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Pharmakon

You know what you want.

Alix Hawley studied English literature and creative writing at Oxford University, the University of East Anglia and the University of British...

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His name was Jackson. His middle name was Five. See his parents, Carly and Ron, bending over the glass hospital bassinet with its oven-dish look, destining their newborn for showbiz and problems. He didn’t argue with life, though his singing voice never got beyond pleasant and he was white, deeply white, like something born and bred in an ocean trench.

From his childhood, he liked words. He read for the pleasure of letting his eyes jog along, especially self-help books. Carly had heaps of them in the bedroom. She believed in a gentle God, a gentle Jesus, urging us on with crystals and horoscopes. The 1980s versions of the books made him feel swaddled in pastel possibilities. Out-of-print titles like Be Your Best Self Now sent a cozy heat up his spine. The promise, or the threat.

He did catalogue modelling into his teens, and went into acting, rolling from film to film, TV show to TV show, in small parts, often as a tight-lipped henchman or one of a group of handsome vampires looking to conquer a sleepy town. After working on the Hollywood lots for years, he had begun to think mildly of personal change. Maybe screenwriting. Why not? 

His screenplay was always at the back of his mind, though it remained amorphous. The supernatural would probably feature in it. Vampires: maybe yes, maybe no. When he hadn’t had film work for a few weeks and was feeling uninspired, he borrowed a stack of old self-help paperbacks from a library, and took them home to get ideas about emotional truths. On the title page of Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway, he pencilled:

Great title! Amazing for a ghost story script! Turn of the Screw update?

He’d taken a few college courses, and Henry James had always stayed with him, a kind of splinter in his brain that never worked its way out or any farther in. He twirled the pencil between his fingers, blinking at the space for his name at the head of chapter one—this was one of those books that demanded the self in return for the help. He was high at the time, his heart skittering in its chemical bath like a bird in a rain puddle, but logic prevailed. His handwriting had always been a prison-wall scratch. His perfect spelling made it more alarming. He knew this, and who he was. He left the space empty. He would let the book wash over him in its own way.

It asked him to go back to his first memories. This stuff writes itself:

My eyes have been my best feature forever. The makeup ladies always said they’d pay for eyes like mine. But my mom told me when I was five that they’re “a teeny bit too close together, Mr. Potato Head.” She kissed my nose after she said it. She believed in radical honesty! It was a fact!

First-person, fast-forward, in his brain: I have two brothers, I am the middle child, I modelled for Sears and Foot Locker etc., our cat Jiminy was poisoned, Carly collected porcelain baby dolls, Ron watched the news, we had a red Volvo, I sang in the choir, I respect every cell in my body!

Some of his actor friends talked about their early lives as if they’d happened to someone else. What became of that poor little kid, man? But Jackson was fond of his early self, photographing well, singing pleasantly in the school choir, biking into the future. He was fond of his high self, vibrating with the construction site up the street. He was fond of his present book-annotating self, pencil in hand. He claimed all of them as his own.

He sparkled through the static afternoon, lounging on his little pink-stuccoed California balcony with the books, doing a few more lines. When he flipped open the back of the last in the pile, he stopped. Inside the paperback’s end cover was a block of someone else’s handwriting, in rusty ink:

My Future Children already have powerfull names like cowboys Wyatt or Bullet or Wallet or something like that but not that, That will make them winers If I have girls in the Future they will be named Bullet too or Bullette I dont see why NOT This book sucks           

It finished in a bold fat flower with a scarlet heart. He turned the book over: Future You Today. He thumbed through the pages; the writer had noted UNTRUE in the margins several times. The final judgement was PHARMAKON.    

A shot of horror quivered through him. He didn’t know why. He stood up and swayed head-down, elbows on the balcony railing, in a sweat. The writer’s errors grated on his cheerful high, as did the rounded handwriting. It rocketed him back to the school choir, the notes passed from girls’ hot hands, begging advice on their love lives. He liked girls, he liked listening, and he was good at acting like a good listener. He’d always had a sense of a cosmic script, of exactly what to say and when to turn his head towards the sun. He’d had girlfriends since kindergarten, he’d dated plenty since, but he’d never seen himself in any romantic comedy. No wedding stories, no Dadbod roles in Christmas movies. He didn’t want to write any either. He looked down at the scattered books: Welcome to Getting-To-Know U. The Man You’re Meant to Be. Your Erogenous Zones.

He raised his head and looked up pharmakon on his phone. A remedy or a poison, it reported: you decide. Also a band. The irritation of ignorance passed, and he snorted. He still had the book in his hand. Here were the tracks of a madwoman. With perfect handwriting. And total certainty, perhaps in her ability to argue with the future, or that there was no future? Her impulse to write this down for unknown readers’ benefit threw him. He was out of coke.

He slumped on the lounge chair and called Reza, his occasional dealer and oldest friend. When they were younger, he’d sometimes thought of him as his imaginary friend, forgetting him when he wasn’t around, surprised to see him when he turned up at the door. Reza sounded tired now but high too, just off a night shift at the hospital where he was a resident. He’d taken up gynaecology in a last-minute med school swerve away from surgery, hoping to avoid broken bones. It hadn’t helped much. Over the phone he groaned, Oh man, the stuff people do to themselves. This woman put mayonnaise where the sun don’t shine, swear to—

A bar of clouds parted above the balcony railing, and at once Jackson understood everything. He cut Reza off: Can you listen? It’s important that you hear this. I’m remembering something. I’m remembering so hard. I read National Geographic when I was a kid, really young. Remember the one about Pompeii? It was on the cover.

Wearily Reza said no. Jackson carried on in a greater rush: There was a picture of a painting on a wall there, a couple—they looked bored, I thought. I thought that! Even when I was, like, seven! Like they knew they would get buried by the volcano and would never see anything like the invention of the car or the washing machine. And also there was a picture of this woman, the way they imagined she would have looked, she was just a skeleton in the ruins, but they drew her with muscle, then fat, then skin and hair. And she was pregnant! They found some of the fetus’s bones. And there was a dog in the room too!

Right, Reza said. Was she hot? Hey, you up for waffles? I can be there in half an hour.

She was kind of hot. But listen, why didn’t they show what the fetus might have looked like in real life? Why no muscle and fat and skin for him? Or her, I guess.

I don’t know, how would they do that? It was a fetus. Even ultrasounds make all babies look like identical larvae. They get the sex wrong half the time. Surprise, Mommy, you bought all the wrong stuff—

Reza, Reza, dude, listen! Have you seen my baby pictures? I looked like the Pampers kid. Dimples and all that shit. Did I ever show you those catalogues I was in? So I’m still cute—

Right, as a jar of mayonnaise. Oh God, I’m sick.

Reza often said he was sick. Jackson didn’t let it slow his mind: No, I mean, maybe that was peak cuteness. Maybe that’s it. I mean, I’m satisfied with my life, I’m in the moment, but what if I hadn’t looked like that at the start? If I hadn’t been cute, maybe I would have had a whole different existence?

Reza sighed hard. He said, You want me to bring you something? I might have a couple of Ativan in the car.

No. I’ll call you later. Think about what I said, though. Think about it.

Jackson tossed the phone to the floor. It bounced off Getting Better. He played a famous actor’s evil twin in a night-time soap episode last year. It was a fraternal twin.

He paced the tight balcony. Future You felt suddenly closer. Unshaven and slouching, passive-aggressive, occasionally visiting such escorts as advertised in free local papers, holding a dull eternal grudge. Potato-headed.

Jackson looked again at the writing in the book, the red flower opening at the end of the sentence instead of punctuation. Maybe he should have children. His brothers did. Their kids were cute, but nothing special, and they seemed to wake daily at the crack of dawn, lamenting. Winers. This consoled Jackson a little. He picked up the phone again. 

*

Anyone would want to see Pompeii. He wanted to see it, really understand what it meant to him, but there were no cheap flights. Greece was incredibly cheap, though, since the crash. He had enough points for Reza to go too, although they had three plane changes just to get to Athens, then had to board a ferry to the all-inclusive in Faliraki. On the boat, Reza sat with his head dangling and his eyes half-shut. Across from them was a family of what looked like fairly recent refugee arrivals, the father carrying one of those plaid plastic sacks you always see being carried by queues of people on the news. This family still had a landless look. The kids held on tightly to the seat edges. The father watched the water with his head moving slightly all the time, like a boxer’s, waiting to duck or weave. Jackson poked Reza and said low, Why would they pick a party town to go and live in? With little kids?

Reza looked up for a moment and made doctor eyes. He said, Due in about three weeks. Shouldn’t be going anywhere. He nodded towards the mother. Jackson could tell he was annoyed at not being able to help somehow. Not that the family were asking for help. They kept entirely to themselves, looking out at the waves. There’s self-help, Jackson thought. He smiled at the round-bellied mother in her headscarf. The boat smelled like freedom.  

The little dock smelled like bilge, but the water was gorgeous. Greece, birthplace of acting! The thought of going unrecognized here was cool, although once they settled at the resort’s all-you-can-drink bar and had a few, Jackson asked for a telephone book and idly looked up his name. Maybe some Greek self existed. Hello! What is your life like here? Party-crashing, car-crashing, carnal carnival? There was no such person in what he could read of the Faliraki phone book, anyway. The alphabet here looked mutilated.

He clinked his glass against Reza’s and said, Who can understand the greasy workings of the criminal mind? Cheers.

It was a line from a vampire cop drama he’d been in once. Reza looked overheated. He slugged back his beer and said, I need some meds. 

For what? You always think you’re sick, man. Everything is fine. You’re not in a hospital for once, we’re here! No hysterectomies or whatever! Jackson clinked his glass five more times.

Reza shook his head and said, I’m still seasick. The floor is still moving. I shouldn’t be here.

Do you have anything?

I wasn’t going to carry drugs through four international airports, dumbass.    

All right then, fine! Let’s get out of here. See us some sights!

Reza tipped over. Jackson held him up by the elbow. The bartender was pimpled and young and British, like a lot of the staff. There didn’t seem to be many Greeks working in this place. Jackson said, Where’s the nearest pharmacy, mate?

His English accent was effortless. The Brit said to head out the main gates, turn right, right again, can’t miss it, mate. He didn’t blink as they staggered off into the afternoon.

FARMAKEIO. The hand-lettered sign made Jackson burst out laughing. He said, Pharma hey-o! After you, my friend.

Reza walked as if all of Greece were a boat. Inside, under the harsh strip of fluorescent light down the centre of the dark aisle, he looked worse, the warmth in his brown face and dark eyes sucked away. He swayed to the back counter where a white-coated man was measuring some powder. Jackson didn’t like the atmosphere. He headed for the door. Behind him Reza was saying something that didn’t sound English or Greek. It sounded desperate, like the last question in the world.

Have you change?

Jackson was blinking outside in the clean sun when he heard it. He turned, and she could have been a talking marble statue in a bikini top and wraparound skirt. She was pale, like him, but with a broad brow and long wet black hair. She shook it now and spoke again: On the beach I lost my little purse. 

He laughed, and she laughed too. That was all it took. He said, You’re not from here, are you?

You’re not from here, are you?

Her voice was slippery. When she repeated him, she sounded a hundred percent American, but her first words hung in the air: I loast my little purse. She could be British by way of elsewhere. She could be a model from a former Soviet state. He knew the type, they ended up as vampire extras pretty frequently. The body was a giveaway: underfed but busty. He felt for his wallet in his pocket and said: What money do you use here? Euros or dollars?

She shrugged and stood waiting. She didn’t look at his wallet. She seemed to be looking at his waist, and lower. He said, Well, I could help you look for your little purse. On the beach.

All right, she said. Oll right. She crossed the street and he followed, forgetting Reza behind in the dark shop, forgetting most things.

*

She knew a different beach. That was where they were going. As they walked she asked him how he liked Greece. Griss. He said he’d like to go to a play here, a classical play, maybe see some art, soak up the whole vibe for his screenplay. He said he was thinking of calling it Farmakeio. Or Pharmakon! Maybe a musical. She listened. He told her how there were only male actors in ancient times, and they wore lady masks for the female parts. The gods used to fly in on cranes.

She said, Yes, the gods. Goads.

Right? Wonderful stories, wonderful. All stories come from here.

He noticed his own words shape-shifting a little. Come from hier. Occupational hazard. He would keep his Rs in check, stop them rolling around, at least. He paid attention to his mouth.

The sidewalks were so hot his feet cooked through his flip-flops, the traffic stank and moaned, but they kept talking and walking. After they crossed a busy road lined with industrial-looking buildings, he asked her what she’d needed change for, and she said crisply, For lady things. For a moment then he missed Reza, or realized he wasn’t imaginary, but Reza’s knowledge of lady things was miserably scientific. He’d told Jackson on the plane that he was trying to invent some new way for birth to happen. He said it needed an overhaul.

The beach, when they reached it at the end of a long street of apartments, was sheltered, a small cove with glittering light sand. Jackson said, Wow, is this private?

She said, You know what you want.

She was smiling right up to her tilted blue eyes. She sounded fully American again. Her words could be a self-help title. He smiled back, and she went to sit near the water’s edge, her long legs tapering before her into the shallows, and he followed, thinking hard. What did he want? What did his heart want from this island? 

His heart whined. It wanted a little bump. The drinks from the bar were fortified by the sun, but they weren’t doing it. As if she heard, she turned, twisting her rope of damp hair, and said gently, Perhaps a pill? For a little change?

He admired her syntax. He said, Read my mind. You’re a goddess, you know? A goadess.

He couldn’t help himself. But she laughed and pulled a small manila envelope from a fold in her skirt. She shook a blue-green tablet from it. He thought generously from the pill’s perspective:

            Change you.

            Make you new.

            Make you again.

            Make you at least half something else.

Okay, he said, and swallowed it. It caught in his throat and tasted chalky, like antacid. Maybe it was antacid. She popped one too. She went into the sea and he closed his eyes.

*

When she came out, she was backlit by the falling sun. He couldn’t see her face. Water drops were hanging off her edges like a fur. A goddess. A doggess. A sea-wolf, a she-wolf. Why not a wolf, why not?

            I’ll give you something to howl about.

            I’ll give you fur.

            I’ll give you teeth.

            I’ll give you jaws.

            I’ll give you slobber and a heartbeat.

This high was an electric shimmer, elastic, infinite expansion, containing multitudes. The purest happiness, the purest want. He wanted a mate, to mate with. The sun was almost down now, and he could see it coming: the moonlit beach, the sand gone silver, the ocean washing in blackly, him on her, belly to her back, both spines hunched and shuddering. He could run back to the Farmakeio and get condoms. Thoughtful and sensitive, right? But no! He wanted to impregnate her. Swell her with a whole litter of young. Spread them over the earth. Start everything again. 

He peeled off his shirt and looked down at himself. He had never been hairy. A diamond patch between his pectorals, a thin trail down his stomach. A little red glinted in this, though his head was cardboard brown. A relic from some Viking ancestors! Where it counts! He was hairier now, he could see it catching all down his torso and legs in the last of the daylight.

Her mouth caught his and took his breath away. They sank into the damp sand together. Her nails were long, her teeth were long. Her skin smelled musty, salty, like the inside of something. Full of some kind of contained ancient rage. It shook around in her like a diamond ring stuck in a thin-necked vase. He could nearly hear the pinging as she moved, but her breathing was so loud. She pulled away from him abruptly and a string of thick drool hung between them, lit by the stars. He tugged at her bikini top. He tried to gaze on her body but could only see bright words flashing in his head: Filthy. Shivering. Gorgeous. Stink.

She bit his shoulder. He yelped and bit hers back. His teeth sank in satisfyingly, and his mind bathed in old stories of transformation. His skin prickled with hair now. She coughed and spat out one of his. He grabbed for her hips and she twisted away with a snarl. Her skirt came off, caught in his nails. Her furred tail struck his face. He tried to be playful, he tried to say Show me your little purse, but only a clogged snarl came out of his own throat. When she lifted her head and howled, neck stretched and jaws wide, he did the same, unthinking, a few notes above hers. 

The word that flashed neon now across the night sky was Future. Future. There was nothing else but their howling. Reza back there had the right idea, to fade out of this world. The woman’s howl ended in a little laugh or a sob. He could picture her trying to clutch a pen in her paw, the madwoman writing inside a book about her future children, all murderers with cowboy names. In his head he talked calmly in his best self-soothing voice-over:         

            Italy.

            I should go there.

            Not that far. It’s ancient too. But not as ancient.

            Where Rome is.

            And, like, Pompeii.           

He tried again to speak aloud, and almost managed Rome and Pompeii. Distantly he thought of the picture he’d remembered from National Geographic. The woman, her found bones, then the face they’d drawn for her. Quick and dead. Re-fleshed, without her agreement, long after the ancient disaster. And her anonymous fetus unseen. Who knows what it would have turned out to be. 

He began to walk along the Greek beach, the pads of his paws flinching from the leftover heat in the sand. She moved ahead and led, panting gently. Around the bend of the cove, through some sharp rocks, was a longer beach. There they had to climb over a heap of rubbery remains near the shore, life vests and dinghies the hundreds of migrants had abandoned after landing. Shadows of other wolves or dogs ran past, some in small packs, some alone. The lights of the beach bars flared on a rise farther ahead.

The beach seemed to stretch. The water rushing in and out beside him made him feel thirsty, and as if he were creeping along life’s very edge. Booms of talk and laughter came across the dark from the distant bars, as though gods were there, waiting to see what had come after them, how it all fell. The female was some way ahead now. He knew he was himself, and was behind, but he crawled on, trying to get to where the voices were, although they were very far away.

Alix Hawley’s new novel, My Name Is a Knife, will be published August 2018 by Knopf Canada.

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