By the time you get around to picking up the pills it’s been nearly eight weeks, and the doc or tech or whoever she was—some white lady in scrubs—made sure you knew it. Wow okay so you’re almost hitting the time limit here then, she’d said in a voice you didn’t hear her use on any of the other girls in the waiting room, but you were fidgeting too hard to be offended. You just wanted to get out of there. They gave you the pills and told you you’d probably want to have pads handy and sent you on your way.
Now you’re sitting in your car in the clinic parking lot, just praying for somebody to wander up and spit on your windshield. Shove a bent-up flyer with photos of tiny fingers through the passenger side window that won’t fully close. It’s nearly three in the afternoon and you missed your shift for this appointment, but Bobby said he’d cover. He owes you now, after you caught him and Carl’s son in the supply room. You remember the way they jumped apart, like they’d been electrocuted, and Bobby looked at you, a wild-eyed deer, dripping with a terror so agonizingly visceral you thought he was going to melt into a puddle on the dirty linoleum floor. He picks up your shifts now, if you need it, but you try not to ask him too much. He’s just a kid anyway, and Carl gets upset when you miss shifts because he’d rather have you at the register. People eye you when you’re up there.
But the worst part of this day, by far, is the heat. It’s the type of heat that rings in your ears. The sticky afternoon seeps in through the cracked passenger side window, the noxious gas of August’s dog days, skulking around and spreading an oppressive lethargy that makes you want to sit here forever, braids piled on top of your head as sweat and skin form a paste against these old leather seats, languishing in front of this useless air conditioner. You keep meaning to get it fixed. John Wiley down at Anderson’s has told you three times that he’ll cut you a deal, but you’re not quite up for paying the way he wants you to pay, not yet. You told him this after the third time, with your eyes at least, and he just kind of looked at the ground and muttered something about wanting to be a pal.
Now your phone is dead and has been since it sputtered to black five minutes after you sat down in the waiting room. Not that you were worried about missing calls—nobody calls you—but a dead phone meant you had to sit and try to avoid that awkward eye-lock with everyone else in the waiting room, which is pretty hard when you can hear the stomach gurgling in the girl next to you. She must have been going under. No eating or drinking for eight hours if they’re cutting you up.
You made eye contact with one girl—the only white girl in the room—a couple of times before the nurse called her away. She was scrawny and pale, a chicken carcass wearing combat boots and oversized clothes. A giant t-shirt hung down to the middle of her thighs, so long it looked like a dress over her ragged jean shorts, and a heavy leather jacket, faded to charcoal, with frayed sleeves. She carried a dirty green messenger bag that probably had everything from underwear to soy sauce packets inside of it. She looked like she’d been put in the washing machine with a biker gang and then tossed out on the street.
Anyway you’re thinking about her now because she’s standing outside your car, rapping softly on the passenger side window with her knuckles. She sticks her index finger through the opening and wiggles it. She’s got a cheap ring on, one of those grimy drugstore bands that turns your skin green.
“You seemed a little nervous in there,” she says, knocking her ring against the tempered glass and waving at you, like she’s trying to flag you down even through you’re already parked.
“I said you seemed a little nervous in there.”
“You were watching me?”
“You were shaking. It was…” she gestures with her hands like she’s swatting away invisible mosquitoes, “Distracting.”
“Can I help you?”
She laughs, wildly, a virulent gurgle that reverberates up your spine. It sets you on edge, and you’re nervous, but not the type of nervous you felt when you were getting the pills.
“Maybe. Probably you can, but I don’t wanna put you out.”
“Why, you need a ride?”
She moves in a sweeping motion so sudden that you can barely comprehend that she’s now in the passenger seat next to you until she’s pulling out a cigarette and flicking a lighter.
“No, I’m trying to prostitute myself to you. Just kidding,” she says, quickly, before the joke lands, “Contrary to what the doc in there says. Can I smoke in here?”
The moment hangs, suspended in the air, before it snaps back into place.
“They said we shouldn’t smoke while we’re doing it.”
“Doing what?” Her eyes flash you with confusion, and you nod uneasily at the white paper bag sitting between your legs.
“Oh right. Almost forgot.” Cigarette between her teeth, she reaches into her messenger bag and pulls out two pill packets, checking both labels before cracking open the mifepristone.
“You’re taking it right now?” You gape at her, engrossed with incredulous fascination at this mythical scrap of skin and bones sitting in your car.
“First one doesn’t do anything,” she removes the cigarette and tosses back the pill, then washes it down with clear liquid from an unlabeled water bottle. “The second one is the one that sucks. But don’t worry, we’ll be having some fun by then.”
You’re not sure how to ask what that means so you keep quiet. Then you jump, realizing her hand just grazed your leg, as she grabs your white paper bag and opens it up.
“Oh,” you say, still startled, “I’m not gonna take it now.”
You don’t know if this girl is slow or half-deaf or what, but she ignores you and pops open the pill packet, then holds it in front of your mouth.
“Down the hatch, come on. Quicker you take this one the quicker it’s all over with.”
Just say no. Easier said than done when someone’s got their fingers—or anything else—an inch away from your lips.
The pill, smooth and tasteless, slides toward the back of your throat. She offers you the mysterious water bottle, which ends up just being lukewarm water, and resumes smoking.
“I live over at Riverview if you wanna head that way,” she says plainly, without insinuation, “Or don’t, I can walk. Lord knows I need the fresh air.”
She stares wistfully out the window and you raise your eyebrows, confused as to where she’ll find any fresh air in the pie filling of a concrete and cigarette crust.
“I’ll drive you.” You put the car in gear and slowly maneuver around the potholes in the asphalt.
“Thanks!” She says with warm surprise, as if she hadn’t been the one to suggest it in the first place. You shrug. Riverview isn’t too far, it’s a shitty apartment complex over by the vile stream of sewage this city likes to call a river. You’ve never met any white people that live there. It’s mainly poor black folks whose grandparents drew the short of the stick during Jim Crow.
The streets are quiet now, hovering in that purgatorial junction between afternoon errands and evening plans, and the heat is keeping most people hidden behind their window units. The sun turns asphalt into black pools, shimmering like fountains full of coins.
“Hey what’s your name?” Suddenly your head is buzzing with your mother’s steely warnings about not getting into cars with strangers. You wonder if it matters that it’s your car.
“Happer,” she says, ashing her cigarette out the window.
“Yeah. Well,” she sighs, “It’s really Harper, but I lived with my aunt in Boston for a few summers and she dropped the ‘r’ like JFK.”
“My Dad had a thing for Atticus Finch I guess. I don’t know. Stop here.”
You lurch to a stop in front of the dilapidated Riverview sign. She gathers up her bag and clamors out, shutting the door after her.
“I’ll be waiting here at nine if you wanna swing back around,” she tosses her cigarette onto the ground, “Bring your other pill.”
Then she vanishes, slowly but all at the same time, into the derelict veil of the apartment complex like some kind of floating apparition. But she was real. Was she real?
You pull down the visor and check your black eyes, heavy like sopping sponges, in the mirror, maybe just to make sure that you’re real. You are. You think you are.
And you’re not exactly sure what makes you go back to that same exact spot at nine, but it’s probably the thought of sitting in your grandmother’s shitty two-bedroom, chewing on freezer-burned ice cubes and watching sitcom reruns while you press a can of diet coke to the back of your neck. So you tell Gram you’ll be back late and head out, making sure to get your wallet and keys and shut the latch until it clicks and bring your abortion pill with you.
When you get back to Riverview Happer is standing right where you dropped her off, wearing a billowing green skirt and a crop top like some kind of flower child you’d find ass over face at an outdoor music festival. You wonder if she showered. You showered, but only because Gram took one look at the sweat cascading down your body and asked if you went swimming this afternoon. She wasn’t even trying to be funny; she hasn’t been funny in years.
Happer thrusts the messenger bag into the car before climbing in after it and instructs you to drive uptown. As you’re driving you can see her looking at you out of the corner of your eye, up and down.
“I had a feeling you were gonna dress up,” she finally says, carefully, reaching into her bag, “So I brought you these.”
She pulls out a lumpy pair of gray sweatpants and places them on your lap.
“But I’m not…” You look down at your old jeans, which you threw on before leaving the house because your legs were chafing together under your shorts, “This is… this is dressed up?”
“Trust me,” she says, pulling down her mirror to apply red lip gloss, “You don’t wanna have jeans on once we take that second pill.”
“Yeah, pull into the drug store up here. We got some stuff to get.”
Before the car is even completely stopped in the drug store parking lot she’s bounding up to the automatic glass doors, telling you over her shoulder to bring the sweatpants, then melting into a blind spot of harsh artificial lighting.
You gaze down at the sweatpants. They look like a man’s pair, and you wonder who they belong to. A boyfriend? An ex? You try to picture the sort of man who would inhabit the same living space as this person. A coked-out Willy Wonka?
When you get into the store it takes forever to find Happer and for a second you think she might have dipped out the back and left you here. The thought is enough to make you open your wallet to check she didn’t lift anything.
“No no no this is my treat,” Happer comes out of nowhere, pushing down your wallet like you’re two sorority sisters on a frozen yogurt date.
“What are you buying?” You peer into her shopping basket. Adult diapers?
“I got the bathroom key,” ignoring your question, she tosses you the key, “Go take off those jeans, I’ll be there in a second.”
You head toward the bathroom without asking her about the diapers. The keyhole takes some finessing, but eventually you hear the click, and the big door swings open to reveal a dirty hovel of a bathroom. You’re too scared to touch anything so you stand right in the middle, careful not to let your elbows bump the sink or toilet, which are stained grimy copper from god knows how many putrid uses. Even the lock on the door is covered with an oily sheen so you leave it unlocked, wondering if this foul little dungeon is a sign that you should pull the plug on the entire night. This girl could be part of a cult, for god’s sake.
Then you realize your jeans are starting to feel a little tight, so you undo the button. The sweatpants, slung over your shoulder, tickle your cheek. They’re soft and they smell clean. The urge to put them on tugs at you, a little tickle of an invitation. What the hell.
You slide your jeans down, pulling them over your flip flops so you don’t have to step barefoot on this shit-covered floor, and you’ve got one leg through the sweatpants when Happer bursts into the bathroom so forcefully you have to grab the wall to keep from falling over.
“God damn it!”
“Don’t put the sweats on yet!” She waves the diapers in front of your face, and you finally understand why she bought them in the first place.
“Oh no, no way.” You say it with as much authority as you can for someone who’s standing in a filthy pharmacy bathroom with an ass cheek out.
“Yes.” Happer opens up the package and unfolds one of the diapers, “Don’t worry they stretch, see?”
“I wasn’t….” You trail off, then, “Why can’t we just wear pads like they said to?”
“Don’t wanna spring a leak,” she taps her head, “Now come on, we gotta get there by ten.”
“Get where?” At this point you’re not even expecting an answer back. Maybe she’s not real. Maybe you’re not even in this pharmacy bathroom at all. Maybe you’re actually home, tripping in your bedroom because Gram put the plastic teakettle on the stove again, and the fumes are twisting like ivy around your skull.
But the pill sliding down your throat feels real, and the gummy night air feels real. The diaper crinkling up into your crotch definitely feels real.
And now you’re in a funhouse. A whirling tornado of lights and sounds, a stereo screams over coke and vodka, lips and ears and tongues, and your stomach feels like it’s being ripped to shreds. Happer gives you a drink that tastes like bubblegum battery acid so you go to the bathroom to throw it up. Your finger is halfway down your throat when you remember that you can’t throw up—you’re not supposed to yet—so you sit on the toilet with the diaper around your ankles, purging whatever red sludge wants to leave your body. A slow, violent drip. This is how you need it to be.
When you get back into the living room Happer is sitting on some big tattooed lump of muscles in the corner, looking like she’s trying to eat his face off. A giggle spurts out of you, and you wonder what muscles would think if he knew he had a bloody diaper on his lap.
Happer makes her way back over to you and grabs your hands. She sticks her tongue out, revealing two little white pills.
For the pain, you think she says, you can’t hear over the music. You reach to take one, and she slurps her tongue back into her mouth like a little pink whack-a-mole, shaking her head and grinning.
When she sticks it out again you lean forward slowly and take one of the pills with your mouth, prickling at her warm taste of alcohol and smoke. Everywhere is smoke and haze and colored lights, and these drinks are starting to taste less like shit and more like nothing.
Now you’re on the couch. You’re real and you’re on the couch.
The empty pill packet pokes out of the sweatpants pocket, and you clutch it like it’s a rosary bead. Say three hail Mary’s while meditating on the mystery.
I needed to do this, you say to Happer, who’s burning down a blunt next to you, I wasn’t ready for anything else.
She nods, “You wanted more time.” Doesn’t everybody?
You look over, expecting to see that same quizzical, half-serious grin she’s been giving you since you met her yesterday—was it yesterday or today—in the clinic parking lot.
But she’s stone-faced, regarding you with wide-eyed lucidity, the first flicker of it you’ve seen all night.
You’re right. The pain slips away like you’ve been pinned under a giant boulder, and someone is finally lifting it off, but you’re going up with it. That’s all I want, you say.
Well now you have it, she says as you tilt your head back against the top of the couch and float towards the ceiling. Everything mixes together. Happer and the pills and the diaper and Gram’s teakettle. You’re melting, parts of you, wet and warm, sloughing off and sliding into oblivion. How long has it been? It doesn’t matter.
Tomorrow you’ll stop to see John Wiley down at Anderson’s. Everything is out of you now. You have all the time in the world.
© Chloe Vaughan
[This piece was selected by John Haggerty]