Short story by Michael Botur
Before Carl and Lydia one after the other experienced heart failure and collapsed under palm leaves in a black tropical cloud made of searing, slapping cold raindrops 1400 metres up a muddy volcano, poisoned by roughly-mixed bath salts which made their hearts pump so furiously that each released a clot into the bloodstream, big Carl stopped climbing and said between gasps he couldn’t possibly go on without a smoke, and stroked little Lydia’s hair and almost completed a perfect French plait before his limbs spasmed then froze and his eyes became stiff, bulging cueballs, pink with bloodshot.
Before Carl said he was just going off the path for a sec to take a shit, and lumbered his size 14 flip-flopping feet through the trunks of some thick, dripping palm trees and into a clearing to smoke more bath salts, he told Lydia he didn’t think he could make it to the top. This was under the shelter of a sagging palm leaf a hundred metres from the summit, out of sight of the perfectly contoured detox Nazis intent on sweating their addiction out. Carl told Lydia his chest was feeling funny and the toot on the ole pipe they’d had at the start of the hike hadn’t helped, but Carl wanted Lydia to know that, if he didn’t make it, he had a fat stack of hundies buried in the water meter box at that West Hilton Street Park it turned out he and Lydia both used to play at. He told Lydia she was welcome to the cash-stash if she ever got off cloud nine and made it down the mountain and off detox island. Lydia said that was definitely her plan, bro, one hundred percent, man, as she took the pipe gently from his hands like a drink in the desert and Carl lovingly cupped his fingers around the lighter flame to keep the wind off it, cause all that ever happened in this island detox hell was an onslaught of counselling and storms and sweaty death marches and the least you could do for a person if they weren’t gonna survive was let them enjoy a final smoke in peace.
Before they died near the summit, the big fella and the girl he protected smoked in a pair of longdrop toilets at the base of the track while the detox Nazis stood outside banging on the toilet door as Carl yelled at them, ‘I’m takin a shit, you want proof, come on in and take a stool sample, ya paedo pervert motherFUCKERS!’
Carl had three tokes of his pipe and little Lydia had two. They passed the pipe to one another over the plywood wall dividing the two spiderwebby plywood toilets buzzing with mosquitoes. Thirty seconds into the march and already they couldn’t hack it. They couldn’t go on without a toot. No shame in admitting it. Keepin it real was what separated Lydia and Carl from the fitness fascists. What was the point of getting your buzz by marching up to heaven when you could just smoke your way into the clouds? Every cunt on the motherfucking abstinence camp’s just a Straighto Nazi Nark Hypocrite, cept you, of course, Lyds, Carl ranted through the toilet wall. Fuckin Straightos. Even if a Nazi hikes until all the drugs come out of his bladder and sweat glands, he’s still a Nazi.
‘I heard that,’ Evan the camp commandant interrupted, frowning at the dark blue stormclouds above. ‘Can you hurry up and move your feet already? You’d better not be smoking cigarettes in there.’
‘Promise we’re not smokin ciggies,’ Lydia chimed, and the two of them cracked up laughing.
Before they had a sneaky smoke to prepare them for the bullshit hike that was supposed to sweat sin out of their systems, Carl and Lydia were overjoyed to discover they both had no intention of turning out like the rest of these mountain-climbing goody-goods. It was the cloud on the top of the judgemental volcano that prompted their very first conversation. Lydia, who was slamming cupboards in the kitchen, asked the big shaven-headed Uncle Fester-looking creep wearing the red 88 NBA singlet where the fuck they kept the sugar in this god damn concentration camp, and Carl told Lydia ‘You must have ya head in the fucking clouds if you think they’ll let ya have anything naughty like sugar.’ He laughed until he hacked up pink bubbly mucus. Lydia knew the mucus. It was the type you hacked up when you burned your throat from sucking on your pipe too greedily then carried on smoking a day later and burned the already-burned throat lining. Failing to find sugar, Lydia defiantly put a breath mint in her coffee and said, ‘What’s so bad about having your head in the clouds anyway?’ and Carl shut the kitchen door behind him, glancing around warily, and told her he very much agreed, and to be honest, Carl knew he wasn’t gonna make it to 30 days without a smoke, so why waste a good smoking day when your fate is sealed? The big pale ogre may have had a fearsome grim reaper etched on his throat but Lydia could tell right away Carl wasn’t a mean person. Not like the hypocrite Straightos that ran this fuckin place.
Before they discovered they each longed to float on a cloud of marshmallowy bliss, Carl and Lydia had their final counselling sessions, then transcendental yoga, then a march on the beach carrying backpacks full of rocks, and there was still the hike up that massive-arse cloudy volcano to get through on the second to last day.
Preparation involved trudging across kilometres of squelchy black sand to sweat what they most loved out of their glands. It was all pointless. Carl would sneak a smoke later that afternoon even if it meant sticking his head in the toilet and letting the toilet’s suction vent the smoky evidence.
Big-boned from birth, with a thick brow and forearms as large as Lydia’s calves, Carl was confident enough to give half his brain to smoking schemes and the other half to arguing with Evan, the Straight Edge leader of the Camp Helpers who had FUCK CRACK tattooed on his neck. Evan kept asking Carl why he of all people was lagging at the back, and Carl pointed out it was Evan himself who, cross-legged in the lotus position on the polished bamboo floor of the Dharma Room, had told all this month’s detox residents they were supposed to stop and smell the roses, so that’s why Carl was lagging at the back, and if Evan didn’t appreciate the occasional Rosa rubiginosa being sniffed he should fuck off to the front of the line. Lydia liked the way the big dodgy goon wound up the Nazis. She had to catch her mouth with her palm, she was chuckling that much. She couldn’t believe this overweight jokester was the same Carl Hullett who was there when the 88s knocked out Lydia’s partner Josh with that axe handle while he was standing in line at KFC and strapped him down in the tray of their ute like a wild pig and dumped him and her on the floor of a surprisingly posh house with a baby grand piano before they did unspeakable shit to Lydia to get him to pay the six hundred bucks he owed. She wanted to ask Carl, You were there, you were mobbed up with those cunts, was it really about the six hundy? but Carl was stomping through rockpools trying to splash straighto sergeant Evan, and Lydia was pretty certain from interacting with the sarcastic giant that Carl must have been so fried when his goon squad did that thing to Josh he couldn’t even remember.
Before they hiked together and complained together and smoked together and found out they’d met before, at the bashing and kidnap of Josh that ended with him being pushed, naked, onto Spaghetti Junction at dawn, Carl and Lydia spent their first week at detox in itchy, irritable agony, shuffling along the walls, giving the nurses beseeching smiles. When a tweaker would wriggle by, Lydia would make the Want a toot? hand gesture to them, and they’d all wave her away or spit Bible at her, but Carl was different – and it wasn’t just the bizarrely tattooed toes she could see when Carl wore flip flops. It had only been three days when they bumped into one another in the laundry, carrying sweat-soaked loads of depressing white sheets, and little Lydia with the fringe like a shutter over her eyes made the Toke-with-me? gesture at Cracker Carl, the only white boy in an otherwise brown ward and she expected a slap, but instead Carl loaded his laundry into a machine, as well as Lydia’s, because she confessed she didn’t have any coins, and he said, ‘First, let us consult the good book for guidance,’ and plonked a Holy Bible on top of the washing machine. Carl checked to see if any narks were coming up behind him and opened the sacred scripture to reveal 1000 cut-out and glued pages, point one of a gram of pure, a Zippo and two pipes, one blue, one pink. ‘Mama always said the Bible had real good shit in it,’ he said, and his heavy, flabby shoulders couldn’t stop chuckling.
Before Carl smuggled crack into Cloud Nine Detoxification Ministries he was told by his sleepy probation officer Marlena Gweru that he had to complete the entire course or else he’d be doing an 18 month stretch for conspiracy to manufacture a Class A prohibited substance.
Lydia was told pretty much the same thing. She had adored the thrill of waking up each morning living as an outlaw in a Helensville farmhouse surrounded by a moat while she and her cowboy watched pots of foaming Sudafed to make sure it didn’t blow up the pressure cooker. She had loved seeing Josh tell the 88s he was Angel’d-up and didn’t have to pay tax, SO FUCK YOU CUNTS. As punishment for that love, she’d been held down by gangsters in front of Josh while he scooped his teeth up off the rug and collected them in a fifty bag of weed cause it was the only bag he had on him.
Marlena told her to stop dwelling on her past. Lydia would do a lag at Arohata if she didn’t scrape together $6000 to do some Survivor-style rehab island bullshit where she would probably have zero friends and nothing to smoke.
Before Lydia had her childhood smashed while she was out on the lake at 15 with her stepdad, who only ever drank a box at a time, never a single beer, cause Real Men Go Hard Or Go Home, Lydia was waterskiing at Kai Iwi Lakes with a big white grin and her wet hair was flapping behind her, and her eyes were full of spattered water because carefree girls never pack goggles, and she couldn’t see when Step Poppa, without warning, switched off the engine so he could reach down and crack open a fresh beer, causing Lydia to slam into the back of the speedboat and shatter her T7 vertebrae while Step Poppa puttered back to the shore, finishing his box before pulling her out of the water, and Mum, who was more of a smoker than a drinker, became so furious later in the year, considering Lydia had dropped out of school and would weep for hours if she didn’t have any Oxy, that she put out a Soft Hit on Lydia’s stepdad, which wasn’t as soft as it sounded, because a soft hit meant a carload of gangstas arriving at 3 in the morning and whomping Step Poppa in his bed and Lydia bending a pillow around her ears and reaching for her Oxies to try and block out the whimpers of a confused alcoholic adult with the brain of a child hoping he was still in a nightmare and could wake up. Before her stepdad got beaten unconscious he thought, briefly, about his boy, the boy he never saw any more, the boy with the freshly-needled tribal tattoos on his feet who loved drugs and hated his old man.
Before Carl and the crew stomped Lydia’s stepdad til he had to sleep in a puddle of piss and blood, Carl first passed by Lydia at West Hilton Street Park, where there was a well-oiled carousel and a wooden castle, and this incredible circle of swings so that you and all your friends could swing at the same time and the tips of your toes would touch in the middle if you timed it right.
Back then, Carl was all about the pipe, and Lydia couldn’t stop screaming, but it was a good pipe, and good screams, cause eight year old Carl was bending some serious pipe on his new Tony Hawk Skelethon 520 board with the titanium-infused wheel brackets, while Lydia screamed with ecstasy after she managed to do the death drop on the bars and land on her feet and the boy who paused on the lip of the half-pipe, amazed at the joy erupting from the girl, looked at her hair wriggling in the wind and even though he’d never met the girl, just seen her around, his fingers wanted to take hold of that hair someday and tidy it into a French plait and show how beautiful she might be.