Mikhail and his best friend, Ivan, hurried down one of the many abandoned streets on the outskirts of town. While society had forgotten that neck of the woods, the addicts had made it their home; it was endless square footage without any modern comforts. With the sun at their backs, the two vagrants raced against their own shadows. The finish line was another hit, another score. They only had an hour, maybe two, before they’d get dope sick again.
“Come on you fucking pussy! We can’t let anyone beat us to Sophia.” Displeased by Ivan’s lack of effort, Mikhail’s command was laced with a heavy dose of disgust. He didn’t normally talk to Ivan that way, but there was too much at stake. Withdrawal was fucking hell.
“I’m running! Jesus! What the fuck’s wrong with you?” Talking only slowed Ivan’s pace.
“She’s the only one with dope that we can afford. We’re not the only broke junkies in this shit town.”
There was only a few hours of sunlight left. The desert’s frigid cold would overtake the summer’s heat. Just a few miles away from Kazakhstan’s northern border, Novokuznetsk had once been a trade haven that boomed with economic promise. Heroin smugglers from Afghanistan changed that. For decades, they pumped massive quantities of the drug through Kazakhstan and into Russia. Heroin crippled the town, along with the rest of the country. One of Mikhail’s teachers at the orphanage called the whole drug trade “narco-terrorism.” After the Soviet Union collapsed, the rate of decay worsened.
The buildings that bordered the road that they were running down reminded Mikhail of Saving Private Ryan. The boys had an ancient VHS back at the orphanage. By the time the two eighteen-year olds left the sheltered walls of the orphanage three months earlier, the tape was so worn out that it was unwatchable. The obliterated French towns of Normandy eerily resembled the forgotten urban ruins that surrounded the neophyte junkies. Unlike Normandy circa 1944, these buildings weren’t ravaged by artillery shells and bullets. They were slowly picked apart, like wood devoured by termites. With no work available, addicts pillaged the empty shops for anything of value. They stripped the buildings of any and every item that would fetch a price: pipe, metal, floorings, dentures.
Ivan grabbed Mikhail’s arm and moved his hand over his throat in a slice motion. They were both heavy smokers, but Mikhail’s lungs were more resilient.
“We’ve been running for ten minutes. Jesus.” Mikhail shook his head at his wheezing friend.
Ivan composed himself and paced back and forth in front of an abandoned convenience store.
“Are you sure Sophia will give us a bag for six hundred?” said Ivan. Mikhail recognized this tactic. Stalling was his comrade’s specialty.
“Yes. I told you, she owes me. I saved her fucking life. Quit stalling and move your ass before we both start puking our guts out. We need to get a taste before dark or we’re fucked.”
“I hate running. This is what our lives have become. A constant example of a rock and a hard place.”
Ivan knew Mikhail’s grim prediction was by no means hyperbolic. He grunted and started jogging again.
They came to Novokuznetsk’s border, near the farmlands. At least, they had been farmlands, years before. Only a few families older than God still worked the fields. Away from the market and shops, all pretenses of law and order were completely abandoned. Teenage prostitutes popped in and out of buildings after sketchy clients had popped in and out of them. Dealers dealt out in the open. The black market was the market. After they’d finished their business, the hookers would score a bag and shoot up. Hooking high made the day go by. And the cycle repeated itself, over and over.
Mikhail scanned around in search of Sophia’s trademark red sweater. Electricity didn’t flow through the power-lines overhead, which meant that his eyes had to work extra hard to see into the buildings’ interiors, obscured by late afternoon shadows.
“There she is!” Mikhail spotted her on the second story of, what used to be, a post office after she had moved to a well-lit window to light a cigarette.
The two ran up the stairs and found her sitting on a window sill in the sorting room.
“Thank God you’re here. You got more product?” asked Mikhail while Ivan, struggling to breathe, rested against the wall. The grounds of the slum buildings were all littered with used syringes, which made sitting a rare luxury.
Sophia took a drag, yawed her head left and let out a steady stream of smoke. She seemed to enjoy having them in the palm of her hand.
“I’m sorry Micky. I’m fresh out.”
“Fuck!” screamed Ivan as he stomped on the floor’s glass debris.
“Sophia, honey, you’ve gotta help us out. You owe me. I saved you from getting jacked by that pack of hookers.” Mikhail got in her face, but he didn’t display aggression. It was desperation.
“I appreciate you sticking up for me. I do. Listen, I’m worried too. It’s fucking impossible to get good heroin. Supply’s dried up. The government is finally cracking down. The shit that is up for grabs isn’t worth your money. Take my word for it. How much do you have, anyway?”
“Six hundred.” said Ivan.
Sophia was mid-drag, but the tiny ruble figure made her cough like she’d swallowed the cigarette. She proceeded to throw her head back and laugh mercilessly at their expense.
“Boys, you couldn’t get a bag of shit for six hundred.” She took another puff and continued to chuckle.
“I knew she wasn’t going to give us a fucking discount.” Ivan paced around the room.
“Calm down, man. If you work yourself up, you’re going to get sicker quicker.” Mikhail chastised Ivan for freaking out, but he felt the same way.
“I’m sorry Micky. I wish there was something I could do. I don’t have anything. Although…”
“What? What is it?” They both questioned in unison, while they huddled next to her like dogs expecting treats.
“There’s some chick that lives near the mill, past the farms. I’ve heard that she cooks homemade synthetic heroin out of codeine and then sells it for a quarter of the price of regular H. I guess it started up north, where the heroin is even harder to come by. You could try to find her and either buy it, or learn how to cook it. I mean, codeine is fucking over the counter.”
Ivan and Mikhail looked at each and shrugged, as if to say What else are we going to fucking do?
“Well at least we could afford that shit. What’s this chick’s name?” asked Mikhail.
“I don’t know. She’s goes by ‘Ms. Crocodile.’ I literally heard about her a couple days ago.”
“You ready for another job, Ivan?” Mikhail punched his sidekick’s shoulder.
“Oh shit!” Ivan pointed out the window towards the street.
As soon as Mikhail turned his head, Ivan gave him well-placed nut tap. Mikhail sunk to his knees.
“Race you to the mill! Thanks for the tip, Sophie.” Ivan began making his way down the stairs with a pep in his step. Once Mikhail stopped seeing spots, he followed. Sophia pulled out another cigarette.
Mikhail and Ivan made it to the mill in fifteen minutes. Ivan was still out of breath, but his mood had improved due to the prospect of scoring a hit. There was no sign of any novel discount drug dealer anywhere.
“Where do we go?” Ivan panned his head across the green horizon.
“I don’t know. Sophia just said it was passed the mill. Maybe it’s one of those?” Mikhail pointed to a cluster of several houses that dotted the fields ahead of them. They were out in the open and relatively close to one another.
“If I were a betting man, I’d say that it’s probably that one. There’s nothing else around it and it’s literally touching the woods.”
Mikhail followed Ivan’s finger. The other shanty houses were scattered across the field to their left in a cluster, but this one story shack was on the opposite side of the field and barely visible; it was actually in the woods.
“I’d take that bet.” Mikhail ran toward the woods and Ivan followed.
The tint of the sky and the rapidly descending sun signaled the early stages of dusk. Mikhail was beginning to feel the onset effects of withdrawal. A hum of nausea had already begun to grow inside his gut and minor tremors pulsed through his hands. He vowed to try to hide it from Ivan as long as possible. Ivan didn’t need another reason to lose hope.
They made it to the weathered shack but couldn’t detect any sign of life. The door was propped open with a wooden plank.
“Hello!” shouted Mikhail. “Is anyone home?”
To the boys’ disappointment, a sexy dope cook with an ample supply of product didn’t emerge from the dwelling place.
“Come on let’s go inside.” Mikhail dragged his reluctant friend along.
The pair slowly opened the door, which creaked like the ominous cliche. The first clue was the smell. Fumes of gasoline, paint thinner and other artificial scents confirmed that this was the spot. Mikhail peeked in. Rays of weakened sunlight seeped into the dark interior. In spite of the open door, the shack’s contents were still quite dark.
“Someone was definitely cooking something here. Is that fucking meth?” asked Ivan.
“Fuck if I know. Those fumes are fresh, though. She must have just cooked a batch. Let’s go.”
Mikhail and Ivan stepped into the shack. Syringes and bottles covered the floor. The majority of the bottles had funnels inserted into them, each one was an example of ‘practical’ chemistry.
“Ms. Crocodile must have a long list of clients.” joked Ivan.
“Or she’s just another junkie supporting her own habit.”
The shack was one large room. To the boys’ right was a unmade bed with a nightstand that supported a collage of syringes and four different ashtrays. A stained and tattered green couch, circa 1965, sat in front of them.
“Yeah, you’re probably right. I’m getting the sense that she’s not the businesswoman that Sophia cracked her up to be.”
The left side of the apartment had a wooden table with four chairs and more ratchet chemistry experiments. Piles of matchboxes formed a massive pyramid at the far end of the table. The tabletop was its own assembly line. Phosphorous from the matches had been scratched off into a measuring cup. Codeine pills were crushed up into an orange powder. There was even containers of iodine and hydrochloric acid. The finale was a portable butane burner where the mystery drug was cooked. The cook had left a fresh batch on the stove.
Ivan put his hand on the burner.
“It’s still warm. She must have just left.”
“But the door was open. Why did she leave when she’d just cooked a fresh batch? She’s the dumbest drug dealer ever.”
“Maybe she wanted to air the place out?”
Mikhail made his way around the table and discovered what the pile of matchboxes had initially hidden from their view.
“Ivan! Come here!”
“What is it?” Ivan joined Mikhail at the foot of the table.
Ms. Crocodile was dead. She sat cross-legged in the chair while her head rested on the table behind the pile of matchboxes. A discharged syringe was poking out of her groin.
“What the fuck happened to her?” asked Ivan in disgust. The woman was wearing only a tank top and shorts. Her entire body was covered with hideous scars, their appearance was a combination of a third degree burn and gangrene.
“Look at those sores. They look like scales. I bet that’s why people called her ‘Ms. Crocodile.’ It’s what her skin fucking looks like!” Mikhail reached out to pull her head off the table.
“What the fuck are you doing?”
“I want to see what she looks like.”
“She’s dead you sick bastard. Why do you want to see what she looks like?”
Mikhail grabbed a tuft of her long black hair and pulled her head off the table.
“Oh my fucking god.” Ivan put his hand to his mouth and looked away.
Mikhail stared at the surreal display of human decay. The woman’s entire left side of her face had been eaten away. Leaving the socket with a rotting shell, her eye was eaten away. He cheekbone was visible and the absence of her lip made the addict resemble a junkie ‘Two-Face.’ There was a note where the woman’s face had been.
“Grab that note, Ivan.”
“Fuck.” Ivan reached for it with his left hand while he covered his mouth with his right. “Okay dude, put her fucking face down.”
Mikhail obliged and slowly lowered her face. “What’s the letter say?”
Ivan unfolded the letter. “It’s instructions for how to make the drug and…”
“What? What is it?”
“It’s her, um…I guess you’d call it a death note. It says ‘If you’re reading this, I guess I finally kicked the bucket. I figured out how to make the krokodil clean. I was using too much iodine and not enough HCL. This is how you make it clean and safe. You won’t end up looking like me. As a reward for being the first to find me, there’s a fresh batch on the stove. Have a taste. But I have to warn you, I have some customers that might try to kill if you don’t show them how to cook it. Fuck off, Ms. Crocodile.”
“That’s pretty creepy.” remarked Mikhail.
“It’s pretty fucking sad.” Ivan put the note in his pocket.
“Yeah, tragic. Let’s push off.”
“Aren’t you scared we’re going to end up looking like her?”
“We don’t have a choice. Plus, she said she fixed it. I’m getting sick. I need a fix or I’m fucked.”
“Yeah me too.”
The two found some fresh needles and sat on the bed. Ivan went first. There was barely enough for krokodil for both of them. Mikhail couldn’t believe what he was feeling. Krokodil’s high dwarfed any ecstasy that heroin had ever given him. He felt like he’d been a pleasure virgin. Everything up until that point was child’s play. And he could make it himself. They could sell it to others; make an income. Mikhail had never felt so lucky.
The door slammed shut. Ivan didn’t notice. He was too engulfed in the drug’s bliss to respond to any external stimuli. Mikhail vowed to open one eye; he was trying with all his might to muster the strength to investigate the noise.
“You motherfucker.” a male voice said to Mikhail. He found the strength to open one eye.
Two figures stood in front of him at the foot of the bed. A man and a woman. They were eaten from the inside out. Sores covered their faces. Devoured by their drug of choice, appendages had completely disappeared. Massive, black craters revealed the exact sites of their vices’ injections. Raw bone was visible in numerous spots where the reptilian scourge had stripped the flesh away.
“Those fuckers killed her and took our fucking batch.” said the woman.
“What do you think we should do?”
“They just shot up. They’re out of commission for an hour. They look pretty healthy. Let’s show them what it feels like to look like a crocodile.”
The man turned his head towards the cook table and smiled at his partner.
“I think you’re right. If you can’t score, you might as well make some gore. It’s time to play makeover.” the man laughed and the woman sprinted to the other side of the room.
Mikhail was conscious. He tried desperately to move, but his muscles were incapacitated by the drug. The sense of urgency devolved into a dream in seconds. The krokodil was taking him somewhere far away from the cabin in the woods. It didn’t want him to be aware of what was coming.
Something brought Mikhail’s attention back to the physical world. There was a warm sensation on his right cheek. At first it was pleasant, but the heat intensified. Mikhail thought that the sun was touching his face. He opened his eyes. The zombie man was holding the burner to his face and cooking his flesh before his own eyes. Still paralyzed by the powerful opiate, Mikhail could only watch while flames ate away at his cheek and nose. He knew that in a matter of seconds, his right eye would succumb to the hellfire.
“Welcome to the family, motherfucker.” the sadistic junkie said.
Ivan began to moan, Mikhail tilted his burning head as far as he could. The woman had removed his clothing and dumped the jug of hydrochloric acid all over his body.
“I…I..can’t….see.” Ivan mumbled in a dreamlike stupor. Mikhail knew that he couldn’t feel the pain.
“You bastards are getting what you deserve – stealing our shit. Well fine. Even if you never have a taste of krokodil again, you’ll always look like crocs.
Mikhail was beginning to come down from the drugs high before his second eye boiled inside his skull. Moments of silence followed. Then, the sensations of pain started to register in his brain. He began to scream. He was blind. Mikhail put his hands to his cheeks. Layers of flesh peeled away like ashes turning to dust.
Ivan began his own chorus of suffering. Mikhail reached for his best friend to give him comfort, but he inadvertently peeled away a large portion of Ivan’s stomach. Stewing in each others’ flesh, the addicts cried for mercy.
“Should we shut them up?” asked the woman.
“What do we have to off them with?” the man replied.
“There’s some pruning shears in the corner.”
“That’ll do just fine.”