Another D. Britt sighed. Math was never going to be her strongest subject, but college wasn’t going to pass her along the way her shitty high school had. And it wasn’t going to get easier the deeper into the semester she got.
She packed up her books in her beat-up Jansport. Some hipster with a leather messenger bag and a vape pen like a duck call around his neck winked at her. “Love it. Did you get that at The Attic?”
The Attic was a local vintage boutique that charged insane prices for ugly old shit. She shook her head and he shortened his grin only long enough to vape. “Still cool. See you around.”
She thought about asking him what he got on the test, if he would tutor her, but he was already on to the next girl, complimenting her on a necklace she wore. She was taking the bait. Britt imagined he played the guitar too, sitting in the quad waiting to get noticed before he busted out a song he “just wrote on the spot, for you, beautiful” that he had sung for another girl just three days before. Never mind. Fuck that guy.
The billboard by her lecture hall was littered with fliers. Textbooks for sale, ride shares back to NYC and Long Island, apartments for rent, tutors. She looked for someone teaching math. The cheapest was $50 an hour. Way out of her price range. She tore off the tag and stuck it in her pocket. Maybe she could get a few more hours at the bakery to pay for it.
She pulled out her phone to call her mom to come pick her up. There were six missed calls from a number she didn’t recognize, and three messages.
Its dennis. rait’s in trouble
think he ODd
Thing he’s dead. Shit. SHIT!!!! Call me BACK BITCH!!!!
She meant to hit delete. Meant to ignore them. Probably a stupid joke from Fat Dennis and Rait, hoping she’d call back in a panic and they would laugh hysterically. And even if it wasn’t a joke, fuck Rait and fuck Fat Dennis sideways. She hadn’t seen either of them in six months, not since she moved back home after rehab. She was in school now, had a job baking sugar cookies at the grocery store, had dinner with her mom every night like a normal girl instead of the drugged-out junkie skank she was when Rait was her boyfriend. And she wasn’t going to be that girl again.
She’d offered to get him help when she went to rehab, but he refused. Said she didn’t love him. Said she was turning him over to the cops. Beat her up, but no worse than usual. She arrived at the Hope Center with a black eye and a fat lip, but she wasn’t the only one. Her roommate’s wrist was in a cast. One afternoon after group therapy, they both flushed all their makeup down the toilet, a sign that they were stronger than a life that forced them to cover up bruises. She wondered briefly how Amethyst was holding up.
But instead of delete, she accidentally hit call. The phone barely rang before Fat Dennis picked up. He was hysterical. “He’s dead, Britt,” he said. “He fucking OD’d. Shit, Britt, what do I do? You gotta get over here!”
“Call an ambulance,” she said, picking up her pace across the quad. Vape was talking to yet another girl, touching her floppy hat. “Cops won’t pick you up on a good Samaritan call.”
“You don’t get it, you stupid bitch,” Fat Dennis snapped. “He’s dead, don’t you even care?”
She figured she might later, but right now, adrenaline was her drug, her only focus. But Fat Dennis kept rambling. “There’s a huge stash here. He tapped in. I told him not to, but fucker doesn’t listen.”
“What do you want me to do?” she said.
“We gotta bury him,” he said. “Or burn his body. Or something. Cops can’t find him, not like this. They’ll come looking for me next.”
She hung up. Fuck that noise. No way she was helping Fat Dennis, not after what he’d done to her. She wasn’t getting back into that life. One look at that huge stash of heroin and she’d have a needle in her arm in no time. She knew her limitations, her own fragility. Avoid temptation. Better to block that shitbag’s number, call her mom, maybe go straight to a meeting.
She reached into her pocket for a tissue and the tutor’s number fluttered out. She didn’t call her mom, didn’t call her sponsor.
She called Fat Dennis.
Britt had forgotten that smell. The smell of unwashed bodies and dirty laundry, of piss and caked shit, of rot and vomit. And it was even worse with Rait’s dead body, bladder and bowels evacuated all of the sheetless mattress he died on. She thought she might throw up. That smell alone was enough to keep her from grabbing a needle and spoon. No way she was going back to this hell.
Fat Dennis was coming down hard. The whole left side of his chapped mouth was rotted out, he’d lost all the weight that earned him his nickname, hands now looking too big for his skinny arms, eyes permanently at half-mast. “Whadda we do?” he asked, leaving his mouth open even though he was done talking.
“I don’t know,” she said. There was a more important question at hand. “Where did you assholes get this kind of weight?”
“New guy, calls it ‘StormTrooper’ to cash in on that new Star Wars movie. Me and Rait were going to be kingpins.”
She wished he’d stop grinning. His teeth were freaking her out. She looked at the box filled with those little glassine bags. All stamped, all perfect, all ready to go. She didn’t see beautiful oblivion when she looked into that box. She saw an A plus, a framed diploma, her mom proud of how hard she had worked. No more 8 to 2 a.m. shifts at the bakery getting sex-looks from the gross janitors and the weirdo bagboys. She saw a future in the exact same place she once saw nothing.
She took out a handful of baggies. “We gotta test this shit,” she said. “Got a needle?”
He grinned, his mouth a black, ugly hole. “Guess what Rait doesn’t know won’t hurt him, right?”
“Right,” she said. “C’mon, let’s go to the living room. We’ll watch The Wire, just like old times.”
Fat Dennis went out quick. Strong stuff, maybe laced with Fentinol. Good to know. Britt let him go first, second even. She said she’d watch him, get him on his side before she shot herself up. But she didn’t shoot up. Instead, she transferred all the baggies to an old Count Chocula box and stashed it in her backpack. No way she was letting him be her business partner. To hell with Fat Dennis. She’d woken up to him fucking her once, screamed for him to stop, but he didn’t. She thought about shooting him up a third time, but decided against it. She didn’t want to waste her stash, didn’t want him to die happy.
She found a pack of cigarettes and fired one up, watching it burn between her fingertips. She missed smoking almost as much as she missed heroin. No one shot smack in old movies, but dames in furs were always lighting up a cigarette, always looked beautiful doing so. She felt beautiful with a cigarette. But not today. This cigarette had more important places to be than between her lips.
She went into Rait’s room again and dropped the cigarette into a pile of porn mags beneath his fingertips. A Viking funeral. He’d have loved that. She felt like she should say a prayer, to remember the good times they had together. But she couldn’t think of anything. He’d always been a shitbag, and he’d died a shitbag too. Him and Fat Dennis.
Paper tits and glossy snatch went up fast. Britt put her t‑shirt up over her mouth and backed out of the room. It was a long walk back to the bus stop by the Dollar General; but halfway home, she heard sirens.
Her mom made spaghetti, but all Britt could think about was Count Chocula. She missed her NA meeting, lied about having homework, went to her room right after dinner.
When she got back from rehab, her present to herself was a bedroom makeover. Gone were the torn-out magazine ads, the mismatched sheets burned through with roach holes, the graffiti on the walls. Her and her mom painted the walls lavender and bought matching bedding, throw pillows, a faux-fur rug. She hung record covers and typography prints from Etsy. It was her sanctuary, her safe place.
Sitting on her bed, she stared at the box. She’d dealt before, just enough to cover her habit, but never anything like this. This was weight. There had to be 200 bags in there. How the hell did Rait get 200 bags? He could barely afford to keep his own habit fed; no dealer would trust him with this kind of weight. She remembered what Fat Dennis had said, about him tapping in. Had he stolen this, or had some new city kingpin come in, thinking he could muscle in as the cops cracked down. She rolled her eyes. Fucking newbies thinking they can sling weight, that a scale and a hook-up and a couple of needy junkies will make them Heisenberg. She didn’t recognize the Stormtrooper stamp, but that wasn’t a surprise.
She didn’t need to shoot up. She felt remarkably calm for having murdered Fat Dennis and burned down a building. Carefree, even. She was more worried about her math homework than the cops catching up with her. She could have left signed confession and they wouldn’t have cared enough to stop by the house.
Her mom knocked. Britt stashed the box under the bed just as her mom opened the door and sat down on the edge of the bed. “I just saw on the news that your old apartment burned down,” she said, rubbing her back. “They found two bodies. I think it was probably Rait. I’m sorry honey.”
“Don’t be,” said Britt. “That guy was an asshole.”
“Do you need to go to a meeting?” she offered. “I’m sure this must be stressful for you.”
“I think I’m okay,” she said. “I mean, I’m a little sad because I hate to think that he was still living like that, but I guess I’m just relieved that it wasn’t me in there too.”
Her mom hugged her, rocking her back and forth. “Me too,” she said, tears choking her voice. “Me too, baby.”
The papers declared the fire accidental. The bodies were too charred for an autopsy. Rait had no family here, and Fat Dennis’ own dad was in prison. Britt could hardly believe her luck. Whoever had the heroin probably thought it was lost in the fire. All she had to do was re-tag it and sell it off as quickly as possible. In and out before temptation got hold.
Her favorite had always been one marked BARBIE GIRL. With its pink tag and 80s Barbie stamp, it always gave her a good high and was cheap enough to score but not so cheap that it was cut with baby laxatives to the point of barely giving her a nod.
She got on Craigslist under the “Casual Encounters” section. She put up four words with a fake email.
BARBIE GIRL IS BACK.
After her classes were done for the day. Britt caught the bus downtown. There were nicer craft stores near the mall, but she needed the right kind of craft store. The one that would have what she needed.
Benny’s had probably been a nice model and RC store back in the heyday, but as downtown went to shit, the owner realized that he could stay in business by selling more glue than airplanes. He kept a wide selection of aerosol paints too, and, when dealers started needing brand identification, he brought in the biggest selection of rubber stamps in town. It was a good living, and the cops could never catch him on anything. Still legal to sell stamp kits, after all.
She found a Barbie stamp and a pink stamp pad. She brought them up to the counter. “Barbie girl, huh?” the cashier said. “I heard of you.”
She didn’t like the look he was giving her, so she stared him down hard. “Spread the word. Limited engagement. They know where to look.”
Social media made dealing drugs easy. She made a short, stupid movie with a couple of her old Barbies and posted the Youtube link on Craigslist. She bought a burner phone. She posted the number. And within days, she had sold a third of the box. And the orders kept coming. She liked the feeling of selling almost as much as she’d ever liked getting high.
She counted up the money. This would buy her at least enough tutoring to get her through midterms. She felt higher than she ever had in her life as she dialed his number and set up an appointment. His name was Brian. They’d meet in the library that night, before she had to go to work.
Her burner phone buzzed with the text. Another order. She told him to meet her at the bakery at 1:30 that night. The store was always empty, and it gave her perfect cover if she smelled cop.
Brian was a skinny kid with big lips and flat hair and glasses. She thought he was cute. The way he explained the math made sense, the sound of his voice made her feel warm inside. She made a mental note to bring him some cookies at her next appointment and asked if they could meet Thursday. She had the cash—might as well spend it on something useful.
They worked for well over the hour that she’d paid him for. “You’re really smart,” he said. “I know this isn’t easy, but you seem like you actually want to get it. I’ve got a couple other clients who just spend our sessions texting. You haven’t even taken your phone out once.”
That warm feeling returned. No one had ever called her smart before. Her mom said she was “bright,” but they both knew she was never going to be a Rhodes Scholar. “This is important to me,” she said.
He closed his book and stood up, smiling. “Then I’ll see you Thursday. Looking forward to it.”
She was just pulling a batch of fresh chocolate chip cookies out of the oven when Vape walked in. She rolled her eyes. Of fucking course he’d be buying the trendiest shit on the market. If this was his first score she wouldn’t have been surprised. His eyes lit up when he saw her.
“Jansport, right?” he said. “From Stat?”
“We don’t know each other,” she said. “Now buy a cake or beat it.”
He leaned on the counter. “Do you have a… Barbie cake?” he asked.
What a fucking toolbox. “Look through the book,” she said. “But I can’t make anything custom unless my manager’s here.”
He leaned on the counter. “You know I don’t mean cake,” he said. “C’mon, I’ve been wanting to try this shit for months and I trust you not to give me a garbage hit. I’ll pay you $100. That’s double your asking price”
“How do I know you’re not a cop?”
He laughed. “I guess you don’t,” he said. “But you met with Brian earlier, right? Math nerd? He’s my roommate. I’ll put in a good word for you. Maybe he’ll give you a discount on his services.”
She glanced around. The store was completely empty. “Put the money in the cake binder,” she said. “Take a walk and check back in five.”
There was a weird aura around campus. Silence. And a lot of cops. Britt’s first instinct was to run, but she knew how suspicious that would make her look. Besides, the cops all knew her. She’d been busted enough times where most of them knew her by her first name.
Officer Gretchen Malloy accidentally caught her eye and started towards her. Britt slowed her pace, trying to calm herself as she approached. “Hi Britt,” she said. “Haven’t seen you in awhile.”
“Went to rehab,” she said. “Just got my six-month chip.” She always liked Malloy, as much as any junkie could like a cop. She would get you a cookie and some juice if you were detoxing hard, and she didn’t fuck with you, like most of the other cops did. Wouldn’t hesitate to throw your ass in jail if she had to make her monthly quota, but there were worse cops to get busted by. Britt knew. She’d been busted by all of them.
“That’s great,” Malloy said. “Proud of you.”
“Everything okay here?” Britt asked. “It’s not some guy with a gun, is it?”
“Drug overdose,” she said. “Heroin. We’ve pulled in a bunch of them lately, but this is the first fatality. Won’t be the last, though. You still talk to anyone on the street?”
“Not really,” she said. “I cut all ties when I went into rehab. Too easy to relapse that way.”
“Good girl,” she said. “But if you do know any users, tell them not to buy Barbie Girl. Every OD we’ve found in the last three weeks has been with that shit. This guy, this was probably his first time using, didn’t know his limits. But this.…” She shook her head. “This is the worst we’ve ever seen.”
She spotted Brian talking with a cop. She caught his eye and he didn’t smile. Why were they talking to him? He had an alibi for most of the evening; he was with her. She wondered if she should say something and thought better of it for the moment.
She slid into her history class, but she could barely pay attention. She was worried about Brian, worried about the box sitting in her closet. Barbie Girl was bad for business. What was this stuff laced with? Fentanyl? She had to dump it. Couldn’t risk the cops tracing it back to her.
Her burner phone buzzed. She ignored it. It kept buzzing. She turned it off. But when she got out of class, she had five messages. Four of them wanted to buy Barbie Girl.
One of them wanted it back.
She locked herself in the gender-neutral bathroom as she listened to the message over and over, trying to figure out if she knew the voice. “I know you have my stash,” he said. “I don’t know who you are, but I am going to cut through every junkie in this city until I find it. You owe me big, bitch. Nobody steals my shit.” Then an ominous minute of silence, then the hang-up.
What the hell was she going to do? Selling was now out of the question—too much chance the junkies would ID her to whoever this guy was. She could dump it, sure, but then she’d be right back where she started, broke and without Brian’s help. But Brian was dealing with a dead roommate, he probably wouldn’t be keeping appointments this week. She wanted to call him, go to him, hug him. She imagined he was pretty freaked out.
After two days, she called back the dealer. “I have your heroin,” she said. “You can have it back, brand and all. You just have to pay me for what’s left.”
“Fuck you,” he said. “You stole that shit from me.”
“I got it from Raitt,” she replied. “He didn’t tell me it was yours.”
“What, you think that junkie scumbag had enough cash on hand to buy that kind of party? And anyway, Raitt’s dead.”
“Yeah he’s dead,” she said. “And Fat Dennis too. House burned down. Who do you think set that fire five feet from his dead body?”
The line went silent for a minute. She let him stew before she started up again. “So as I see it, you have two choices—pay up, or I flush the whole load down the toilet. I don’t need this shit. You do. I haven’t fucked with the purity, and you know people are clamoring for a kick.”
“How much is left?”
“Five grand worth.”
“You’ve got to be shitting me.”
She was. But she couldn’t back down, not now. She flushed the toilet. “There goes one pack,” she said. “You want to keep fucking with me?”
More silence. “Benny’s.” He said. “One hour.”
“Make it two,” she said. “I’ve got a previous engagement.”
Brian wasn’t any less fidgety than she was as they tried to work through their math lesson. The deal was weighing hard on her mind, but she wasn’t about to cancel her tutoring. Midterms were coming up and she hadn’t seen him in almost a week. If she was going to give up her livelihood, she’d better at least have good grades to fall back on.
“How are you holding up?” she asked when it became apparent that they weren’t getting a single problem done.
He sighed and closed the book. “All right,” she said. “I’m the one who found him, so that still has me a little creeped out, but it’s not like I knew him that well. We were roommates, but we weren’t friends.”
“Yeah, I know that feeling,” she said. “I had some friends overdose a little while ago.” She wasn’t ready to tell him, not yet. Get clear of Barbie Girl, get her year sobriety chip, then she could share. But this was too early. She wasn’t ready to admit that she was more of monster than she’d ever thought she could be. Murder, arson, dealing, all for a few hours a week with a skinny math nerd. But it was worth it. She’d do it all again if she had to.
Kingpins are always intimidating. A junkie can look twitchy and violent, but a kingpin who knows what he’s doing is a hundred times more terrifying. A good kingpin knows when to be cool and when to be your best friend. She suspected this guy, calling himself Sharp, never warmed up.
She put the backpack on Benny’s counter. She set the stamp and pad down between them. She even handed over her phone. “Every number in there is a client,” she said. “They’re all yours. For five grand.”
“You don’t think I have my own clients?” he said.
“If you did, you wouldn’t have needed Raitt and Fat Dennis,” she said. “I don’t mind that you’re new in town, but don’t you come in here with your rubber muscles and flex. You’re getting a good deal. Take it and move on.”
He eyed her in a way that made her feel like he was stripping the flesh from her bones. But he slowly pulled out a stack of bills and set them on the counter. Benny watched with flickering eyes. “You walk out first,” she said, pushing the backpack closer. “Good luck around town.”
She took the bus to Burger King and waited an hour, eating fries and drinking a shake until she was sure she wasn’t being followed. She took three buses to the mall and bought another burner phone. Officer Malloy was her first call. “I got some word on your heroin,” she said. “One of my old buddies tipped me off. The guy’s calling himself Sharp, says he just got a shipment of Barbie Girl, although he may change the name with all the bad press.”
“Britt, thank you,” Malloy said. “I’ll pass this up the chain and keep your name out of it. You be good, okay?”
“Can do,” she said. She looked at the clock on her phone. She had ten minutes to get to the registrar before they closed. She picked up the pace and got in with five minutes to spare. “I’m ready to declare my major,” she said. “I want to major in business.”