Carter never had to want for much in life. In fact, he had everything he could ever dream of; health, wealth, a picturesque childhood reminiscent of a Norman Rockwell image. However, there was always an edge about him that no one could seem to nurture out. His mother tried, maybe a bit too hard. His dad was supportive of his artistic mind and pursuits, never heavy-handed and always careful with his words. His sister was his biggest fan as she watched him play the violin throughout prep school and into his collegiate years. But Carter didn’t accept the affections of others like most would. He described himself as, “Impossible to love. God made me like a platypus. He must’ve had a bunch of random human attributes leftover, so he threw them together to create Carter Winslow.”
Carter’s mom never understood why his self-image was so distorted. A strikingly handsome young man with dark eyes and a smile that brightened a room. His intelligence invigorated conversation not debate, and he could charm a stone into believing it was a diamond. By his early 20’s, he’d found his place in the music realm and settled into the first chair of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. A remarkable talent, he focused all his energy into the music that helped him to forget the demons who laughed in his mind throughout the day. He hated winter, especially in “The Windy-City” and would hunker down for days at a time, perfecting his craft.
It was the coldest winter in years when Carter slipped on the ice on his way to work and broke his left hand. After a visit to the emergency room, he knew his career was in danger. It would be six weeks before he could even try to play again. Devastated, he went home with the prescriptions given to him for pain, sat in the darkness of his apartment and cried.
* * *
Two years later, Sara Stevens received a phone call.
“I found Carter last night,” Al said in a solemn tone. “He’s gone.”
Sara gasped. “Oh my god.”
“It was awful,” Al’s voice cracked. “Will you help me at his flat? It’s a mess.”
“Of course,” she said, questions running through her head faster than she could process. She couldn’t help but blurt out, “How long had he been gone?”
“Um, much longer than I care to remember. I swear, I’ll never get that out of my head.” He let out a long sigh, then took a deep breath to regain his composure. The memory haunted him, and the smell of death was stamped in his mind. Certainly, a whiff of what hell must smell like. “I hadn’t heard from him in days,” he continued. “The last time we talked, he was mumbling gibberish about demons torturing him. Something about whispers . . . I don’t know, Sara. He was fucked up.”
“None of this surprises me.”
Carter’s best friends cried together over the phone. No words, only the sound of sniffles and shared tears.
After they hung up, Sara thought back over their years of friendship. The trio had attended university together. Afterward, they’d moved in different directions to start their careers, but they always managed to stay in touch. Every spring, they stayed a weekend at the Hilton in Downtown Chicago for their annual reunion. After a Cubs game (if they could catch one) they’d go to Ditka’s and eat a ridiculously priced dinner, drinking several bottles of wine, then finish with a nightcap at the hotel bar.
Much to Sara and Al’s surprise, the last time they’d met, Carter wasn’t the same man. He’d dropped at least thirty pounds. His face was sunken and dusty with dark circles under his eyes. And he’d let his hair grow shaggy along with a scruffy beard that contradicted his once refined appearance. Nothing about him seemed right.
At breakfast, Sara and Al confronted him.
“What’s going on with you?” Sara asked.
Carter took a sip of coffee with a blank look.
“Nothing,” he said, as he lowered the mug. “Absolutely, nothing.”
“You look like shit man,” Al said.
Another emotionless glance. “Thanks.”
“What are you on?” Sara asked.
“No shit,” Al said. “Something’s up.”
The bustle of the dining room masked the silence as they waited for Carter to thaw. He stared past them with a hollow, cold gaze. As if he’d checked out, he scratched his forearm where his sleeve was rolled up.
“It’s the painkillers,” he stated. “They got to me.”
“What painkillers?” Al asked.
“You know, for my hand.”
“You still have a prescription?”
“No,” Carter scoffed. “You kidding? They won’t refill it anymore.”
“Then how is it the painkillers?”
Carter scratched the inside of his elbow accidentally pushing up his sleeve. Almost as if it was subconscious, he revealed what he’d been up to. He quickly pushed the sleeve back in place.
Sara held her breath. Did she just see what she thought she saw? His arm was bruised with holes. Al nudged her with his elbow. She glanced over. He widened his eyes, affirming his surprise.
Carter pushed back his chair and stood up.
“Hate to cut this short but I need to get to the studio for the next piece we’re recording.”
“I thought you were going The Art Institute with us,” Sara said.
Al shook his head. “You need to get some help before this shit kills you.”
Carter smirked. “What are you talking about?”
“You go from blaming painkillers to flashing your track marks? We’re not stupid.”
“Whatever. Fuck off.”
Carter pivoted and walked to the elevator.
“Were those bruises what I think they are?” Sara asked.
“Fucking shooting-up,” Al said with a disgusted look on his face. “How in the hell did he get mixed up in that shit?”
Sara couldn’t bear the thought of an addiction that severe. Heroin? Carter was sunk. She’d never seen him look so bad, and he’d never spoken to Al like that in all the years they’d been friends.
For the next eight months, Sara didn’t hear from Carter. When she tried to call him, he wouldn’t answer. Sara eventually called Carter’s sister around the holidays. They cried together over the phone as they talked about his deterioration. Everyone was helpless. Carter had to face this one on his own and no one could change what he was enduring.
* * *
Two days after the funeral, Sara stepped off the elevator into a long, carpeted hallway lined with doors every thirty feet or so. She roamed the corridor until she found apartment 505. Taking a deep breath, she softly tapped the wood. A few seconds later, the door opened to Al, who greeted her with a weak smile.
When she stepped inside, her stomach rolled over. The place was trashed. She stood there stunned, trying to make sense of the scene. Carter was known for being meticulously clean. His obsession with organization had once bordered OCD. Evidently, heroin was a jealous companion and didn’t allow cleaning to be a part of their relationship.
“It reeks in here,” Sara said, cupping her hand over her nose and mouth.
“You should’ve been here when I had the landlord open the door. You could smell it in the hallways.”
“Oh, God. I’m so sorry you had to go through that.”
“Me too,” he sighed, as he walked to the kitchen. “The police took everything drug related out. Needles, spoons, syringes, you know . . . But we still need to be careful just in case they missed something.”
Sara assessed what they were in for: crusted dishes stacked the sink; splattered coffee on the walls and cabinets; the handles of the refrigerator were practically black from dirty hands. Sara grabbed the edge of the door and pulled it open. The only thing inside was a gallon of milk with an expiration date a month old.
“There’s no food. Did you empty it already?”
“When you have heroin, who needs food,” Al said.
Sara’s stomach sank.
Such a dark world of hopelessness, she thought. Why didn’t he let us help him?
Sara walked to the other side of the flat. The shades were crooked, falling off the hinges, but they still accomplished their goal blocking out the sunlight. With each step, her feet peeled off the sticky floor, making a squishing sound. Old bags of potato chips and half-full bottles of beer covered the coffee and end tables. Several ashtrays overflowed with cigarette butts, casting ashes over the surfaces. The couch held wadded blankets at one end, dirty clothes piled all over the room next to the unmade bed. And at the far end of the flat, stacks of books and sheet music were tossed about like he’d had a fit of rage.
Then Sara saw the biggest surprise.
“His violin!” she shouted out to Al.
Carter’s prized violin was snapped in half, lying next to his music stand. The strings were bent and gnarled around the splintered wood like he’d snapped it over his knee and stomped on it.
Al stepped beside her. “The week before I found him, we talked on the phone for a bit. The symphony fired him right before Christmas.”
“Do you think he OD’d on purpose?”
“Maybe. He told me the demons wouldn’t stop whispering, even when he played.”
“He always made reference to that . . . I never quite understood what he meant.”
“By the looks of the place, they were shouting not whispering.”
Still awestruck at the change in her friend, Sara started toward the bathroom to see the damage in there. She pushed the door open and flipped on the light.
“Oh! Good god!” She stepped back and slammed the door. “Al! We have to hire someone to help us.”
“How can you laugh?” she asked, cringing at what she’d just found. “It’s beyond wrong.”
“I’ll do it, if you can’t.” Al shrugged. “A pair of gloves and a face mask—all’s good.”
Sara accepted his words with a nod as she looked over the flat. “What do we do with all his stuff though?”
“His dad asked us to box it and put it in a storage unit he’s rented.”
“Okay,” Sara said. “I guess we should get at it.”
For the next few days, Sara and Al whittle away at Carter’s apartment, boxing up all his clothing, books, knickknacks and the contents of the kitchen. As they sorted through the piles of their best friend’s life, they began to piece together his last days.
“Look here,” Sara said. “I found this on his dresser.”
She handed Al a business card.
A Safe Place – Outpatient therapy for opioid addiction.
“He had an appointment three days before he died,” Al said as he looked over the card. “I wonder if he went.”
“I don’t know. Those packets in the bathroom were some kind of medication. I bet that’s where he got them.”
“Those are a blocker of some sort. I Googled it, but still don’t really understand.”
“I don’t understand any of this.”
“Yeah, you do,” Al’s tone laced with sarcasm.
Sara stepped back and huffed. “What do you mean?”
“Addiction is everywhere.”
“Not like this . . .”
“Right. I get that, but it’s still something we all battle on some level. Food, soda, beer—hell, alcohol in general. Smokers, drugs of many kinds. Some are prescribed and others aren’t. TV, music, sex is another big one. The phone you keep glancing at every ten seconds. We’re all in our own battles.”
Sara thought about the small battles she internally fought throughout the day. Caffeine. She had to have her coffee, or so she’d convinced herself. That glass of wine at night which sometimes turned into three or more. Food wasn’t a struggle for her, but it tortured many of her loved ones. Sugar calling their name all day, always craving another bite. Al was right, she’d been fighting the urge to look at the notifications on her phone since she’d gotten there. The addiction to technology alone was making society awkward, hiding behind devices and ear buds. She’d been so preoccupied with how Carter had sunk, she’d lost her compassion for why. When they met at the Hilton last year, Carter was already gone. The painkillers had broken his spirit as he watched his career suffer from the injury. After the doctors cut him off, the only option he had left was to hit the streets to find the high. She feared the thoughts of what he put himself through, the darkness he felt, what measures he took to live in pure hell on earth.
“I understand your point,” Sara said. “But heroin’s an epidemic—opioids in general. The painkillers are what started it all. Do you know if they found the dealer?”
“I doubt it. He’s just another addict in the morgue.”
After Al walked away, Sara bent down and picked up the violin. Once a piece of artwork perfectly crafted, now broken and shattered. Without a doubt—the exemplification of Carter Winslow.
Amy J. Markstahler writes in her home near the Salt Fork River just outside Urbana, Illinois. She was awarded 3rd place in the Linda Howard Award of Excellence in 2016 for her novel Life Happens on the Stairs. Her poetry has been included in two anthologies and she is the author of two novels.