Authors: Julie Clark
Six Months before the Crash
Eva's hands moved automatically under the bright lights, while high above, the fan whirred, a white noise that dulled her senses, venting the air from her basement lab into the backyard. She couldn't seem to erase the image of that cat, how quietly it waited, how quickly things had ended for the bird.
She shook her head and forced herself to concentrate. She had to finish this batch before noon. She was meeting Dex at three to give him Fish's portion and was meeting her new client shortly after that.
She measured ingredients, carefully weighing and adjusting, and felt herself relax. Even after all these years, after everything that had happened, it was still magic, that you could combine substances, add heat, and create something entirely new.
She brought the mixture to a thick, pasty consistency on the camping stove, immune now to the bitter chemical stench that burned the inside of her nose and clung to her hair and clothes, long after she'd finished. Because of this, she invested in expensive lotions and shampoo, the only things that could cover the smell of what she made.
When it was ready, she poured the liquid into the pill molds and set the timer again. Using various cough and cold medicines mixed with some common household items, what she made was similar to Adderall. However, it was much safer to make, avoiding the explosive nature of most methamphetamines. The result was a tiny pill, simple to produce, with a powerful punch that kept subpar students like Brett awake and sharp-minded for hours on end.
When she was done, she washed the equipment at the sink in the corner, loading the portable dishwasher she'd bought several years ago. Her chemistry professor's voice floated through the years:
A clean lab is the mark of a true professional.
She was a professional by definition, but no one was going to come down here and make sure she was following standard lab protocol. She wiped the counters, making sure no traces of her workâor the ingredients she drove all over the Bay Area to purchaseâwere left out for prying eyes.
Not that anyone would come down here. Long ago she'd figured out the best way to hide the door to this old laundry room was to roll a shelf in front of it. From the outside, you'd never know it was there. At least six feet tall with a solid back, the shelves were filled with the tools of an amateur chefâcookbooks, mixing bowls, canisters that held flour and sugar, and several large utensil holders stuffed thick with spatulas and oversized spoons that Eva never used. She moved through the world similarlyâappearing to be a bland, thirtysomething server who worked hard to make ends meet, who lived in a North Berkeley duplex and drove a fifteen-year-old Honda. When in reality she was the opposite, singlehandedly responsible for keeping the students at Berkeley awake and on track to graduate in four years. And dealing quickly with the ones who caused problems.
Grabbing the timer off the counter, she headed up the basement stairs, flipping the light and fan off behind her. The silence folded over her, and she paused in the kitchen, waiting for the sounds of the neighborhood to settle into the space between her ears.
Next door, she heard her new neighbor, an older woman with close-cropped white hair, unlocking her front door. When she'd moved in a few weeks ago, Eva could tell she wanted to be friendly. Her eyes would linger on Eva, and though Eva was polite, with one- and two-word greetings, she could feel the woman's gaze, heavy and waiting for a deeper interaction.
Mr. Cosatino, the old man who'd lived there since the beginning of time, had been so much easier. They'd only spoken once, last year when she'd paid him cash to purchase her half of the duplex. She wondered what happened to him, whether he got sick or if he died. One day he was there, the next day, he was gone. And now this woman, with her friendly smiles and eye contact.
Eva left the bookshelf pushed aside and took the stairs two at a time, up to her home office. A tiny room overlooking the front yard, it wasn't used by Eva for much except paying bills and storing her cold-weather coats. But she'd decorated it like the rest of the houseâwarm tones of yellow and red that were a far cry from the institutional gray walls of the group home she'd grown up in. She'd picked each pieceâthe pine desk, the deep red rug, the small table and lamp that sat under the windowâas an antidote to the coldness that had embedded itself inside of her as a child.
She settled in front of her laptop, pulling up the Singaporean bank log-in page, and entered her account information by memory. She was diligent about checking her balances, watching the number steadily increase over the past twelve years, going from five figures to six figures to a comfortable seven. The financial district in San Francisco was filled with handsome men who knew how to bend the law to suit their purposes, and it had been easy to find a tax attorney who was willing to set up a fake LLC, who knew which banks abroad would look the other way and not ask too many questions, and who could help her funnel her illegal income somewhere safe.
At some point, she was going to have to stop. No one could do this forever. And when that time came, she'd buy a plane ticket to somewhere far away and simply disappear. She'd leave everything behind. The house. Her things. Her clothes. Dex and Fish. She'd shed this life like an old skin, emerging newer. Better. She'd done it before, and she would do it again.
* * *
When the pills were ready, she popped them from their molds and into separate bags. She wrapped the ones for Dex in blue paper, tied a ribbon around them, and drove to the park in North Berkeley where they were supposed to meet. She'd learned over the years how to be invisible. How to slip between the layers of the outside world, just a woman on a walk or meeting a friend in the park with a beautifully wrapped present. This wasn't a hard job, if you were smart. And Eva had always been smarter than most.
She found him sitting at a picnic table overlooking a small, dingy play area. Young kids were scattered across the equipment, each minded by a parent or nanny. Eva paused, still outside of Dex's line of sight, and watched the kids. That might have been her, if her mother had been a different person. Maybe she would have brought Eva to a park like this to blow off steam after school or to kill a few hours on a weekend. Over the years, Eva had searched her memory for an image, any memory at all from the short time she lived with her birth family, but her first two years were blank.
As a child, Eva had imagined them so many times and in so many ways, the images almost seemed like real memories. Her mother, with long blond hair, looking over her shoulder at Eva, laughing. Her grandparents, old and frail, worried about their wild daughter, scraping their pennies together to pay for another trip to rehab. A quiet family with a big problem. She tried to feel something for them, but she felt removed, like an unplugged lamp. There was no power behind it. No connection. No light.
But mothers and daughters always caught Eva's eye, snagging her attention like a sharp fingernail, scraping her in places that should have healed over long ago.
She knew only two things about her mother: her name was Rachel Ann James, and she had been an addict. The information had arrived unexpectedly in a letter from Sister Bernadette in Eva's sophomore year of college. The page had been filled with her precise cursive, so familiar it had lifted her up and carried her back in time to the girl she'd once been.
It had felt like an intrusion, the answers to questions she'd long since given up asking, suddenly landing in her mailbox. Just when she was beginning to feel like she might be able to rise above who she'd always been.
Eva had no idea where that letter was now. Tossed into a box or buried in a drawer. It was easier to pretend that part of her life had never existed, just a few short miles away in San Francisco, that she had instead emerged, fully formed, the day she started at Berkeley.
* * *
She tore her eyes away from the kids and walked the final few yards to where Dex sat.
“Happy birthday,” she said, handing him the package of pills.
He smiled and tucked it inside his coat. “You shouldn't have.”
She sat next to him on the bench, and together they watched the kids playâjumping from the slide, chasing each other around the swingsâalways lingering for a little while, just two friends enjoying the sunshine. Dex's mantra so many years ago now their routineâ
You only look like a drug dealer if you behave like one
“I did my first solo deal at this park,” Eva said, pointing toward the parking lot. “When I got here, there were two police cars parked at the curb, the officers standing next to them, as if they were waiting for me.”
Dex turned to face her. “What did you do?”
Eva thought back to that day, how scared she'd been, how her pulse had raced and her breath shortened when she'd seen them, in full uniform, all guns and billy clubs and shiny badges. “I remembered what you told me, about how I had to walk with confidence, how I had to keep my eyes straight ahead and not hesitate.”
Eva remembered passing the officers, meeting their eyes for a fleeting second and smiling through the fear, before walking toward the playground, where a third-year law student was supposed to meet her. “I imagined I was someone who worked in a windowless office, coming here to get a little sunshine and fresh air on my lunch break.”
“The advantages of being a woman.”
Eva didn't feel like it was much of an advantage, but she knew what he meant. People who looked like her didn't make or sell drugs. They were teachers or bank tellers. They were someone's nanny or mother. She remembered the moment when she handed over the drugs and pocketed her first two hundred dollars, how awkward it was. She had no finesse, the entire transaction silent and stilted. She remembered walking away and thinking,
It's done. I'm a drug dealer.
And feeling like the person she was only just starting to become had died.
But she'd gotten over it. Embraced what her life had become. A part of her was set freeâall those years of conforming to the expectations of others. She'd been told that life was a single track, carrying you forward. If you worked hard, good things happened. But she'd always known it was more like a pinball, careening and racing. The thrill was in the unexpected. In the freedom to create her own destiny. Her life had turned to shit, and yet she'd made something out of it. That was fucking something.
Dex interrupted her thoughts. “I sometimes regret getting you into this. I thought I was helping, butâ¦” He trailed off.
Eva picked a splinter from the table and held it between her fingers, studying the wood before dropping it to the ground. “I'm happy,” she said. “I have no complaints.”
And it was mostly true. She looked at Dex, the one who had stepped into the wreckage of her life and pulled her out. It had been Wade Roberts's idea to make drugs in the chemistry lab her junior year of college. But Eva had been the one with the skills. The one who said
when she should have said
She tried hard not to think of that day in the dean's office, of the way Wade had slipped past everything and landed back in his charmed life, throwing touchdowns and luring girls too stupid to know better into doing things they shouldn't.
After they'd escorted her from the building, after she'd packed her bags and turned in her dorm key, panic had swept through her, deep and immobilizing. She had no one to turn to, nowhere to go. And then Dex appeared, sliding up next to her as she stood on the sidewalk outside her dorm, the same way she'd slipped alongside Brett that morning.
At the time, she only knew Dex as someone who hung around Wade and his friends, dark hair and startling gray eyes. He wasn't a student, and Eva could never figure out how he fit in. Like her, he rarely spoke, but he watched everything.
“I heard about what happened,” he'd said. “I'm sorry.”
She looked away, ashamed at how naive she'd been. How easily Wade had manipulated her. And how he'd gotten off and she'd gotten expelled.
Dex looked over her shoulder at some unseen object and spoke. “Look, it's a shitty situation. But I think I can help you.”
She shoved her hands into her pockets against the cool fall night. “I doubt that.”
“You have a skill that I think can benefit both of us.”
She shook her head. “What are you talking about?”
“The drugs you made were great. I know a guy who can set you up with the equipment and the supplies to keep making them. His chemist is leaving the business, and he needs someone immediately. It's a great opportunity, if you want it. Totally safe. You make the drugs, he'll let you keep half to sell yourself. You can make more than five thousand dollars a week.” Dex laughed, a bitter sound puffing into the air around them. “A school like this always has a need for uppers. Little pills that will get these kids through the next test, the next class, whatever.” He gestured toward a group of students passing them on their way to the next bar or party, already drunk, laughing and in love with themselves. “They're not like you or me. They take Daddy's money, or the donor's money, and think nothing can touch them.”
He looked into Eva's eyes, and she felt a flicker of hope. Dex was throwing her a lifeline, and she'd be stupid not to take it. “How?” she asked.
“I have a place near here,” he said, “with a spare room you can crash in for a while. I help you, you help me.”
“How would I be helping you?”
“You're exactly the kind of person my boss is looking for. Smart, and off everyone's radar.”
Eva wanted to say no, but she was broke. She had no place to live. No skills with which to get a job. She imagined herself slinging her duffel bag over her shoulder and heading down to Telegraph Avenue, positioning herself among the other panhandlers, begging for money. Or returning to St. Joseph's, the weight of Sister Bernadette's disappointment, Sister Catherine's curt nod, as if she'd always known Eva would turn out like her mother.