A short story about the darkness of the soul.
“Thank you for having me, Miles,” Clementine Harvey said into the bulbous, expensive microphone in her hand. She flashed an award-winning smile and nestled into the plush seat, assigned for interviewees like herself. She was a guest on Writers Anonymous, a literary podcast interviewing writers about the source of their inspiration. The host of the podcast, Miles Ferris, invited Clementine to the show after hearing rumors about her next book.
“Oh, it’s my pleasure!,” Miles Ferris said excitedly, his own microphone in hand. “I have to admit. I’m a huge fan! Your book, New York Doll, was a huge deal for me. And for so many others. I mean you made the New York Times Bestseller list!”
She nodded slowly and let him have his moment of adoration. “You’re kind of like the patron saint of recovery after addiction!,” he continued with wide twinkling eyes.
Clementine nodded with her smile plastered across her pretty lips and held onto the microphone tightly, hiding the tremors. New York Doll, her debut novel told the story about Dolly, a heroin addict who traversed the depths of Hell to return victorious against her addiction. It was a modern-day Dante’s Inferno and the public loved it! Fame and fortune were hers in spades. Truth was, she method-authored the entire book, diving headfirst into her personal addiction. Dolly’s downward spiral was her own.
“Well, I like to write about issues that are close to home, Miles,” she said, the tone in her voice soft and serious. “But you didn’t bring me here to talk about Dolly, did you?” Her gaze narrowed.
“No, I did not,” Miles said confidently. He shook his head with authority and chuckled. “I want to know about your sophomore novel, Clementine. What darkness do you have brewing inside you?”
Clementine’s eyebrows perked upward at his words. She crossed her legs and settled into seat, her shoulders shimmying slightly, and smirked.
“My next novel is about my own darkness,” she began, speaking with intention. The microphone was steady in her hand. “My very real demons.”
Miles stared at her, mouth slightly agape, floating on every word.
“Let me take you back to the beginning,” she said, her memory flooding with hazy red.
The descent began when Professor Branagh found Clementine shivering and crying naked on her bathroom floor in a puddle of vomit. Like a father, he scooped her up and placed her in the tub, running warm water over his protégé’s body. He watched his bright star, suffering the depths of her addiction by proxy. It was through his tutelage alone that she learned the method-writing technique. He saw a light in her when everyone else saw failure and for that reason alone, Clementine would do anything, endure everything, to make her mentor proud.
“I’m going to lose everything, Professor,” Clementine said, shaking so hard her bones might break. The warm water did nothing to ease her pain.
“I know. I can see what it’s doing to you,” he said, nodding his head and pouring warm water over her arms. He saw them – the red and brown tracks for the first time. Mouth open and with tearful eyes, he stared at them, those begging mouths, hungry for food.
“No, Professor,” she spat annoyedly, splashing bath water onto his brown blazer. “You don’t get it.” Clementine looked up at him, her eyes wet and bloodshot, lips cracked and bleeding. “I have another deal. Well, I had another deal. But I missed too many deadlines, too many meetings. Spent all the money from the advance on…” She sniffed and with one hand scratched at the red sores on her arm! “I have nothing, no ideas. It’s all going to shit!” Branagh wrapped his arms around her and held her sobbing body close as it retched and tried to yank itself free. In that moment, Clementine was his daughter and her pain was his fault.
“They’re going to know, and I’ll lose everything,” Clementine said silently, emerging from an hour-long nap. She had collapsed in his arms and Branagh carried her exhausted, clean body into bed where she slept. Her voice startled him, but it was welcome all the same.
“I won’t let that happen,” Branagh said after a pause that felt like forever. He sat on the expensive ergonomic chair across from her bed, respectful of her space.
“The method can take you to places that no one dares to tread,” he said with resolve. “I was like you once. Brilliant and brave. I did things in my youth that will forever stay with me. They fed into my work. And yes, the stories that were birthed from them were incredible. But, there are limits, Clem. We have to have limits.”
A free hand dipped into the inside pocket of his brown blazer and a small notepad and pen emerged from within. He scribbled something onto it, tore the page, and left the folded note on her nightstand.
“When you’re ready, go to this place. They’ll take care of you,” he said as he trepidatiously released the note to the small glass table. “It’s a place hidden away for storytellers like us. Those who go too far.”
Clementine blinked and shuddered. Why was he speaking in riddles?
“Come back, Clem,” her mentor said before he sadly retreated out of her bedroom. She heard her apartment door close not long after. Clementine leaned over and grabbed the note from her nightstand, unfolding it with one hand:
“157 Orchard Street – Red Corner Den”
The House of Decadence, or Tuífèi zhī jiā in Chinese, was the last of the Chinese-owned and operated opium dens on the East Coast. Those who frequented the establishment lovingly called it the Red Corner Den because it was the last standing red brick tenement on the corner of Orchard and Delancey in the Bowery. There it stood, arguably New York City’s best kept secret in plain sight, a fiery beacon against billowing snowstorms, leading desperate creatives back home.
Clementine leaned into the plump satin cushions of her assigned chaise lounge and watched as one of the Shanghai Sallies, a female Chinese server clad in an ornate, modernized hanfu, kneeling on a small red pillow and preparing her tinderbox and spirit lamp. Sally was a pro, her small fingers rolling the black opium paste into a pea-sized ball. She then held it over the flame of the lamp with a long needle until it glowed golden and swelled. Clementine watched this young woman with glazed eyes. She licked her lips and shivered despite the warmth of her personal loft; remnants of her withdrawal.
Satin curtains depicting Papaver Somniferum bulbs wrapped around the walls, secreting them away like flesh in the womb. The opulent fabrics of the chaise, curtains, and meticulously placed cushions were the color of blood. The low rectangular table and floorboards were made of smooth Makassar ebony. Clearly, the Chinese spared no expense. Madonna’s “Bedtime Story” played on repeat from some hidden sound system, filling the space with ambient electronica; encouraging her to slip into the arms of unconsciousness. An indulgent aroma permeated the air. It all alleviated the ache in her bones.
Before her eyes could roll back, Sally offered the long bamboo pipe with a seductive red grin, visible in the warm light of the spirit lamp. Clementine wrapped her trembling hand around the pipe while Sally pushed the now bubbling paste into the attached metal bowl. Wrapping her lips around the mouth of the pipe, she pressed her cheek onto the tufted crimson pillow and inhaled deeply. Euphoria filled her lungs and the room moved in slow motion. On the moaning exhale, she watched as Fibonacci swirls of sweet smoke danced in the air. She smiled as the loft breathed along with her, expanding and constricting with every pull. In this place, this wanton fixture of depravity, her salvation lied in poppy.
Here she was, this gifted writer caught in the red mouth of rapture and destruction. Her eyes glazed over, pipe in mouth, while white smoke floated from her nostrils. Sally remained there, kneeling on her own red cushion while her hands rolled more of the atramentous paste into a little ball. Clementine watched her work, entranced that such a beautiful thing could be efficient at something so seedy. The paste was stuck onto the end of the needle and placed over the spirit lamp again. The open flame flickered like a lover’s tongue and it was soon bubbling.
“No, no more,” Clementine said, her mouth dry and mind hazy. She had her fill of the dragon. The pain in her body was gone. She’d be good for a while.
“Yes, MORE,” Sally said curtly, her pretty smile now a mean red line.
Clementine tried sitting upright but her body betrayed her. With arms like jelly and her weight a thousand pounds heavier than normal, she collapsed. A rhythmic throb filled her head.
“Professor Branagh says you need this. It’s for your own good,” Sally said, stuffing the heated paste into the metal bowl. “Wǒ xiànzài xūyào bāngzhù!,” she screamed over her shoulder, passed the ornate red curtains, to whomever was lurking beyond the fabric.
“Professor? What?,” Clementine asked groggily. Watery thoughts ebbed and flowed. How could Sally know Professor Branagh? How could she know why I’m here? I’m just here to cure my sick!
Suddenly, two new Shanghai Sallies burst through the silk fabrics! Sally #1 gestured to Sally #2 with a swift head motion, and Sally #2 leapt across the table and onto Clementine’s waist. She gripped the warm opening of the bamboo pipe and held it to Clementine’s mouth, pinching her nose shut. Sally #3 darted behind the chaise and held Clementine’s arms over her head, wrists crossed over each other. Her breath suddenly fought to escape, causing Clementine’s body to start bucking! Yelling into the pipe and suffocating quickly, she surrendered, the weight in her chest too great!
Clementine’s eyes rolled back, and she inhaled deeply, begging to give her lungs some reprieve! The pungent smoke hit her hard and fast making the paste sizzle in the metal bowl. Her bronchioles filled with opium dreams and tears fell from the corners of her eyes. The red curtains were drawn one last time. Her pupils constricted, breathing stopped, and she slipped into an unresponsive state.
An academic figure meekly peaked his head in, eyes fixed on Clementine’s motionless body. Professor Branagh. The Sallies turned to meet him. His lips pursed and he nodded. They responded by quickly releasing her and scurried behind the curtains, leaving Branagh and his overdosed protégé alone inside the red loft.
Clementine took a beat before continuing her tale.
“What happened after you OD’d?,” Miles asked, his eyes wet with tears.
“Well, I woke up at New York Presbyterian,” Clementine tentatively said, making sure the facts were in order. “I was given a dose of Narcan to, you know, get me going again and I survived.”
Miles remained silent, his eyes wide and shocked.
“Professor Branagh was waiting for me when I awoke,” she continued. Miles’ body seized, ready to start a riot on her behalf. Clementine raised her hand and he immediately calmed himself. Down, boy.
“He said the method can lead storytellers like myself down a dangerous road. Oftentimes, to the point of no return. He knew I was incapable of stopping myself from quitting. From coming back home.” She licked her lips and stared off, wandering into memory. “When he gave me the address, I thought he just was giving into my needs. Sating the hungry beast. So I wouldn’t be sick for a while.”
Miles nodded silently, familiar with opiate withdrawal from reading New York Doll.
“But he gave me so much more than that.” Her voice had weight.
“And what was that?,” Miles asked, his curiosity and empathy piqued.
“Revelation,” Clementine said, a delicate smile curling at the corners of her mouth. “Professor Branagh made sure that I got what I needed from the method, and brought me home so that I can finish what I started.”
“Wow,” Miles said, astonished at the controlled chaos she just described. “Where is Professor Branagh now?”
“To be honest, I’m not sure,” she lied, smiling coyly, knowing his whereabouts would be valuable information to the right, and wrong, people. “But wherever he is, I’m sure his experiences are sure to supersede my own. And the writing to come from them are sure to blow everyone away!”
Miles forced a laugh, unsettled at the extent that this writer and her mentor would go simply for the sake of creativity.
“What about the name of your next novel?,” he asked, approaching the conclusion of his interview with his guest. “Are you willing to share?”
She smiled broadly, her expression beaming with pride. “The Red Corner Den.” Clementine’s smile softened thinking of the opium den and its sumptuousness. Lingering aromas from ethereal billows of smoke were just beyond her reach, hidden in her memories. She knew then that the limitlessness of the human experience came in shades of red and held a bitter taste. The rabbit hole goes deeper than bones.