Five years ago a couple of chemistry and psych majors from a small Texas university got together over a Bunsen burner, hoping to create some trippy new designer drug that would make the weekend doldrums a bit more bearable. Pot’s passé, LSD’s dangerous—I don’t know what their reasoning was and I don’t really care, either, because it doesn’t change what they made. They tested whatever the hell it was on themselves. White rats are apparently too expensive for people dicking around with hard-to-find chemicals. One of the students sickened from a trial batch, and one of them lost most of the feeling in his lips, but no one was killed or reduced to a vegetative state. If someone had died right away things might’ve been a bit different for the rest of us, but that’s stupid to think about. “What’s done is done.” Something.
Anyway, they found what they wanted in the end. I did, too, eventually.
I got a call from a guy named Mark at 3:00 AM on Tuesday. He used Charity’s phone, where my phonebook entry name reads Charlie—beautiful bitch CALL IF DRUNK. Mark said Charity was at his place. He’d thrown a party and she’d been the last in attendance with no way home. I didn’t bite his head off for waking me up the night before a major chemistry exam. This was about Charity. I put on my shoes, grabbed my cars keys, and asked for his address.
Mark lived halfway out of town in a gated community. He waited with Charity at the gatehouse. Charity sat hunched on the curb at his feet, hair framing her bowed head like a curtain. As I pulled up I watched Mark grab Charity by the elbows and tug, hard, to make her stand. Drunk, I decided, but then she walked the ten feet to my car without stumbling. Charity always stumbled when she drank.
“I think she might be tripping,” he said when I got out of my truck, but I didn’t respond as I walked to the passenger side. Mark and Charity trailed behind, her head still bowed as we shepherded her into the pickup cab and onto the black bench seat. When we got her in and buckled (a process she did nothing to speed, leaving her arms hanging wooden at her sides), he repeated, “I think she was doing drugs.”
“Probably,” I said, and because I was supposed to, “Thanks. For not just leaving her, I mean.”
“Yeah,” he said. I could tell he was tired and pissed behind exterior civility. I felt the same way, only I was also worried. Then again, I was always worried about something and it wasn’t like this was the first time I’d been worried over Charity. Or Charity and drugs, for that matter. Watching her drop out of school and start using had sent my blood pressure on a steady upward climb.
“I’ll get her home,” I said as I walked to the driver’s side. Mark hovered by the headlights like a ghost, body swimming in swirls of golden dust. “Thanks again.”
“Are you sisters?” he asked. When I stared at him, one foot on the floorboards and the other on the pavement, he added, “I’d be pissed, having to come out this late.”
I said, “I’m used to it.” I got in the car so I could roll my window down. “Thanks again,” I called. I backed down the driveway, craning my head out the window. My rearview mirror had fallen off months before. Mark had vanished by the time I looked back.
Charity and I grew up together. I was into paper-mache volcanoes; she was into crayons, and eating them. We lived three blocks from one another, well within the range of training wheels and scooters. We bonded on my kitchen floor while our mothers baked cookies. If we were good they promised to take us swimming at the local YMCA, and we were always good, though that was mostly my fault. Charity wanted to paint the walls with ketchup and dig up Mom’s begonias to look for buried treasure. I hid the ketchup bottle and told her I was allergic to flowers. She put up with me because I was the only kid in a neighborhood otherwise filled with the geriatric. In the end we made a decent pair, I guess.
Charity was the creativity. I was the analyst. She took things beyond face value, searching for meanings hidden deep beneath layers of grown-up assumption and assigned value. A broken flower pot became a crown, a bug became a dragon. I was always the knight to her princess, the wicked to her witch, the too-literal thorn in her imaginative side. Still, despite my occasional inability to go along with her schemes, she never gave me up as a lost cause. “Then you can be the mad scientist,” she’d tell me when I told her I didn’t believe in evil wizards. “Go build a volcano to destroy the earth and I’ll come blow it up, because I’m the good guy.”
She never tried to make me feel like the bad guy. That comes from something in me.
Charity didn’t blink when I said, “I have to be in class in a few hours, you know.” Her silence didn’t surprise me. Charity had never much cared for tardy policies. As I rolled up my window and took the ramp onto the highway, I added, “Can you hear me or are you too high?”
Her head lolled against the back windshield as I drove, a strand of hair falling between her parted lips as she smiled, smiled, smiled out at the lampposts and houses and cars flickering past. I didn’t press her to talk. Her eyes found my reflection in the window and glimmered with recognition.
“Hi, Charlie,” she said in a small voice. It wasn’t quiet, exactly, or gentle, just small. I didn’t have any trouble hearing her over the air bursting through my open window.
“Hi, Charity,” I said.
She made a hollow puh-TOO noise, forcing the hair out of her mouth with her tongue and breath. “Hi,” she repeated.
“How much did you smoke?” I asked. “Were you smoking?”
“I took Sweet,” she said.
My vision tunneled. I think I almost drove the car off the road.
“I’m sorry, I think I just hallucinated,” I said. My tone was playful, light, open; my chest felt tight, claustrophobic, crushed. “Wanna run that by me again?”
Innocence marked her. She said, “I took Sweet.”
The chemistry and psych majors’ drug starts by giving the user a burgeoning sense of calm, one that swells in the chest before bursting like a flood. Users find themselves feeling languid and at ease once that euphoric orgasm dies down. About an hour after initial consumption (time varying based on the user’s weight and metabolism) they begin to smile uncontrollably. It’s a reassuring sort of smile, not too big or too small or too creepy, a smile you’d expect on the face of a Buddha or maybe even Gandhi. Takers look around themselves with unerring composure, wondrously absorbing the sight of everyday objects as though seeing them for the first time. Everything seems to jive just right with their inner monologue. I’ve heard of someone starting to cry, overjoyed, at the sight of a spinning windmill.
Some takers hum tuneless songs that are hard to hear. None of them sing. If pressed, they will describe what they feel. They use the words “happy” and “content,” but none of the users will ever start waxing poetic on the subject. In fact, it’s rare that any of them even speak unless forced. They sit in silence, smiling and retreating into some private world from which they wake up in a short few hours. Once the process is over they shrug and tell you that you’d have to experience it for yourself, really, I don’t think I can talk about it just yet.
The chemistry majors and psych students at that small Boston university named the drug “Sweet,” because one of them said he felt that way, after.
“Why?” was all I could ask.
“Why not?” came Charity’s response. Her fingers traced patterns on her jacket.
“That’s not an answer.”
“Because it just isn’t, Charity.”
She hummed a little. She sat up straighter so she could peer out the windshield in fascination.
“I can see what’s in your headlights, but only for a second, and then it’s gone,” she marveled. “The trees are there and then they disappear forever. If I’m not looking they don’t exist.”
Sweet is not addictive. There aren’t any “users,” or “junkies,” or people with “Sweet-teeth” as the preachers and politicians used to say back when Sweet hit the market. “I learned what I needed to learn,” most takers will tell people who ask if they crave another hit. Takers act as if by a combination of chemicals in a glossy red pill they discovered everything about life worth their precious time. “I’m happy now. I don’t need more than what I’ve got. Stop asking.”
I kept one eye on Charity and one eye on the road ahead. I asked, “How long ago did you take it? Can you throw it up?”
Charity’s head lolled my way; she was scowling, the expression knifing through her Sweet-happy haze like a butcher’s knife. “It’s too late for that,” she said.
“Won’t know till you try,” I said, readying a finger to shove down her throat.
“Like you’d know,” she said, turning back to the window.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
She matched my question with one of her own. She had work to get the bleak words out through the web of Sweet.
“Where were you when I really needed help?” she said.
I stared at the road, hard. The yellow dashes marking the road’s center glimmered before vanishing under the truck’s left wheel. I imagined I was squashing them one by one, that every ten feet I committed murder.
“I don’t need help now, Charlie,” she said, voice soft and full of understanding. “But now that I don’t need it, you want to give it more than ever. It’s too late. You’re too late.”
Charity and I started kindergarten together, both sporting lunch boxes bigger than our heads and enough pencils to fund a small army of journalists. The Moms dropped us off with tearful kisses and squishy hugs but neither Charity nor I felt homesick or scared like so many of our classmates. We had each other, after all what was there to be scared of?
Bullies, for one thing, bullies and germs. I figured out I was more scared of the latter than the former, and then the former picked up on the latter, and then they were picking boogers out of their noses and chasing my neurotic five-year-old self around the playground like Wile E. Coyote after the roadrunner, only I wasn’t fast enough to outdistance them every time. Charity was the one to go totally against her name and shove them back, screaming to leave me alone or she’d tell teacher, I swear to God I will, but whenever she wasn’t around they liked to pick up where they left off.
The bullying continued until the first grade, when Charity gave one of the kids a black eye and said that if they told on her she’d karate chop them. Tae Kwon Do had made her tough. I think she learned it for my sake but she would never admit to anything.
I didn’t know what to say. I settled on gripping my steering wheel as if it were trying to fly out the open window. My hands would have shaken otherwise. Charity stared out into the night and smiled, smiled as if our conversation and her accusations had never been voiced.
“I just don’t understand,” I managed a few miles later.
Her smile didn’t waver when her head fell to one side, tapping against the window with the sound of a hollow coconut. Her face reflected darkly in the glass; the twisted image looked more like my Charity than the wraith in my passenger seat.
“You’re not supposed to,” she said, all dreamy and at peace and calm, and for a second I found myself hating her. “Poor Charlie.”
“Poor me,” I echoed.
The fact that Sweet does not facilitate addiction was the main reason it was not outlawed when it rose to popularity during 2020 and 2021, spreading happy smiles and quietness in its wake. It also helped that several senators of note tried the drug, believed in its effects, and quietly put down what few motions were proposed to make it illegal, or at least a prescription drug. It passed from hot-button topic to something as mundane as Tylenol with hardly a hiccup to impede its progress.
Sweet is an anti-depressant more effective than any in existence, said some.
Perfection is hollow without tasting Sweet, said others. Whatever that means.
“Where did you get it?” I asked after a few more miles whipped by. “Sweet, I mean.”
Her smile grew. “A friend. A good new friend.”
“Did you plan on taking it tonight?”
My mouth opened. Then it closed. “You mean you took Sweet on a whim?”
Her eyes were miles away when she said, “Of course not.”
A part of me felt relieved.
“It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time.”
Those words would have killed me had I not been so intent on taking Charity safely home.
Our friendship confused people. Charity was the small spitfire of a girl with the beautiful face and black curls; I was the quiet one with mousy features and enough nerves to power a rocket ship. But she never abandoned me, not even when the popular girls tried to bring her into their fold and told her I was a nerd who should only merit disgust.
“Charlie’s not so bad,” she’d always tell them, sneaking a sideways glance at me. “Charlie’s the smartest.”
When they were gone she’d mimic one of their walks, or a particularly piggy face, until I laughed, and she said we should go play in the mud on the playground, because it had rained the night before and the worms would be out and wriggling.
I kept glancing at the fuel gauge. I hadn’t checked it before running off after Charity; the needle hovered a little over empty but we still had miles to go. The prospect of getting stuck in the middle of nowhere with Charity in the Sweet state wasn’t something I liked to think about. I pulled off the road at a truck stop to fuel up, telling her to wait in the car while I pumped. She didn’t acknowledge me, eyes closed as she hummed nothings into the watery fluorescent lights under the gas station awning.
I figured I should get some food in her; it’s what you did for drunks, so why not Sweeties? I had to do something for her, anyway; if I didn’t I’d go nuts.
And I did go nuts. I bought a bag of pistachios, her favorite, and two cups of coffee. The cashier looked at me with a critical eye when I approached the counter. He said, “Hope you don’t mind my sayin’, but you don’t look so good.”
He wore an old Rockets jersey and he had skinny arms dappled with purple liver spots but I didn’t see anything but fatigue, crassness, and just a little smudge of humane concern in his rheumy eyes. They lacked Charity’s disturbing clarity. Good thing, too, because I don’t think I could have handled that right then. I opened my wallet and carefully extracted enough crisp bills to pay for the food.
“My friend just took Sweet,” I said. I immediately regretted speaking. My fingers twitched as I put my wallet back in my hoodie’s pocket. The leather felt cold and slick, and then I didn’t regret speaking anymore. I wanted human contact. I didn’t care whose so long as it wasn’t Sweet.
The cashier sized me up before making a face expressing sympathy. He slowly dragged the pistachios across the price scanner. “My girlfriend did it a month or two ago,” he said, tone pitched low.
My breathing stopped, then started. “Is she different?”
“But is she still… her?”
The cash register door opened with a pop. “No.” He counted my change and held it out. “Yes. She’s still her. Just…”
He faltered, pushing the door shut with a ping. I said, “Sweeter.”
Charity changed after her parents’ divorce but I think that’s to be expected of most seventh graders. It’s my fault, it has to be, were my grades not good enough, please make it all make sense, Charlie—I heard it all because Charity never showed how much it hurt at school, or in front of her parents, or in front of the people who could have stopped what happened next. It shouldn’t have been me but it was me she came crying to, a kid who didn’t know the first thing about handling depression or whatever it was that changed her. She wondered what she’d done wrong and how she could fix it. I watched her stop imagining and writing and drawing and start buying makeup by the pound. The cosmetics did little to hide the vulnerability she didn’t want to show. We stopped seeing each other as often because she had to spend half of the year’s weekends with her dad and his new girlfriend in another subdivision.
She got her first boyfriend in the ninth grade; I covered for her so she could spend the night at his house and lose her virginity on their second date. Skipping school, drinking, hurting herself in ways I tried not to think about, I’d be an idiot to discount drugs—she did things I would never do because I was too scared to break the rules for which she held nothing but disdain. I made excuses not to go with her when she invited me out to hang with her older crowd: They’re so cool Charlie, they can buy alcohol and it’s so fun, you should try it.
I probably shouldn’t have avoided her. I guess I was too much of a coward to ask for a one-on-one sleepover, a reenactment of the play dates we used to have.
I watched her through the windshield, walking back to the truck slowly to buy us time we didn’t have. Charity’s silhouette stood out against the silvered glass like a stain; I saw her lean forward, breathe, and fog up the windshield with no trouble. She raised a steady hand and drew a star in the condensation.
Vapor rose from my cup of coffee, and for a moment I was blind and my hands shook.
Charity’s star had faded when my vision cleared.
She ran away from home in the eleventh grade. Charity didn’t show up for eight terrifying weeks, ones I spent becoming an insomniac and printing out missing-child posters, and when she did show up it was at a truck stop in the middle of Nebraska. She couldn’t remember how she’d gotten there, only that she had been heading to Vegas with a caravan of new-age-Romani and that they must have left her behind when she took too long in the bathroom.
After that she dropped out of high school to wait tables. I stayed in town for college but the only times I ever saw her were when she got drunk and needed a ride home.
I put the pistachios on her lap when I got back in the truck. When she didn’t move to open them I took the task upon myself, tearing the plastic bag with a crumple and pouring the nuts into my hand. I cracked one open, carefully placed the shells in a small Dixie cup I’d snagged off the truck stop’s condiment counter. I held the naked nut out to Charity.
“Please eat it,” I said, and she did.
She started crying. “It is so good,” she mumbled into her hands. I tried not to scream at her to quit that, it’s embarrassing, STOP IT.
Instead, I asked, “Why did you take Sweet?”
“Why not?” she said.
Sweet changes people. There aren’t many who contest otherwise. The change is something you can see in their eyes, as recognizable as a burst blood vessel or a pulsing stye. It’s a perfect stillness, the type I thought you could only find in the eyes of sages or priests on enlightenment’s cusp. The look speaks of acceptance, of unyielding love, and of knowledge so vast the universe starts getting small.
I want to shatter that look.
Desperation made me shudder when I tried taking my coffee cup out of the holder below the radio. “What about your mom and dad?” I asked, taking a sip I didn’t taste.
“What about them?”
I gaped. “What about…”
Her head rolled my way on a boneless neck but her eyes had slipped closed. She wasn’t crying anymore. “They’ll be fine,” she said. “I’m sure they will.”
“But if Sweet…”
Bright eyes opened. I wanted to punch her. “Everything will be fine,” she said, speaking slowly, and then she chuckled with warm humor. “I’ve given them so much trouble.”
“That’s no excuse to kill yourself!” I said, stabbing my keys into the truck’s ignition. I shifted it into gear with the engine roaring and slammed out onto the highway.
It wasn’t until 2022 that the sudden rash of human disintegrations tearing up the news networks and Sweet were linked. They called it “ashing,” and they called Sweet unwitting self destruction.
The only ones who seemed to care were those who hadn’t taken Sweet.
“You’re going to die, Charity,” I said, foot leaden on the gas. “Do you not understand that?”
“I was always going to die,” she said. With firm fingers she rolled down the window and held her hand out into rushing dark. “Before Sweet and after, too.”
“You chose this. Choosing death is suicide.”
“You can’t choose to not die,” she said, hand out with fingers spread so the wind could pass over and through them. “No one wants to live forever. Who would want to live forever?” Her hand clenched into a fist, pushed back by the motion of the car until her elbow went taut. “You could die right now,” she said. She pulled her hand back into the car and placed her other fingers on my knee, stroking. “Don’t get angry. Don’t worry. You can’t control it.”
I didn’t say anything. I pressed harder on the gas. The speedometer climbed from 65 to 70. Her fingers dragged up my thigh and then pulled away.
“You could lose control of the car right now,” she said in that sing-song voice. She huddled close to her window. “The brakes could fail and you could die. But you chose to get in this car, didn’t you? You turned the key in the starter and pushed the gas. So your death would be a suicide.”
I said, “That’s different.”
The needle climbed to 80.
“Yes,” I said. “Risk is living.”
I’ve only ever seen one person ash. I was on my way to a biology lecture, thinking about the test I was going to take, worrying that I hadn’t studied enough, barely seeing as I tumbled inside my head. Two people walked in front of me. I didn’t notice either of them—I saw them but I didn’t see them, the way you do with strangers—until the girl on the right stopped walking. The girl on the left took two steps and stopped. She turned back and asked, “Sarah?”
Sarah didn’t move. She crumbled. Skin imploded into dark grey heat and cracked inward, bursting out in a shower of pale dust. No sounds, no flames, no hoopla or grand finale or trumpets blaring just ash that hit the ground long after Sarah’s untouched clothes fell in on themselves, an invisible girl with garments too heavy to bear for another moment.
Sarah’s friend (her calm friend with placid eyes that understood everything and shared little in return, Sweet eyes, eyes I didn’t want to meet) stared at the dark pile for a second. Then she rummaged in her bag and snapped a picture with her cell phone, dialing the dead girl’s mother, saying, “Mrs. Kane? Sarah ashed. Yeah, I took a pic. I’ll text it to you. Bye.”
I couldn’t move. Sarah did. Her ashes scattered as the wind picked up and tossed her pale blue shirt across the sidewalk.
Charity, oblivious of the hair in her face and the air blasting through the window, said, “You didn’t choose to be born. You didn’t choose to take that risk. Your parents chose to make you, and you’re going to die.” She giggled. “Are they murderers?”
85 MPH, getting faster. “Shut up.”
“So I’m going to die,” she said. “I’m going to turn to ash, and I’m going to die. But you’ll die too. The only difference is that I know how I might go. I’m going to explode and become a part of the universe. Death is now my choice.”
Something inside me burst. “Why don’t I just flip this car right now and see what kills you?” I ground out. The needle climbed higher: 90 and rising. “Is that risk better than your fucking certainty?” My hands shuddered on the wheel and for one dizzy moment I saw the image just as it would be: the skid of tires, the world tipping sideways as we flipped, the sky becoming ground when we rolled, the roof crunching in on us and smashing my head apart like a melon filled with red. Charity wouldn’t scream, she’d just smile and welcome the oncoming black, but I’d scream, I’d scream so loud that—
Charity put a hand on my arm and I was crying. I took my foot off the gas and pressed the brakes, watching the red needle plummet down to 70 as we slid forward in our seats. At 50 I really started slamming, hammering away at that brake like it could save her life and mine at once. Charity’s head snapped forward, bam, against the dashboard, and then it went back like her neck was made of straw, but she didn’t say a word or cry out in pain. The gravel on the highway’s shoulder made my tires skid but we didn’t flip when I scrambled blindly for the keys and killed the engine, face pressed into the steering wheel so I could sob and not look at her while I did it. The din of the horn filled the dark as my headlights powered off.
There’s no time limit on death by Sweet. There doesn’t seem to be a connection between actions taken prior to ashing and the act of ashing itself. Some of the chemistry majors and psych students from that small university in Boston who took the first batch of Sweet are still alive today. Some probably will be for a long time. Some died within weeks, some after a year. I’ve heard of people ashing seconds after they take the pill. There have been cases of old people taking Sweet and dying of natural causes without ever ashing at all. A few have died in accidents before Sweet killed them. Not enough time has passed to tell if anyone my age can live a full life before Sweet comes for them, but people are trying.
Now Charity is one of them, I guess. I thought about that as I cried against the steering wheel. How long did she have? How long did I have to be with her?
Charity put her hands on my back and cooed, rubbing to soothe. It worked. When I finally felt I could look at her she was covered in blood from the face down, the dash had broken her nose. I took off my jacket and started blotting the red from her skin. The feel of denim on her freckles made her laugh, made my fingers shake. She took my hands and pushed them to her lap. She leaned forward and pressed her forehead to mine.
“Hey, Charlie,” she said. She tucked my hair behind my ear, slicking my temple with her blood.
“Hi,” I told her. “Hey?”
The answer, if there were one, struck me as stupidly simple, sadly simple. “Come over,” I said. “Let’s watch a movie. Order pizza. Just… hang out.” I swallowed and touched her sticky cheek. “Like we used to.”
She giggled. She agreed. I don’t know if Sweet made her pliant or if she actually wanted to be with me but that night she was mine again, the way she’d been when we were kids.
I knew I’d be hers until she stopped being anything at all.