Joyland

New York |

Bath Salts: An Excerpt from Another Life

by Robert Haller

edited by Kyle Lucia Wu

I wasn’t a bad girl. None of it had been my idea. Under the gazebo in the park, it was Bethany who started up about the bath salts and how snorting them was supposedly like taking acid. But she didn’t know for sure, it was just what she’d heard some of the senior girls saying in the locker room last week. And, of course, Ian wanted proof. So we piled into his car and headed to Walmart, the only store that sold bath salts in our town, the only store still open at this time of night. It was Friday, the first night of summer vacation, and I was fifteen.

In the back seat, pressed up against the door handle and Bethany’s left side, I looked up “snorting bath salts” on my phone and scrolled through the results. I didn’t love the idea of running around town naked, out of my mind, ripping people’s faces off with my teeth. It just didn’t seem the best way to start the summer. But at fifteen, you can’t always afford to be a conscientious objector, or even a conscientious observer. You are a willing participant or you are alone.

“Ian, why are we taking these side streets?” Nola asked, sitting on the other side of Bethany. “It’s faster just to go down Main.”

“I just want to see something real quick,” said Ian.

I watched the town roll slowly by—blue television light streaming out from the windows of some houses while others sat dark, toys lying dormant on front lawns, Little Tikes cars and inflatable swimming pools, a lone cat prowling the sidewalk. I could feel Bethany breathing beside me, her rib cage rising and falling in steady rhythm. I didn’t look at her. As Nola argued with Ian and Joey up front, demanding they change the music, I resisted the urge to grab Bethany by the arm, open the car door, and leap out, taking my best friend with me. We would hit the pavement and roll onto the curb, bruised but safe. She’d yell at me first, call me crazy, but much later—years from now, even—she would see that I’d been right.

On Linwood Street, Ian slowed the car to a crawl. Nola began to laugh. “Really, Ian? This is what you wanted to see?”

Ian didn’t answer, just looked across the street at the house we had stopped in front of. We all looked.

There was nothing especially strange about the plain white house. The windows were dark, and the grass in front was maybe a little longer than it should have been, but not by much.

“I’ve heard he hasn’t been out since he came back,” Nola said after a moment. “Just sits in there doing nothing.”

“How do you know, though?” said Ian, staring at the house. “He could be doing anything in there: writing songs, recording. It’s only his mom with him, so we don’t know.”

Suddenly, I understood. They were talking about Paul Frazier.

Four years ago, Paul had fronted a high school band called the Seizures. The story goes that on the band’s first gig at Mullen’s, a restaurant downtown, people half a dozen blocks away had called the cops about the noise. Although the band had been together only a year, kids still talked about their shows. If you were one of the few lucky enough to have seen them play, you held a certain authority. At school this past year, I had overheard many arguments between juniors and seniors claiming to have gone to one of their shows, and the doubters and detractors who hadn’t. Sometimes, walking through town I would see rip seizures spray-painted in the alleyways between vacant buildings.

I hadn’t heard of the Seizures until this year, my first year of high school. By the time I’d been “enlightened to the noise,” the band was long defunct. Paul Frazier had left for college in New York City, and all that was left of the band were the stories and the memories and a six-song EP, still available for download on their Myspace page. But earlier in May, the word was that Paul had returned. He’d moved back into his mother’s house and had hardly been seen or heard from since. He stayed in his room, holed away from the rest of the town, like a monk or a sleeping vampire.

“I think it’s over, man.” Nola ran her hands through her short dark hair. “He’s never going to play again.”

Ian shook his head. “I don’t know.”

I’d learned quickly that this was the group’s favorite topic of debate: Paul Frazier. Nola and Joey were skeptics, but Ian still clung to a slim but dogged hope. Out of all of us, Ian was his biggest fan. Although he was in our grade, Ian was a year older and the only one of us who could drive. He was also the only one of us who had seen Paul’s band, sneaking out with his older brother to one of the Seizures’ shows when he was only twelve—or so he claimed. During these arguments, Bethany and I stayed silent. We were the newcomers. I couldn’t speak for Bethany, but in this group’s presence I evaluated every word before I said it, mentally proofing future sentences in my head.

I was in this car because of Bethany, my best friend since first grade. Wherever she went, I went, too. I hardly knew these other kids. But if clever, pretty Bethany wanted to hang out with them, then I was coming along, like a dog dragged on a leash. Just a dumb, anxious dog, with nothing clear to contribute. Just Laura: sort of cute but not pretty, with a cluster of freckles splattered across my nose, and thick, unruly red hair. I was good at making myself invisible.

In the Walmart parking lot, Ian pulled into a space as far away from the entrance as possible, although there were hundreds of free spaces closer. We climbed out of his old Saturn. It was one of the first warm nights of the year, and it felt strange to be out this late with bare arms, not chilled by the breeze. While everyone else headed for the entrance, I grabbed Bethany’s arm and held her back. She raised her eyebrows, impatient. I tried not to show that this look hurt. “Hey,” I said, “do you know what bath salts are supposed to do to you? I just looked it up.”

Bethany looked at my phone in disdain, as if phones were now beneath her. “You know, just because it’s online doesn’t make it true, Laura.”

“It doesn’t make it false, either,” I said.

She glanced at Ian and Nola and Joey, who had stopped a few yards ahead and were looking back at us, waiting.

“Apparently, they make you do weird stuff,” I said. “Really weird stuff.”

For a second, I could see her almost caving to me; then she shook her head. “Don’t be so lame, Laura. I want to actually do things this summer.” She turned and headed toward the store, and I had no choice but to follow.

Inside Walmart, we drifted down the aisles, past mad, grinning animal faces on the fronts of cereal boxes, past women’s underwear and kiddie T-shirts graced with the latest Disney starlet, everything lit in a cold fluorescent glow. This was where I went with my mom and little brother for laundry detergent or school supplies, but tonight, it didn’t feel familiar. Tonight, we were on the verge of something strange and dangerous.

It turned people into zombies, one article on my phone had said, blood-hungry zombies. Ian led us to the health and beauty section and, after a minute of scanning the aisle, pointed to a small tub with the words “Soothing Bath Salts” on the front. The second he picked it up, my dumb heart began to pound. None of us spoke on the way to the checkout line.

Only one register was open, and the large, scowling cashier raised her eyebrows when she saw us. “Before I ring you up,” she said, “can you tell me what five kids are doing buying bath salts at eleven o’clock at night?”

Ian replied without hesitation. “It’s a gift for my mom. Her birthday’s tomorrow.”

Eyebrows still raised, the woman made no move to ring up our purchase. “These ain’t gonna get you high, you know,” she said.

I clenched my fist and glanced at Ian. “Excuse me?” he managed.

“The salts that get you high, you can’t get at a Walmart—or anywhere in Grover Falls. Trust me, you aren’t the first bunch of kids I’ve seen try to do this.” A bemused, almost evil grin spread across her face. “Just thought I’d save you some time.”

We all looked at Ian. It was a full ten seconds before he mumbled, “It’s a gift for my mom,” and pushed the salts closer to the register. The cashier rang it up. “Twenty-two fifty, please,” she said.

The bath salts lay between my feet on the floor of the car, and as we pulled out of the Walmart parking lot and onto the road, I wondered what Ian would do with them now. Maybe he would give them to his mother after all.

“I have some of that weed left in my bag,” said Nola, now in the front passenger seat, as Ian began to drive back the way we’d come. “The stuff we had last weekend.”

Ian nodded. From my spot in the back seat, I could see his profile, lit intermittently by passing traffic. He looked sad and disappointed.

“Are we really going back to your basement to smoke?” Joey asked, sitting next to me. It was the first time I’d heard him speak without being spoken to first.

Nola looked at him the rearview mirror. “You have any better suggestions?”

Joey sighed but didn’t say anything. I felt my body begin to tense. I had never smoked weed before, and the idea of doing it for the first time around kids I was trying to impress sent my heart into overdrive. We had just tried to buy bath salts to use as narcotics, but at least then we’d all been equally clueless. Nola talked about weed the way Bethany and I might talk about going to the mall—it was something they did all the time. She had it in her bag, and we were going to her house to smoke it. No Walmart cashier was going to stop us.

“It’s just so cold in your basement,” Joey burst out again, “and we go there all the time.”

“Well, we could go to your house, except that your parents are fucking Nazis,” Nola snapped, turning around in her seat to look at Joey. “Or, Ian, what about your house?”

Ian shook his head. “Not happening.”

“Guess that leaves my basement.” Nola gave Joey a triumphant jerk of her head.

“I have the keys to the church,” Bethany said in a rush.

For a moment, everyone was silent. Bethany’s father was a pastor. Our town was small enough that they all surely knew this already, but during the past few weeks, whenever Bethany was around her new friends during lunch or study hall, she had gone out of her way to avoid the topic. I couldn’t understand why she suddenly wanted to remind them.

Nola looked at Bethany. “So?”

“So we could smoke the weed there … if you wanted,” Bethany said timidly.

Nola was looking at her with raised eyebrows, and I could almost physically feel the skepticism in the car. Then Ian broke it. “Hey, your dad’s church is the one that used to be a school, right?”

Bethany nodded. “Yeah.”

“We could smoke on the roof and watch the stars.”

“How romantic,” Nola muttered.

New Life Center was in a brick school building that had been closed since the eighties, after a new, larger school was built on the other side of town. It sat in a field on the outskirts of Grover Falls, with a long drive that spilled into a giant parking lot. New Life had bought the property about ten years ago, after our old church building burned down in a fire. In the years between the school’s closing and our church’s buying it, the town had turned the giant surrounding field into a twelve-hole golf course. Our church had decided not to anger the town by shutting down the popular golf course, so instead, we ran it ourselves. Some people in the congregation didn’t think it was right for the course to stay open on Sunday mornings, but since that was when it got most of its business, it didn’t make sense to close it. Sometimes, during Bethany’s father’s sermons, you could hear a golfer yelling “Fore!” out on the green.

It had been easy enough to find a way out onto the roof. Bethany led us through the door, and we sneaked through the dark hallway and up the stairs. I’d been in the building countless times, but never this late at night. The empty darkness had a menacing feel that our whispers and giggles didn’t seem to relieve. One of the third-floor classrooms had a closet with a steel ladder that led up to an unlocked trapdoor, bringing us out onto the roof. By the time we were on top, I had pretty much forgotten about the weed. It seemed thrilling enough to have broken and entered, to be out here, the night breeze wafting across my face and through my hair, the lights of Grover Falls visible in the distance.

But Nola wasted no time. She knelt down, dug the weed out of her backpack, and quickly rolled a joint. After it went around the circle that ended with me, I had no choice. When the smoke hit my lungs and I started to cough, I panicked.

“Come here, son.” Nola placed a hand on my shoulder and gently took the joint from me. “Let me show you how it’s done.” I watched her pale face pull in and grow thin as she inhaled, and then the bloom of her dark lips as she breathed out the smoke, talking in a pinched voice as she did. “You have to invite it into your lungs. This weed is a friend; make it feel welcome.” She brushed a strand of hair from her face and handed me back the joint.

One minute I wanted to kiss someone, the next I was dying to talk about extraterrestrial life. I settled for spreading myself out on the cold roof deck and staring up at the stars. If I squinted, I could make them all come together and form a giant ball of light, like how I imagined things had been at the beginning of the universe, before God decided that his own divine presence wasn’t enough.

As the others laughed and fooled around with some irons and golf balls Ian had taken from the supply shed, I pulled my phone out of my pocket and held it above my face. A new message was waiting for me on my MatchUp app: Martin. Though I wanted to, I resisted opening the app and reading the message. Someone might see. Also, my phone battery was almost dead. Instead, I looked back up at the sky and wondered, not for the first time, what Martin would say if he could see me now.

Our online conversations had grown longer and more intimate in the past few weeks. Only the night before, we’d landed on the subject of death. Michael Jackson had just died, and Martin was upset. On chat, I did my best to appear upset, too, but in truth, the King of Pop’s death hadn’t fazed me much. I didn’t listen to his music, so for me he was just a sad old R&B star. To cover myself, I tried to steer the conversation away from Jackson by talking about death in general. I mentioned how death scared me because it was the one thing in life everybody had to confront, but the one thing we knew absolutely nothing about. I talked about how I’d been raised to believe in an afterlife, though usually the idea of not being seemed more convincing to me, but also more terrifying. I’d begun writing all this to Martin as a way of deflection, but as I typed, I realized it was all true: I was afraid of death. If I thought about it at night, it was hard to fall asleep. I was scared I would never again wake up.

I had worried that my fears would sound dumb and immature to Martin, that he would think me childish. But, as usual, he understood. He told me he used to feel the same way, but he had come to the conclusion that the idea of not being, of nothingness, was comforting. Death was no different from before we were born, when not being had meant no pain or fear. I’d never thought about it that way before, and Martin was right, the idea was comforting.

Bethany’s face filled up my vision. She lay down beside me on the roof. “How ya doing?”

“Just stargazing.” I let my anger at her go. I could always get it back if I wanted to.

I turned to look at her, and it hit me. “You like Ian, don’t you?” I said. I had already been suspicious but hadn’t known how deep it went. If she was willing to snort bath salts for this boy, if she was willing to break into church and risk getting caught by her dad, then it must be serious.

We both looked over to where Ian stood, hitting golf balls off the side of the roof. Nola was beside him, drawling in a voice I recognized but couldn’t place—“Ah say, ah say, boy, ya gotta put more energy into yer drive there, son. Really put yer back into it!”—while Joey looked on and laughed.

Bethany looked back up at the sky. “No, Laura, I don’t like Ian.”

It was standard practice, of course, to deny any allegation of a crush the first time it was made—even one made by your best friend. Still, her lie hurt a little. “Bullshit,” I said, trying to keep my voice light.

“No, seriously …” she began, but then stopped.

A bright floodlight had come on in the church parking lot. Then a man’s voice: “Whoever is up on that roof, you are trespassing on private property. Do not move! I’m coming up.”

Of course we all moved. We moved in every direction, scrambling to find a way off the roof that wasn’t the way we had come. My head felt weightless, like a balloon filled with helium. It felt as if there were hundreds of us up there, searching for an escape route. We kept bumping into different versions of ourselves. Finally, out of the confusion, I heard Joey shout, “Over here!”

He was at the far corner of the roof, looking down. When we reached him, we saw the ladder leading down to the jutting wing of the first story. From there, it was only about ten feet to the ground. I followed Ian down the ladder, the others behind me, and soon we all were looking out over the edge of the first-story roof.

Ian was the first to jump. Without hesitation, he launched himself off the roof and into the air. We heard a dull thud at his body hit the grass, and then his voice: “It’s okay. It doesn’t hurt. Jump!”

I found myself jumping. For a moment, I was airborne, falling through the night. A second later, I was standing on the wet dew of the lawn next to Ian, waiting for the others. I felt a sharp pain in my right ankle, but when Ian asked whether I was okay, I said I was.

Nola jumped next, then Bethany and Joey. For a second, we all stood there in the grass, slightly dazed. Then there was a shout; it sounded as if it were coming from heaven. I thought it was God. We looked up to the third-story roof. A figure stood where we had been five minutes before. “You kids, I see you. Stay where you are! You’re only going to make things worse for yourselves if you run.”

Beside me, Bethany let out a small gasp. “Shit, that’s my dad!”

“There’s no way he can tell who we are,” said Ian, and since I couldn’t tell who was up there—Bethany had recognized her father only by the sound of his voice—I guessed he was right.

Ian took off across the green, and we followed. Instead of heading back toward the road, where his car was parked on the curb, he led us toward the woods behind the church. After the golf course was a wall of pine, and after that a small marsh. We would have to wade through the marsh to get to the other side of town. I wondered whether Ian knew this as I struggled to keep up with the rest of them. Sharp pain flared in my ankle every time my foot hit the ground. I tried to ignore it and keep running. Warm summer air whipped across my face, and I heard crickets singing in the night. Stars fell down on me.

By the time I reached the pine grove, it was becoming harder and harder for me to run. The others were getting farther ahead. I called for them to wait but was so out of breath, I could manage only a weak gasp. The next second, my foot caught on something—a protruding rock or an exposed root—and I fell face-first onto the ground.

The wind was knocked out of me, but the forest floor was soft. When I picked myself up, I couldn’t see the others. They hadn’t noticed me falling behind, or maybe they had but decided not to stop. I felt like crying. I considered turning around, going back to the church and finding Bethany’s dad, ratting us all out. I’d get in trouble, but they would be in a lot more, especially Bethany. But loyalty won out, and I continued through the woods alone. Limping along, I thought of all the things I would say to Bethany when I saw her again, all the wonderfully cutting things, trying to keep other feelings at bay—feelings I couldn’t let get the better of me. I was alone in the woods at night. Alone. Woods. Night. Three things that didn’t go together well.

After what felt like forever, although it couldn’t have been more than five minutes, I came to the edge of the grove. The marsh spread out before me. Now the deep, jugging calls of bullfrogs mingled with the chirr of crickets. Mosquitoes were already buzzing around my head. “Fuck my life,” I muttered as I took my first step into the water.

When I made it to the other side of the marsh ten minutes later, I must have looked like something out of a horror movie. Muddy water was splattered all the way up to my waist, and my right elbow was wet from when I caught myself falling. My hair had come out of its ponytail and was a frizzy, tangled mess. My face and arms were now peppered with bug bites that would stick out above the freckles, and my skin was damp with sweat.

I climbed up the steep embankment that met the road, flopped down on the shoulder, and took off my shoes to check my feet for leeches. Relieved to find that my feet were clean, I looked around and tried to get some idea of where I was. I’d never had a good sense of direction, and although Grover Falls was a small town, I could see no markers to help me find my way. On one side of the street, the marsh stretched out as far as I could see. On the other, a few unfamiliar houses were visible in the darkness. It must have been close to two or three in the morning, although I couldn’t be sure, since my phone was now dead. I wobbled to my feet and winced. My ankle still hurt. I knew that walking on it wasn’t helping, but I had no choice. I turned left and started out, barefoot, holding my shoes by their strings in my hand, feeling the hard pavement against my soles. The night had cooled down, and I was wet and a little cold.

I saw the headlights approaching slowly. Panic gripped me. What if a serial killer was in that car, or a rapist? Or someone who didn’t normally rape but would if they saw a young girl alone on the road at night? I had the insane urge to scramble down the embankment, back into the marsh.

The car lights came closer; I had to squint. Then the high beams shut off, and the car slowed to a halt next to where I stood on the shoulder. The driver poked his head out the window and looked at me with wide eyes. “Hey, are you okay?” he asked.

I knew right away who he was. I had never seen him in person, but I’d seen photos online and in old high school yearbooks. The world knew the faces of John Lennon, Jimi Hendrix, and Kurt Cobain. And Grover Falls knew his. I knew who it was, I just couldn’t believe it. Now his face was looking at me as if I were the weirdest thing it had ever seen. “Kid,” he said, “are you all right? Can you hear me?”

“Yeah,” I breathed, “I’m okay.”

Paul Frazier had just asked me if I was okay. Paul Frazier. He looked around the road, as if searching for clues to explain my being here, looking like this. “Were you in an accident or something?”

I shook my head. “No, I’m just walking.” I realized how dumb that sounded as soon as I said it—just limping down the side of the road at three in the morning, soaking wet, barefoot—and I felt my face grow red. “I’m heading back now,” I added stupidly, “back home.”

Some realization dawned in his eyes. “You’re April Swanson’s daughter, aren’t you?”

Greater than my surprise at this unlikely meeting was that he, Paul Frazier, knew who I, Laura Swanson, was. Or at least, who my mother was. “Yeah,” I exclaimed, “I am!”

Paul shook his head, but now he was smiling. “What are you doing out here in the middle of the night? Why aren’t you wearing any shoes?”

“I … sort of got lost.”

Paul nodded, as if this answer didn’t surprise him. “Where do you live?”

“Grant Street.”

“You’re heading in the wrong direction. Get in. I’ll take you home.”

He didn’t ask any questions once I got into the car. In fact, he didn’t say anything. I should have come up with some explanation for myself, but I was nervous and still a little high. I sat rigid in my seat, hands on my knees, staring straight ahead. I was painfully aware of how awful I smelled and that I was getting muddy water all over the seat of his old Toyota. Maybe it wasn’t such a good thing that he knew who I was. After tonight, he wasn’t going to forget.

Still, I couldn’t help but sneak sideways glances at him as he drove, his face illuminated every now and then by a passing streetlight. He was beautiful. Photos didn’t do him justice. His dark hair hung down, partly obscuring his eyes—sea blue, and under them I could see dark circles. There was a sadness to him that only made him more magnetic, and I resisted another urge: to grab him by the hand and tell him that I loved him and that everything was going to be okay. I dug my nails into my knees until it hurt.

I wished that drive could have gone on forever, but it was only a few minutes before we reached my house. He pulled up into the drive. I saw the light in my mother’s room flip on.

Paul saw it, too. “Sorry, should have killed the headlights for you,” he said.

I felt goose bumps rise on my arms and the back of my neck; we were complicit. I shook my head. “It’s okay. I don’t think I could have snuck past her anyway—she’s a very light sleeper.”

He gave me a smile. My heart raced. “Good luck, kid,” he said.

“Thanks for the ride, Paul,” I said. He looked surprised when I said his name, but before he had time to say anything, I leaned forward and kissed him, quickly but forcefully, on the lips. Then I opened the door, leaped out of the car, and half-ran, half-limped up the driveway to the door of my house, without looking back.

***

This is an excerpt from Another Life by Robert Haller, available now from Blackstone Publishing.