Ryland trekked into the burning desert after finally answering one of Penny’s calls, and because of this he fancied himself a decent person. To make the drive on a rare Saturday when he wasn’t at the office made him even better. He hadn’t seen her in over a year, and the way he saw things, he bore no moral obligation to even take her call, much less drive out to Riverside—a city that was dangerously close to the fires, no less—on one of his few days off. He was doing this, he reasoned, because he was a decent person. Maybe not a good one—he wasn’t delusional—but a decent one.
He frowned when his GPS signaled him to turn into the parking lot of dilapidated, four-story apartment building across the street from a 7-Eleven. He parked and got out, dropping his cigarette to the shimmering blacktop and crushing it beneath the toe of his Tom Ford loafer. A sickened sense of dread filled his stomach as he looked up at the crumbling stucco building etched against the smoldering red sky. Bars lined the first-floor windows. An overflowing Dumpster sat askance alongside its west wall. A pair of mangy dogs fought over something on the far side of the parking lot. Sighing, Ryland took his phone from the pocket of his suit pants and texted Penny, I’m here.
Inside, the halls were pasted with peeling wallpaper, the carpeted floors reeking and spotted. He didn’t trust the elevator, so he took the stairs to the fourth floor, stepping over a filthy litterbox on the third-floor landing. A few moments after knocking on the door to 404, he heard five locks unlatch before it swung open.
Ryland stared at Penny for a few terrible moments before looking away. Her blonde hair was greasy and unwashed, hanging in tangled clumps around her gaunt, oily face. She couldn’t have weighed more than eighty pounds, and her tattered, oversized tank top draped over her skeletal frame like a dress. Her lips were chapped and burnt. There were open sores up and down her bony arms. The vacancy in her eyes was the closest thing to hell Ryland had ever seen.
“Jesus, Pen,” he breathed.
“Get in, get in, don’t just stand there.” She grabbed his arm and yanked him inside with surprising strength. Her head poked into the hallway, darting left and right before she slammed the door shut and refastened the locks.
Ryland looked around at the scattered clothes, the ratty furniture, the ancient takeout boxes with their gatherings of flies. The burnt pipe on the table. The blackened sheet of tin foil. The syringe in a jar of bleach. Penny caught his eyes lingering on the needle in the jar and said, “I don’t know why I bother anymore. Old habits, I guess.”
“Huh?” said Ryland, feeling lightheaded.
“Sit down, sit down, please.” She scurried to the armchair and unloaded a pile of crumpled laundry from its seat. Gesturing at it, she flashed a feeble attempt at a smile.
“I’ll, um…I think I’ll stand,” Ryland said weakly.
Penny’s eyes narrowed. “Why’s that? Is my furniture not good enough for your Armani-clad ass?”
“Hey, whoa,” said Ryland, holding up his hands. “I mean, Christ, Penny. It’s Valentino.”
“Valentino,” she repeated. “Right. Of course. How silly of me.” She looked like she might cry. “Anyway, whatever, do what you want.”
Sighing, gritting his teeth, Ryland went to the chair and sat in it.
“Let me get you something to drink,” Penny said, hurrying toward the kitchen.
“No, please, nothing,” Ryland said too quickly. “I’m…not thirsty.”
Penny stopped, looking at him with swimming eyes. She nodded in a way that made her bear more than passing resemblance to a rodent. That, Ryland decided—the erosion of her beauty—was the most tragic part of all this. She had once been ravishing.
“I’m glad you came,” Penny said, sitting on the couch and folding her legs beneath her. She fidgeted with her fingers. “I didn’t think you would.”
Ryland didn’t know how to respond to that, so after a short pause he said dully, “It’s…been a long time.” He took his cigarettes from inside his blazer and lit one, then offered the pack to Penny. She took three, tucking one behind each ear and lighting the third with a torch lighter on the coffee table.
“You look good,” Penny said. “Glad to see you’re still doing well for yourself.”
“I do okay.”
Her grin was bitter. “You do okay,” she said back, sucking hard on the cigarette.
“Why did you call me out here, Penny,” said Ryland. He was startled by the flat, hollow weariness he heard in his voice. He’d intended to sound concerned, sympathetic. He cleared his throat and tried again. “What is it you need?” A little better. Not much.
Penny chewed the nail on her left ring finger. “I have to tell you something. I wanted to do it in person.”
“Well, I’m here.”
She drew in a haggard breath that rasped in her throat. Ashing the cigarette in a can of Diet Pepsi beside the pipe on the coffee table, she briefly looked into Ryland’s eyes before dropping them, shutting them. A tear streaked through the sheen of sweat and unwashed grime on her face, then another. “I’m sick,” she said. “I’m going to die.”
Ryland’s cigarette hand stopped halfway to his mouth. He lowered it slowly. “I don’t understand. Sick how? With what?”
Penny held out her arms. “What do you think.”
Ryland looked over at the window. The curtains were closed. A sliver of scarlet sunlight sliced through the small opening between them. “I don’t understand,” he said quietly. “I didn’t think people even got that shit anymore.”
“Well, they do.” She sniffed, wiped her face. More tears came. “I wouldn’t have even known. It’s a long story, but basically I ended up in the hospital—someone took me, I wouldn’t have gone myself—and it was for something else, something unrelated, but they tested me, and voila.”
Ryland glanced back at her. He tried to see the girl he’d once loved, but there was no trace of her in the apparition sitting across from him. He felt nothing, and this absence of feeling stirred only a small, obscure pang deep within him, buried so deep it hardly even registered. “Isn’t there something they can do?” he asked mechanically. “Some sort of…treatment?”
She shook her head. “No. It’s too late. Too advanced. There’s no hope for me.”
“There’s no hope for anyone,” Ryland muttered.
“Anyway, I thought you should know. I’m not sure what I expected. I know you don’t care about me anymore. There are lots of days when I’m not totally sure you ever really did.”
“I did. I…do.”
She glared at him with her big, washed-out eyes, murky with toxic tears. “It’s because of you I am where I am, doing what I’m doing.” She hit the cigarette, moving her head to the side but keeping her eyes on him. “You know that, don’t you? Do you ever think about that?”
“Come on, Pen. That isn’t fair.”
“Really. Tell me why it isn’t fair.”
Ryland suddenly felt exhausted. This had been a mistake. There was nothing for him here. “I should be going,” he said, starting to stand.
“ANSWER THE QUESTION.”
Flinching, Ryland lowered himself back into the chair. He held his cigarette up to his face, watching it burn. His hand was steady. “I didn’t make you follow me out here to California. I didn’t even ask you to. And I certainly didn’t make you get mixed up with those deadbeat thugs. The smack, the crank—all that shit was all you. You did this to yourself.”
Penny put her face in her hands, her shoulders hitching with silent sobs. Ryland watched her for a long time, feeling almost nothing. When at last she looked back up, she said, “You were so different back in Pennsylvania. I don’t know who you are anymore. I don’t know what happened to you.” She wiped mucus from her nose with the back of her hand. “You used to be a nice person. You were happy. We were happy.”
Ryland’s eyes went back to the bar of light between the cheap curtains. He could see himself with Penny, years ago. He could see himself holding her hand as they walked among fallen leaves on a brisk autumnal afternoon. He could see them together at the county fair, her upturned face illuminated by the flashing lights of the Ferris wheel, and he could see himself as he took her chin in his hand and pulled her mouth to his. He could see her in the passenger seat of his ancient Crown Victoria, his hand on her thigh as she sang along to the radio. He could see her as she had once been, and himself as he had once been, but they might as well have been strangers. He felt nothing for either of those people, not anymore. In any event, they were gone. Both of them.
“You should have never taken that promotion,” Penny whispered. “You should have never moved to Los Angeles.”
“You told me to take it.”
“I know. I was wrong.”
Ryland leaned forward and dropped his cigarette into the can of Diet Pepsi. He rose to his feet. “I’m going to use your bathroom,” he said.
“Down the hall,” Penny said, not looking at him. “First door on the left.”
He went into the bathroom and wiped down the sink with a wet bundle of toilet paper before doing a line off its edge. After a moment of consideration, he did another. Feeling uplifted, he flushed the toilet, ran the sink for a few moments, and then stepped back out. He stopped in the hallway when he noticed the dog watching him from Penny’s bedroom. It was small—some kind of chihuahua/terrier mix, by the looks of it—and it was curled up in a pink dog bed on the floor, trembling violently. He walked slowly into the bedroom and knelt down in front of it. It didn’t move, but its ears dropped back, and it whined softly. Its tremors grew more intense as he drew closer. Ryland carefully extended his hand and placed it atop the dog’s head, gently stroking it. Its high-pitched whine increased in pitch, and Ryland realized a puddle of runny shit was spreading beneath it. He withdrew his hand and looked at the dog for what might have been a long time. After a while, its trembling subsided somewhat, and it put its head down and shut its eyes, briefly opening them every few moments to see if he was still there.
When Ryland stood back up, he was startled to find his eyes had become damp. He hastily wiped them with perturbed agitation and took his Gucci sunglasses out of his jacket pocket, putting them on and going back into the living room. “I have to get going,” he told Penny.
“Of course. You’re a busy guy.” She didn’t look at him, didn’t stand. “This is the last time we’ll see each other. The next time you see me, I’ll be dead.”
“I really hope that isn’t the case,” said Ryland. His voice again sounded distant, empty. He glanced back down the hall. The dog had peeked its head out of the bedroom and was staring at him. Its ears were perked up. He felt something foreign and uncomfortable in his chest, and he swallowed and turned toward the door. “Good luck, Penny,” he said. He went to the door and set about unlatching the five locks.
“Everything is your fault,” Penny called after him as he was shutting the door behind him. He didn’t look back, didn’t stop. He did a couple bumps off his keys when he was back in his car, but they didn’t help. The image of the dog, scared and shivering, was burned into his brain. He peeled out of the parking lot and drove too fast. He didn’t start to feel better until the hazy outline of the city became visible in the distance, and he knew he was almost home.
Chandler Morrison is the author of Human-Shaped Fiends, Along the Path of Torment, Dead Inside, Until the Sun, Hate to Feel, and Just to See Hell. His short fiction has appeared in numerous anthologies and literary journals. He lives in Los Angeles.