Gateway Drug

Terry and Samantha were in love. They knew they were in love because they had been dating for nearly a year, loved all the same music and movies, had all the same friends and almost never fought. Terry was in Matric and only three months away from turning eighteen, Samantha had just turned sixteen.

Terry and Samantha disappeared.

They didn’t do it all at once. But eventually, bit by bit, Terry and Samantha went away.

It started on a hot, lazy Saturday afternoon. Terry took Samantha to a house party where one of his university friends lived. There was music blaring in from the lounge, but no one was dancing. No one ever danced. People sat in small, smoky clutches, drank from polystyrene cups, talked intensely about art, truth, life, music, and getting wasted.

Terry and Samantha liked to get wasted.

They took their polystyrene cups outside and found a cluster of acquaintances that they were better acquainted with. They smoked the weed that was offered and took two doves each, which Terry had bought off his friend, Richard. Later on, they found a couch inside the house and lay uncomfortably against one another, waiting for sleep that wouldn’t come, watching and shivering as the sun bleached the colour from the night sky.  They agreed that the doves were bad, that they had paid too much for them, and that next time they wouldn’t bother with ecstasy at all. They had stoned sex in the bathroom in the early morning brightness while the rest of the household slept, or pretended to.

With her mind otherwise occupied on the upcoming Matric dance, Samantha didn’t think about the doves again during the weeks following the party. But Terry talked increasingly about finding a man named ‘Roach’, a comical, if apt, nickname for a dealer in town who could get his hands on pills and poppers and papers from all over the world. Terry’s friends, and friends of Terry’s friends, all elaborated on the stories of Roach; how he had smuggled fresh Coca leaves from South America in the belly of a pig, and how one time he grew Peyote in the backseat of an old Toyota. Opium, mescaline, salvia, ayahuasca. Roach could get anything you’d ever heard of, and a few things you hadn’t. He was a pharmaceutical magician.

Terry heard a rumour that Roach could be found in the VIP suite on the top floor of the Mimosa Hotel, a long-abandoned building that had been quickly colonised by vagrants, junkies and all manner of displaced wanderers.

Some of the girls at school had warned Samantha that the Mimosa Hotel was dangerous, but when she walked up the worn and stained orange and brown carpeted stairs, trying not to touch the waxy, chipped railing, she only felt excited. Terry held her hand and led her up floor after floor. Occasionally they would see someone shuffle down a corridor, their heads tilted and tucked away to avoid eye contact and they would both flinch at the sudden, shadowy movement. The electricity had been turned off inside the derelict building years ago and the higher they climbed, the darker it got until Samantha could swear she felt unseen eyes watching them.

Terry and Samantha finally stopped on the eleventh floor. They used the light from Terry’s cell phone to find their way to the door of room 1167, knocked on it, and shared a small, private smile before the door opened into blackness. Frightened, but having come too far to turn around now, Terry took Samantha’s hand and led her inside.

The room was dimly lit with cheap, dripping candles wedged into old bottles, illuminating clusters of people who watched the couple, some with hungry suspicion, others with deadpan indifference. The keen excitement that Samantha had felt climbing the stairs warmed to a hot terror that made her face flush and her legs feel wobbly. She wanted to leave. She wanted Terry to take her home. She wanted her mom.

She looked up at Terry, ready to squeeze his hand and quietly tell him that she wanted to go. But when she saw his eyes narrow and then widen with hazy recognition, she knew that he would want to stay, and she knew she shouldn’t argue.

In the shadows and flickering light, Terry and Samantha saw Roach. He approached them from the far end of the room, navigating around the huddles of fallen humanity on the floor. They knew it was him before they saw his face. He had long, dark, unwashed hair that fell into his eyes and turned up at his collar, his clothes looked like they had been chosen entirely at random. He was extremely thin and bent over at the waist, like he had a massive weight on his shoulders. As he neared, the lines on his face revealed his age. He didn’t smile as he greeted and shook hands with Terry. A gesture that seemed overly formal to Samantha in a room that had neither furniture nor curtains.

Terry talked to Roach about ‘scoring’, and Roach responded in hushed, despondent tones. While they negotiated Samantha smiled at a sad girl who sat on a windowsill, but the girl just stared ahead, turning her head from Samantha to the floor and then back to Roach. Samantha looked around the room as her eyes adjusted to the low light. Everyone looked like they had just come from a funeral. This wasn’t like any of the parties Samantha had ever been to. There was no music, no one smiled, or laughed or drank from polystyrene cups. No one was talking.

Roach got up and left the room. Terry took out his wallet and started counting off the bills. Terry told Samantha that Roach had gone to get them something ‘special’. Not E, not A, not H and not coke. Nothing bad, just… different. Something they’d never tried before. Something few people had ever tried before. Samantha was scared, but she knew that as soon as they had left the building with their stash, she’d feel better. They’d go home, get wasted, have quiet sex in Terry’s bedroom, and in the morning everything would be fine and normal again. She tried to look relaxed and brave. She tried to look cool.

Roach came back with two tiny bags, each containing one tiny pill. Although she still couldn’t see very well in the cramped, candle-lit room, Samantha felt the ears and eyes prick up all around her with fervent interest. Everyone watched as Terry handed over what seemed like too much money for the two tiny white pills. Terry pocketed the drugs and gave Samantha’s hand a squeeze. They were finally going to leave.

But Roach stopped, and corrected, them. He told them that they took the pills here, in this room, or they leave without them, and without their cash. Terry was nervous. Samantha was terrified. Terry looked at Samantha across the dimly lit room, Samantha tried to beg him with her eyes. Terry looked back to Roach, to the pills, to the money. He agreed. They sat next to Roach, next to the girl perched on the windowsill. Terry was excited. Samantha paled. Roach started to explain what they were about to take. For the first time since they’d laid eyes on him, Samantha saw Roach’s face light up. His explanation sounded like confused chemistry mangled with urban folklore, further obscured by Roach’s own rambling embellishments. Samantha decided that Roach’s introduction was less of a pharmaceutical indication and more of a metaphor.

After all, she thought, you couldn’t actually travel through time with a pill.

But Roach seemed insistent that they could- and would. Terry handed Samantha her pill and washed his own with a mouthful of Roach’s room temperature beer. Samantha swallowed hers dry. They made awkward small talk for a few minutes and then Samantha started to feel ill. Her mouth suddenly filled with bitter spit and her stomach reached up into her throat. She covered her mouth and lurched forward, trying not to vomit.

And then they were back on the stairs at dusk, wary of the shadows that dipped and swam in the fast-diminishing sunlight. Samantha looked at Terry and Terry looked back at her. She tried to ask him what had happened, how they gotten back onto the stairs. She couldn’t remember anything beyond what had happened in Roach’s room. Terry looked as confused as she felt. Terry checked his left pocket. It was still full of the money he had paid Roach for the pills. Samantha started to wonder if they had just dreamed Roach and his dirty, crowded room. The world around her felt real, but she felt slow and clumsy inside it, like someone coming out from under an anaesthetic.

It finally occurred to her that perhaps Roach hadn’t been lying, and that if they had in fact travelled ten minutes back in time, they could still leave before they ever entered his flat. She looked at Terry again and tried to speak. As she did, she realised her mouth was full of hot sick and that she was no longer standing on the stairs, she was lying on her side, in her own vomit, on the floor of Roach’s murky flat. People were laughing at her. Terry helped Samantha up. He looked dazed and unsteady. They stumbled down the stairs in the dark, Samantha slipping once and skinning her knee and elbow. She was sobbing breathlessly by the time they left the hotel. Samantha tried to talk to Terry in the car ride back, but he didn’t say anything.

Things didn’t get much better when they got back to school. Terry hung out with his friends and Samantha with hers, but they didn’t all hang out together at break time, and Terry didn’t wait for Samantha at the end of the day to drive her halfway home. Samantha was devastated. She had never felt bad about doing drugs before, especially not with Terry who reassured her that she was just opening her mind and that it was all just a bit of fun. But this time was different. She felt like she had seen something that she had to talk about, and the only person she could talk to about it, wasn’t talking to her.

Samantha’s friends asked her if they were going to break up. She told them that they weren’t, but she wasn’t sure whether she believed that or not. A rumour started going around the school that Terry had dumped Samantha so that he could take a university student to the Matric dance. Samantha knew it couldn’t be true, but the words still twisted and burned inside her.

Samantha called Terry.

He still sounded distant and despondent, making her own tear-choked voice sound practically hysterical in comparison. Terry said they weren’t broken up, that there was no university student, that he would still take her to the Matric dance. Samantha was elated at his words, if disappointed at their conviction.

Terry said that he wanted to go and see Roach again. Samantha shook her head over the phone. Terry started talking then, a lot. He said more in the following ten minutes than he had in the last five days. He sounded a little like Roach had when he was explaining the pills to them. Samantha didn’t want to go back to the dark apartment filled with sad, frightening people. She didn’t want to see their sneering, laughing faces again. She didn’t want to go back in time. She just wanted things to go back to the way they were. Terry talked about seeing things clearly for the first time, about looking ‘through’ the world now, instead of just at it. He said that everything up until that moment in Roach’s flat now felt ‘fake’. He had to see more. He had to know more. He had to take more pills. Terry extrapolated and effused in disconnected bursts and rants. Samantha cried.

Terry and Samantha went back to the Mimosa Hotel that Friday. Or rather, Terry went back and Samantha waited in the car. She waited for a long time. Samantha drove them home in Terry’s car that night, and the next. Terry didn’t want to talk again when he got back from Roach’s flat, but he did let Samantha lie quietly against him in his bedroom in his parents’ house while they waited for dawn.

On the Sunday, as Samantha was waking, Terry started talking again. He explained to her that Roach had something new. Something different. He told her that it wasn’t like the last time at all. He told her that she would like it, because he liked it and he wanted her to do it with him. He told her that it wouldn’t make her sick like the other stuff had done. He told her that it would change her life and the way she thought about her life. He told her that if she loved him, she would try it because it was something that they should do together, to be closer. Samantha agreed to go with Terry next weekend, but Terry insisted that they go immediately.

Terry took all of the cash from his mother’s purse and his father’s wallet before they left. He asked Samantha if she had any money saved up. The new pills from Roach weren’t cheap and he’d need more money if he was going to get a pill for each of them. Samantha drew what she could from the savings account her own parents had set up for her when she was just a kid. She gave all the money to Terry and felt very sad for it afterwards.

Roach’s flat was less frightening, but more disgusting, during the day. Every mark and stain and burn on the carpets and walls was revealed by the blinding light that beamed through the uncovered windows. Roach himself looked older, thinner, meaner. The niceties and small talk between Terry and Roach had completely evaporated. Terry handed over the money, took his pills and claimed a spot on the filthy carpet. Samantha paused for a moment before joining him. In the unforgiving glare, Terry also looked thinner and meaner, like one of the shadowy figures they had passed on their first visit here. Terry looked up at her and smiled the first smile she had seen on him in over a week.

He handed her a pill.

She sat down and then Terry and Samantha washed their pills back with a swig of warm, bottled tap water. Terry had lied about the nausea. Samantha did feel sick again. Only this time she didn’t wake up on the stairs- she didn’t recognise where she woke up at all.

Terry wasn’t there and she wasn’t in the Mimosa Hotel. She sat in the middle of what looked like a modern office with sleek, silvery furnishings, high ceilings and tall, wrap-around windows. The city below looked clean, like the grime and misery had been simply sponged off to reveal shining white marble and mirrored glass beneath. Only when Samantha stood to look more closely at the view below, she realised she didn’t recognise any of the buildings either. The streets weren’t just cleaner, they were completely different. She wasn’t just in a different building, she was in a different city entirely. She stared from the spotless window for what felt like a long time. Occasionally she spotted someone, small and faraway, exit one magnificent tower and cross the street to another. All the people looked as pristine and as purposeful as the buildings they worked in.

And then she heard voices. She considered hiding underneath a table, but the slow, unstable feeling from the previous pill returned. She tasted bile and knew that the trip was over.

Samantha woke up on Roach’s floor with Terry leaning over her, smiling in his new and distant way. She was surprised and relieved to find that she had not thrown up this time. Terry asked her she’d seen. She told him. He told her that he had gone to a place where there were no towering glass buildings, or freshly swept streets, there were no buildings or streets at all. The grass that he’d sat on was long and wild, and the sky seemed endless and untouched. Roach had sat with them, amused at that point, and explained in his babbling, incoherent manner that the sparkling city, the sprawling grasslands and Roach’s own dingy little flat were all the same place, and all the same time. He started to talk about parallel dimensions, quantum possibilities and alternate realities. He spoke about the pills, the ‘gateways’ and how- for a while at least- they could go anywhere, and see anything with them.

And then Samantha did throw up.

Terry stopped going to school. Samantha only went because she had to. Terry and Samantha started going to Roach’s place more and more often. Every time they took the gateways, they went somewhere different, experienced a different version of the reality that they knew. Sometimes the differences were minor- the colour of Roach’s walls, the length of his hair or the language he spoke. Sometimes, like Samantha’s first time, it was like being in a different city, in a different country, or occasionally, like the time Samantha woke up on the blackened, scorched surface of a recently-cooled volcano, it was like being on another planet.

Samantha had never seen lava before.

The pills only ever lasted a few minutes. Roach said they could extend their inter-dimensional visitations by taking a higher dose, but since they never knew where they were going to end up, they chose to keep their trips small, if frequent.

Samantha smiled to herself as she realised one Wednesday evening, climbing the darkened stairs to Roach’s flat, that the Mimosa Hotel and its skulking, slinking residents no longer frightened her. But she stopped smiling when she realised that probably made her one of them. All of the people in Roach’s apartment, and all of the people in all of the other rooms and corridors and nooks and niches in the Mimosa Hotel all had the same jaded, isolated look on their faces. Like they were prisoners of the hotel, unable to leave. What was this reality compared to the hundreds of others they had seen? What did it do to a person to see a thousand universes and yet remain unchanged in all of them? No matter how many times she or Terry or any of the other gateway users stepped into one of the endless universes, they would always take the step as the same people, with the same beliefs and fears and flaws. They would always return to their same selves. The world around them would change, but they would not.

That night, as Samantha walked through long-dead ruins of her city, she made a decision. The gateways had given her the chance to see so much more than she could have ever imagined, but what worth was a life that was all looking and no doing? In all of the universes and all the realities that she and Terry travelled, they never travelled to the same one together. The gateways were the best trip either of them had ever taken, but it was a lonely one. Samantha decided that she would rather live in just one universe with Terry, than a thousand without him. But Terry didn’t feel the same.

Terry and Samantha broke up.

Samantha wailed to her friends and her parents, inconsolable that he had chosen the gateways over her, although she never told them why Terry had dumped her. Eventually though, she was able to conceal her grief. The night of the Matric dance Samantha was smothered by talk of dresses, and bags, and boys and bitchy teachers while she drowned in apathy.

Samantha had seen a world where people worked to create great, shining skyscrapers of glass and metal. She had seen a world where all the people died, a long time ago and left nothing of themselves except rocks and bones. She had seen the barren beauty of a world where people had never been, where the all the men died and left the women to survive- to thrive, she had seen places and people and possibilities that these girls could never dream of. She may have chosen this universe, but she didn’t have to choose this life.

Samantha decided to find Terry.

She almost ran up the stairs to Roach’s room in her Matric dress and glittery heels. The door was unlocked, as it always was, and hollow-eyed, hopeless wretches bedecked the floor, as they always did. Roach looked at her with vague recognition and nodded her over. Samantha asked for Terry, but Roach only shook his head. She asked again and Roach indicated for her to sit down. Samantha didn’t want to sit down. She asked where Terry was again, feeling panicked tears prick her eyes. Roach stood to look Samantha in the eyes. His face was grave, robbed of the gentle, confused madness that had softened it before. Roach told Samantha that Terry was gone. He had taken too much, too many. He had gone through a gateway and hadn’t come back.

Samantha’s legs crumpled underneath her, and she sat then. Roach told her that Terry had been gone for days. Samantha cried. She should have called him, gone to see him, should have come looking for him sooner. She asked Roach where he had gone. Roach told her there was no way for anyone to know, no way for anyone to follow. But Samantha knew there was hope. Who better to find Terry than Samantha? They were in love. They loved all the same music and movies, had all the same friends and almost never fought. They were meant to be together, and she could follow him. She could find him.

Roach was resistant, but Roach was also reprehensible. He accepted all of Samantha’s money, her phone, her bag and the pretty shoes that matched her Matric dress in exchange for an equal dose to the one Terry had taken. Samantha thought about calling her parents, or her friends to let them know where she was going, but she knew that they would want to follow her too. She knew she had to find Terry alone.

She took the gateways, took a deep breath, lay down and waited to wake up in Terry’s universe.

Terry and Samantha disappeared.