Content advisory: This story contains depictions of substance abuse and child neglect.
Zoe found her purse by the front door of the apartment. Methodically, not yet panicking, she pushed aside wallet, tissues, and compact. Finally, she found the tiny bag—really, a coin purse—and unzipped it. The plastic bubbles were smashed, the foil pierced, all but one—one pill left. She pushed the pill through the foil onto her palm and hurried to the kitchen to splash tap water into a mug. She closed her eyes and swallowed, willing the pill to stay down. Finally, taking another small sip of water, she gazed out the window into the brilliant August sunlight. Pain sliced across her temples.
By mid-morning, sitting in her cubicle, Zoe knew it wouldn’t be enough. The pain had retreated to a low muttering behind her ears, but it lay in wait, biding its time to pierce her brain again. She needed more pills. Most of her migraines were quelled with one pill, but sometimes it took two, sometimes three. Stupidly, she had not refilled the prescription like she usually did when she was down to two pills. Now there was no second pill at the ready. Without it, the pain would come surging back, stabbing through her eyes, bringing up the contents of her stomach.
She left work at half past two. The pavement before her was blurry as she walked to the pharmacy, one of those big chains, six blocks from work and two blocks from her apartment. She had phoned in the refill; it would be waiting when she arrived. She fumbled in her purse for sunglasses to shield her eyes from the searing light. The pain roared in her ears. She could only think of putting one foot in front of the other, of breathing slowly. Hoping to divert some of the pain, she pinched the flesh between her left thumb and index finger.
The pharmacy’s parking lot radiated the August heat, the smell of scorched asphalt roiling her stomach. She stepped around a dark green Subaru parked on the double-yellow lines in front of the store’s sliding glass doors. A Baby On Board sticker winked from the rear window.
The passenger door shot open, and Zoe jumped back to avoid being hit. “Just find it, all right?” a male voice said from inside the vehicle.
A woman scrambled out of the Subaru. “All right!” The woman slammed the door and hitched a purse on her shoulder. Her blond hair was pulled into a messy bun, her skinny frame accentuated by yoga pants and a yellow tank top. Her flip flops slapped against the asphalt as she hurried into the store.
Zoe followed her, removing her sunglasses once inside. The store’s fluorescent light was better than the piercing sunlight, and the air conditioning caressed her arms and neck. She walked toward the pharmacy counter in the back of the store, down the aisle with the shampoos, soaps, and detergents emanating lemon and pine, cleanliness, fresh starts.
The white-coated woman behind the counter retrieved her prescription. “Do you have any questions for the pharmacist?”
Zoe demurred, scooting forward a bottle of water to be rung up with the prescription. The woman eyed her as she scanned the items. Zoe could imagine what she saw: clammy white face, purple smudges under her eyes, breath coming in small pants. The woman’s eyes moved from her face to her arms and then back to her face.
Finally, Zoe had the pills. Dropping into a chair beside the pharmacy counter, she tore open the box, extracted the bubble pack, and popped the day’s second pill into her palm. The bottled water was cool on her throat. She closed her eyes and sank lower in her seat, cradling her purse in her lap. The pain scrambled around her skull.
Minutes later—how many she did not know—a pharmacist was tapping her arm. “Miss?” he asked. “Are you all right?”
Zoe nodded slowly. “Headache,” she said, holding up the prescription bag.
“Ah,” the pharmacist said, glancing at the name of the prescription. “Yes, sit here as long as you like.”
Zoe’s head wasn’t much better, but she rose from the chair, feeling self-conscious. “I’m okay. I’ll just go home and lie down.”
“You don’t have to leave,” the pharmacist began as Zoe turned away.
The man nearly knocked her down. He was rushing out of an aisle but looking at the floor. She jumped back as he brushed past her wordlessly, swerving into the next aisle. The pharmacist called after him. “Excuse me, sir! I need you to slow down.”
A wave of pain pulsed across Zoe’s eyes. Slowly walking up the aisle, Zoe saw the man striding ahead, his white t-shirt flapping against his lanky frame. He disappeared around the end of the aisle.
Zoe’s stomach lurched. I’m going to be sick, she thought. I have to sit down.
She remembered there were more chairs next to the photo machine at the front of the store. She entered an aisle where Halloween candy and decorations filled the shelves, even though the holiday was over two months away. The woman from the Subaru was crouched in front of the bottom shelf, riffling through costume accessories. She looked up when Zoe approached. “What do you think? Is it me?” She placed a glittering tiara on her head, grinning like a deranged beauty queen.
“Nice,” Zoe said vaguely, fighting the nausea.
Collapsing into a chair at the front of the store, Zoe closed her eyes. Tears pricked her eyelids. She yearned for her bed, the room darkened by blackout curtains, her diffuser misting lavender oil.
When Zoe opened her eyes, she saw the lanky man in the loose t-shirt rushing down another aisle toward the rear of the store. His head was jerking back and forth. He spun around the corner and started up the aisle that led directly to the photo machine and the chairs where Zoe was sitting.
A pulse of fear rose in her gut as she suddenly understood. He was going to rob the store. He had been looking in the aisles to see who was there, and now he was going to pull out a gun. Zoe swerved her gaze to the only open register, where a tall man with dreadlocks was giving change to a customer. What should I do? she thought. The lanky man was nearly at the end of the aisle, and for a brief moment their eyes met.
Then he fell, just as he emerged from the aisle into the open area in front of the registers. He screamed, flapped his arms as he landed hard on his back. Zoe jerked in surprise.
“My knee!” The man sat up, clutching his right knee. “My knee is busted!”
The employee with the dreadlocks stared at the lanky man on the ground. The customer at the register froze, plastic bag in hand.
“I fell!” The man pointed to something on the linoleum floor. “That rag made me fall! You saw it!”
Shocked, Zoe realized the man was talking to her.
“You saw me fall!” he said. “Call an ambulance!”
The blond woman emerged from another aisle. “Oh no,” she said in an oddly flat tone. “What happened, Mike?”
The man named Mike clutched his knee. “My knee is busted! The rag made me fall!” He rocked back and forth. “It hurts really bad. Somebody call an ambulance. Call an ambulance!”
The woman looked around. “Yeah, call an ambulance! He’s really hurt!”
The cashier left his register. “All right, man, calm down. What’s going on?”
The lanky man thrust the cloth at him. “This dust rag was on the floor! What kind of store is this? Leaving shit on the floor to make people fall!”
“That’s really dangerous,” the woman chimed in.
Zoe saw the dust rag. The price tag was still attached.
“Are you going to call an ambulance?” the woman asked the cashier.
“It hurts so bad!” the man moaned.
“Look at him,” the woman said. “He’s in pain!”
The man on the ground pointed at Zoe again. “She saw the whole thing. It’s the store’s fault. I could sue!”
The cashier backed up, raising his hands. “All right, I’ll call.”
Zoe let out the breath. The employee retreated behind the counter to the phone. The customer next to the register slipped through the sliding doors.
The pain came back in a wave, reminding Zoe why she was sitting down. The second pill still hadn’t fully kicked in. She closed her eyes and wondered if she could stand without vomiting; she just wanted to leave.
She felt someone drop onto the chair next to hers. The blond woman started talking. “I can’t believe it. How irresponsible, right? Leaving that dust rag on the floor?”
Zoe glanced at the woman. She was shaking her head and rooting through her purse.
“I mean, you saw everything, right? You could tell the police what happened?”
“Yeah,” she said. “If we want to sue, we’ll need witnesses. And a police report.” The woman zipped her purse and swiveled to face Zoe. “Do you have a cell phone? We should take pictures of Mike on the ground with that rag next to him. For evidence.”
“No.” Zoe didn’t want to be involved.
The woman shrugged, put her purse on the chair next to her, then moved it back to her lap. “I wish I had mine on me, but I lent it to a friend. Bad timing. Really bad timing, you know? We’re barely getting by, and now this.”
Zoe grew more uneasy. The woman rubbed her arms and twisted in her seat, looking at the door. “When’s that ambulance going to get here?”
The man was lying flat on his back, groaning.
Zoe looked past him. There were no cleaning supplies in that aisle, just chips and snacks.
The employee came back. “Ambulance is on the way.”
The blond woman sprang to her feet, yoga pants hanging loosely on her hips. “You hear that, Mike? You’ll get something soon.”
“It hurts!” he whined.
The woman stood, went over to Mike, her back to Zoe. The strap of her yellow tank top slipped off her right shoulder, revealing a small om tattoo. She turned to look at Zoe, at the employee waiting nearby, and then at another customer, a gray-haired woman who stood gaping. “He’s hurt!” she announced, pointing at the man on the ground.
The older woman took a step back. She gestured to her basket. “Can I still check out?”
“Yes, ma’am.” The cashier hastened back to the counter.
A few minutes later, two paramedics, a man and a woman, passed through the sliding glass doors and approached the man on the ground. The blond woman flitted around them. “It’s the store’s fault. They left a rag on the ground and he slipped on it.”
“Give us some space, please,” the male paramedic said.
The blond woman plopped back into the chair next to Zoe. “I hope they give him something for the pain. It’s just awful.”
The man was sitting up now, cradling his bent knee and complaining to the paramedics. Something was off, but Zoe couldn’t quite put her finger on it. The female paramedic snapped on gloves and gently probed his leg, and he screamed.
“Christ, what else do you need to do?” he said. “Give me something!”
That was it. Before, the man had been lying on his back, his legs flat on the ground. But now that he was sitting up and the paramedic was touching his bent knee, he was screaming.
The male paramedic wrapped a blood pressure cuff around Mike’s arm. “Got to take your vitals, buddy. Hang on.”
“Don’t you tell me to hang on!”
Zoe shivered. The air conditioning was blowing directly onto her bare arms. She glanced at her watch and realized she had been in the store for half an hour. The pain in her head was beginning to lessen. She unscrewed the cap of the bottled water and took a long swig.
The blond woman tapped her foot. “Why is it taking so long?”
Zoe shrugged. “They do what they have to do, I guess.”
The woman scratched at her arm. Glancing over, Zoe saw a fleck of blood welling from a dislodged scab. The woman sighed. “I hope they hurry. I’m teaching yoga in a few minutes.”
“Really?” Zoe spoke without thinking.
The blond woman didn’t seem to notice her dubious tone. “Vinyasa. Every Wednesday at Crescent Moon Studio. You should come.”
Zoe glanced at her again, noting the manicured pink toenails and hint of muscle along her skinny arms. The yellow tank top had the Crescent Moon logo on it.
The male paramedic ripped off the cuff. “BP 128 over 80.”
The paramedics glanced at each other. Then male paramedic rose to his feet and removed the radio from his belt. “Dispatch, this is medic one-forty.” He walked toward the sliding doors and the radio crackled: “Medic one-forty, go ahead.”
“He better be getting me Oxy,” the man on the ground growled.
“Relax,” replied the remaining paramedic.
The blond woman stood abruptly. “I’ll be right back, Mike.”
The man on the ground ignored her as she walked past him down an aisle. He muttered something to the female paramedic who was still probing his knee.
Zoe watched the male paramedic speaking quietly into the radio. Another customer checked out at the register, and both he and the cashier glanced suspiciously at the man on the ground.
The paramedic replaced the radio on his belt and approached Zoe. “Excuse me. You witnessed this man’s fall?”
“Yeah, she did!” the man yelled.
Zoe gave a tiny nod. The paramedic gestured toward the sliding glass doors. “Would you please step aside with me, ma’am?”
As she stood, her stomach lurched. She focused on her breathing. Don’t throw up, don’t throw up.
“What exactly did you see?”
They stood next to the sliding doors. Zoe concentrated on speaking, telling him everything that she’d seen. Then she paused. Pain ripped across her skull. Her stomach heaved. The paramedic said something else, but she couldn’t hear him. “I’m sorry,” she said, then spun around and bolted toward the restroom at the back of the store.
She made it to the toilet just in time, heaving the contents of her stomach into the bowl. Her ears roared. Spitting out the last of the acidic saliva, she sat back on her heels and wiped her streaming eyes with toilet paper. She had lost the pill. Now she’d have to wait a few more hours to take another, just to be safe. “Fuck,” she whispered, leaning against the bathroom stall.
Then she saw a pale foot wearing a black flip flop lying motionless on the floor in the stall next to her.
Horrified, she peered under the divider.
The blond woman was slumped against the wall, mouth wide open, a syringe in her right hand. She wasn’t moving.
Zoe scrambled to her feet and pushed the bathroom door open. “Help!” she called frantically. “I need help back here!”
No one came, so she screamed.
“Help me! Someone is dying back here!”
Then there was a flurry of motion. The two paramedics thundered into the bathroom and Zoe shrank back against the sink. The paramedic’s voices ricocheted against the bathroom walls.
“Any sign of powder? Careful with that syringe—”
“Does she have a pulse?”
“Here it is—”
“Let’s get her on her back—”
“—probably more Fentanyl than heroin—”
“Narcan’s in the ambulance—”
“—need to start an IV—”
Zoe backed out of the bathroom and the door swung shut.
“What the fuck is going on?”
Mike was standing next to her, staring at the restroom door. When he pushed the open door, he and Zoe could see the paramedics hovering over the unconscious woman. The man’s lips thinned. “I knew it. She had some. I fucking knew it. That bitch!”
He was standing just fine.
Zoe turned away, heart racing. She had to get out of there. She didn’t care if she got sick. Walking up the aisle rapidly, she fumbled in her purse for her sunglasses.
Someone blocked her path. “Hold on, young lady.”
Zoe looked up. A police officer filled the space before her. He scanned her pale face and shaky limbs. “I need you to stop right now.”
“No, that’s not her.” The cashier stood behind the police officer. “That’s the woman who saw it happen, the one in the chair. The other one was blond.”
“That woman just overdosed in the bathroom,” Zoe blurted out. “And her boyfriend, or husband, or whatever—Mike—he’s just standing there, watching.” Her voice shook. “There’s nothing wrong with him.”
The police officer pointed at the chairs next to the photo machine. “I’m going to need you to stay there. I’ll get your statement in a moment.” He strode toward the bathroom.
The employee shook his head. “Damn junkies.”
Sitting again in the chair, Zoe closed her eyes. Tears slid down her cheeks. Yells echoed from the back of the store, strings of expletives in the lanky man’s voice. Zoe watched two more paramedics enter the store, pushing a stretcher.
The police officer marched the lanky man through the sliding glass doors. “You can’t do this,” he hissed. He was handcuffed. “Assault of an officer, my ass.”
The paramedics rolled the stretcher forward with the blond woman’s body on it. Zoe saw her head move. “No, no. I can’t go,” she mumbled to one of the paramedics.
Relief washed over her. She wasn’t dead.
She sat in the chair, shivering as the air conditioning blasted. A few customers paid for their items, oblivious to what was happening around them. The cashier checked on Zoe and insisted that she take a bottle of ginger ale.
When the police officer finally returned, the pain in her head was almost gone. She gave him her name and address and told him she had arrived at the store nearly an hour earlier to fill a prescription for her migraine medication. “So that’s why you looked so rough,” he said, jotting notes on a pad.
Zoe managed a small smile. Being mistaken for an addict had unsettled her.
“Third OD this week.” The police officer shut his notebook. “Yesterday, it was a nurse. You just never know.”
The employee spoke up. “Corporate told us to lock the bathrooms. This is happening at stores all over. We’re getting one of those keypad locks put in next week.”
After a few more questions, she was free to go. The employee apologized to her as she walked toward the sliding glass doors. “Maybe the district manager could get you some coupons?”
Zoe shook her head. “It’s all right.”
“You’ll come back?”
“I’ll see you soon, I’m sure.” She managed a small smile.
“Have a good day,” he called as she left the store.
The August heat rolled over her. After an hour of air conditioning, the burning asphalt felt restorative, comforting. She put on her sunglasses. The police car was parked on the double-yellow lines in front of the store, blocking her way to the street. The engine was running, windows up. Mike was sitting in the backseat, his head resting against the seat in front of him. He didn’t look up when Zoe walked by.
It was nearly over, this terrible day. Zoe only had to walk the two blocks to her apartment. She cut diagonally across the parking lot, sweat already prickling her skin. She was in the far corner of the lot, nearly to the sidewalk, when she saw the green Subaru. Mike’s Subaru. He must have parked it here, in the only shady spot, after he let the blond woman out to plant the dust rag. Zoe remembered the blond woman’s grin as she placed the sparkling tiara on her head, giddy with anticipation.
She tried to imagine the need that drove them, the relentless demand that led them to formulate such an implausible plan, just to score some painkillers. How much would those pills have even helped?
Zoe was next to the Subaru when she saw the little face inside.
And then her ears were roaring and her heart hammering as she yanked the locked handle of the back door. The window was open an inch, maybe two, not enough for her to reach the lock. All she could do was scream as she looked at the tiny foot, motionless on lip of the car seat, because she couldn’t bear to look at the baby’s face.