazed out of my office window. It was dark. The hallway was quiet. I looked at the small clock on my desk. It read 7:13pm. That means I'd been off the clock for three hours, yet here I sat, alone at this desk. It was time to go.
I gathered my things and made the long walk down the quiet hallway and outside to my car. It took me almost 10 minutes to find my keys at the bottom of my overstuffed purse. I unlocked my car door, sat down in the driver's seat. I started the ignition, but the small yellow truck on the floor of the passenger side caught my eye.
I remember the day he dropped that truck. We searched everywhere for it, but couldn't find it. I'd assumed it was forever lost in the abyss under the seats, where old French fries, action figures, small toys, and loose change go to die. But somehow, the yellow truck managed to free itself, and it taunted me from its new position in plain sight, immediately bringing tears to my eyes.
The yellow truck belonged to my son, Amir. Not a day passed when I didn't miss Amir so much that it physically ached. I hadn't seen my boy, or kissed his small face, or heard the sound of his laughter, in almost six months. The last time I saw him was in the courtroom, the day he was taken from me.
"I make more money than she does," he'd told the judge that day almost six months ago. "For years, I've been urging her to finish her degree, maybe consider a job that pays a little better. It would've afforded her the opportunity to move out the ghetto, to raise my son in a safe neighborhood. She could've used that money to feed him better, to expose him to more. Instead, she stays right where she is. Amir would have a life with me that she would never be able to give him."
I stood, dumbfounded, as this man that I once loved more than life itself obliterated my character in front of this old, white judge. "Furthermore," he continued, "she won't stay clean. I know she's still using drugs. I've been begging her to get help, but she won't. I even offered to pay for it. Who knows the danger she introduces into Amir's life? Getting high is more important to her than her own child. She's selfish," he said, "and not fit to raise my son."
The judge looked at me. "Ms. Stevens," he asked, his deep voice resonating through the quiet courtroom, "do you have anything to say about what Mr. Harley is saying?"
I took a deep breath. I wanted to tell him about the way Chris abruptly left my life, telling me he was no longer satisfied with me and wanted to be with someone else. I wanted to tell him how depressed I became when Chris moved out, how sad I was, how every day felt like some cruel joke God got a kick out of playing on me. I wanted to tell the judge how the drugs were the only thing that made the pain subside long enough for me to live a normal life. Hell, I wanted to tell him that they only thing keeping me alive, stopping me from putting my .45 in my mouth and pulling the trigger, was Amir. I wanted to tell the judge that it was Chris's fault that I was this way. I did everything he wanted. I cooked, kept an immaculate home. I made sure I satisfied him in the bedroom. I kept my body up, maintained my sex appeal. He wanted a woman with more ambition, he told me. One he could discuss politics with. One who understood literature. One with more education.
"I didn't mean for this to happen," he told me over his shoulder as he gathered his things. "One thing just led to another, and before I knew it, I was in love with her."
"Please," I begged, stripping myself of whatever dignity I had left. "I know we can work this out."
"Bre," he said, finally looking up at me. "I want another baby. She wants children of her own..." His voice trailed off as my legs gave out under me and I fell to my knees, sobbing into my hands.
Amir had almost killed me when I delivered him. The bleeding was so bad that the doctor had no choice but to perform an emergency hysterectomy. Through no fault of my own, I was unable to have any more children. At first, Chris promised me that he understood, that he would love me anyway. I guess he forgot about his promises.
"This is for the best, Subrena," he said as he took the key to our apartment off his key ring. He placed it on the coffee table. "We both deserve to be happy."
"I am happy with you," I said. He left anyway.
I wanted to tell the judge how my heart shattered into a million pieces that night when he slammed the door behind him. I wanted him to know that I am a drug addict and a loser because of Chris. I wanted him to know that I loved my son and would do anything to keep him, but I knew he'd order me into rehab, and I wasn't so sure I could survive a sober life. Not anymore.
So I shook my head. "No, Your Honor," I said in a small, defeated voice. My cheeks were wet with tears; my shoulders slumped. And just when I thought I couldn't get any lower, Chris said, "My wife and I will raise him into the man he needs to be, into the man that she could never produce in him." His wife. The woman he left me for.
"Very well," the judge said. "Mr. Harley, I am granting you temporary full physical and legal custody of Amir until and unless Ms. Stevens accepts and completes treatment for her drug addiction. Ms. Stevens, you may have supervised visitation, which you will have to schedule with our court mediator. Is this clear?"
Defeated, I nodded. The judge pounded the gavel, and I stepped outside the courtroom. I was crying into my hands when I heard, "Say goodbye to your mommy, Amir. You won't be seeing her for awhile." I didn't look up, because I couldn't face my son, but I felt his small hands on my arm, his kisses on my cheek. He, too, was crying. "Please, Mommy," he said. "Fix what makes Daddy mad so I can come home. Please, Mommy!" Amir was five years old. I looked into his bright eyes, promised him I would fix things so he could come back with me.
Six months later, and nothing had changed. I was still working the same job, still doing the same drugs, still living the same sad, worthless life. Amir's truck on the floor of my car reminded me how unfit I was, how disgraceful I am as a mother and as a woman. It made me want to cry. It made me want to drink. And drinking would make me want to smoke dope. What else did I have to lose? I pulled out of the empty parking lot. Like so many other nights, I had nothing waiting for me at home except emptiness, roaches, and the constant reminder of how much of a failure I'd become.
My car drove itself to the liquor store.
As if on autopilot, I got out the car, walked inside, picked up the same pint of Paul Mason I drank almost every night. I went back to my car, texted my connect, waited for him to text me back with his location. It was almost like I was having an out-of-body experience. I was watching myself spend my rent money on a crack rock, another crack rock, which took me one one step further away from Amir. I watched myself drive home, pull into a parking space, kill the engine, collect my work bag and purse from the front seat of the car. Tonight was different, however. Because before I could slam that front door shut like I did so many other nights before this one, that yellow truck caught my eye again. Amir deserved so much better than to have a mother like me. I thought about him in his new home, a huge, gorgeous home on the good side of town. I thought about his private school, the education he was getting. I thought about the puppy Chris and his wife gave him on the first day of school. I thought about my baby getting on with life, living well, without me. He didn't need me anymore. I closed the car door and walked into my apartment building.
I turned the light on and the roaches went scurrying. I dropped my bag on the floor, kicked off my shoes, and walked into the kitchen. I opened the fridge first, and then the cabinets. All I had to eat was an old jar of peanut butter and some stale cookies. I walked out the kitchen empty handed, opened the bottle of Paul Mason, and took long sips, feeling the liquid burning my throat as it went down, into my empty stomach. I didn't stop until nearly half the bottle was gone.
I don't understand why bad things happen to good people.
Life for us was good. It was a simple life... Not too many bells and whistles, but there was stability, you know? We split the bills, shared the household responsibilities. I made a home for him. I cooked, smiled, doted. I did everything that I thought I was supposed to do for him, to him. I was nasty in the bedroom, just like he liked. I drove his mother to doctor's appointments, always remembered to sort the laundry the way he liked me to. I kept his favorite juice in the fridge. I used to scribble our names together in an old notebook I kept hidden under the mattress. Mr. and Mrs. Christopher Harley, it said. Mrs. Subrena Harley. Subrena Stevens-Harley. I'd planned the face I would make when he finally proposed to me, even picked out the shoes in which I knew I would marry him. Life for us was good, until he decided he wanted to do something different. Until he decided he wanted more than me.
The night he left me was the first time I ever got pissy drunk.
I believed in my heart that Chris would leave me, miss me, see the err of his ways and beg me to take him back. I was wrong. After only being with her for three months, Chris gave her the engagement ring that he didn't once offer me in the entire five years we'd been together. I watched them excitedly plan their wedding via Facebook, silently begging God to allow her to experience a tragic, fatal accident that would send Chris running back into my arms for consolation.
It was the night they posted their first pictures as husband and wife that I smoked crack for the first time. Amir was 2 years old.
The Paul Mason was beginning to make my belly warm, and I felt the familiar tingle of my impending intoxication washing slowly over me. Just a few more minutes of feeling things... I got excited about the relief I knew I'd soon feel. The liquor made the demons inside of me rage a little more quietly, gave me a little more space to think my own thoughts. I walked into the kitchen and retrieved the stale cookies from the cabinet. I took the cookies and the brandy and walked into my bedroom, stretched out across my unmade bed, and opened my laptop. As Facebook loaded in my browser, I took another swig from my bottle.
"This is the best I felt all day," I said aloud, my voice a stark contrast against the quiet of my apartment. I giggled.
Facebook loaded and I snacked on the stale cookies as I scrolled my timeline. Black Lives Matter. Deodorant causes cancer. A baby picture here, a new job announcement there, a rant or two about police brutality... Facebook was the same relaxing mishmash of nonsense and nothingness tonight that it always was. I welcomed the mindlessness of reading what went on in the lives of strangers. I loved looking at their lives, imagining that their lives were mine. I loved the temporary break Facebook gave me from my own sordid reality and the details of my own life, my own failure.
I scrolled a bit too long this time.
Staring back at me from my computer screen was the smiling, beautiful face of the woman who had stolen my son and his father from me. She was immaculate. Her makeup was flawless. Her hair was long and shiny. Her white teeth glistened. It almost looked as if she were glowing.
"We're finally pregnant!" the caption read. "I have Chris, my amazing husband, Amir, my awesome son, and I'm carrying the daughter I've always dreamed of having. My life is perfect. My family is complete!"
I scrolled through all the comments congratulating her, each heartfelt message causing the ache in my heart to spread a little more to other parts of my body. By the time I'd read them all, my entire body hurt, and I was sobbing, crying the ugly cry of heartache and angst, of a pain so bad I thought my heart would stop beating.
I got up off the bed and walked into the living room. I dug the crack rock out of my purse, found my pipe amongst the dirty laundry on the hallway floor, and lit it. My pipe, my drugs, my liquor were the only friends I had left. I took hit after hit, got higher and higher, and waited for the pain to subside as the crack numbed my senses. The relief I felt was temporary, and it made me angry. I needed more. I grabbed my purse. Hair all over my head, clothes disheveled, barefoot, I walked outside to my car. I got inside, closed the door, sent the text to my friendly neighborhood drug dealer, and saw Amir's yellow truck on the floor of the passenger side of my car.
I saw Amir's yellow truck and I knew that all the drugs in the world would not save me from the pain of being a failure, of failing him, of being an awful, incapable, unfit mother, of letting another woman with a perfect smile and a perfect resume and a perfect life raise the child that nearly killed me, the child that killed all his future siblings that I might've one day carried.
I reached over and picked the yellow truck up from the floor. The realization hit me like a ton of bricks. "He's better off without you," I said aloud in the car as I looked at that yellow truck In the palm of my hand. "Everybody is better without you."
Suddenly, the taste I had for crack disappeared. I needed more than the drug could give me. This pain was more than a crack rock could heal.
Still holding the yellow truck, I got out the car and walked back into my apartment building. My neighbor, Mrs. Jenkins, spoke to me as I stumbled past her.
"I'm praying for you," she said. "I'm praying that God will deliver you from the demons that are trying to end your life. Keep fighting, my sister," she begged. "God has a plan for you."
I stopped walking and looked at her. "Where was your God," I slurred, "when Chris decided he didn't want me anymore? Where was He when the judge took my baby from me? Where was your God when I tried to stop smoking crack? Where was He when I was selling my body for another hit? What has God ever done to help me? What the fuck has your God done for me?"
Mrs. Jenkins was unaffected by my drunken rant. "He comes when we need Him most," she said.
"Fuck him," I spat. "Fuck your God, and fuck you." I fumbled with my keys, opened the door to my apartment, and slammed it behind me.
I dropped my purse by the front door, stepped over the clothes and papers and trash strewn across the floor in the living room, stumbled past the dirty laundry in the hallway, walked past the closed door of what was once Amir's room, and made my way back into my bedroom. I walked over to the closet Chris and I once shared, and reached up on the top shelf, way in the back, so far back that I had to stand on my tiptoes to retrieve it. I finally found what I was looking for and walked back to the bed holding it in my right hand and Amir's yellow truck in my left.
Chris didn't bother to take his gun with him when he left. I guess he forgot it.
For years, I've been planning to get rid of it. I couldn't decide if I wanted to give it away or try to sell it, but it had been collecting dust in an old shoe box on the top shelf for as long as I can remember. I took it out of the box, felt the cold steel against my skin. Felt the weight of it. Put my finger on the trigger.
Chris always kept the gun loaded.
"It's for our protection," he'd told me the day he brought it home. "I promise I will always protect you, Bre."
I felt the hot tears as they spilled from my eyes. When Chris and I met, I was in college. I was working on becoming something that I could've been proud of. I was a nursing student, I had my own studio apartment, a car that had seen better days, and a part-time waitressing job. My life wasn't glamorous, but it was happy. It was mine. Chris came along and turned my world upside down. We made big plans, plans to buy homes and start businesses and have children and see the world. When he told me he wanted to finish his degree, I quit school and worked full-time to support him. I gave him every dime I made. I dedicated my life to him and Amir. And what did I have to show for all the plans and promises? Nothing except a nasty crack habit, more empty Paul Mason bottles than I could count, a dead-end call center job, a broken heart, and Amir's yellow truck.
The barrel of the gun felt cold against my temple.
It was even colder in my mouth.
What do you do with your pain is so deep that you can no longer drink and smoke it away? What do you do when it hurts to live every day? What do you do when everything you had that was worth living for is gone?
I felt the cold steel between my lips and on my tongue. I still clutched Amir's yellow truck. There were no more tears. All I felt was relief. I finally found a way to end my pain, and it wasn't in a bottle or a pipe. It was in an old, dusty shoebox in the top of my closet.
I closed my eyes. Took a deep breath. Closed my lips around the barrel of the gun.
Amir's yellow truck fell out of Subrena's hand and onto the floor with a thud and rolled slowly under the bed.