Shawn held the can of starter-fluid to the bottom of a glass jar and pushed the spout down, the spray pooling and foaming. I had never seen him so precise. Dedicated. He wore safety goggles from his mom’s wood shop—drills and wires hanging behind him on the wall of the one-car garage that was used for workspace and storage. The air was still and thick, heavy on us like a cloak. Shawn’s shoulders glistened with sweat as he swayed side to side to the upbeat and ethereal tune of Grateful Dead’s “Fire on the Mountain.”
It was the first time we had ever experimented with inhalants, and after seeing Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas—Johnny Depp and his co-star stumbling around a casino full of flashing clowns before hitting the road, the vast horizon before them like a dream—we were inspired to do the same. Concoct our own ether. Of course, we knew the warnings: possible fatality from one huff, immediate massacre of thousands of brain cells, and, the one we took least seriously, blowing up.
The can hissed until there was nothing left.
“Back away, Vicky,” Shawn said, his voice muffled through the blue face mask as he hunched over his creation in the corner of the garage. The door was open, suspended above us on the racks. The chief of police lived next door, but it was too dangerous to keep the door shut—the fumes flying around, seeking something to fill—so we took the risk. I walked out into the driveway for some fresh air, to see if the coast was clear.
The sky was wild and pink, the sun just setting in a metallic splash above the tree tops that lined the railroad track across the street. Shawn’s car sat parked along the quiet road where he and his mom lived at the base of Rattlesnake Mountain. I didn’t know then that the hill got its name from the thousands of rattlesnakes that used to live in the Redstone woods in New Hampshire. The venom was used for medicinal purposes until 1870 when all the snakes were killed in a grand fire that tore through the place where Shawn’s house now stood. But I didn’t care much about history or facts or other people back then. I just knew that it was July in the Mount Washington Valley, and my high school boyfriend and I were bored again. Hungry to get high in a way we never had before.
There was noise next door. The cop’s three kids were darting around their driveway shooting hoops. Their backdoor whacked open. The grind of the grill’s wheels rolled against the rocks beside their house as their dad got the gas going. Raw dogs laid down next to each other in rows. I picked up Shawn’s soccer ball from the grass and bounced it around to look normal. Gave the Chief a wave as he noticed me there. I can’t remember whether they ever invited us over. Hey, you guys want some dogs?, the tall cop might have asked one night. Or maybe it was his soft-faced son who called out something like, Wanna play two on two?
I like to believe this faint memory. That they tried to reach out. But even if it were true, it could only have been once or twice and never again. Because what I remember most is the unspoken divide between us. Like we were troubled and trapped and they couldn’t touch us. Like we weren’t interested in any of their games and we all knew it. Knew it was too late. We were already too far gone.
When I first met Shawn the year before in the eighth grade, he was one of the popular boys that all the pretty girls with Abercrombie jeans and blonde bangs went crazy over. He played soccer and won the annual Turkey Trot in elementary school. His golden trophies stood tall between rows of books on dusty shelves in his room. He taught himself how to play the electric guitar and the bass, cursing himself out anytime he messed up, sometimes throwing the instruments hard into the ground as a way of saying he had enough playing for the day. But hours later, once the night hit and the dim, fat lamps around his room began to glow, he’d always come back to the guitar. He’d stroke the stringed neck like the back of a lady until he wound up holding it tight against his heart again, the low notes striking the silence in his room like a sad love song.
It might have been all that rock-and-roll, or the stars who made the music—Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain, and Jimi Hendrix—all staring down at us with smiles from the slanted wall where Shawn’s Forever 27 poster hung, that led us towards the same lifestyle. The late nights and rapid hours. The dangerous drugs. When we first started dating, Shawn wasn’t huffing ether; he only smoked weed and drank beer. Cranked back packs of his mom’s Marlboro Light 100s. Soon enough though, Shawn’s drug use was no longer just for fun, but for food. Something on fire always hanging out of his mouth. About six months into our relationship of me watching him smoke weed with his buddies—their cat-like eyes squinting over deep grins, their shoulders falling low as the stress left them, their mouths always open, full of laughter and Doritos—I decided to join them.
It was probably a few months after we had started getting high together every day that we realized smoking blunts and stealing his mom’s Budweisers from the fridge weren’t going to cut it anymore. We were full of thirst now—a nagging emptiness deep inside that weighed on us like the summer heat. A vastness that only grew as we dabbled in psychedelics, cocaine, uppers, downers, all-arounders. But the ether we had never tried. It was new, exciting. Surely it had something to offer that the others didn’t. And, word was, you could make it on your own at home. All you had to do was mix the starter fluid with water, distill out the diethyl ether, pour it into a rag, breathe in deep, and you were golden.
I walked back into the garage.
“The cop’s out there grilling dogs,” I said.
“We’re good,” Shawn said, his back to me as he stood tall, raising the glass jar up to eye level. He held a bottle of water in his other hand and began pouring it into the jar. “If they smell anything, we can just say we’re working on the jeep.” He wiped his forearm arm across his brow, wiping his bangs back. His hair was chocolate brown and long, the straight uneven ends sweeping just over his collarbones that cradled a chained crucifix. “They ain’t going to say nothin’ though,” he said, keeping his eyes on the liquid. “Never do.”
He capped off the jar.
“What are you doing now?” I asked.
“Distilling it,” he said, shaking the mixture violently like a snow globe, tiny follicles flying through the waves. The clear fluids separated into halves and the cloudy water settled onto the bottom. He pulled out a red funnel from below his mom’s work bench and poured the liquid through very slowly, dividing the contents.
“Now it’s pure,” he said, looking up at me with a grin; his one dimple that looked more like a scar appeared on the side of his mouth. “We’re going to go on quite a ride.” He handed me the jar and walked up the ramp into the house.
Breathing in all the fumes, I wondered if it was a good idea—to dance so close to death. Could the can of starter fluid be right? Or did they just put the skull on there so kids didn’t do what we were doing? I didn’t like thinking about all of this though: the reality of life and its consequences. I knew that, soon enough, I wouldn’t be thinking about anything at all.
Shawn reentered the garage carrying a cardboard box full of his mom’s collected bottles that clinked together as he set them down.
“But first, we bottle them up,” he said.
Our parents weren’t aware of all this, at least mine weren’t. If my old man had known about the rag that Shawn was about to pass me, he would’ve been up to Redstone in fifteen minutes flat (normally, a thirty-minute drive) and had a talking to with that boy, as he called him. Probably would’ve grabbed the back of my neck like a baby kitten and told me through a growl that I was grounded. No, all my folks knew was that I was dating Shawn and was with him on the weekends. They didn’t know I actually slept over his house, and they certainly didn’t know that I had become a regular user of all kinds of drugs.
My addiction was easy to hide though, at least in the beginning, because my family was still in transition. We had just moved to New Hampshire from Boston two years before and my dad was still fighting to finish up our log home he had built from the ground up in a town called Freedom. And my mom, she was finally just about to open our own coffee shop forty minutes south of Conway, in Ossipee, which we named together The Black Bear Café. We’d soon sell premium coffee from fancy micro-roasters, homemade cinnamon buns, panini sandwiches, and chowders. My parents were always busy now, buried in paperwork, hiring new employees, chatting on the phone with big suppliers about things like soda bottles.
And there was Shawn’s mom—but she was tired. Jade was nearing her sixties at the time when her son Shawn was sixteen to my fifteen. She was a single mother who worked late nights and early mornings as a nurse at the local hospital. Shawn’s dad had always been out of the picture, or at least that’s how I remember it. I can recall meeting him only once when he stopped by and made small talk on the front lawn with Shawn. It had been a while since they’d seen each other, and it’d be while until they saw each other again. His dad was thin like Shawn and stood with his hands stuffed in his pockets as he kept his gaze down on the grass. His blonde mustache covering over the same rough smile that spread across Shawn’s face. A softness in his dad’s eyes, like some kind of sorry. I don’t think he ever apologized, though. Shawn might have let out a hard laugh at one point after his dad spoke. A faint hope in Shawn’s eyes for a moment. Snuffed out and glazed over by a coldness that burned deep within him as his dad turned back to his truck and drove away.
Jade was always wearing her scrubs and sneakers, the beige button down shirt that was baggy even for her large frame. When she was home, she wasn’t really home, her eyes always heavy beneath her short, graying hair. Sometimes she’d smile when Shawn made a joke, or when someone else got into something bad that we could all laugh about together as a way of not looking at our own trouble. Her tan face was full of sighs and pain, like she quit trying to raise Shawn a long time ago, settled for giving him food and a roof over his head.
Her detachment worked well for us. For me anyhow, because since she was a mother, and she was home, Shawn and I could get away with a lot more. My parents reasonably assumed that we wouldn’t be up to anything we weren’t supposed to be if there was parental supervision. When my mom called to double check that Shawn and I weren’t home alone, I’d hand over the phone to Jade who was sitting on the couch. The glare of the TV glowed on her face as she affirmed everything my mother needed to hear: Yes, Deanna. I’m home, will be all night. Yes, of course. Will let you know if anything changes. You too, now. Good bye. Thanks, I mouthed with a short smile before slipping back up the stairs to Shawn’s room where he sat packing a bowl.
Most days, Jade would come home from work, drop her keys off on the linoleum counter, grab her shovel and head out the back door straight into the thick of the Redstone woods to hunt for glass. She collected bottles, hundreds of them, that she found buried out in the woods. Green bottles, thin bottles, orange bottles, tall bottles. Fat blue ones, round ones, clear ones. Small clusters of vintage glass lined the window sills in the living room, adorned the dining room table, perched on top of the sliding door frame in the kitchen.
She’d be gone for hours at a time—which was when we’d do things like make ether—and return with new discoveries that she’d lay next to the kitchen sink, ready for her second project of cleaning them out. She’d show them off to Shawn and me like trophies, her knees stained with dirt. “Look at this one!” she’d say, her thick cracked fingers rubbing muck off the embossed words: Drug Co, Apothecary, Machine Oil.
The bottles had dates—years across the front, names of people and towns. She would go on, telling us something about each bottle’s history, mostly guessing the origins based on other facts. She probably told us about the Redstone fire and all the snakes. About the rocks’ subsequent erosion and all the exposed granite that made the Mount Washington Valley so famous. We weren’t actually listening—or at least, I wasn’t. Shawn would pull back on his butt, his eyes squinting as he nodded at all the right times. I’d smile and follow him as he paced back and forth, in and out of the kitchen and onto the porch. His white stomach growing thinner, paler every day, even through the summer time. Our eyes glued to the white cordless phone that Shawn held tight in his hand, waiting for it to light up with an answer from our dealer.
Soon enough, Jade’s stories would stop, a harsh silence surrounding us all as she hovered over the sink with her head down, her breath heavy as she worked. Her strong arm shaking, scrubbing the bottles back to life.
The wet rag draped over my mouth, cold against my cheeks as I tilted my head back to breathe in. A splash of starter fluid hitting and numbing my tongue. Shawn’s room was dark and the TV was on, crackling in the background. Soon it was all background. It was all small particles. Waves and sounds reverberating in and out of my ear drums. The world became made up of chips as small as the holes in the window screen we blew smoke out of. Colors and concrete blocks of space stacking and sliding, pulling and retracting.
Maybe it was the middle of our week-long ether binge. We had already begun a small business selling them for $10 a pop: highs sold in unique glass bottles from the past. Shawn’s friend Keith was over to try it out with us for free. I watched them drape the wet rags over their mouths and walk sideways into each other, their steps elastic and long. Their laughter confused. The washcloths over their faces made them look wounded, like they were stumbling out of a house on fire.
“Be careful, Vicky,” was all I remember Shawn saying before things went black on me. Nudges on my side. The in and out sounds of the ear drums were steady and loud. Two dark and long haired heads around me, motioning for me to stand, holding my loose limbs. “Dude, what the hell?” a boy called. “Why did her eyes close? Vicky!”
At this point, probably a minute after inhaling it, I started to come to. But I liked being cared for, the attention I received near to death. I liked that they were concerned for me, so I pretended to be unconscious and fell back to my knees. I let my arms fall to the ground harder, like a corpse’s. Shawn’s voice called my name, a terror in his tone. This filled me—made me feel warm. The fact that he would miss me if I was gone, that I was loved. I stayed in the bliss of my fake death a little longer, bottling up my breath until my head started to bang and I actually feared blowing up.
There were times when Shawn’s mom had enough. Huffing ether might have been the time she yelled at us so loud we could hear her through the walls, telling us to cut it out. To just stop it already. It could have been the week she told me she was sick of lying to my mom for me. That she wasn’t going to pick up the phone anymore when she called. The garage’s new scent of heptane and the missing boxes of her bottles could have brought her to say something. Or maybe our binge was the week when things changed, and she had nothing to say to us anymore; she just looked at us before shaking her head with a sigh so deep it was hard to tell who it was for.
All of these moments fly around my mind much like the particles did, never quite landing. I do know for sure that towards the end of our binge a group of us ended up in the Redstone woods and found a small abandoned house with boarded up windows that we broke into. Craig and Doug, guys who rode dirt bikes and wore Fox t-shirts and religiously said the F-word, came along for the ride. Craig had been one of our first customers earlier that week. His eyes lit up with a glaze of excitement as he brought Doug to try the new drug we were all raving about. Of course Keith was there, or at least, that’s how I remember it. His bushy black hair a dark cloud beside Shawn and me as we approached the old house. The steep ledges of Rattlesnake Mountain loomed over us as we stumbled inside.
Nearly a decade later, looking back on that dark, sunny day is somewhat difficult. Hard to remember, which probably has something to do with all of the brain cells we killed—some memories actually gone, burned away for good. I know now that it’s more than that. There’s a kind of deep remorse and regret that fills me when I recall what we did that week. All of those small and precious moments of life sucked into fumes that we’ll never get back. It’s not the sadness of how we spent our days that haunts me most, but the raw image of our souls burning with thirst that afternoon at the abandoned house. The fire—the path of our decisions—that tore through the Redstone woods as we fed on starter fluid. The state of helplessness and danger we subjected ourselves to. The gaping hunger of humanity that never quite gets satisfied on such vivid display. The crazy lengths one would go just to feel something. Get a thrill. Get as close as we could to death and life. To dying and being born again.
Inside the collapsing shack we discovered dirty magazines tucked inside dust-coated drawers of someone’s old room. I followed the boys lead and gathered them in my arms. Carried them outside in heavy stacks and ripped out the glossy pages. Threw nudity into the ground like seeds. I’m not sure why we did this, or why this action preceded holding the wet cloths up to our mouths again and breathing deep, but it did. The starter fluid fumed through our veins a final time. Specs of life forming and gathering all around—in and out. The boys spinning. Tongue tingling. The sound of ether, the thrumming drums of the ears banging and thumping. Closing in and knocking us over onto the ground.
I remember how the sun spotted down on us through the trees like some heavenly light, like God’s eyes shining down on our obscenity, as we rolled through golden shards on the forest floor. Leaves and sticks crunching in our hair as we swam through torn pieces of naked people. Our mouths, wide open as we moaned, crying out like infants searching for a bottle.
Rumpus original art by David Dodd Lee.