Reg stood in the kitchen, pouring the last of the GlenDronach into a mug. He swirled it around, watching it circle the coffee rings stained into the white porcelain. Roberta Flack sang in the other room. He’d heard this song twice already but he couldn’t be bothered to change it. Their house had been full hours ago; the party, a celebration for the latest literary successes of his flat mates. He’d drifted around the room, listening to the praise and the clumsy attempts at networking now that Olivia and Neil were people of poetic merit. He’d read their work, even helped them edit the early drafts. Their final versions, the ones that had been sent out into the wider world, were good, better than what they had given him. Better than any he had given them.
He looked down into the mug before finishing the cup off. It burned down his throat and into his belly, warming him. He leaned over the counter to look into the living room and winced at the sudden twinge in his lower back. Hours he’d spent working on his latest collection, back cowed and hand veteran to the ache of the constant writing and unwriting that made his notebook look like a lost battle between paper and ink. This time it would be different, though. This one would get picked up. This one would get made into the chapbook his flat mates had already achieved. He just needed that extra something, that one little spark to make the whole thing burn.
He took the bottle, the blue label half picked off by nervous fingers, and emptied it into his cup. The first few chords of “Ziggy Stardust” rumbled out from the other room. Reg knew Olivia hated all things Bowie so that the song continued on could only mean she was asleep. He picked up his mug and moved to lean against the threshold of the living room.
Neil was draped across the couch, a threadbare blanket thrown haphazardly over his legs. Olivia was curled around a throw pillow on the floor, her knees tucked up towards her chest. Her head was cushioned by the thick woolen jacket he and Neil had gotten her for Christmas.
Three more songs passed while Reg stood there, watching them. Neither moved nor murmured. Around them were scattered notebooks and half empty glasses of red wine and whisky.
“Neil.” Reg watched Neil’s face for any indication that he was awake.
“Neil.” He spoke a little louder, but still no reaction. He looked down to Olivia who likewise hadn’t moved. He knelt down behind her and brushed the hair from her face, tucking it behind her ear.
“Olivia,” he said, his voice soft. “Live, wake up.” He put his hand on her shoulder and shook her. Her chest rose and fell, the rhythm never deviating from its slow cadence.
Leaning forward to watch her face for the slightest twitch, he dipped his fingers under the back of her blouse. The silk ruffled with each centimeter he lifted until he reached the lowest of her ribs, a large swath of skin exposed. He mapped out her back with his fingertips, moving down the bumps of her spine. With his index finger and thumb, he squeezed the skin covering the middle vertebrae in the small in her back. When she did not move, he squeezed harder, pinching the flesh until his nails left sickles in the skin.
“Live,” he said.
Olivia gripped the pillow tighter and curled further into herself. He watched her face but aside from the furrowing of her brow, she gave no indication of waking.
Reg let go and began rubbing small circles over the enflamed area, soothing it.
“I’ll be right back,” he whispered, kissing her on the shoulder. He rose and, stepping over a fallen tower of books, entering the hallway that led to his bedroom. He always closed the door during parties but somehow, his room became the safe house for bags and discarded coats.
In his wardrobe, he found the bag as he had left it. It was nondescript canvas, something he had picked up when the farmer’s market in the center of town was giving them away in a bid to appear more eco-friendly. He opened it, checking to see that everything was in place. He pulled a bag of cotton swabs from his desk and stuffed them into the bag. The bag seemed light, even with the mustard yellow bottle of iodine and the cardboard box of syringes.
He shut the stained pine doors and stood. His foot slid on a pile of loose papers sprawled across the floor. It was a mixture of his work, Neil’s and Olivia’s. They each had a fair share of scribblings and scratchings in their respective handwriting with their preferred color of pen, Olivia’s being red, Neil’s blue, and his own a green he had stolen from a classmate. Of the three, his was the most colorful, lines of colors making a web of the paper. He kicked back his foot, scattering the sheaves until they covered the bare floor.
Blue Oyster Cult began to play when he walked back into the living room. Neil and Olivia hadn’t moved, not that he had been expecting them to. Their little soirée had begun at dusk the previous night and enough had been drank or taken for the both of them to be out until at least noon the following day. It was good. Whatever headache or pain Olivia felt the next morning would be written off as an unfortunate hangover.
Reg walked across the room and sat behind Olivia, placing the bag to his left. He pulled out a cotton swab and the small bottle of povidone-iodine. He pushed the swab into the bottle and upended it until he could see the yellow of the iodine leach into the cotton. Using his left hand to lift her shirt further up and roll her just slightly more onto her side, he slowly rubbed the doused cotton in circles in the center of Olivia’s back. He could still faintly see the marks his nails had made earlier, only slightly darker than the rest of the newly orange skin.
Dropping the cotton into a nearly finished glass of cabernet, he opened the canvas bag and began to rifle through the contents. Pulling a pair of purple latex gloves from a box, he put them on, stretching the fingers until they settled. He took another cotton swab and placed it on top of the closed bottle of iodine, within easy reach, before pulling out the small, cardboard box. From the box he withdrew a needle, the metal sheathed in a durable plastic, just under four centimeters in length. At the end of the needle was a small plastic base: the stylet.
Reg spread his fingers out across Olivia’s lower back, checking once more to see she was fully unconscious. He put his index finger on the top of her right hipbone, the iliac crest protruding from her side like a plateau. He did the same with her other hip, his hands now framing the small of her back. Dragging his fingers across her skin, he traced the way to the midline of her spine. He felt for the ridges and dips, palpating the skin until he found the small gap between the third and fourth vertebrae. With his left finger holding the place, he reached for the needle. Grabbing the plastic covering with his teeth, he pulled until the needle was free.
The couch creaked. Reg froze, his breathing making a faint whistling sound through the tube he still held in his mouth. He slowly raised his head, looking to Neil. His face was half hidden by the smoking jacket he’d fallen asleep in, the other half staring blearily at Reg. He blinked slowly, his eye dulled with sleep and the last remnants of the evening’s buzz.
Reg let the plastic tube fall into his lap.
“Go back to sleep,” Reg whispered.
Neil frowned, but closed his eyes. His breathing gradually settled into an even rhythm. Reg watched him. Minutes passed and Neil showed no signs of waking. Reg tried to regain his composure. He had done this plenty of times. He just needed to concentrate. After a final look at Spinal / 5 Neil, Reg returned his focus to Olivia.
With fingers well practiced in the handling of needles, he guided the point in. Gently, very gently, he eased the needle into the flesh of her back. The skin dimpled at first, resistant to the intrusion, but flattened as the point settled in. She groaned and tensed but remained still. He slowed but continued to drive the needle deeper until he felt a slight pop. Just a bit more and he would be in the spinal canal.
Breathing out as he pushed the needle in, the second bit of resistance gave way.
Carefully, he pulled the stylet away, leaving the bore of the needle hollow. A drop of liquid began to gather at the end. He held his hand beneath it, catching it as it fell. It balanced on the purple latex of the glove, a perfect droplet of clear fluid, not even the slightest tinge of pink. He tilted his hand and let the liquid plummet to the floor. It dissolved into the threadbare rug, nothing more than a momentary spot before all evidence of it was gone.
Reg reached for his mug, the whisky sloshing in the bottom. He placed the cup below the needle, watching as the fluid began to drip. It continued as he packed up the bag; first the box of needles, then the cotton and the bottle of iodine. He leaned over Olivia and grabbed his notebook from a pile beneath the couch. His fountain pen was tucked securely into the middle of the book, distorting the spine. He pulled it out and began to reread over some of the poems he had written earlier that week.
They weren’t bad, per se. They showed Reg’s own style, they had a decent meter and the tone was consistent, but they were missing something crucial. He had tried to replicate Neil’s use of story but it had felt like an insipid echo of the original. When that had failed, he tried to follow the lyricism of Olivia’s work, but again, all he produced were pages that were more ink scratch than word. Trying not to curl his lip he flipped back, eyes skimming over page after page scored out thoughts.
Nearly halfway through the book, he found the section he was looking for. The writing was noticeably different, more frantic than anything that surrounded it. Pages were filled in this manic scrawl. He picked a piece at random and read through it. Where everything else was okay, this was something different. The repetition of sound and thought missing in his own pieces, or at best sounding haphazardly thrown together, flowed with a purpose. It made the piece better, better than anything he’d written since. He could feel it in his blood, a kind of elation he only got when he read something of true quality. It had meaning. It deserved the ink it took to solidify it. It was his, something he created. But it wasn’t just his. He took ownership of the piece and all of the pieces in the manic handwriting but he could see parts of Olivia in it. Her style, the way she controlled sound and flow. She was the source of the echo in his work. It was from her that he achieved the reverberations that he could only ever see when he wrote like this.
He turned further back, past pages of his work and his alone. It was the same thing. Mediocrity. Words and lines that were nearly what they were supposed to be but hadn’t quite been completed. Every word seemed inevitable, every thought, gaunt. Near the beginning of the book in a part where the spine had been so broken that it caused a permanent gap in the pages, was a different kind of writing. Where Olivia’s had been fast and filled with fervor, this was slower but more intricate. Great swirling letters, ink heavy with purpose and confidence followed line after measured line, each pristine and impeccable in its completion. There was more story to these pieces, the words held greater importance not just from their placement but from their weight. Reg could see the color of these pieces, the words invoking a kind of literary synesthesia. He saw it in his own work only in flutterings of hues and shades. Almost color but not fully present. When he took from Neil, though, the presence of place and feeling was tangible and so vibrant he could almost taste it. Only through him did Reg see the essence of his own work fully fleshed out, with both story and word more powerful than they had been before. He thought about taking from him soon, perhaps next week, but then thought better of it. Neil was more sensitive than Olivia, the last time with headaches lasting for days, far past the point of a reasonable explanation. Next month, perhaps. And he’d drain less, just to be sure.
Reg looked into the mug and then flipped to a blank page near the end of the notebook. He took the spare cotton swab in his left hand and slowly, he pulled the needle from Olivia’s back. As soon as the needle was free, he covered the blossoming blood with the cotton and applied pressure until it stayed on its own. Finding the plastic tube on the floor near his leg, he slid the needle inside. He stood and moved the mug off to the side where it wouldn’t be knocked over, before taking the bag and putting it back into his wardrobe. He picked up an old water bottle and slipped the needle inside before tossing it into the bin, reminding himself to empty it the next day.
Stretching the kinks out of his spine, he headed to the bathroom to wet a towel. Olivia probably wouldn’t see the orange stain on her back but he’d rather not have to explain it. He walked back into the living room, warm water dripping down his arm. He dragged the wet cloth across the small of her back, the orange of the iodine smearing across her skin. He continued to massage it away until the skin only held a slight tint to it, little more than a subtle discoloration. All that was left for him to do was dispose of the towel and the cotton swabs and he could finally sit down and write.
Once he had finished tidying, he grabbed a blanket from off of one of the adjacent chairs and draped it over Olivia. Everything was back where it should be. Now all that was left to do was finish his drink.
With his back to the wall, he slid down until he was seated behind Olivia. He put his notebook on his lap and reached for the mug. He swirled the contents around, the whisky significantly paler than it had been before. Without lingering, he tipped the mug back and drank.
He tried not to taste it. Once he’d even put the mixture in a shot glass, hoping that would help minimize the amount of time the concoction would be in his mouth. No matter what he did, the sudden wash of saltiness coated his tongue, making him have to actively stifle the urge to vomit. The whisky cut it but only just.
He breathed in deep gulps of air, hoping that would stamp down the sudden nausea. Picking up a glass of red wine someone had left half-finished, he sloshed the red liquid in his mouth. He finished off that glass and returned to taking deep breaths. For all the red wine washed away the sour, a metallic taste still lingered.
None of that mattered as the first words began to trickle into his mind. He heard them in Olivia’s voice, strong and melodic and just that side of rough. The words began to flow through him, in great arching circles that came around and crashed upon themselves like waves. Her voice painted pictures he had never thought to imagine with colors he hadn’t known existed. The happiness was brighter, the sadness more rich, like fingers running across velvet. The things he felt carried a depth that he could only feel after drinking from her mind. He was joining with her subconscious and understanding, even if she wasn’t aware it was happening. This was greater than any drug or high he had ever felt. It was more than just waves of dopamine and serotonin crashing inside his head. It was connection in the most basic human sense. He was writing it all down, the words floating from her soul into his and down onto the page, a marriage of words and thoughts and minds.
And so he wrote, his eyes glazed over but locked firmly onto the paper in front of him as page after page was filled. Reg didn’t look up when the sun rose or when Neil got up to go shower. He didn’t notice when Olivia, hands cradling her head, began a slow ascent up the stairs to her own room, firm in the belief that some sleep and a handful of aspirin would ease her pain. It was only when the last vestiges of the whisky-fluid concoction wore off that he closed his notebook, easing the stiffness in his back. He stretched, extending his hands until his finger tips just grazed the ceiling. His shirt, a black button down he’d taken from Neil, rose with the stretch, a fading orange stain on his lower back becoming visible before it was hidden once again as Reg made his way to his room to sleep off the oncoming hangover.
MK Roney is a short story writer, novelist, and screenwriter from Arizona. She attended Johns Hopkins University, where she received the Robert R. Arellano Award for Excellence in Writing, and has just recently finished her Master’s in Creative Writing from the University of Oxford. She’s currently writing a collection of science fiction and magical realism short stories, and is working as a freelance editor while she travels the world and sleeps on friends’ couches.