[ First published in Ambit 232. Later collected in Salt’s Best British Short Stories 2019. ]
Finally, they dropped all the pretences and produced a drug that had no benefits, just side effects. Carlos told me about it. It's the Chinese. They cook up some new snortable chemical every day, give it a catchy name and sell it to twelve-year-olds on the internet. Don't ask me why twelve-year-olds are chopping up lines when they should be running around in the sunshine, or doing their homework, or at least learning basic HTML, so they can get a job someday. I don’t know why things have got so bad. I spend a lot of time wishing that they hadn’t. But that's not going to stop these kids from getting their rocks off. Nothing will, Carlos says.
I don’t know where he gets all this information from. One of those chat rooms he’s always on, or Reddit, or something. His mother thinks he spends far too much time in his room, eyes glued to screen. I hate to sound like a bore, but I have to agree with her. Mostly because she always gives me food and I’m a little bit in love with her, but also because Carlos’ room itself has gotten so depressing in the past few years. Piles of horror novels everywhere. Old coke cans he’s been using as ashtrays. Dirty tube socks peeping out a bin, gone that special shade of burnt yellow on the sole that the eBay perverts pay big bucks for. He keeps the blackout blinds drawn most of the time, which is why he’s so pale, I suppose. I don’t think he eats too well either. He always had acne, as a teenager. It’s still bad.
Anyway, he told me that the twelve-year-olds... once the shit has finally passed through their systems… they post reviews. These seedy darknet sites, where you can buy drugs and guns, scroll through whores and assassins and weird sex toys and government secrets and all kinds of crap like that… they actually have little boxes at the end of the page for comments. It’s true. The twelve-year-olds are really into it. Exclamation marks and emojis all over the place. The Chinese collect all the reviews, translate them, and take all the constructive comments into account, before rustling up a new strain of nose candy – an improved formulation – and selling it back to the twelve-year-olds, who waste no time in hoovering it up.
He told me all about it while we were waiting for his mother to fix dinner, drinking a big bottle of Diet Coke, playing video games. I was letting him win, because I felt bad for him. It wasn’t the first such story he’d told me, but I got a kick out of the idea. Apparently after the Chinese had completed the process – of making drugs, selling to children, collecting feedback, making more drugs – three or four thousand times, they began to see some weird trends in the reviews. If they made a drug that was a little less potent, a little less euphoric, but cut it up with random noxious powders that were kicking round the lab – resulting in who knows what kind of nasty feelings the day after – none of the kids seemed to mind that much. But when they came up with something that completely eliminated the comedown, everyone hated it. Turns out, the headaches and the shakes were the most important part of the whole experience. Without them, said the twelve-year-olds, it felt like they hadn’t even taken a drug at all. Then the Chinese figured they could just save some money by just sending out the poisonous stuff. No need for a buzz, just the blues. That’s how they came up with this latest one.
Obviously, we had to try it. As soon as Carlos finished telling me about it, I knew it, and he knew it. We even made eye contact, for a brief moment. This is not something that Carlos and I generally like to do. He is hideously ugly – the spots don’t help at all – but his eyes are blue, the kind of clear, cold blue that can look either sparkling or wolvish, depending on the situation. When he’s excited, as he was then, it’s like another person entirely is staring out from behind it all, the greasy skin, the lank fringe, the monobrow. It’s pretty intense.
I was like, okay, so where do we get a gram or two? And he said he didn’t know exactly, but we should have a look. And we spent the next few hours going through the weird back-alleys of the internet, sniggering at the porn pop-ups, flicking through the knife and bomb catalogues, scrolling down, down, down, through the endless reviews of substances like “HXM-PAL-1” and “GIG-L-S” and also a bunch of stuff in Chinese that we naturally couldn’t read or understand. We didn’t really find anything, and Carlos looked annoyed and then his mother popped her head round the door and said she had a pizza for us, so we ate that and I imagined that she was feeding me every slice by hand, and her fingernails were glossy and red, like pepperoni.
A couple of days later, after going through all his shady online contacts trying to find this mystery substance, Carlos finally found someone who was willing to sell us some of his stash. Actually, it was the guy’s little brother’s stash, I think. The little brother was a twelve-year-old – really we should have thought of that earlier, I suppose. Carlos said he was going to go and meet with him, which meant he had to leave his room, and go outside, and get a bus. Which was a big deal. He’s sort of a remedial case, I think. But he did it. He was pretty pleased with himself when he called me that day, with the big news: we had scored.
We decided to do it straight away, that night, but in my room this time. The reason being that, though I wouldn’t change a single perfect thing about Carlos’s mother, she does tend to burst through doorways unannounced. This is only a nice surprise if you’re sitting playing video games and getting hungry, not if you’re sitting on the floor, shovelling shit up your nose. My mother is much more respectful of my privacy. And my room is a more of a congenial environment. I have alphabetised my CD collection. I store my novels – spanning a range of interesting and diverse genres – not on the floor but in the bookcase, where they are meant to live. I fold up all my clothes and put them in the drawers. No tube socks anywhere. None.
I didn’t have a mirrored tray, or a silver straw or any of that other paraphernalia that you see people doing drugs with, in movies, surrounded by beautiful women and leather chairs and guys with chains round their necks, and guns. So we just cut up the powder ourselves with an expired young saver card on this big book I’ve never read. An ill-judged Christmas present. Incredible modern homes. Something like that. We didn’t really have any other plans that day, so we thought we’d do it all in one sitting. Carlos put on this YouTube video that, he said, all the twelve-year-olds like to trip out to, and then got going with the snorting. It was quite a dense powder, and after four or five lines both of my nostrils were completely blocked, so then we dabbed it into our gums until the taste became unbearable, then got my mother to bring us up some tea (we hid the drug-covered book under the bed when she came in to deliver it) and sprinkled the rest in that, and drank it. Then we sat in silence, watching the video.
As expected, I didn’t really feel any different from normal, apart from the blocked nose and the burning gums, and the soapy sensation in my mouth. The video was a collage of lots of other videos, showing clouds rolling over landscapes, a skydiver falling through the air, wind rustling leaves, ripples on water, that kind of thing. In its own way, it was beautiful, and, though we didn’t speak much, the silence between myself and Carlos felt peaceful. We watched the video intently until it was dark outside and then Carlos had to go home for dinner, which was pizza again. He asked me if I wanted to come over for a slice but I said I don’t know and he left.
I felt fine the next day, which was a huge letdown. Maybe, I thought, we’d got the wrong thing. I called Carlos. He said he felt OK too. He wasn’t happy about it. That was that. I’d taken the morning off work, thinking I might need to sleep in and shake off the after effects. But I didn’t have anything else to do, so I went in anyway. My job is pretty easy, mostly just answering the phone. It’s the kind of job that will definitely be performed by some sort of robot or algorithm in the near future, which is why I’m glad I learned HTML, and why I worry sometimes about all the twelve-year-olds. Actually, I’m also responsible for restocking the paper on the printer, and getting the meeting rooms ready the way all the professional types there like them. So maybe it will take a while for me to become obsolete. I like the idea of sticking around, for a while at least.
What I hadn’t thought through at this point is that the most truly evil comedowns have an incubation period of at least 24 hours. I guess the Chinese must have looked into this phenomenon and coded their wonder-dust accordingly, because it was four whole days before I began to feel a little bit down in the dumps, then another two before the headache kicked in, and then another before the vomiting and dizziness got so bad that I had to call into work and explain the situation. I felt too terrible to lie, so I told them all about the Chinese and the twelve-year-olds, and how there’s nothing we can do to stop them living like this. It’s scary, I told them, because these little guys are going to be adults some day, and they’ll be coming into the office and doing our jobs – until the robots do them – and this is what it will be like, everyone phoning in sick, having this same same conversation. Work was surprisingly sympathetic.
But back to the comedown. It was a real masterpiece, as far as comedowns are concerned. It felt like the earth had opened up. I spent most of it in my room, not a huge change in the order of business because, let’s be honest, I spend a lot of time in my room too. But all of a sudden all the things in it, which I had previously admired and tended to throughout my life filled me with a gut-wrenching feeling of disgust and shame. Here was the bed in which my body had revolted against the ageing process, protesting the unfairness of it all with toxic farts and yellow sweat and surprise nighttime emissions. Here were the walls I had painted blue, ten years ago, now faded to a dull, corpse-like grey, very upsetting. Here was a bunch of posters – all of stuff that I used to like but was now too old for – that I had always been too lazy to take down. There was the computer, already getting on, designed to be replaced, just sitting there and sucking up useless information, filling itself to bursting. The more I looked at it all, the more I was unable to focus on the individual elements. I could only see, or rather imagine, how it would all look many thousands of years in the future, a pond of goopy grey mulch through which my bones would drift unseen, the ooze sucking at them noisily. Then I got black spots at the corners of my eyes. My tongue swelled up so I could barely breathe. I started sweating, and my joints hurt, and all over my skin, anywhere I had hair, it felt like ants crawling and rats nibbling and I couldn’t stop itching, even when all these places were red and and my fingernails were black with my ooze and sweat and blood.
On the phone, Carlos didn’t sound so hot either.
My mother drove me round.
Carlos and I sat in his bedroom, shit all over the place as usual, and watched the YouTube video again, though the mountains laughed at us and the clouds and the streaming sky billowed overhead like some giant clenched fist getting ready to fly at our faces. At some point, I had an attack of vertigo and grabbed on to him, just to have something to hold on to. And then we sat with our arms around each other, glad of the warmth, and the touch, and the sound of each other’s heartbeats. It was then that he looked at me again, his forehead touched to mine, and his eyes were crazily blue, so blue that they burned, and he looked at me, too, like I was on fire, and disintegrating in front of him, and his mouth was a wide O that kept opening and shutting and his eyes were watering. It felt a little weird to be that physically close, by which I mean that I’m not sure whether I was comforted or disgusted as I breathed in his stale Diet Coke breath and unwashed armpits, and clutched desperately at his scrawny shoulders and back, and bit my lip, and sighed. He is more than usually sweaty. There were wet patches everywhere.
So that was quite the ride. You have to admire the Chinese for their workmanship.
It took me a while to feel normal, but after a full week of lying in bed with the YouTube video, crying into my pillow, the vomiting had subsided and my chinos and shirts and alphabetised novels didn’t bum me out so much and ultimately I felt OK enough to go back to my regular life, to go into work and put the washing out for my mother to pick up and do and to once again imagine the possibility of a future without the slime and the doom and all that stuff. Most of the time, now, it feels like the rift in the ground has closed up, and that everything is back to what it always should have been. But then again, things keep changing, so it also doesn’t feel like that at all, and I do wonder.
Carlos’s next thing is that he’s moving away. I don’t entirely believe him, but it seems to be happening. He says he has got himself a job, which is weird because he has never worked before – nor expressed any wish to. And, if I’m being completely honest, I’d have to say he doesn’t have any skills, aside from drinking Diet Coke, and playing computer games, badly. I wouldn’t hire him. No way. But it’s something to do with coding, he says, working with some guy he met on a chat room. They are going to pay him a lot of money, but he can’t do it from here, he has to go, somewhere else. Straight away. The whole thing is so sudden that I didn’t even feel all that sad, yesterday, as we began to pack all his crap into ugly boxes, and then gave up and sat playing video games and drinking Diet Coke. Didn’t care much when his incredible mother came up to hand me the pizza and bent down low, so low, to blow me a kiss and give me a squeeze and a hug, as if we were saying goodbye then and there, rather than in a week’s time, when he says he’s going. I wonder if I will miss him a lot. His acne seems to be clearing up. My skin is terrible.
Also, weirdly they have found the Chinese. Or at least, some of them. I mean, I assume they’re Chinese. They don’t all look it, entirely. It turns out they’re not running their business entirely from some crazy meth lab in the far east. Actually, they are local. All this time, they’ve been working out of one of the supposedly empty flats across the road, which I suppose explains why they were able to adapt so quickly to the market. I can actually see the flat from my room, when I roll up the blinds. It looks normal from the outside: whitewashed walls, slightly overgrown front garden, big “For Sale” sign hovering above the gate. The window’s blocked out, but that’s not unusual, round here. Carlos told me they knocked through the ceiling on the ground floor, to create a giant atrium in which they could install their vats and UV lights, and cook up all kinds of horrible garbage for the local prep schools. I saw them being marched out the building, by the police into a van, smoke-blind. They could have been anyone.
Carlos is talking to people on the internet, and keeping me updated about it. About them. He says that they were all taken to a small, grey room, not much bigger than his room, though presumably much cleaner, and subjected to intense questioning, by which he means beaten up pretty badly. While this happened every twelve-year-old in town, Carlos says, was naturally trying to flush his or her stash down the toilet, or throw it in the river, or just get rid of it any way he or she could, in case someone’s parents found out. Because of this, Carlos says, now all the shit is in the water supply, and it’s highly possible that, in a couple of weeks, the entire borough could be locked up in their rooms, watching the YouTube video, their teeth firmly clamped around their fists, their toes curled and their fingers splayed. I’m a little worried about the consequences of it all.
But Carlos thinks the Chinese, and the twelve-year-olds, are going to get away with it. When the police went in there, he says, and emptied those vats and analysed all those thousands of tight-packed cubes of powder, lying in wait, ready to be bought and cut up and sucked viciously down tiny, perfect, pre-teen nostrils, they couldn’t find anything incriminating about it. The substance they were making had no discernable purpose. Not a stimulant, narcotic, analgesic, euphoric, psychedelic, anything. No side effects either. If someone had seen fit to use it recreationally, Carlos says, they would have experienced nothing at all. No sudden release of dopamine, no eventual crushing melancholy. It would simply enter the bloodstream without incident and gently dissipate. Like the tiny bubbles that float upwards in a glass of Diet Coke, and burst on the surface. Or like those thin white lines that planes leave zigzagging across the sky, on their way to elsewhere. Doing it would have been like snorting a haiku, getting high on a riddle. We must have taken something else.