You Are An Object:
A place to treat bros like girls.
The Greeks used to do the same thing, only in caves and with sculptures and stuff--there's books about it. It's like a whole thing or whatever. I Googled it.
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BUY MY BOOK: Strange: A Novel
Strange: A Novel - E-Book Version
There’s a difference between being alone and being lonely, you tell people, but only so they stop wondering how you get through the day, often unprompted, because nobody ever actually asks you if you know the difference. “They walk pretty slow, huh?” Gutter asks you this. You look down—he’s, like, whittling a stake or something. You look off in the distance, Alex and the girls are just now emerging from the woods on the other side of the clearing. Alex is a boy. “How uncomfortable are those shoes, by the way?” You grin down at him. You brought sneakers with you, but they got wet, are currently drying back at camp; your only other shoes are the ones you are wearing, dress shoes, meant for the regional trivia championships you guys will be taking part in tomorrow night. Camping was not your idea. “They’re not that bad. Dr. Scholls is breaking me off right now.” He snorts. You think about sitting down, too, but the others will be here soon, and…you just think better of it. “My grandpa used to whittle shit,” he says, Gutter. “He, like, made stuff, though. Like, he made me a bigass ewok once, for my birthday. I was obsessed with Star Wars, in my less stunningly-handsome days.” “Those ended?” He laughs again. You’re doing good, today. “I still have it. I’ll show you one day.” “The ewok?” He looks up at you, holding out his six-inch whittled stake. “Yes, the ewok? Would else would I want to show you?” You roll your eyes and look over to Alex, and Lucee, and Sharice, Alex calling out, “Oi oi! Thanks for waiting up, guys. We barely got raped by bears.” “I can tell,” you call back, Lucee stepping on the bridge that separates that set of woods to the trees into which you will soon be venturing. Gutter puts up a hand, and you take it, haul him up off his ass and back to his feet. “Thank you, guy.” “No problem.” Gutter starts walking toward where the rest of you need to go, but you stay where you are, having already left the others behind so that he wouldn’t have to walk alone, someone you didn’t even want on the team at first. You’re a dick that way, when it comes to even wanting to get to know people who don’t seem like you from far away. In this case, people who are loud, and easily amused, and who’ve never read an entire book (not co-written by a famous athlete or musician); people for whom working hard is easy, but thinking hard is considered a chore. The others reach you. You fall into step with them. “How was your head start?” Lucee says, and you ignore her, which is how you deal with Lucee when you’re sober, ‘you’ being ‘people who have to deal with her’, which is mostly you guys lately. The sound of her voice is enough to bring someone down, and, for some reason, she likes it that way. Alex puts his arm around your shoulder, “Yeah, buddy,” knowing what you’re thinking, walks alongside you as you catch up with Gutter, who has stopped walking, in the opposite clearing, playing with his cell phone.
Sharice has her earbuds in, but you’re pretty sure she isn’t listening to anything; she just constantly needs headphones in or around her head, despite her relative people-person status. You used to do the headphone thing, but you did as a means to look unavailable for conversation, as if to say, ‘I’m listening to all I can handle right now,’ until you learned that constantly either staring at the floor or scowling works just as well, if not better. She’s got Bugger, her chihuahua in a baby-bjorn-for-dogs thing on her back—he’s sleeping. The dog is why this is even happening, this march. Not the camping; the camping was Sharice’s idea, and Alex, being unable to say no to things, lest someone be mad at him for over two seconds, agreed, convincing you all that camping out the weekend would be a good bonding experience, that it would be a good chance to practice/get wasted without distraction, Alex the only one who truly seemed to co-sign this excuse, the rest of you knowing Sharice grew up in this town, would camp here with her father all the time, the father she lost last year. So, whatever, you’re all here now; it’s not even that bad. At least it wasn’t. Before last night. Whatever. You guys reach Gutter, who smirks at you, is explaining to Lucee how much farther you all have to go, so she can time her complaints about walking at proper intervals. “You guys ready?” he says. “It’s about a mile or so through there. Something like that.” He points to the new set of woods. “Right?” He’s talking to you, you were with him last night; you go, “Something like that.” You were drunk; you can’t remember. Alex walks behind Sharice and pets the dog, who stirs in his sleep, yawns, re-closes his eyes. Alex looks at the group, excited about what Gutter is leading you all to. “Let’s move, then, huh?” Lucee sighs—you wait for her to put some form of pleasure on blast, but she just goes, “Yeah, let’s get this over with,” which sort of counts as enthusiasm, and Gutter smiles really big, claps, goes, “Exactly.” Sharice rolls her eyes, holds Lucee’s hand, and you all walk again.
“Are you depressed? I’m not…trying to be a dick. I know I’m supposed to be a dick, according to people, but I’m not…I’m not doing that right now.” Gutter said this to you last night. Somewhere between Alex and Sharice going into the massive tent to ‘turn in early’, and Lucee getting tired of waiting for their courtesy twenty minutes of possible-fucking to pass, you and Gut were left alone with the night, sitting on adjacent lawn chairs, both of you, unbeknownst to each other, trying to come up with any reason not to go to sleep, like this day would have to be pried from your exhausted bodies, like going to bed was akin to admitting failure—both of you insomniacs not in a way where sleep is difficult to attain, but like you’re afraid of what it will do when it gets here. With the morning being the most difficult part of the day, it sucks knowing passing out means ultimately ending up in that space again. All this means is instead of ignoring each other, like you do as much as you can, you and Gutter had to entertain each other. “Do I seem depressed?” He laughed, looked at you. You’re not good at look at people dead on, and it’s easier to not feel weird about this when you’re drunk, but you like to steal looks at people who are being nice to you, so that you remember them, just in case they go away, and so you glanced at him, glanced at the dog, who was tied to a nearby tree, his leash. He said, “You say a lotta true shit I agree with, but, like, it’s the kinda stuff most people might call depressing. I was just wondering. I mean, we’re supposed to get joy out of the little things, and so not notice that the big picture is fucked up, or, like, maybe empty sometimes. That fact that you notice it…I dunno, I was just wondering. If that label’s ever officially been pinned to you…” You guys’d been drinking wine from a box all night, but your cup was empty at this point, a symptom of you drinking faster than your buddy here, who filled hi cup up at the same time as you. You were waiting for him, like a gentleman. You shrugged. “No. But I know what you mean. Sometimes I wonder if there’s really such thing as mental illness, or just people too far into an area we don’t feel we should have to put with, that we feel we have to fix them, so that we can put up with them.” “Or so they can make a theoretically happy life for themselves, withing the structure of the way a proper life is set up, like, throughout history. Like, the point in history we find ourselves, or whatever. I know what you mean. I get adderall, like, prescribed to me, to feel normal, but, like…normal being shut up and do your homework, which is the right move, but…it’s like I’m not worth anything without. Not that anything is actually ‘worth’ anything, but…like, what am I without it? If I’m not good at being what people want from a person?” You looked up at the sky; the stars were visible—this felt like a surprise, but you don’t know if it’s just because the skies here are clearer, or if you just don’t really look up all that much back home. You felt something touch your cup, and you blinked back down to earth, saw Gut pouring half of his drink into it, smirking, waiting for you to tell him to stop, and you said, “Stop,” and he did, settled into his lawn chair, stretching his legs, his sneakers pushing dead leaves out of their way, leaving two grooves in the dirt. You did the same thing. You’re only a follower with the little things. The only other things in the clearing with you are the tent, the dying fire you used to cook sausages, hot dogs, and burgers, all without buns; those things, plus the dog… Gutter burped. “Can I ask you a semi-serious personal question? It’s sort-of an insecure question—I hate those, so you might, too, is why I’m asking like this, before actually asking…and you can be honest…you seem honest. Like most liars, right?” He smiled at you, joking, and you said, “Where’s the dog?” “What?” You pointed to the leash, still tied to the tree, neither serving a purpose anymore, as the dog was gone, the tent zipped shut, so no way he trotted in there without you noticing. Gutter’s face dropped, his head tilted back against his chair. “She’s gonna kill us.” “We didn’t do anything.” “It doesn’t matter. My sister has a cat, and if some shit goes down when she’s not there, but I am, despite her knowing I’d film her cat dying before helping it not do so, it’s my fault. This is our fault.” But the clearing has trees all around. Gutter points to the vaguely most dirt around where the dog had been tied up—there are little paw prints leading into the woods in that direction. You stood up, poured your cup out on the grass. “I’ll get the flashlight.” “You do that.”
The ground is harder today than it was yesterday, but there seem to be more bugs on this side of the woods, more than you noticed last night, more than you thought the weather would allow, though you don’t know too much about bugs, and what the weather does to them. You tell yourself to google this someday. You hear a weak cough from somewhere behind you. Bugger; the dog; he’s been sleeping and coughing in intervals since you all got up this morning/afternoon. The others look bored, Lucee somehow not tripping over logs and things, texting as she walks, miraculously getting service out here. Alex pretends you aren’t looking at them. Sharice is playing music now, finally. You like her silent treatment better when she’s got an excuse that isn’t ‘You Killed My Dog’. She’s got you all trudging this way to find out what the dog was spending time with before you found him. All you could recall through the haze of how tired you were last night, and how much you’d imbibed, and how much you didn’t care what else your flashlight spied, once it spied the dog, is that there were less trees, that there was a lot of grass, but that it was cut weird. “What do you mean weird??” was Sharice’s response, Alex stepping closer to her, getting her to calm down, establishing who he wanted to believe in him. “We’ll go back, then,” you said, Gutter pulling you aside, as everyone packed for a hike you couldn’t make sound like not a big deal, going, “You don’t wanna go back, why’d you say you did? What’s wrong with saying what you think? It doesn’t hurt, I promise.” You just shrugged. That was obviously earlier. Now you march. You look at Gutter, who is walking beside you, making a face like he knows where he’s going. He spies you spying and shakes his head, half-smiles, quietly says, “We’re not lost.” “I know.” “You wish we were?” “I wish we never went camping.” You juts out his lower lip, nodding at you. “That was honest of you. How long until you feel bad for even saying it?” You snort. “I already do.”
It starts to smell the closer you get, the slight wind wafting the funk like servants carrying a regal overlord, Gutter slowing down, you doing the same. The little things. He looks over his shoulder without stopping, goes, “It’s ahead.” “It stinks,” Alex says. “Maybe your mom’s been sleeping out here,” Gutter says, and everybody does an ‘Ohhhh’ thing, and Sharice takes off her headphones, goes, “What?” “We’re here,” you say, “almost.” And then you’re here, for real. And you don’t see anything less boring than anything you walked into last night, just a small section, maybe, like, hexagon shaped, where there are no trees, and the grass appears to be sort of overgrown. You all stand around like idiots for a second, you and Gutter trading a look, him sharing it with Sharice, going, “He was just chilling here, then he saw us, and he ran to us, and we came back, there wasn’t—” And Alex steps forward, points at the empty area, moving his arm in a swirl, like you need to look at everything. “How could the grass grow like this? Shouldn’t it be trampled down, like, a little bit.” “It’s just grass, though. My dog eats shit, and is fine. Like, shit from things it’s never met. Like, just shit for shit’s sake, ya know?” Lucee goes, “What’s that smell, then?” And you see it, obscured by the grass the animals aren’t interested in—a body. A fucking body. You sigh. It’s dead, this body, clothed, but rotting, but only for days, probably—this isn’t an old-school dead guy, but someone new to the club. You look at Gutter, and he mouths the word ‘what?’ at you, and you make an ‘of course’ face, but you don’t want to be the one to say it, because you don’t want to be the one who’s seen it, and so you don’t say anything, let someone else find it, and make a big deal about it, and let someone else cry, and someone else come up with a plan, and ask you what you think, and you’ll say ‘whatever you guys think’, because this isn’t your dead body, and it isn’t your dog, and you have to dig so hard to feel things sometimes, especially as you get older, and you realize people are just going to find a reason to do what they want anyway. ‘Are you depressed?’ You look at Gutter, who wants you to tell him whatever you’re thinking, so he can be on your team. ‘What’s wrong with saying what you’re thinking? It doesn’t hurt, I promise.’ He goes, “What’s up?” You shake your head, sigh, not sure if you’ve already done it, feeling good about it either way. “There’s a body over there?” Sharice gasps, which you’re not sure if you’ve ever actually seen a person do, in real life. “What?” You nod toward where it is; it’s obvious, once you know where to look. You look down at the grass, watch the legs of the others rush by you, save Gutter, who either already saw it, or isn’t interested in doing so. He just stands opposite you, watching you, frowning like he’s sorry he made you be the one to say it, as you watch the others, and try anticipate where this all will go from here. Gutter puts a hand on your shoulder, his expression making it clear he didn’t see it before you did. You put your hand on his wrist. Lucee starts to scream, all over Alex’s oh-shits, and Sharice’s attempts to say stuff about god, and how dear such a thing is to her, the idea of it, or maybe what she sees as its presence here, as the plan ultimately becomes to simply run away, hysterically, in some cases, which you are okay with, despite your shoes, which did not see this coming, and so force you to simply walk as fast as you can, Gutter choosing to flee at the same speed, if only to be near someone who is not screaming, or crying, or mad at him.
“I thought you weren’t gonna kill me.”
“Don’t move means don’t fucking talk, so just shut the fuck up until I need to know something you got to say.”
“Got it. I mean…”
You stop talking. You ran into Yip at the gym. Well, the gym parking lot. You only got your first car recently, after getting your first proper job, after not getting accepted to college, anywhere. You had this thing, where you didn’t believe in grades, or, more accurately, didn’t understand them, and so got bad ones, because you didn’t see how doing a particular assignment, the way it was asked of you, was any indication of how smart you were, and so you barely did your work, and this lasted up until sophomore year, the end of it, when you realized the point wasn’t to figure out who was the smartest (although those most adept at any given subject were likely to have no problem with simply doing their homework then moving on with their lives), but to figure out who was the best at doing what was asked of them, as accurately as possible, and, so, though your grades picked up in your last two years of high school, they were still shit, on average, making it clear to any future employers and/or colleges that you were a recalcitrant know-it-all who needn’t be bothered with. Fine. Lesson learned. If you ever found yourself in an Edward-Cullen high-school situation (or a Stefan-Salvatore situation, or whatever) you’d so fucking own at homeworking, like, it would be insane. But you’re just in your own, real-life, underachieving situation, so you work at Alden’s, the truck stop diner in the far end of town, while you save money, for god knows what, doing the graveyard shift, which means you sleep during the day, and go to the gym before work, which is when Yip goes, but, for him, it’s after work. He works on his father’s farm. A lot of dudes do that around here. All you have is a mom, and she doesn’t have a farm, so there goes that.
Yip got his name because, when he was a baby—a toddler, probably, he just uses the word baby—he would get really excited about stuff, and, like, squeal, and clap, and go “Yip!” He meant yippee, he figures, but he never said that, just yip, and so his brothers started calling him that, long after his father beat the inclination to jump up and down while squealing and clapping right out of him, which probably took about as long as it would’ve taken him to simply grow out of it, but whatever. He tells you this during what would normally be pillow talk, except you’re on a towel, on a patch of matted grass, in the woods. Were. You’re not exactly doing this anymore; right now, technically, Yip has a gun pointed at your face. But we’re not here yet.
You first met Yip at the Flying J gas station earlier in the summer. You weren’t getting gas, because you don’t have a car at the moment, or, you do, you just didn’t in that moment. You were on your way home from work, walking down the lonely road of life, or, more specifically, Zeigler Road; you stopped at the Flying J because you knew there was no milk at home, and, also, no malt liquor. It was 5am, on a Friday morning, but you wanted to have it for when you got home from work, tomorrow morning, your only day off. You were going through the milks, in the fridge, in the back of the Flying J convenience store, to find one with at least a week left before it became a waste of money, and the bell above the entrance jingled behind you, and a group of rowdy voices entered the building, and you turned around, and you saw him, Yip, and his friends, talking to each other as if they were each in separate rooms, six of them, fresh from a night of boozing, ending their day just as you were starting yours, and Yip saw you, and he recognized you, though you didn’t recognize him, and he looked away, stopped laughing, and they marched over to where various pots of coffee sat, and began hooking themselves up. The elderly cashier shook his head, and you turned your back on all this, returned to your milk. There was a lot of it, and you felt like you were close to a good one. A body stepped up next to you, to your right—it stood in front of the fridge full of energy drinks; you looked over, it was him again. He seemed to be leering at you, the way his mouth pulled into a sloppy grin, the way his eyes seemed only half-opened. High-school graduation was last night; he was still drunk, likely. “You were in my math class.” You blinked at him. Of the few times you have seen him, this has been the cheery encounter, even still. You said, “Aw, dude, I graduated a couple years ago…” He laughed, looked down at your dingy work shoes, looked up at your dingy, flannel work shirt, then back up at the face part of you, which was still blinking at him, and he said, “No, I know. I’m, like, good at math, so I skipped a couple grades, like, just in math, so I was in senior math at the same time as you. Basic senior math, not the good shit, like calculus or whatever. The basic shit. It’s okay if you don’t remember me. I looked kinda different. Like, way skinnier, and—” “Yip, what the fuck? We got things to do!” You both looked over toward the counter, where his friends stood, with their coffees—they were all taller than him; the second-tallest is the one who yelled over to you. To Yip. You’re self-centered, so. “I’m comin’! Shit—fucking relax, ain’t like your ass is driving.” He said this to his friends, then he pulled open the fridge, grabbed a Monster energy drink, closed the fridge, shrugged at you—“I don’t drink coffee. I’ll see you, though”—and fast-walked over to his friends, who had already resumed loudly talking to each other. You went back to judging dairy products, judging yourself.
Your mom doesn’t work because of her lyme disease; it’s just the two of you in a tiny ranch-style home that many people confuse for a very home-looking trailer when they first see it; a trailer without a park, banished to a life of standing out, without its brothers to validate it. She’s got pretty bad joint pain, so she spends most of her days in her room gonked out on muscle-relaxers or on the couch, piffed out on medical weed. You want to crack up every time you look at her, and coming home that day was no exception; she was on the couch, you stepped through the door, she pried open her codependent eyelids to look at you, and you smiled—she shook her head, looked at the TV, smirking, said, “I’m redrafting my will later, so.” The dog, Peggie, a yorkie, wiggled over to her, and she pet it. “Do you like life-insurance, Peggie? Yes, you do!” Your mom looked back over to you, who yawned in the full-body way. “Is that milk, at least?” You nodded, the fridge right beside you. “At the very least, yeah.” You went to you room, to take your nap (what you call sleeping), trying to figure out who the drunk boy at the gas station was, which sober person in your math class he used to be.
The rest of the summer was mostly filled with work and you not meeting people who you thought about to the point you had to tell yourself that you were being weird and you should maybe stop thinking about them. There was Grindr, but the less said about the men in your area who frequent that thing the better. You mostly hung out with your mom, going so far as to make her a Match dot com profile, which you paid for, which became her stoned entertainment instead of History Channel documentaries and E! reality shows. You bought a car. It’s from the early nineties and it’s loud, but it drives forward, and backwards, and you show up to work without full-body pit-stains, so it’s basically the best thing you ever bought for yourself that doesn’t have internet access. You made the Flying J your gas station of choice, thinking maybe it was some sort of land of missed opportunities, but it was just a smelly gas station with watered down coffee and cheap Red Bulls, even cheaper gas; another good idea you were introduced to by your friend Bad Intentions.
Then there was the gym. Summer had long gone, and life was more or less the same, only a little colder. You thought of changing your routine, but no ways how you might actually do that. Your gym is small—your town isn’t big on physicality that doesn’t pay the rent, doesn’t garner arm-only tans—and so it’s hard to miss when someone new’s started frequenting the place, but you somehow missed him, for over a month. One unseasonably warm Saturday afternoon, you walked out of the over-sized brick hut of the fitness center, and across the gravel parking lot, toward your car, parked by the dumpsters, because you suck at navigating your vehicle between and around other cars, and no one else parks over there. This was earlier today. You got into the car, and the heat from your sweating body—from your panting breath—immediately began fogging the windows, and you shoved the keys into the ignition, with the idea of being you’d let the engine run, lower the window, drink your pre-made protein shake from your Huntsville Havoc canteen (a touch of manliness you needed to round out the character you play at the gym), and let your mind settle from the pre-workout supplement that has been simulating a heart attack in your chest for the last hour…but your car wouldn’t start. No wheezing engine, no seat belt beeps, no nothing. Your eyes panned from the fingers gripped around your keys, to the nob that pushes in or out, to activate your headlights, as ominous piano tinkling settled over the toms of your heart, and you realized the nob was pulled out. Your lights were on. Your battery was dead. You were fucked. You groaned up at the ceiling, tilted your head back, which was unsatisfactory, so you lowered your seat, tilting your whole body back, which was better. You had to get someone to jump start your car. You had to talk to a human being. Not just any human being, but a body-conscious redneck with nothing better to do on a Saturday afternoon, since that’s all you had access to at the moment, at the fitness center. “Shit.” You had to do it. “Shit.” Just fucking doing it. “Fine! Fuck.” You pulled out the keys, grabbed the door handle, stepped out the car, looked forward, saw him. You heard him first, his beat up, years-old Jordans crunching on the parking lot, then you saw him, and you know your eyes involuntarily widened—you know they did—and you thought of running back inside your car, but he saw you saw him and he nodded, lifted up a hand for a casual, bro-wave, and you stood there, your heart doing its dancehall thing, went, “What’s up.” He walked toward you, pulling earbuds from his ears, looking sweaty, out of it. He reached you. “What was that?” “Nah, just…I just said what’s up.” “Ah, true. Your car’s mad foggy.” You looked at your car, said, “My battery’s dead,” solemnly, like he’d asked about your wife, who’d run away with someone else, this morning. “Aw, that’s cat dick, man. You got cables?” You nodded, dumbly. “You got someone coming?” You shook your head, also dumb. “Want…you were coming back to get help?” “Yeah, but…” “But, you don’t want it anymore?” “No, I do, just…” “Not from me?” “No, yeah, I just…” “Oh, shit. Pop your head. I got a thing in my trunk. Gimme a sec.” The thing in his trunk was a box, a thing made specifically for jumpstarting cars, like a battery for batteries, that he hooked up to your car, as you started the engine, let it run for a few minutes, minutes spent sitting on your trunk, as he smoked a cigarette, and you looked at the trees behind him. “You remember seeing me the other day?” It’s the only thing you remember about him. “I was drunk and…if I was rude…when I get drunk, and just think I’m so much fun, and…people don’t always think so, too. I ain’t a mean drunk, but I’m a fucking annoying one.” “No, you…you’re a good drunk.” You threw yourself from a bridge in your mind. “I mean, like…you were cool. I didn’t cross you off my list of people to be drunk with.” “That’s good, ‘cause I’m running low on those. I’m taking classes. At county? So, I don’t see my friends. They’re, like…not my friends or something. Whatever. That box is dope, right?” You shrugged, nodded. “Yeah. Thank you. This is my first car. Which is probably sad to you.” He shook his head, puffed the last bit of his cigarette. Smiled, in an exhausted way. “It’s not. I like having something to do. Hopefully your bad at shit I’m good at. It’ll give you reasons to talk to me.” You looked at him, in your ruin-the-mood way, and he said, “Your car should be good now, but…I was gonna do some stuff. There’s like a whole day, so. I dunno, if you wanna…do my day with me. We can take my car. I can have you back before the gym closes. If you want. You’re grown. I know you probly have shit to do.” You shook your head. “I don’t. I mean, I can, if you want, like…if you want someone…” He laughed. “I hear you. Come on. We can play with my birthday present together. I can make you nervous somewhere less testosterone-y.” “Where, though?” “The woods, man. My dad got me a gun. Like, a new one.” “You’re not gonna kill me, right?” He smiled. “Do you remember my name?” You bit your lip, shook your head, didn’t look away from him. You figured, no matter what happened, you’d want to remember what he looked like. It’s hard to remember sometimes. You told him your name. He tapped your shin with his fist, lightly, shadowboxing with it, said, “I know. I’m Yip. And I’m not gonna kill you.” “Good. It’s my day off.”
Yip seemed to be taking some shit out on you. Personal shit. Physically, in the way where it seemed like a gift to you, but you knew you were more like a portal, in ways both literal and figurative, to a place he’d built up in his mind, from which he’d squeeze every last drop of what he expected, and shoulder the parts he didn’t see coming, as you would. The gun was a prop, like the towel, the latter simply a thing in the bottom of his bag; the former lying in the dirt until he could find a use for it, besides just an excuse to be where you were—where you are, now. You told him the bits of this whole story that didn’t involve him, as to not scare him—he told you where he came from, what it turned him into, what he wanted to turn himself into, where he got his name, why he kept using it, even as it was designed to shame him. You were sitting on your ass, with your legs pulled close to you, thinking about your car, pretending the various manifestations of earth around you were more enthralling than the slab of it breathing next to you, the pile of clothes, stripped of their meaning, finding solace in the dead leaves you’ve set them up with, and he grabbed the gun, and he stood, and he pointed it at you, and you stood. Your heart did its pre-workout formula thing, and you stared at him. You stopped fearing death a long time ago. You faced so little reasons to live that simply being that guy became reason enough to do so, and so the end became expected, something you promised to greet with understanding instead of panic. You don’t put your hands up; you just look at this thing made of all the parts that make life worth it. “Don’t fucking move.” “I thought you weren’t going to kill me.” “Don’t fucking move means don’t fucking talk, until I need to know something you have to say, alright? Just don’t move.” “Got it. I mean…” And something rubs up against your leg. You move your eyes. Apparently that’s okay to do, because you’re still doing it, and you that there is a brown thing, breathing against your leg. It’s bear. You’ve seen enough pictures to know one when you see it. It’s a baby. You know that, too. You know mama bears tend to follow these things, tend to not appreciate people like you, who have homes, however small, but choose to think unclaimed spaces are those inhabited by those without the means to properly claim it. And you know what Yip is really pointing his gun at, is it huffs, growls, makes room for itself in this space. And you know pants might be good, if only for something to shit into. How smart you are, knowing all this. You look at him, Yip, and his birthday rifles, both of them, with a focus on the firearm, whose nozzle tips, to the left of your head, letting your face off the hook, as his face starts to take this much more seriously. You want to ask if you can move yet, like, to run, but expressing this would be too much like moving, and so the answer is no.
“I would tell you if I knew…”
“This is kinda cool, huh? The actually-being-able-to-talk thing? I thought it was made up…”
You laugh, sort of spitting on him, because of the drool. You wipe it off of his forehead with your palm, streak some blood across his face in the process, bunch up your sleeve, use that to wipe away both. “Something tells me you missed a spot,” he says, coughs up blood, which dribbles down his chin, splatters on your shirt, and you laugh again. You tend to only laugh and cry simultaneously when you’re looking at your account balance, and haven’t called your parents in the last few weeks, and so, therefore, cannot call them for money, because they’ll say no, because you’re full of shit. You don’t feel that way now. You’ve got Bennett’s blood all over you, and you’re on your knees, in a gravel parking lot—you can feel one of your eyes puffing shut, and you’re body is asking for very desperate permission to take a shit, right here, in your pants, while you wait for your sister to hot-wire a car, fifteen feet away from you. Bennett is telling jokes, and he’s dying, and you’re crying, and you can’t remember the last time you’ve been so sincere about anything, the last time what you were thinking so closely matched how you were acting. “Benny,” you say, “you don’t know that you’re dying, you just feel like it, or think you are, because the…mortal injury. But you won’t know it’s actual dying until you’re dead, so just tell yourself you’re not, and we’ll take you someplace that can help you, and if you make it then you weren’t dying, and if you do, then you were. But you can’t know that, because you’re still alive, and there’s nobody here who knows what dying actually looks like.” His body starts to laugh, and it pulls his face into a silent shout of extreme discomfort, like his nerves are lined with razors, like his heart’s got him cornered, has a ton of pain to throw back in his direction, after all these years of being the receiver. “I can’t fucking move, man.” He coughs. “You don’t have to let me go right now, you just have to leave me here. Right now. They’ll come for me, and, in a year, they’ll come for the jewelry. Between now and then, you…” he coughs again, more blood, his body going a little bit limper, a little less tense, a little less holding on to you, or himself, or whatever “…you just gotta not be dead. Because they’ll be weak. And you can take ‘em out. That’s all I know, I swear.” He puts a hand to his own chest. You look at the sky, darker than the night it is, because of the clouds. You look beyond the fence surrounding the parking lot, at the street beyond it, the shadows making love there; you think you see movement. You don’t know what it is, but you’re body infers that it should take a harder shit now, should fear this movement, should make you cry harder. It’s cold, and windy, and the blood on your hands makes them even colder. You hear an engine roar to life behind you. Your sister, doing her job; your sister, with the necklace Benny’s so worried about; the horror in the distance as concerned with it as he is. “Leave me. Think about me the whole time, if you want. I kinda want you to…want someone to. Dying sucks, don’t let anybody tell it doesn’t.” You laugh again, liking how it feels, put your wrist up against your glasses, setting them back into place. “Okay.” Your voice is a whisper now; your voice is tired. Bennett closes his eyes, still breathes. You suck at hanging up the phone before the person you’re talking to, so you don’t really understand how he expects you to do this properly. “I’m gonna go now.” “Okay.” “Okay.” “They’re getting closer.” “I know.” “So…” “So I’m gonna go.” “Okay.” You hear tires rolling over gravel, rolling your direction. You feel headlights on you. You hate this about time, how there’s a name or every moment, and so every moment matters; if it was all just now, then now, then now, you think people would like it better; being here. “Do it, already. Then go.” You lean over and kiss Bennett on the lips one last time, feel blood smear against your mouth, feel it staining your fingers as they run through his clumped hair, smell his acrid, dying breath, and savor it. Your sister honks the horn, Karen, in an SUV idling to your left. You look at your left hand, the hand resting on his barely breathing stomach, at the ring on your pinky, the one you bought yourself with a gift card to some store at the mall you never bless with your patronage, but that your grandparents saw, and decided was weird, and so decided you probably love it there. You take the ring off of your pinky, and you take Benny’s limp, left hand, and you slide it onto his, bloody lubricant making this easier, despite his fingers being thicker than your own. You lick your lips, forgetting what is covering them, and you slide your body away from his, its eyes still closed, but its lungs still breathing, and you get into your sister’s newly stolen vehicle, and you’ve barely got your door closed before she is hurling the black SUV forward, leaving your ability to pretend this isn’t happening behind you.
“How do you know the day is right?” You ask Karen this. It’s been about a year. A lot has happened between this now and the now during which Bennett was still alive—half your state being slaughtered by some thing nobody seemed to be able to describe, you having to explain to your parents that you sort of know what’s going on, and if there was someplace safe you could hide, because the things would be back, that they would stop killing for most of the coming year, but that they would be hiding, inside of people they cared about, that they would be coming for a piece of jewelry—the necklace—and that the necklace could not be destroyed, until they were; that they would be watching you all until the day came when they could once again take corporeal form, and wreak this same sort of havoc once again. These are the kinds of words you used while your sister would roll her eyes, and say stuff, “Basically, everyone’s gonna die if we don’t go stay in Nana’s lake house for a couple months at the end of the year. And we can’t tell anyone where we are. We’ll kill them, the necklace will be destroyed, and we’ll go on as if our planet wasn’t invaded by whatever these things are.” Your parents believed you, mostly because your mom likes to say stuff like, “Yeah, but what if the world does end in 2012 then what??” and your dad saw Bennett wearing the necklace one day, the day Benny first told you about his family, and their curse, a conversation that took place in your kitchen, over cheese steak Hot Pockets, when your dad was supposed to be at work—your father is an attorney, like his father before him. You’re an anthropology major (your sister calls you an apology major, because you’re always telling your dad “Sorry I’m such a disappointment! How dare I fathom possibly being myself at some point before I die!”, when you’re angry/being a bitch—you’re coming out speech was the debut of this line, in high school, though, in hindsight, your folks took it a lot better than you seemed to). Benny was in mid-struggling-sentence, and you heard the front door open. Your dad wasn’t supposed to be home yet. You looked over to the kitchen counter, where your dirty plates sat, wondering what else the old man might have a problem with, besides Benny being there, who he’d never met. “Well, hello,” your father said. Benny pushed away from the kitchen table, stood up to face your father with his hand out. “Hello, sir—I’m Bennet. I’m your son’s friend. Obviously. We never met, though.” “I know. On all counts. Pleasure.” Then Benny’s necklace started to glow, and Benny inhaled, like he just dropped his mother’s ashes on the kitchen floor. “Shit.” He looked at you. “Shit.” And he ran out of the house, and you ran after him, as you would until the day he died, two days later.
“The stars,” your sister tells you. “Last night. It’s a math thing. You basically make a clock out of the sky to know what time it is, and you use that same math to know what time of year it is. We’ve been here for six weeks, and so I know where the stars where, and where they need to be before we get alarmed, and that’s how they looked last night. Mom was counting off the day, but I think she’s getting too into this wilderness shit, so she stopped.” “What a bitch.” “Right?” You left any electronic devices behind, everything linked to a satellite. Your dad brought his watch, but he’s fancy, so there are no numbers on it, let alone the fucking date. You look over the balcony, see your mom walking down the dirt path to the cabin, holding groceries. She smiles, waves up at you and your sister—you both wave back, less excited than the matriarch. “Whatever,” you say, to Karen. “Happy new year, I guess.” She nods. You hear her stomach growl. She goes, “Technically the first was yesterday. According to my calculations.” You frown. Look down at your necklace. It isn’t glowing. “Then why aren’t we dead yet?” “Always the luck, huh? Give it time.” You sigh, rub your thumb over the nozzle of the rifle, which leans against the balcony. You look at your sister. “You should do some recon, see what’s up.” “In the woods?” “Uh, no. In the kitchen. Fools is hungry.” She rolls her eyes and walks past the screen door, into the cabin, where your dad is probably reading, or sighing loudly, annoyed about having to be here. The slaughtering had already started up again by the time you fled for the cabin. He knows you’re safer here, he’s just a bitch, one of the qualities you couldn’t help but pick up from, only because you didn’t realize you were doing so.
Breakfast is bacon and eggs. Whatever your mom picked up from the food co-op in town was for dinner. You guys sit around the table, but don’t really talk. “So…” your dad says, “aren’t these things supposed to be coming for us? Why aren’t you fighting monsters yet?” You scoop a ton of eggs into your mouth, stare at your dad, chewing them. Karen goes, “Maybe we’re hiding too far away. If people are dying…maybe we should’ve stayed home…” You think she might be right. You figured they’d find you faster. It took them twenty years to find Benny’s family…you figured they’d pick up right where they let off, but maybe that’s not the case. This is what you think. Then the necklace starts to glow, just as your mom is about to talk. She closes her mouth. Everyone looks at you. You swallow your eggs, thank yourself for shitting when you woke up. You take off the necklace, put it on the kitchen table, push your wrist against your glasses, sliding them into place, look at your family. “Uh…man those battle stations, I guess.” Your mom grins. “Fucking right.”
You can hear your family talking to you, but you’ve been over this a million times, and you turn, and you walk up the stairs that lead to the office, and, from there, the balcony, where you will be shooting at unfathomable things, and thinking about Bennett, and sort of ruing this moment, not for the danger, but because you’ll probably find yourself willing to let someone else love you now, not that you’ll be expected to (this is actually something people have already started to expect from you, asking you things like, “Why don’t you have a boyfriend?”, like you’ve got a really good reason they couldn’t surmise by the awkward silences that come standard whenever they try conversing with you (“No one wants to have sex with me when they’re sober”/”When my texts go more than five minutes unanswered I send three more just in case the phrasing of the first one scared them off”/”I don’t know the difference between loving someone and using them to feel better about myself”)), but now you’ll maybe actually have to work on being lovable, or at least have to spend more time figuring out how to talk to people, instead of just staring at them and imaging what your lives together might be like, playing it out until you are inevitably disappointed in each other, in the limitations your expectations have set or you, and deciding to not bother; whatever. You’ve got a gun; you try to think of I’m-holding-a-gun-based stuff. The things move as slow as they did a year ago, when you first saw them lurching down Benny’s street, the day he ran out of your house, though it was night by then; your parents had been calling you all day, but you ignored them—you knew you were in trouble, but you didn’t realize just what kind it was. “Those are them?” You were crouching at his bedroom window, with the lights off, gripping the biggest knives you could find in his kitchen, watching the things go from house to house, as they’ve been going town to town, in search of the thing around his neck. You could never remember what they looked like once your eyes weren’t laid on them, but you remember now, as they stumble through the woods, croaking words that aren’t. “Those are them,” he said, looking at you, “and why you can’t keep following me, and why you shouldn’t be here.” You shook your head. “My mind already likes you more than it likes me, so. There aren’t a lot of places I can go that don’t just feel like being here.” Including where you are now, without him. At least you tried. You cock the rifle. ‘At least I tried.’ You aim the nozzle. ‘At least I tried.’ You open fire.
“Can you see me?”
“I feel bad.”
“Why—because you can, or because you can’t? Or because I’m sending off, like, radiation or something.”
“Because I can. See you, I mean. Like, I feel emotionally bad, for you, though.”
He laughs. “Um…”
“Nah, just, ‘cause, like, you used the word invisible. And, like, I can see you, so.”
“Can you…move? This is honestly amazing, though. If I wasn’t suffering from a depression I’m too poor to medicate, and, so, therefore, high right now, I’d be, like, flipping out.”
He turns to face you. You can sort of see through him, but he’s mostly just…transparent. “You’re like a human metaphor,” you say, and there is a pause, and Harley goes, “I don’t get it.” You snort. “Nothing. This is cool, though. I guess I said that already. You can touch stuff, right?” He walks up to—the things visible through him shimmer ethereally as he moves—and, when he reaches you, he hugs you. You can’t smell him. It really is like he isn’t there, except, there’s the touching. He lets go of you. He goes, “I snuck downstairs at about two in the morning last night and made a grilled cheese sandwich, invisible. I got caught, however.” “Maybe because you’re not invisible.” He snorts. “Tell me about it. I’m invisible to me, is the thing. It takes getting used to, like knowing how loud to talk when you’re wearing headphones, only…with your eyes. I don’t know how to explain it.” “No, it’s cool. I get it.” He turns visible. It’s like when food coloring is dropped into a glass of water, the slow unfurling of color. It’s pretty fucking trippy, and you grin at him. He grins back. You look at the floor. “When did this start?” You ask him this. “Um…lemme tell you inside. We’re not gonna hear the pizza guy out here. Obviously.” “True.”
The two of you walk from the side of his town house, back toward his place, which is a couple doors down. It’s a nice day out, which has been happening a lot, despite the December-ness of it all, though the nights are always bitterly cold, unless it rains, then they’re simply wet. His parents are off from work, but they are not home, and neither is his younger sister, Kennedy, as they have taken a trip to the outlet mall upstate, where they can do cheap, bulk-style Christmas shopping, even though they don’t really celebrate Christmas, as his parents are hippy, artist types, who do the spiritual-but-not-religious thing, which you don’t get—you feel like they’re just, at the very least, agnostics, who are too guilty to acknowledge it, but whatever, his parents are cool, and loving, and so they can call themselves whatever they want—but the rest of their family expects gifts, will give gifts, and so there is Christmas shopping. The stairs are to the left when you enter Harley’s front door, and he’s trudging up them, and so you follow. You leave the door open. He sits at his desk chair; you sit on his bed, lie back, look over at his screensaver—a slideshow of whatever pictures are on his hard drive; you look away—you don’t like looking at pictures, in part from fear of having to look at yourself, in part because you don’t like look at good times had without you; you don’t spend much time on Facebook for this same reason. You’re looking over at the open doorway now, at the tan carpet there. You go, “So what happened?”
He takes his cell phone out of his pocket, connects it to the white chord snaking out of his laptop, swings the chair so that he’s facing you directly, though you’re still looking out into the hall. “It happened after I broke up with Shelly, which…I had, like…it felt like life-threatening anxiety, basically, and I had it for like a week leading up to it. ‘Cause I wasn’t even cutting her out of my life like that, I was…she was already seeing someone else, basically, and, like, waiting for me to…she didn’t—” “I know, dude.” You say this last bit. Shelly and Harley were friends, but then they dated, but then he went to Nashville, with his other friend, Tara, who was Shelly’s best friend, and you, to see Tara’s older brother, Joe, who graduated, and went to school out there, and still keeps in touch with the three of you, obviously, and he hooked up with Tara there, kissing-wise, only it was a triple-type kiss, with you, and Tara came back, as you all did, and she told Shelly, only about her part, and so Shelly and Tara were no longer friends, and Harley spent less time with you, because he had work to do, to keep his girl, but then she met someone else, online, and they loitered in each other’s arms for a bit, until he gathered the balls to let go, of her, and their routine, their mutual friends. You didn’t so much get removed from his Awkward List as much as the Awkward List became the only list left, the only people who he could talk to—or maybe the lists just switched roles, as they tend to. Whatever! He looks at the doorway, like maybe you’re actually looking at something, but now you’re looking at him, and so he looks at you, and you look at his t-shirt. It’s got Casper on it, the ghost. Cute. He goes, “Well, yeah, so…the first time it happened, I was freaking out, like, doing that thing where you’re imagining the conversations that are being had about you, behind your back, and there’s no way to know what they’re even saying, but you know everything about yourself, and so you know every bad thing they could possibly think of?”
You blink at him now. He has to shave. You like him this way, though. “Was that a question? And you haven’t shaved…”
He rubs it his stubble. “It’s been two weeks and this is all I got. So sad. But, nah, I’m just saying, I was freaking myself out, in my bedroom, and I didn’t…this was before I reached out to you—before the other night—and I didn’t know what to do, and so I just closed my eyes, really hard, and when I opened them, I was gone.”
He smiles at you, you sit up. Maybe you’re supposed to be comfortable. Maybe you’re supposed to be here. He goes, “You joke, but, I can’t see myself the way you do. I don’t even show up in mirrors. To myself. And I’ve been doing crazy shit around town, at night, thinking no one can see me, when all this time they’ve been seeing some shimmering Predator thing skinny-dipping in their pool, or trying to make it look like their dog is floating, or whispering their name from behind bushes. Kind of embarrassing, now that I think about it.”
“Maybe not everybody can see you, even vaguely.”
“Why you, then? What’s, like, the special difference? Besides your eyes, I mean.”
“I don’t know.”
“Maybe I just like it when you look at me so much that I don’t want it to stop, even when I’m invisible.”
He keeps doing this shit. Since deeming you worth talking to again. This flirtatious garbage that you would’ve eaten up off the floor a month ago, but which kind of makes you angry now, which is dumb, because Harley is good, you think. Like, a good guy to have, and you’re supposed to want him, and you do, but…it’s like you want him to say he’s sorry, and him asking you for massages, or to go on drives with him, drives to nowhere, just drives, or to show you this secret that he hasn’t shown to anyone else, at least not on purpose…you feel like these are apologies, but it’s like your brain isn’t accepting them as that, and you know your brain knows what it’s doing, and that fucking sucks, because your body is going to want this, the moment this is taken away from you, the moment things go back to normal, but you’re thinking about the things he is saying, the things he can do now, and wonder if maybe this is the mark of things being different in a way where everything has been given a new set of rules, a new set of norms; maybe you needn’t be afraid of looking this person in the eye, or anyone else; you haven’t been able to in a long time—it would be nice to do it again. You used to enjoy it. Your thumb-wrestling with yourself, still sitting on his bed. You go, “You…you think there are other people? Who can suddenly do stuff?”
You sneak your eyes up, to his face, and he’s looking at your thumb-wrestling hands, too. He goes, “I dunno. Don’t tell anyone, though, okay? I don’t…I don’t know what to do. I just thought you should know. I thought…I dunno. Like, we could figure it out.”
You nod. “Alright. I’m down. I was just a—”
The doorbell rings. The pizza’s here. Harley beams; you snort. “Finally.”
“Should I answer it see-through?”
You shake your head. “What if we know the guy? Or something happens, later, and he says he’s seen you before?”
“So come down with me. Act like I’m not there. We’ll fuck with him. Come on. You only live once. And barely even then, right?”
You look at his eyes and shrug. “Whatever you want. Sure. Let’s do it.”
He smiles, lopsided. “Alright.”
He stands, clenches his fists, can’t stop smiling, until he does, closes his eyes, and then it’s like a drain opens up inside of him—or like his body is a flying plane, and someone’s opened a door—as all the colorful parts of him, the things he is wearing—all of the easily visible parts—rush toward some hungry point within him, and all that your left with is a warbled view of his screensaver, of his desk, and his chair. You shake your head. You want to use the word ‘weird’, but he’s never used it to describe you, and so you simply don’t know what to say. And the doorbell rings again.
“Can you see me? Like, at all, I mean?”
You stand up, nod. “Yeah. The same way as before.”
He walks away, out his bedroom door, and down the stairs, and you follow him, to see if the pizza man can see him, too. Hoping in a way you are unwilling to acknowledge that you’re really the only one who can, knowing that things do not work that way, even things that cannot really be happening.
Tom lights his cigarette as soon as the first explosion hits. Not the one on the screen, but the one across the street. You’ve got the theater to yourselves—not the whole fucking multiplex, just this screen, for Resident Evil 5, which has been out for weeks; anybody who might otherwise give a shit about people smoking in this non-smoking building will have other things to worry about, starting now.
You woke up this morning feeling remorse, or whatever you call it when you feel remorse before you’ve actually done anything wrong. Guilt. You hate calling things guilt, because, after awhile, it starts to feel like everything you do is caused by guilt or leads to it. You wish you knew more words. You just know you woke up this morning not with the anxiety you’ve been painting as excitement for the last few months, but feeling gutted. Like you’ve been playing a game this whole time, and you finally lost. Like the hopelessness you’d been feeling was your hope, that was hope, shouting at you, letting you know it was there, and you turned your back on it. Your alarm went off at about seven, and Dante called you at about seven-oh-five, and part of you wanted to let it ring—a lot of you did. You wanted to let it ring, and leave it there, and get dressed, and get in your car, and drive to Daly’s and tell him what you did, and apologize, and put a stop to it, together. Dante and Tom are too dumb to do this kinda thing without you; you not being here would’ve been enough, but you’re here, because you picked up your phone, because you finish what you start, to a fault. That used to be your big thing on job interviews, when the manager, or supervisor, or whoever would ask you what you would change about yourself, if you could only change one thing, or if you were someone who only needed to change one thing: ‘I’d know when to give up.’ You wouldn’t phrase it like that, and you’d smile, and you’d get the job, but, the point is, you sighed, rolled over onto your stomach, reached onto your nightstand, and you answered your phone. “Yeah.” “Are you on your way?” “Asshole—I just woke up. I’ll be there in twenty minutes.” “Alright, my bad. I’m excited.” “I know. Lemme get ready.” “Alright—I’ll see you. You sure we got everything? You got the text? Like, you checked it was the right one?” You rolled onto your back, sat up, could feel your stomach twisting as your heart looked down on it impassively, knowing it got itself into this. “Yeah, I checked. It’s right.” “Word. Okay, I’ll see you.” You hung up without responding, considered throwing your phone out the window, to be dramatic, that way you could look back on it as something out of your control, like your body just needed to throw the phone, and you powerless to stop it, but you knew you weren’t going to do that, and so scrolled through it instead, scrolled to Daly’s name, backtracked, clicked on the text icon, scrolled for his name there, clicked on it, saw the last conversation you had; the last three months of conversations; all lengthy, sincere responses on his end—all curt, passive-aggressive dismissals on yours. You clicked on the space to type, you clicked ‘Y,’ then you click ‘o.’ You gave yourself a couple of seconds to stare at these letters, to consider what they might imply that you don’t want them to imply; you tried to figure out what you wanted them to imply. You pressed send. You got up and took a shower; you had a clot of clothes to put on, and you didn’t want to have to rush.
You can hear sirens, even over the booming score of the movie. You don’t know what exactly emergency services hopes to accomplish, but, you suppose, it is an emergency; what else are they gonna do? Dante scoots forward in his seat, turns around to see if anyone’s in the projection booth. “This movie kinda blows.” This is Tom. “Can you blow your fucking smoke directly in mouth maybe? Jesus.” This is you. Dante scoffs. “Maron’! What crawled up your ass?” Tom blows smoke in the other direction. “Maybe that’s the problem, it’s been awhile since something has.” You smack the cigarette out of Tom’s hand and sort of squeals in outrage. “What the fuck!?” Dante laughs. “You two…we’re about to be fucking kings. Enjoy the movie. Enjoy the mayhem. Or at least chill on impeding on my ability to do so.” You stare at the screen as Tom picks his stogie up off the floor, sits back up, puffs on what’s left of it. You touch your pocket to make sure your phone is still there, that’s you didn’t leave it somewhere, where you’re getting a text message you’re unaware of, but it’s where you left it, in your pocket, and you reach in for another grip of popcorn as someone is slow-motion impaled onscreen. There’s another real-life explosion, this time a lot farther away. You sigh through your nostrils. “Two more,” you say. “Amen,” Dante says.
“Do you know what we’re looking for? Like, what it looks like, I mean?” This is you, months ago, with Daly, in his attic. There are boxes everywhere. Were. “It looks like a box.” “Smartass.” He turned around, you pointed your flashlights at each other, him looking guilty, but amused. “I don’t know which box. It’s not as old as some of this other stuff. What’s inside is, but the box isn’t. It’s probably under a lot of shit, though. I don’t think he wanted anyone to find it.” “And the cops never came looking for it?” “No.” “And you’re sure it exists?” He shrugged. “I dunno.” “Okay. Lead the way. I was just wondering. You should think about flashlights in the dark as your permanent lighting, though. For your face, I mean. You honestly never looked better.” He rolled his eyes and started creeping further into the dingy attic of no working lightbulbs, and you laughed, said, “I’m not kidding;” you, the master of hurting people’s feelings with your good intentions, by choice. “You’re mad now,” you said, in the way that meant you didn’t want him to be, and he snorted, and shook his head, and said, “I’m not,” softly, then said, “Just keep your damn light steady, and close to mine, so that they’re, like, one big light.” “You got it.”
Dale’s dad was locked up for conspiracy to commit murder. He and four other people. His mom was in the process of divorcing him, and, with his old man’s permission, they were going to have a garage sale, to get rid of his old stuff, some of which was pretty valuable, hence his excuse for being in the attic, while his mother entertained her girlfriends downstairs. “I got it,” he said, after forty minutes of rummaging through dust. It was a flash drive, shaped like an asthma inhaler. You started clapping, wholly uninterested, ready to go back downstairs, to his room, to watch Battle Royale, via Netflix, since that involved lying down, on a bed, in the dark, and not talking, which are the three things you are best at. But you kicking off your shoes and hopping horizontally on the bed wasn’t hint enough for Dale, neither was cuing up the movie and pressing play, as he seemed hellbent on figuring out what was on this flash drive, unwilling to believe that his father was actually capable taking another man’s life, let alone planning to. Not unless it was that man was planning to do something a lot worse. You laid there, head propped up by pillows, trying to feel the subtitled rampage the movie was trying to hand over to you, but Dale was right beside you, computer on his lap, typing away, googling symbols, trying decipher whatever code the information on the drive was written in. You’re not so sophisticated, and so you turned to look at him, said, “You in love with your computer now?” He stopped typing, looked you in the eye; he has an attitude that not a lot of people can stand—you both do. “Who else would I be in love with?” ‘Who do you think?’ you wanted to say, but didn’t. You turned back to the TV. You wanted to sleep there, didn’t want to get in a fight, which was getting easier to do, you suppose, since your feelings were getting stronger, on both sides, and the reality of this was aggravating you both. Your other option was to go home, and listen to your mom get pounded down the hall, by whichever boyfriend happened to be over that night. ‘I feel like you should pay attention to me when I’m here. And, if you’re not going to, then I think you should include me in whatever it is you are paying attention to.’ You should’ve said this, but again, he didn’t think you gave a shit, and you weren’t ready to lose that power. But it was obvious, like most true things, and he said, “I think my father discovered something that isn’t supposed to be able to happen, but was gonna happen anyway. And I think he was trying to stop it.” You sat up, suddenly very interested in this. “Something like what?” “That’s what I’m trying to figure out.”
Your phone vibrates. Your breath catches. Dante has moved on to his Twizzlers, Tom giving you both the silent treatment, only talking to himself, in exclamations, in reference to the movie. You stand up. “I gotta piss. I’ll, um…see what’s what out there. Let you guys know.” “Word up,” Dante says, and you hustle down the aisle, out of the theater, to the lobby, where you quickly pull out your phone, say, “Hello,” and hear Daly say hello back. “I feel honored,” you say. He snorts. “I got work in few. I didn’t have time to wait for a text. What did you want?” You walk past posters for movies you never plan to see, as a theater employee rushes past you, murmuring into a walkie-tallkie, and another runs up to you, goes, “Is anyone else in that theater?” You shake your head. Daly goes, “Hello?” The usher goes, “Alright—we’re evacuating the building. We’re sending everyone out the exit on the opposite side. Something’s going on outside, and we need everybody out.” You nod, do not walk to the opposite end of the building, but toward the front, where the walls are made of glass, and you can see the street beyond. The building across the street is on fire. People are screaming. There is another explosion, somewhere in the area. There’s only one left. You go, “I’m here.”
“I’m sorry.” This was you, a few weeks ago, on the deck of a bar, a bar Daly walked into with his friend Madeline and some of the other chicks he hangs out with, the people who began to fill his time after he told you he didn’t want to talk to you anymore, when he found out you made a copy of the flash drive, gave it to your friends—specifically, Dante—who figured out that what your father’s friend was originally trying to conjure what you referred to as a god, but what Dale corrected you as “a demigod.” “So you know.” “Of course I fucking know, dude. That’s not the point. That was never the point.” “Dude, I know. I’m sorry!” This was after you’d knocked back a dozen or so shots of tequila, working up the nerve to say hi to him; after you pretended to listen to Tom tell stories about the time he took ecstasy with his ailing grandmother, and the time some thuggish dude told him that he liked his style, a dude who turned out to be a modelling scout; you nodded and feigned the best smiles you could, but you looked over his shoulder as much as you could, watched Dale laugh, genuinely with his friends, laughter you felt like they were stealing from you, each iteration of it like a trip on a time machine, to a place where you mattered even less than you do now. You were all outside, on the bar’s deck, where smokers chilled, and those too into personal space to be risk getting crammed against the people sweating on each other inside the bar proper. It was a chilly night, and the moon was what you called full, but what Dante called almost-full. You had to pee. You walked toward the building, toward Dale, and his friends, smiling like it was a joke, like this was all a joke, you even being here, and he saw you, and you stopped, grinned, nodded, “Hey.” He nodded back. You waved him over. That’s when your conversation started. “I’m sorry!” He shook his head. You two were off in your own corner by this point, a corner of the deck away from your friends, and his. “I know. Me, too. Not…I’m sorry I involved you in it when I didn’t want you involved in it.” You shook your head now, put your drink on the balcony, took his hand, “Don’t be, though. I don’t even wanna do it, I just…I can’t let them do it without me. Without us. It can’t hurt us. When it comes. We’ll be in charge of it. You, too. There’s five of us. The four of us, and Tom’s grandma, who lives in, like, Tennessee, but it won’t…when it comes, we’re gonna use it to make the world safer. We’re not…we’re not trying to hurt anyone. Dude, I miss you.” He looked over to his friends, who seemed to have gone inside. “You’re an idiot.” You let go of his hand, shrugged. “I know.” “You don’t know. This thing is fucked, and Dante knows it, and he’s using it, because you’re good at shit like this. At getting shit done. If it was him and Tom, they’d be fucked, but they have you, and they’re fucking using you.” You shrugged again, picked up your drink. You’d been bumming stoges from Tom all night, and wished he was over here, just so he’d give you one, then go away again. “They’re my friends.” “I know who you’re friends are. You don’t need to always be telling me things that are obvious.” “Daly, I…I can’t stop making mistakes, I don’t know why, it’s like I don’t wanna be happy in the way I can—like, if I can’t be happy in the way other people are, then I don’t wanna be happy, and it’s dumb, but you aren’t one. Of my mistakes, I mean. Fucking honestly. I held my hope against you, instead of…instead of I don’t know what. This was me trying to change it so we didn’t have to be afraid to be here, anymore. I know you aren’t, but I was programmed, and I know that’s not an excuse, but…like, I did it so that that world wouldn’t exist anymore. So I… Jesus. In something like this,” you pointed your thumb at him, then at yourself, then at him, “there’s always a lucky one. And I know it was me.” “Well…lucky you.” He walked away, and you watched him go, more resolved than ever to give this world what it had coming to it. It wanted a god, and you’d give it one.
“You’re on the news. This is you, right? These buildings blowing up?” You nod out the multiplex windows. “Yeah, that’s us.” He doesn’t respond. You look at your phone to make sure the call is still connected. It is. You go, “The explosions…the fire doesn’t consume, it only burns. The people…they’ll be okay.” “Lucky them.” You look down at your shoes. You guys had to dress up because one of the orbs had to be placed on top of the university’s arts building, and there was a fundraiser today—you had to look like you belonged in order to get up to the roof, to place that portion of the ritual. You feel dumb even using these words. You feel dumb. “Where are you?” He sighs into the phone. “Home.” “Can I come there?” He laughs. “Why?” “Because I don’t wanna be here. I wanna be there.” “You want to be where you’re not.” You shrug, hear a commotion behind you, see an usher leading a crowd from a screening of The Master, down the hall that leads to the designated emergency exit. You see Dante and Tom, standing outside the theater you just exited. They’re not smiling. They’re watching you. You hear the final explosion. They look at each other; Dante nods at Tom—you turn back around, face the windows, the street, the people fleeing, crying—you notice the sky darkening prematurely. It’s coming. Whether it’s what you expected or something altogether worse, it’s coming. “Daly.” “Yeah?” “Do you know how to stop it?” You can hear him exhale. “Yes.” “Are you going to?” There’s a hand on your shoulder. It’s Dante. He nods toward the front door. It’s time to meet your maker. You nod back. “Yes.” Daly says this. “Who the fuck is that? Let’s go.” Tom says this. Daly clears his throat. “It’ll take a couple hours. Don’t let them do anything stupid. The thing…the thing you brought here…” “I know. It’s bad. I’m sorry.” “It’s okay.” “Thank you. If I had a flashlight, it’d be on you right now.” He snorts. “I know. Keep your boys in check.” “I’ll do my best. Let me know.” “I will.” “I’ll see you?” “Around, yeah.” “Okay. Goodb—later, I mean. I…later.” “iLater right back at you.”
Dante and Tom are already on the sidewalk, staring at something in the sky. “Sir!” It’s an usher, behind you. “Sir, it’s not safe out there.” You go, “I know,” and push open the glass door, resume your post as the leader of your friends, which isn’t saying much for a man who never really had any.
Your dad isn’t home, but there’s someone knocking on the door, and you don’t know how long they were standing there before they started knocking, so you don’t know if they saw you walk down the stairs, into the kitchen, to the fridge, to the cup cabinet, pour yourself a glass of milk, then bring the milk back to the fridge. You’re standing at the fridge now, because it can’t be seen from the front door, which is open, though the screen door is closed—this person is knocking on the screen door. You try to tell yourself this isn’t cowardly behavior, and maybe it’s not (maybe it is), but you just have to believe it long enough to distract yourself from it mattering either way; although obviously it will matter later, when cowardly acts become your instinct (that’s the wrong word, though—become default? customary? routine?), and you’ll have to un-braid all the strands of your life entwined to this crutch, one day, but for—
“Hey. You Barry?”
Fuck. You step away from the fridge, into the kitchen doorway, look at the man standing behind the screen, beyond the living room. You’ve seen him around. Lately. He’s not from around here, which only makes one suspicious since around here is awful, and people only pass through, maybe slowing down long enough to laugh, or be afraid, or take a picture, but they don’t stick around long enough for people to remember what they looked like, and this guy did, plus he knows your name, and you rub hair away from your forehead, exhale through your nostrils. He’s wearing a suit. He’s older than you. His skin is some kind of olive. You go, “Yeah.”
“Good. You think you could let me in? I’m supposed to meet your old man. Looks like he’s running a little late.”
You at the clock above the TV in the living room. It’s ten to three. You look at the screen, and the man beyond it. “He don’t get back till three.”
“Ah, yeah? Guess I’m early, then.”
You turn to look at your milk, say, “Okay, hold on,” walk to get it, grab it, walk to the door, your heart/gut and your brain discussing ways to diplomatically break it to this guy that you’d rather he wait outside, your brain suggesting you might not want to piss him off, your brain wondering why it feels this way, why it thought the milk might make it feel safer, why safety is suddenly an issue. You release the latch keeping the screen door from flying open, and brush the door forward, making sure he’s got a hold of it, before stepping aside, sipping your milk—nobody ever unleashes danger on people sipping milk. You’re taller than this man, but he is stranger, walks with a limp, toward the couch. You pull the screen door shut, re-latch it, watch as the man eases himself in front of the television, which is not on. He tugs at his pants to get rid of the high-water effect of being sat down, pretends you are not watching him. “What time are you supposed to meet him?” Your question. He shrugs. “Around this time.” He looks at you. “It shouldn’t be long.” You wonder if you should be babysitting this man, try to do the thing where you gauge how much shit you’ll get if the worst happens, use that as a barometer as to what the right thing to do is in this situation. “Do you wanna watch TV or something? He should be here in a minute. I’m…well, you know my name. You are?” He smiles at you. His eyes are bright and blue; passing you, he smelled of sweat and the cologne of a business meeting; his skin creases in ways that suggest he is your father’s age. He smiles at you. “I’m Bob.” He goes back to digging into his empty-looking pockets, for whatever, you don’t know, your distrust of your instincts kicking in, knowing in the way people cannot that you should not have let him in, that you picked the wrong time to crave milk, to talk yourself into even liking the stuff, as cheese has been your primary source of pretending your calcium intake matters to you, adding this to the list of short-term mistakes you will stare at until they go away, and then try to fix, once they’ve metastasized into flaws in your character your brain will assume came out of nowhere, sparing yourself the burden of understanding the extent to which you’ve contributed to your own missed opportunities, dragged your own ass into pockets of time where thoughts moved slower than those around you, things easily grasped slipped through your fingers like sand, or sound. The phone rang. You looked at Bob. “You watch TV, Bob?” A shrug. You walk over to the TV. It’s an old, piece of shit, but you’re getting the sense that Bob might find in this a kindred spirit, grab the remote from atop it, turn it on, hand him the remote, walk back to the kitchen, answer the phone. “Hello?” Nobody ever calls, not that you don’t see coming. Not when your dad isn’t home. “Barry?” Jesus. “Yes. May I ask who’s calling?” “Um, Cliff? From the fair?” You gave him your number. He laughed at things you meant to be serious and nodded at things meant to be jokes, stayed for things meant to send him away, left when you decided you didn’t want him to. “You gave me a goldfish, even though I technically didn’t win it?” You put your milk on the counter. “I remember you.” He laughs. You try to figure out if it’s you, if there’s something wrong with the way you say things. “Awesome. Um…do you remember what we talked about? I mean, that thing we talked about, not everything…” You squint at the back door, only because it’s what your facing, and you chug the rest of your milk (“Are you still there?…hello?”), put it on the counter, though it belongs in the sink, lean back, so that you can see in the living room—the guy is still digging in his pockets, like they lead somewhere beyond ‘in his pants’. “Hold on.” You walk into the other room and up the stairs without looking at the man. You walk down the hall and into your room. You close the door. You lean against it. “Hello?” “Yeah, man. Is this a bad time?” “Yeah. I mean, no. I don’t know. What did we talk about the other day.” That you can remember, Cliff walked up to your booth at the fair. You were staring down, eyes glazed over, at the churros and other fatty, carb-y confections it was your job to shill for the weekend, which were popular, except for when one of the local bands—Shard Carpet—were playing, which they were all weekend, thisclose to securing an indie deal and legitimate, monetary reasons to hold their noses up at the people they shared a town with, which, if their onstage banter was any indication, was how they felt about this place. Their music was an odd blend of Phil Specter schmaltz and punk wilding out, and it pushed your daydreams toward your heart, where they languished in the feeling that there were no feelings at all, no passion to push yourself toward anything that might possibly mean something to you, in a way that stood up to what was happening around you, instead of cowering away from it. The sun was going down. You could not wait to go to bed, to have a sip of whiskey, to not have the mirror of unwanted companionship to hold yourself against. Someone was standing there. You looked up. It was Cliff, who you did not know, who you wanted to go away, who wanted a churro. “Everybody loves this band, huh?” You shrugged, handing him his grease treat, accepting his money. “I guess it’s the right thing to do.” “Like this band?” “I mean…not a lot of things that matter come from this place. It’s like…validating, or something.” He snorted. He was dressed in clothes fashionably too small for him, obviously didn’t work, or worked someplace where he could sit down. “I think it might just be easier to stand in the herd than to instigate conflict by being immune to it, or looking like there’s a chance you might be. Wait…I guess I agree with you then, huh?” You shrugged. “Maybe.” He laughed. “Do you have a lighter? I’m supposed to be gone already, but my dad’s a dick. I called him like ten times. He had a meeting or something. This shit is dope, though.” He said the last part with his mouth full. You pretended to clean stuff. “I’m glad.” “That I’m still here? Or that I’m stuck here? Or that I like this?” You shrugged again. He was younger than you. You were tired. You wondered how much older it made you look. You wondered why he wasn’t going away, when most people got the hint even when you didn’t want them to. “Do you need anything else?” He looked toward the stage, at the end of the row of booths, at the end of the small crowd, shook his head, looked back to you. “I just need someplace to stand. I can read body language, I’m not…I dunno…an idiot. If you could just put up with me until my dad calls back, or my friends finish pretending to like this band, then…” “It’s fine. It’s my job to ask.” He smiled. Ripped off a piece of his churro; he held it out to you. “I can’t eat all this. Not while liking myself.” You took it. The wind picked up. There was no moon, not that wanted any part of this. You ate with your head down. You do most things this way. You hold the phone to your ear this way. What did talk about the other day? That mattered to him… “I can’t remember,” you say, now, in your room. “Remind me.” He snorts. “Okay. It’s weird, though. What I’m gonna add to it. If that’s okay…” You nod. Your room shrugs back at you, a empty mess, like its master. “It doesn’t matter what you say.” “That’s comforting.” He’s joking. You try to mimic his snort. “I mean, it’s okay.” A pause, in which you imagine him nodding back, imagine what his room looks like, if he’s there. “I know what you mean.” You mimic his silence. And he says, “Okay,” and he tells you why he called.
You listen, but only barely, as you hear the screen door open downstairs, wait to hear it shut, do not; wait to hear voices, do not, save Cliff, gabbing about what happened when he got home the night you met him, how he had to sit in the backseat, because there was some dude sitting shotgun in the car, a guy who kept playing with the radio, enamored, only briefly, by every new thing he heard, as if he had never heard any kind of music before, and he found it funny that people even bothered making it. “Uh…what happened when you got home?” You moved away from your door—your bedroom door—tensed yourself, and turned the nob. It made a small chk sound as it popped open. You winced, listened, the silence from the rest of the house soundtracked by Cliff going, “Nothing. Well, my dad told me he’d meet me inside, and I went inside, and they stayed in the car, with it running, and I, like, took a shower, and…and, like, prepared for bed, and I just happened to look outside, to see if my mom had come home yet, and they were still out there. Like, my dad and this guy. This is like 3 hours later. Like, the engine was still running, the headlights still on…” You open your door a little bit more. You hear the screen door slam shut. You crouch down. You don’t know why. You still don’t hear voices. None in fact. Into the phone, you go, quietly, “Was your mom home?” “What? No. She’s a paralegal or whatever, it happens sometimes, but I was fucking freaking out, you know? I didn’t know this dude. What if he fucking did something to my dad, or they were fucking or something, you know? My mom is about 60% awesomer than my dad, just on a human level, so I was like fuck that shit, and I went downstairs—and I went outside—and I was walking down the drive, which is dirt—and I wasn’t wearing shoes—and I was about 3 yards away, and the engine cut off. And the lights, and my dad got out, and he said, ‘You still up?’, like, meeting me halfway, and leading me back into the house, locking us inside.” “Uh-huh…” You step into the hallway, just once, and the floor boards creak, because, of course, and you stand there, relishing the pause in the conversation, listen…hear…a squishing sound? Maybe. This is followed by what sounds like keys rattling, and the feeling like your heart is breaking into pieces, like the blood oozing from it is colder than it’s supposed to be, your breath asking you if it can take a break, a couple seconds off, it’ll call you later, but nothing new happens—you stand there, anxious; nothing new. The keys rattle, though. Maybe their bells; like, Christmas ones. “What’s goin on?” You whisper back, step back into your room, walk over to the window. “What? Nothing…I mean…what else happened? That night, or whatever? I don’t know what you’re telling me…” “You’re whispering. Are you working?” “What? No… No.”
What else happened is he sat in his bedroom, in the dark, watching his father’s car, unable to sleep, but equipped with the ability to yawn unceasingly, stare out the window, crouched, while peeking through his mini-blinds, and, at about 4 in the morning, the left front door of his dad’s car opened, and then closed. “I assume it was the guy getting out, but it was too dark to see.” You look out your window. Your dad’s car is here. Your car, too. Cliff isn’t talking. You want him to keep talking. “Cliff.” “Yeah.” “Can you come here?” “…where? To your house?” “Yeah.” “Um, yeah…when, though?” You shake your head and turn away from the window. “What did this guy look like?” “I don’t know. Like a guy. Like, if there was a police sketch…it would look like…anybody. Like nobody.” “Have you seen him since?” “I saw him this morning.” “And what happened.” “He came to see my dad.” “And what happened??” “My dad went with him.” Maybe your dad did, too. “What did he look like?” “What? I told…this morning he was wearing a suit. I don’t remember what the other day.” But what if he did? Go. You go most days without talking to anyone but him. Not by choice, and not because you like it, but because there isn’t really anybody else to do it with; talking. You’re in debt. Or life is in debt to you, you can’t tell. Both probably. Most things happen for every reason, not just the reason you can’t get over. There were people, there just aren’t any now. “Cliff.” “Yes.” “Can you come here?” “Right now, you mean?” You nod, turn away from your window. Walk to the door. It’s still ajar. You put your hand on the door frame. “Yeah. Please.” “I don’t know where you live.” “Yes, you do. We talked about it. I live on the farm on Fre—” “Right. Shit. Okay. I’m on my way. Are you okay?” You shake your head. “I don’t think so. Are you?” “…no. I’m on my way.” “Okay. Thank you.”
You toss the cordless phone (you gave Cliff the house number, assuming, if he ever did call, no one would answer it anyway; old instincts are hard to shake), and step back out into the hallway. The ball of tension usually associated with leaving your room starts to throb as you shuffle down the hall, to the head of the steps, where the front door is visible. It’s closed. You still don’t hear anything. “Pop.” You say this, to, obviously, no one, because you are home alone now. This is as clear as your current need to relieve yourself from both ends, hot waste pushing at any exit it can find, your body overheating, boiling everything that isn’t bone. You feel. “Pop!” You say it again, just to ensure you’re not rushing though anything or rushing into anything; you must go through every step, even the perfunctory ones. The next step on the possibly-confronting-darkness checklist is ‘slowly walking down the stairs’, and so you do this. The ceiling moves out of your way, and you are able to see the living room, which smells like someone lit and shook out a series of matches, but doesn’t look any different, not that you can tell. You consult your inner checklist. You should probably call out for your father again. “Dad! Pop! Are you here?” You walk to the kitchen. Your milk is right where you left it. You pick up the glass. Stare at the contents. You lift the glass to your nose; you sniff. It’s curdled. You swirl it around, and it gurgles, you swear, and you put it down. What’s next? The front door whispers, to get your attention. You turn to it. You feel like the smell is getting worse, the match smell. You don’t know. You clench every part of yourself that can do such a thing, something you’ve tried to avoid as you get older, fearing the lines that will remain, even when you’re feeling good about yourself, always assuming that day is out there somewhere, looking for you. You don’t remember walking to the front door, but you now stand before it, put your left palm against it, wrap your right around the doorknob. It feels wet, but that might just be you adding yourself to it, letting it get to know you. You pull the door open. The screen, a real-life incarnation of those ‘are you sure about this?’ pop-up boxes. You push it out of your way and step outside. The day is muggy, musty, and you are beginning to smell like you belong. From the porch you can see the endless field to the side of your house, and the farm equipment before it, and the makeshift driveway to the left of it, both cars still there—yours and your dad’s. He is not inside of yours. No one is. His is empty as well, is the thing. You look down at the four steps that lead to the ground; you look back to the right, and you see the path they must’ve taken out of here. A path that wasn’t there an hour ago. You exhale. Turn left, squint toward the road way down the bend of the driveway, pray that Cliff has chosen this time to arrive; but, alas; he lives close, but not that close.
The smell is stronger out here, and you walk to it, toward the swath in the field, the crops. It cuts as far as you can see, and you feel like the next thing for you to do is follow it; you dig in your pocket for your phone, but it isn’t there. You pull out your lighter instead. You don’t even have cigarettes; you just carry it for the part of you that knows that you’re not good for most things, not normal things, and carrying around a lighter at least ensures you are of some use, that all you have to say is ‘yes’, and then dig into your pocket, so long as they ask the right question. You’re not the type to need, because you view it as a weakness, but you figure this is a side-effect of your state of mind, a side-effect contradicted by the ease felt in your heart as it hears Cliff’s car chug in this direction, Cliff’s dad’s car, likely, but driven by him, as his old man isn’t around, according to him, nor yours, according to the path before you. You turn your back to it, and wait for him. Cliff, not your father, who is gone, or whatever. You could probably be the type, you think, if you tried—if you forgot what you’ve learned about what people are willing to put up with, what is okay to be, about the limitations of the time in which you live, and stopped imagining what it would be like if you were born a hundred years from now, when you might even be something folks aspired to be, instead of shied away from; or maybe it’s the past you’re looking for; you just know it’s not this; you know how awful this feels, so you know it’s anything but this; you know it’s not romantic to be empty, or constantly jilted, or maladjusted; to not be the type, but know that you could be—if you weren’t so sure no one ever held onto you because no one was really worth holding onto (not deep down, not really), except by cowards, who feared themselves, and how meaningless this would all seem, if they were forced to stop and think about it, and so don’t stop long enough to do so; except they would, one day—have to stop. Even just for a second, at the end, but here you are, stopping, all day, every chance you get, like you’re afraid you won’t get the chance, when it matters, in the end. “Yo.” You blink up. Cliff is standing there, in front of you, breathing like he ran from the car. His skin is less worried than your own. You look over your shoulder, at the swath. “This wasn’t here earlier.” You turn back to him. “I think he took him. The man. My dad. I was gonna go…there, like…go down there.” Cliff nods. “You shouldn’t.” You look at him. It’s okay with him. “No?” He shakes his head. “No. We can call the cops, and…you can sit with me, like, inside…or someplace else. We don’t…we can not make it worse. If you want.” You turn back to the swath, the path, the road to whatever, and you look at the sky, which is supposed to be clear, according to actual weather reports, but that isn’t, because of something else, maybe. You turn back around. “I don’t wanna go back in there.” “Okay. I got my phone. We can call them right here. I don’t wanna go home, either. We can wait in the car.” “Can we go somewhere? Else?” He nods, laughs. “Oh, man. We can go wherever you want. Fuck this. Fuck that smell. Jesus.” “Okay. Can…okay.” You don’t even know what it was, but you let it go, let him lead the way back to his car, which is still running. He puts a cigarette between his lips as he shifts into reverse, and the car rolls backwards; you put your hand in your pocket, wait for him to ask for your help.
You’re afraid of heights and whatever part of you that can’t get over that is afraid of speed, too. It’s some instinct part; some chemical, or biological part. That part of you that’s afraid to stay in any one place, with any one group of people, for too long, that’s some intellectual part, at least that’s what you told yourself when you left the most recent place, when you left the place before that. A thing you used to do is smoke, then panic as perspective washed over you, and you could clearly see how you were a dick that day, or how you were arrogant, or, less often, how you did a good job. Now that stuff just comes to you without asking. You don’t know what happened, but you have perspective permanently, and you can’t get rid of it. You ruined this place, though. You can’t stay. But this fact doesn’t really seem all that intellectual anymore. It feels like something rotten in you. Some way somebody fucked up, maybe generations ago, and that rot just got passed down, and now it’s yours, and, whether you like it or not, your gonna hand it out, too. To the people you love, or just convince yourself you need to love you, and you’ll boycott happiness if it comes from anyplace else. And you’ll pass it on to your kids, if fate shrugs its shoulders and somehow puts you in charge of some. This rot’s been in charge, and you didn’t even know it till now, on this train, with this wind in your face, scaring the shit out of you with how fast it’s moving; how you can look back and it’s like you’re not even moving, but you look forward, to the sides, and it’s just this…blur. You tell yourself now that you know your intellect is some other thing altogether, maybe when you get to this new place, wherever it is you end up, you might start using it? Unless you panic and just start being you again. You suck, though. Common knowledge, but worth noting. You tilt your head away from the wind, duck behind the massive storage bin. You see something wedged beneath it, something you didn’t notice before. You reach down to grab it, without letting go of the grate on the side of the car. It is a book. It is filthy, like you. You grab your water and wash the grime away from the cover, enough to see what it’s called. Strange. You snort. “Likewise,” you mutter, and the train rattles violently, in response.
Your sister’s gotten herself a little bit pregnant. This is a reason for you to come home. According to text messages from your mother, of which you’ve received many. Her typos make them too endearing to ignore, even without the inherent guilt-trip of the word ‘family’, which she always spells correctly. Having to do things that aren’t a part of your daily routine makes you uncomfortable, and sort of angry? Like, having to get gas really puts you out, and not just financially. If you could get it delivered, you would. You don’t know how that would work, you just want it to. But as you sat at your computer, watching a cam copy of the Hunger Games, the sound quality shit, your cat meowing at you, not impressed with the off-brand ‘indoor formula’ you bought him with the chump change left over from whatever you had in your pocket, after feeding yourself, your friends not answering your texts, you feeling stupid, not for sending them, but for who you sent them to, knowing there are people out there who want to talk to you, would love to see, and knowing those are the people you feel you can do without; this guilt is of your own making, and it is what drives you to send ‘Ok’ to your mother, who you’re surprised even knows how to text? (Like it’s so hard! You’re a jerk). You pack a bag, realize most of your clothes are dirty, pack a laundry bag, leave a note on the fridge, for your roommate, that you will not be there, for you don’t now how long, that your mutual cat is his cat, at least until you get back, whereupon he can harangue you until you feel guilty about that and promise to do the same for him one day.
Your parents have a nice house for the sticks, your dad a retired military guy with a failed car-dealership under his belt, your mom a needs-to-retire-already interior designer obsessed with the 60s and imposing polka-dots on her clients. You were never too close with either of them, mostly gave them a really hard time about how uncomfortable you felt with the idea that you looked like them, that no matter how old you got, or how refined, or how faraway you journeyed, people would always wonder where you came from, and the answer would always be here.
“You don’t shave?” is the first thing your dad says to you. He’s the one who meets you at the door. It’s been a few months—Christmas was the last time you popped in, and not even to spend the night. Before that, you hadn’t seen them since pretty much the Christmas that preceded it. That one was a lot worse; money was a lot tighter (Mad Men finally trickled down to rural Americans, in the interim, you suppose). It was pretty much a tension-filled, gift-less dinner, one you saw coming, but that you walked into, because it was Christmas, and there was nowhere else for you to go. There isn’t any of the pressure of living up to any sort of imaginary holiday spirit, only the matter of dealing with your sister, Molly, and her situation, and so shaving never even crossed you mind. You don’t like shaving, and you do it as infrequently as possible. “I shave all the time,” you tell your father, watching your mother pour a cup of tea, “my face just won’t take the hint.” Your mom turns to you, smiles, says, “You eat?” Her favorite line, and you think about it, and you say, “Barely?” and your brother, Scott, walks in the room, rolls his eyes at the sight of you, and you smile. “What’s up?” “You don’t shave now?” You shake your head, defiantly. “Nope.”
Scott is younger than you, but not by so much that he didn’t get the gist of what being like you would mean for his life, what it would be like, how hard it would be to get along with your folks, with the other people around here, his peers, if he was too much like you, a purposeful outsider, even if his feeling justified, and so he wasn’t like you, isn’t, at least on the outside, and so, tonight, you are doing something for him that no one has ever had to do for you, that no one ever will—you are going to watch him play football, amen.
Football is a thing in your town. Like, high school football. It’s a Friday, and everyone comes to vicariously live out their various fantasies through these boys crashing into each other on the field of Rutherford B. Hayes High School—the adults tapping into their memories of being here back then, and doing this same thing, and life just being this looped sample, this conveyor belt, eventually dumping them off, into nothing; the young people wanting to be the girls chanting on the sidelines, or the dudes actualizing their potential on the field, or wanting to be with a combination of whichever they could get their hands on, if only they came here often enough, cheered for them loud enough, ‘liked’ enough grammar-is-beside-the-point, lol-suffixed updates on Facebook. Schmoozing those who mattered most in hopes of getting some leftover attention. He’s a receiver, your brother. You know enough about football—from playing video games, and growing up in this town—to know that Scott is good at it, despite your sense that his involvement is at least partly joyless sacrifice. Or maybe your projecting. Or trying to reject the unselfconscious exuberance exploding from the crowd whenever a play is made that even alludes to the fact that scores are made in this game—the comfort-zoning-out of these people, the thermoses full of beer, on the warmest night of the year so far, the sweatiest. The girls and boys, rocking their barely-there clothes, in tribute to an incoming season that will require nothing short of constant diet-justifying midriffs, and farmer tan-exposing muscle tees. The older folks rocking the school’s—nee, the towns!—colors. You and your folks sit high up in the bleachers, your dad convinced he can get as tanked as he wants, as long as he’s far enough away from the field that authorities figures can’t actually smell it, or see him doing it. You sit between them, a side-effect of letting your mom lead the way. On the field, your brother gets railed trying to catch a ball thrown poorly, way beyond his reach. The crowd groans in unison, a Greek chorus caring about this person, and his safety, his future; a person who actually looked up to you at some long ago, hard-to-imagine point in your lives. A lineman helps your brother to his feet and the crowd claps, and your mother whoops, and you grin, turn to your dad, who is pulling his thermos away from his lips, and you reach out a hand, take it, as he offers it, chug back a bit of straight whiskey (melted ice offering a slight ease to its bite), as your mom goes, “Look who made it.” Your sister Molly is climbing the bleacher steps with her friend Valerie, not looking very pregnant. You don’t know how often Molly comes to these things, but her face strains with the effort of one trying their best to put their best one forward. You don’t know what’s going on in her mind or her life aside from what your mother tells you, and your mother isn’t the most reliable narrator, probably hasn’t been too kind to Molly through all this. Your sister is two years older than you. You make eye-contact, and you nod at her, and she nods back, doing that tight-lipped harmless face people do, when they want you to know it’s okay, and you do one right back at her. Your dad nudges you, to slide down, so that they can sit next to him, closer to the aisle (farther away from your mother, is the implication here), and you obliging, clinging onto the whiskey thermos, liking it, now that you’ve gotten to know it.
After the game (won by the home team, hurrah, and all that), you lurked around the parking lot, where a sort of loose crowd was forming, of younger people confirming the plan, for the rest of the night, and of the older people who gave some of them rides, waiting to confirm what comes next for them, or even making plans of their own, talking loudly with their friends and neighbors, everybody waiting for the team to emerge, cleaned up but bruised, from the locker room, the signal there’s even anyplace else to be. You stay off to the side, not sure where your folks are, not worried, their house close enough to the school that you could walk, if you had to; you lean against the fence surrounding the property, stand in the grass, staring at a little pothole, in the concrete just past it, feeling pretty good—not in a cosmic, really sense, but in a warm, whiskey sense; a what-are-thoughts-anyway sense—and a shape steps up to you and it says, “Good mood?” You keep your smile, because they don’t come too often, when people are around, and you like for them to at least see that you are capable of it. It’s your sister, no longer with Valerie. You shrug, nod at her. “Felt worse. How are things?” She laughs, dryly, but not rudely. She smirks. “My life is an exercise in slowly rising tension. One I totally had coming, and am determined to enjoy despite it, at any cost. Often unsuccessfully. You?” You shrug again, look back at your pothole. You don’t even remember the question. You hear cheering from over where the fence opens up to the campus proper, see the team spilling out, their adoring town, not knowing any better than to love them. Local papers are here. The closer they get to the playoffs, they might even get TV crews out here. You go, “Same shit, I guess.” “You don’t ever get bored of it?” You look away from the dudes, grinning like movie stars, all of them, at the peak of their powers, their ability to hypnotize whoever happened to casually lay eyes on them, not realizing that BAM, they were seeing someone…and you look at your sister. “Bored of what?” She opens her eyes wider and shrugs. “I dunno! The same shit, dummy. Making excuses for never getting what you want, thereby giving yourself an excuse to never get what you want.” You sigh, smile at her. Put a palm out toward her, toward yourself, back and forth. “Can we not, right now? It’s been a kinda nice night. I don’t bring up your thing, you…you let me just live in my thing, and then we can rip each other apart, tomorrow.” “Come see me tomorrow?” “In the apartment for wedlock babies, or…?” She rolls her eyes. “At work. You can meet Mark.” Mark is the man responsible for your sister’s situation. Half-responsible. He’s older than her, by society’s idea of ‘much’. You gotta admit, though, she doesn’t seem half as freaked out about all this as you thought she’d be, based on how she was, back when you were around more; based on what your mother would say; based on how you would be. Someone approaches the two of you, and you are surprised to see that it is your brother, his hair matted from whatever excuse for a shower he took, his mood buoyant, like there’s something in the air. “Scotty,” your sister says, warmly, giving him a one-armed hug, “good game, honestly.” You’ve never seen them hug, but neither looks uncomfortable with it, and so it’s just another thing you’ve missed out on, you suppose. You feel left out, like it’s all your fault, like running off to find somewhere you belong is the most selfish thing you’ve ever done, and maybe it is, and maybe it only feels like a bad thing because you never actually found it. “Yeah,” you say, “you’re pretty good out there, huh?” He shrugs, snorts, looks at you in the face, and you don’t look away, though it’s kind of your thing. There is an earned strength about him; all of yours has been thrust upon you, by age. “It’s a tough district,” he says, “I guess I’m tryna stand out. This was a good game, though. I’m not always good. You should, um…you wanna hang out?” You can feel Molly eyeing you, you say, “Yeah, totally. Like…yeah, whatever you want.” He chuckles, your dad’s laugh. You’re jealous. “There’s a thing, at this chick’s house. Her dad’s some big-time attorney, and they’re trying to buy friends, so the whole team, and staff, and all our families and local whatevers are invited, so…I’m pretty sure there will be alcohol. Maybe even proper drugs, who knows? We did win, after all.” You nod, glad this buzz is something you’ll be able to hold onto, until morning, whereupon you can hate yourself again. “Ah, true. Word.” “You’re in, then…” You nod. “Yeah.” “Then drive over with me?” “I didn’t drive here. I mean—” “I know, that’s not… I did. Drive here, I mean. What about you?” He nudges one of his sneakers against one of Molly’s. Some bro way over there hoots about nothing in particular. She shakes her head. “I gotta get back. I’m living for three now. But go live. Be un-boring. But come see me tomorrow? Both of you?” You look at Scott, who is looking at her, nodding, and you go, “Definitely,” and now he nods at you, on the same page, which is all you really wanted, and you feel good, and he leads the way to his car, which is another thing he has, that you never did. It’s an old ass Honda, older than him maybe. “Nice car,” you say. He snorts, and you both climb in. Your smile reunites with your face. Amen.
You feel something nudging at your ribs, and you scrunch up your face, in preparation for whatever might confront you, once you open your eyes, and you open your eyes. You’re looking up at Scott, and you’re in a basement, but it’s not your basement—your folks’—it is the party basement, only the party is snoring, all around you. You look down at yourself. You had the piece of mind to at least finagle a sleeping bag—before panicking about not wearing a shirt, you get to know your pillow a little bit, and, lo, it is just your shirt, all balled up. “We should go,” Scotty says. He carries himself like someone who found a much more comfortable place to sleep last night, that you should trust, and you nod, and go, “Okay.”
You sleep a couple more hours, in your old bedroom, at your folks’ place, before Scotty is waking you up all over again, knocking on the bedroom door, coming in, once you’ve given the okay, walking to the foot of the bed, wearing some black-on-black, not-quite-Under-Armour garb, holding a plate of eggs, and toast. It’s two in the afternoon, you just happened to sleep through most so-far proper meals. “We gonna see Molls?” You squint at him, already sat up in bed, this second dose of sleep slipping away from you much more quickly than its older brother did, back at whatever house you drank too much in last night, revealing too much of yourself, in front of people who may not have seen you coming, or known what they invited, when they let you in the front door. Your mind tries to save you from some particular memory, involving parts of some boy’s face, and parts of your own. You take the plate of eggs, and lightly-buttered wheat toast. You go, “Thanks,” go, “yeah. I forgot kinda.” “It’s cool. Eat up, though, huh? I made you a pre-workout drink as well, but I want real energy in you. I’m passing my neuroses onto you. We’re family, after all.” He smiles at you, and you go, “Um…” and he reaches into the pocket of his flimsy shorts, produces a fork, wrapped in a napkin. You take them, go, “Thanks, but, um…did I…do anything, like, to embarrass you last night?” He holds eye-contact with you, not letting his thought process show up on his face, but clearly thinking, clearly trying to decide phrasing and not so much truth. “You’re my brother. You’re my brother, in this town. But, like, cosmically, I feel like we justify each other. And so you could never embarrass me by being different from me. So eat your eggs, man, come on. They’re busy, even on Saturdays.” You nod and start scooping scrambled eggs into your mouth, not realizing until they’re being chewed that there’s cheese among these eggs, feeling your body making plans for its next visit to this place.
Okay, so your sister works at a gym. But not, like, the kind of gym where anybody goes to shed a few pounds, or even one of those gyms where only really athletes go, to bulk up or maintain shape—she works at the kind of gym where fighters go to train, where the personal trainers fancy themselves the MDs of focused aggression and oh-shit abs. “I’ve never been there before,” Scotty assures you on the car ride over, but the barely-concealed glee on his face is all you need to know to be afraid for the next few hours of your life. Your roommate has a pull-up bar. That and a poverty-based diet are the extent of your fitness regiment. Maybe some crunches, and ab-destroying, projectile, post-bender vomiting, but that’s it. You watch Scotty and Mark do drills in the ring—a boxing ring in the center of the gym, mostly filled with dudes, this place—and catch your breath on a bench, with Molly, who works only as a receptionist here, now that she’s come down with a baby. Mark just had you guys do a mess of kettlebell swings, Scott begging for more as you begged for a break. “What do you think of him?” She means Mark, who is 34 but doesn’t quite look it, mostly due to how solid—how fit—he looks, how ABC-Sunday-night-dramedy desirable he looks. The kind of person made for knocking up pretty younger girls. He’s once-divorced and vegan. Even sweaty, he didn’t smell all that bad. You’re not much of a talker in the sense that you’re a dork who likes to read, and be left alone, for fear of what kind of attention you might get; he’s not much of a talker in a way you don’t really know how to understand, or relate to. “He seems alright,” you say. She’s having this baby, and giving this guy a go, this life, and what she’s really asking is if she can count you as an ally, and she can. “Congratulations,” you add, a bit falsely—you’re no good at saying what you’re supposed to—but she seems pleased all the same, so you forgive yourself, watch Scotty climb out of the ring, limp toward the two of you. You clap for him, and he shakes his head, grinning kinda, and you look up, over him, at Mark, who is waving you over; you’re next apparently.
You try to lose yourself in the crouch down, then shooting your legs out, then pulling them back into a crouch, then standing, then grabbing the barbell, then jerking it up, then pushing it over your head, then dropping it, and so on, and so much pain, and you kind of do, but not fully; your brain is only ever too occupied with what it’s missing to be too bothered with how much pain it’s in. Even when you collapse, unable to take anymore lunging, or lifting, or sweating, or being here—or being yelled at, or expected to be stronger than you are, or to fight twice as hard, for a fraction of the happiness your sister finds just by forgetting to take birth control one or two times, or your brother finds, just by following his instincts—when you’re lying in that ring, trying to catch up to your breath, which seems to want its space, all you can think about is yourself, and how you look, and what they will think, of what you want, and how maybe you might be better off just not wanting anything, leaving that to the rest of them, at least until you find something perfect, something that makes everybody happy; someone. Some version of you who isn’t you. Or maybe just you. It’s worked out so far, right? Only you? Mark helps you up, seeing you hurting, not knowing in what way, you only now realizing it’s in several ways, perhaps all the ways, which is oddly invigorating, an understanding of Scotty’s obsession with fitness bleeding under the door of your closed-off mind. “Way to dig it out, brother,” Mark exclaims, patting you on the back, as you walk to the edge of the ring, “that’s how you get it done—mind over matter. Be in your head, and the physical pretty much becomes an afterthought.” You grab the ropes at the edge of the ring, and you laugh, dryly, like your sister, like your mother. You nod like this is something someone needed to tell you. “I hear you,” you say, and try to climb out the ring without falling over.
You dig into your back pocket as you walk toward Alf’s apartment, only feel your wallet, take out your wallet, dig into the pocket again, only feel pocket, dig into the other one, likewise only feel denim, and the left side of your ass helping the rest of your body to walk, or whatever role your ass plays in this type of shit. What you’re looking for is not in your wallet, because your wallet is the fancy-looking kind that can only hold cards—it can hold money, but you kind of like how money feels, crumpled up in your front pockets, so that’s where you keep it, when you have it, which you should, right now, not yours, but on your person, but—you stop walking, check your front pockets, your little fifth-pocket thing—and, yeah, you lost two hundred dollars somewhere between exiting your front door three-point-five hours ago, and stepping out of the elevator on the eighth floor of Alf’s building; you’re four doors away from his, and you spin on your heel, walk back to the elevator, jam your thumb at the down arrow, the doors opening immediately, the lift empty, no new bodies, no dropped money; you keep your thumb pressed against the call button, try to race through time, backwards, to every place you’ve been today, like the lobby of this building, and its parking lot, outside; the inside of your car, with a beating heart, thumping to the tune of your mind trying to justify its consistent refusal to do anything that scares it, even something as simple as enjoying something it’s been begging for, every night, simply because it’s not shaped quite like the brochure depicted it (the imaginary brochure, obviously); before that, Collin’s place; the Snack Shop, with Collin, and milkshakes (seriously sad, and your idea); mini-golf, also with Collin; your car, on the way to pick up Collin; a convenience store, to buy deodorant, because you forgot to put it on before leaving the house; your car, again; your house. The money—two crispy, once-folded hundred dollar bills—found out it never truly belonged to anyone, not really, and it did so at one of these locations. You hate this money so much right now. You get into the elevator, press L. Try to come up with some loose tally of when your jeans were either in some compromised position, facilitating a cargo loss, or you stuffed your sweaty mitts back toward your wallet, unknowingly dragging the other contents out with it. You had a receipt from Burger King in that pocket, too. You bought a Cinnabon that day. From Burger King. Now some lucky schmuck knows you’re not only horribly irresponsible, but a fat fucking idiot, also. You dig out your cigarettes as the elevator door opens, and the sounds of a crying baby shoot out at you, a youthful father holding it, a youthful mother pushing an unoccupied stroller; you scout the linoleum floor for something that looks like yours, scan their faces for signs of treachery and underhandedness, just see your own shame, and get out of their way, as you also saw eye-rolling, impatience, and baby-yelling. Your money is not in the lobby. You look out the glass entrance, at the parking lot. The day is warm (for the season) and gloomy; not particularly windy, but seems to shrug at you, like it doesn’t know what you’re expecting, but you’re acting like it might be something it maybe isn’t going to be able to give you, and you should maybe just come out, and light your cigarette, and see what happens.
You have a tendency to lie in your bed for as long as possible on days when no one is expecting anything from you. You have friends who talk about how they can’t sleep past 10am, or past 9am, in some cases, in you can only assume that they are showing off, that they think there is a way to be, based on something they were told, and they are acting like it, like that thing, and want you to know that they’re it, and want whatever they think is watching them to know it to, so that they feel like it, but you can’t comfortably imagine that you are being watched, that there is a thing that you should be acting like, and so you don’t get out of bed until your eyes feel like opening means as much to them as shutting felt, unless there is someplace paying you to be there, or someplace you are paying to be. Otherwise, fuck it. Fuck birds chirping, and fuck suns being out, and fuck people wondering where you are. You’re where you always are, at least you were this morning, as something that felt faintly like a responsibility drifted slowly up from the Carkoon Pit of your mind, and you realized you were supposed to call Collin around lunch time, “if you want(ed) to,” Collin having “nothing really to do, so. If you want…” You took the pillow off your head and peered at the alarm clock on the other side of the room, with one eye, the eye most interested in what the outside world can do for it, the eye with the worst memory. It was 11:34. Too early, you thought. You closed your dumbest eye and put the pillow back onto your head at the same time as a pounding tried to introduce itself to you. A matter on matter pounding. You took the pillow from your head. It calls out to you again, in the form of your rattling bedroom door, helmed by whomever is knocking on it, a po-lice type knock designed to wake you up, or annoy you into shouting, “Yes??,” which you do, and this person opens the door, and this person says, “Don’t act like I woke your ass,” and this person is your brother, who is home from spending eight months in county for assault, resisting arrest, possession, with intent. Who you looked up to until about puberty, when you realized how alone you were in a family full of people who were fending for themselves, that your mother didn’t like you answering the phone because she was scamming just about anyone who had your home number, that your father only stuck around because he had nowhere else to go, that your sister never came around because she figured all this out a long time ago, called you so often not just because she wanted to make sure you were still you—knowing, like some professors, that the best you could do was a B-, maybe a B; making sure you at least still did that—but because she wanted you to feel the difference, between talking to someone who wants to see what you can do and someone who wants to know what you can do for them. Billy is your brother’s name. He closed your bedroom door. “I honestly don’t see what evidence you have to support the idea that you didn’t wake me up.” He shrugged, dressed for the day. “I don’t know, man. You’re awake. Shit. You want me to leave, or can we have a conversation suitable for two motherfuckers who are awake right now? I like to pretend, so it’s up to your ass.” You sat up. You’ve been sleeping in thermal underwear lately. You like the way it feels, and so you were wearing that this morning. You rubbed the crust out of your eyes, could taste your own foul breath, hated yourself for it, how human beings always revert back to some disgusting state, after eating, or sleeping, or doing their jobs; or sleeping with each other; how gross it all was, and how in a rush you were to pretend you were something more than this creature that just woke up, and was related to this other thing standing at the foot of your bed, by bathing, and brushing, and dressing well, or dressing understandably, or something. “What? I don’t know a more polite way to say that, so you should just explain why you banged on my door and woke me up, as far as you know.” He snorted, walked over to the right side of your bed—his right—sat down. Your bed is a twin, and so you scoot over to make room for him. You grab your phone off the dock that doubles as your alarm clock, just to have it near you. Your brother looks like you, only his hair is shorter, and there are more lines on his face, and he looks guilty, whereas you look innocent, though neither of you seems to ever feel the way you look. “I need you to do me a favor.” You knew this much. You pressed the home button on your phone, just to look at the picture it displays—a dog looking up at the Eiffel Tower; you’re obsessed with Paris, for some reason. “What?” “You remember Alf?” His dealer/boss/guy he more or less did time for. “Yeah.” “I need you to hit him up for me. Well, I already hit him up. I need you to go see him for me, though. I owe him some money. But I’m on probation, and they know about Alf, and they know about me, and so I can’t go there, and he can’t come here. But you can. Go there. For me.” You stare at the dog, and it stares at the Eiffel Tower, and a sunset stares at you all, up from your phone, and you stopped dreading the fact that you would be seeing Collin, because of a promise you made, and started looking forward to being someplace you could shut up, and still be known, unlike here, where you were expected to talk, to keep up with what were apparently your obligations. “I assume you already told Alfie I was coming.” He nodded, shrugged. Billy. “Yeah. You’re off today, right? I’m not fucking you up, schedule-wise? I can call him back. It’s just…even if I could go, I gotta look for a job, and…I got probation shit to do. I figured, Alf knows you, you could swing by, drop off the money, life goes on, et cetera.” You nodded. It was an easy favor to say yes to, at least framed that way, and you said, “Yeah. That’s fine. You have the money, though, right? ‘Cause…” He pushed shush of air through his clenched teeth and said, “Fuck yeah I got the money. What kinda guy you think I am?” You shrug. You don’t really know; didn’t know. He grinned, dug into his back pocket and unveiled the flat bills, slapped them onto your nightstand. “I left my phone in my room, but I’ll text you his number. He’s already got yours, so he’ll pick up, or text back, if you’re still weird about calling people.” You were already wanting to retreat into yourself, maybe some version of how people felt when they needed to be around someone who cared; your version of that; you don’t know how the other version feels, so maybe it’s just the one feeling with different thoughts attached to it. You just wanted him to go away. You figure that’s the one thing you and most other people have in common. “Yeah, that’s fine,” you said, looked at the money, looked at him, who still grinned, but was then standing, nodding. “Alright. I’ll let him know, then. And I’ll text you that number. Thanks, bro…you’re…you’re like a man now, huh?” What you want to hear sounds so tragic when the wrong person figures it out. You shrugged, hit the home button on your phone, again, this time brought up the last time you talked to Collin, turned it into this time you talked to him. “Something like that.”
The money’s not in your car. You’ve got the engine running, to give you the sense of options, and the reality of a lighter. You checked under the seat before getting in the car—checked in the crack between the seat’s cushions—and now you roll down the window and put your seat belt. You’re not sure if you’re going anywhere, but your body just knows that, after closing the door, comes putting on the seat belt—your body is like a dog, in that way; it doesn’t really know any better, so you let it do what it wants—it’s not hurting anybody. You bring your cigarette to your left hand, which is awkward, and you use your right to call Collin, also awkward, as today’s time with him was ended with the verbal exclamation point, “Jesus Christ already! If you want to pretend I think only things that do not scare you, then don’t ask me what I think. I’m leaving now,” stated by you, in one of your best bits of anger transferring to date, almost followed by the cliche of slamming his apartment door, but you stopped yourself from letting it close with such force, eased it shut at the last minute. You’re way too good at knowing your feelings don’t necessarily mean anything real to take them out on people for more than just a couple of minutes, which is probably why you don’t have anything worth having. At least not anything anyone would ever wish they had instead. Collin picks up on the fourth ring, whatever the case. “Yeah?” “Coll. Hi.” There’s a pause during which he passive-aggressively decides to make you do all the talking, likely because he’s got nothing nice to say to you right now, and you go, “I need your help. I…how much are you hating me right now?” He sighs a static-y rush into the receiver and says, “I hate that more than you, I’ll be honest.” “Hate what?” “Using hyperbole to trivialize a valid reaction, on my part, to what may’ve possibly been an overreaction, on your part. I’m not in love with myself right now, if that’s what you’re asking.” You take off your seat belt, slump in your seat. “I guess that’s what I’m asking.” “Yeah, well. That.” You smell your upper lip. It smells like him, sort of. Chapstick, too. You snort. “I’m sorry I overreacted. It was a genuine flip out, and it bothered even me, and truly won’t feel the same if you don’t forgive me. You know I…you know I don’t make a habit of even under-reactions, so. I…” You don’t know. Your heart is trying to race in several different competitions right now, and it’s making you feel like you have to go to the bathroom, or vomit up your insides to make room for the heat it’s generating, the panic, like how could you expect there to be room for both feeling this way and continuing to live? You get over things really fast, and, so, during the time when you’re actually having to deal, you feel out of place, like you’ve already lost. Like it’s all just funeral planning now. “You what?” He says this. You stare at Alf’s building, vaguely dance away from the fact that he had to buzz you in, that you’re sitting in your car right now, that this might be making him nervous, less trusting of the person who comes back, needing to be buzzed in a second time. “Collin, I fucked up.” “I don’t hate you, man.” “Not…I know. Just…in another, more dangerous way, I kinda fucked up.” This silence is more friendly than the last, and you continue, “And I’m sorry for launching a torrent of dickish behavior and then immediately needing your help, or, like, your assistance, but that’s how being a fuckup works, I guess, because here I am, and…you know how my brother is staying with us? Like, with me?” “Yeah.” “And you know how he worked for some pretty shitty, pseudo-gang member dudes, and that’s kinda what got him locked up in the first place?” “…yeah. Dude…” “Okay, well, I was supposed to make a drop for him, or whatever. I was supposed to bring a package to a friend of his, on the south side, and I was carrying that package around with me all day, like, with you, for mini-golf, for everything, or so I thought, because, like, it’s gone now, and I’m at this dude’s place, and I’ve met this dude, and he’s a fucking evil muppet, but a person—like, fucking insane; I saw him call his mom a cunt and threaten to fucking stomp her ass, like, at a barbecue, at my house—and my brother owes him this m—this package, and I fucking lost it, and I don’t know what to do. I think it might’ve fell out of my jeans, when we…I think it might’ve fallen out of my jeans. I mean, I know it did. But maybe there, is my point. I’m sorry. For doing this. And for yelling at you. And for bullshit, in general.” You can hear things moving around on the phone’s other end, then it vibrates against your ear. You pull it away, the phone, see that you’ve got a new text message, from an unsaved number, know that it’s Alf’s, hear Collin say something, put the phone back to your ear, go, “I missed that.” Your heart still doesn’t even feel like your own right now. It’s scaring you. You puff on your cigarette, put your jittery left hand back out the window. “I said, there’s no bag here.” “It’s not a bag. It’s…two notes, or whatever.” “There’s no money here, either. I’ll keep looking, but—” “Yeah.” “Yeah.” You lost it when you bought the deodorant. The money. You knew this was the case, but you didn’t really feel like hating yourself the extent to which this version of reality would require until you’d spent some time getting to know it—you do this a lot; that, or you just wanted to hear his voice before doing what you knew was the only real option, the one you suddenly felt the urge to run towards, that being going back into the building, and tell Alfie the truth, and accept whatever you had coming to you, and the family you have, and what that even means, and what you even owe them; or maybe you just feel like you deserve…you don’t know. To be woken up. It’s like when people tell you to not go grocery shopping when you’re hungry; don’t knock on a psycho’s door when you’re aching to be punished. Your cigarette’s about halfway done and you’re already fantasizing about the next one. “Collin.” “Yeah.” “Lemme call you back, later?” “Yeah, man. Look…” You inhale sharply on your stoge, getting the hang of using the wrong hand for this, the pointy tip of it a sign that you’re trying too hard. “Look, what? I gotta…I gotta go tell this guy his money’s gone, so.” “Is this guy gonna try to hurt you?” “I dunno. That used to be my brother’s job, so I’m thinking maybe not. Talk to me, though. I wanna hear you, like…just say stuff to me.” You tilt your head so your shoulder and your ear are squeezing the phone, use your newly free hand to pull the keys from the ignition. “Just…look, man,” he laughs at himself, says, “I enjoy doing things that make you happy, and, so, thank you for the mini-golf, and introducing me to your friends, and the chili dogs, and the heartburn it gave me, and…hanging out with me, after. And the escape, from…hating people, because they have each other, and all I have is myself. And making me feel like I kinda have you, too. And…if there’s anything else you enjoy doing, that you think I might scoff at, just because I’ve never done it before…I’ll fucking do that to, you know? And you don’t have to be present any more than you want to be, and…and I’ll work on phasing out guilt-trips as a way to get what I want from people, and…and maybe you could start yelling at your folks, and your brother, and stop letting them get you into shit you don’t wanna be in, because it’s not like…it’s not like you’re one of those guys who doesn’t have people waiting to fit into his life.” You let the cigarette drop out the window. You don’t light another one.
You open the driver’s side door—there’s a lazy ringing sound, indicating your body turned on the headlights without you asking it to, and you turn them off, because you’re not going anywhere, and the sun is still out. “Coll.” “Yeah.” “Wait for me?” “Yeah.” “Okay.” “Good luck.” You snort. “True.”
You’re still holding your keys, so, when a white-haired man lets himself into the building, and sees you approaching, jangling, he holds the door for you. “Thanks.” He doesn’t respond, and you follow him to the elevator. You don’t know how long it’s been since you last did this. A little under a half hour. You guys share the elevator until he’s got to go, it’s not you, it’s him, and you ride the rest of the way to Alf’s. You walk the hall to Alf’s. You knock on the door to Alf’s. He doesn’t answer. You don’t remember seeing anyone leave. He’s making you sweat, or is confused; either way, you’re waiting. You wipe your hands on your jeans. They’re usually dry, and you feel gross, but now they’re dry, and you feel the same way, so, like, it’s you, and not your hands, maybe. You hear a chain lock drag itself out of place, you hear deadbolt roll its eye, you hear the doorknob twitch, then you watch it twist, then you watch it swing back, along with the door it’s attached to. Alf has the kind of body where his head belongs to a skinny person—a photogenic person, even, the kind of person a girl might fall in love with, then spend every moment after that hating themselves for it (you might have the same kind of face, you don’t know—you’ll ask Collin, or somebody)—but scrolling below his neck reveals the soft frame of a former athlete, someone who feels as sexy as they ever have, but only still looks that way with clothes on. He looks at you like ‘Do you need sugar or something who are you’, and you go, “Something happened. Can I come in?” He grins. “You got tall, kid. And obviously.” You smile, because it felt like a proper compliment, and because his smile kind of bullied you into being friends with it, and he stands aside, and you enter his weed smoke-dappled apartment. There’s a money machine on his coffee table, and a couch covered in plastic, and some X Game type something on his flat screen, and he leads you to the couch, his feet clapping, in flip-flops—you do a thing where you can’t help but look at dude’s toes and decide something erroneous about them based on what you see; you decide Alf is reasonable, mostly because his nails are cut, and his toes aren’t too long themselves. There’s an undercurrent of, like, milkshake smell in here—you like it better than your car. He sits on the couch, the far end, with one leg up on it, his body facing yours. You sit on the farthest cushion possible, face the television, look down at your hands, which you let play with each other—your own nails could use some cutting, so you start biting on them, stop yourself. “So, what happened?” You look at him, sideways. You don’t like looking at people, like to stave off the getting-to-know-you portions of life for as long as possible, having gotten the sense that no one really likes anything they know too much about. “I lost your money.” “What money?” “The two bills I came here to give you. For my brother.” He laughs, really hard, and you look at him, head on, since he’s technically busy, and his eyes are like ‘I’m so glad you finally showed up.’ “Your brother owes me his life, is what he owes me.” You want to touch his foot. Ugh. You’re the worst. You wish you weren’t here right now. “Oh.” “Okay, well…” he thinks, goes, “…you wanna do me a favor, and then I can pretend I never met your brother, and that he doesn’t owe me thousands of dollars, and didn’t send his little brother here to give me a fraction of that?” You shrug. ‘When’d you last take a shower? I kinda wanna touch your toes…’ You don’t actually say this. “Sure?” He snorts, scoots forward so that he’s sitting on the couch like a normal person, grabs his phone off the coffee table, starts playing with it, with intent. “I buzzed you in like four days ago…” You wait, to make sure he’s talking to you, and you go, “Yeah, I…yeah. I didn’t know what to do.” You look at the coffee table. Besides money—which is mostly single and fives, not rap shit—there’s a bong, and medicine bottle, like, for proper medicine. He puts down his phone. He runs a hand through his hair, which is a shaggy mess of curls, his features light-brown cultural mix. “You in a rush?” You don’t even know. “I don’t know.” He laughs, but not hard. He barely laughs. “I’m taking these cooking classes,” he says, “and I gotta know how to make lamb navarin by Monday, and today’s my first try. And I’m kind of a narcissist, so everything I do is at least sort of interesting to me, and I’ve got this guy I don’t trust coming by to pick up an eighth, in like two hours.” You dig your phone out of your pocket and hold it. You don’t know why. You just do it. You want to breathe on the screen and wipe it off, but you don’t. You look at the TV. Beautiful people from some warm part of the country are talking about surfing; they look so loved, and you look away, at Alf, who is much easier to look at, compared to them. “What do you need me to do?” He smiles. “Well, I want you to tell me if my lamb is worth bringing to class, or if I need to spend the next couple days tweaking it, and I need you to go outside, when this guy shows up, and hand him this bag, so that he never sees my face—he doesn’t know who you are, and he’ll likely never see you again, and that’ll be that. And then you can go home, and tell your brother that I got my money, and that he can forget he ever knew me, and you can both go on with your lives. That’s…if you’re not in a rush. Which, I hope you’re not. Because I like this version of the future, so.” You breathe on your phone, fog up the screen, wipe it against your jeans. “Yeah, I…just gotta call my boyf…my friend. But, yeah.” “Cool.” He says it without the L at the end, and he gets up, grabs the little orange medicine bottle off of the table, puts it in his pocket, and walks to another room, what you assume is the kitchen, based on the pots-and-pans sounds that immediately tumble from it. You call Collin, partly to have someone who knows where you, partly because you feel like yourself, and you want him to know that, too. You left your cigarettes in the car, but figure you’ll grab them when this untrustworthy stranger shows up, and maybe he’ll confuse the shape in the dark with something that knows what it’s doing there.
The phone rings and you grab it before the first burrrr’s had a chance to rattle what you’ve been referring to as your ‘writing nook’, because you like when people stop talking to you at dinner parties, because you say things like writing nook. You don’t believe in writer’s block—just cowardice, and insecurity; lack of perspective, even—but you are indeed—and at the very least—having a hard time concentrating on what was supposed to be you quickly running through your ‘work writing’ (a write up on the Wes Wilson exhibit at the Nicola Hall of Fine Art, which was a night of beautifully-dressed, semi-beautiful people patting themselves on the back and masking their jealousy and insecurity with the false-kindness of drug-sharing, that you have to make sound as ‘chic’ as possible (your editor’s word), by tomorrow morning), so you can get to your real writing, which, this year, involves coming up with a Hollywood screenplay, a multi-layered bit of magical realism that you think will really be something, if you can only get it to be longer than eight pages, if you could, for once in your life, bring yourself to write a goddamn outline instead of just sitting down and just expecting it to come, which it always used to, but which it has suddenly decided it will do no longer. You don’t have any wine in the house (apartment). So you can’t even drink away from how disappointed in yourself you’re starting to become.
You met someone at the show, so there’s that. He was skinny in the way most of them were, but there was a truthfulness to his seeming desire to be anywhere but where his body was, an honest sense of isolation that led you to seek him out, once you’d gotten enough glamorous quotes about art, and how the bible is simply a parable for the fame cycle of the artist, or how Alton Shelley’s show had much flatter champagne, but cheaper LSD. He was less jittery at the end of the night than he was at the beginning—your new friend—but he was more comfortable around you, and your notepad had long since been locked up in your car, and you both sat in some corner—stood really, against the a wall, watching the others sway about the room, watching them smirk at each other, their sense of purpose secure as they’ve been invited someplace, each of you holding a glass of what tasted more like piss-soaked whiskey than anything to feel fancy about—yet, still, you felt fancy. He asked you what kind of writer you were, and you said, ‘Journalist’, without really thinking that he might be asking you what kind of writer you really are, in which case, the answer would be ‘I don’t know’. But he believed you anyway, only seemed to be partly paying attention to you, said, “I guess I forgive you, then.” “What do you mean?” “For being here. You’re getting paid to drink. Though, I guess there’s some novel this is preventing you from writing, huh?” You jutted out your lower lip, eyed the dude with the tray of champagne glasses, tried to gauge when he’d next be near you. “Screenplay, actually.” “Ah. My mistake.” “Think nothing of it. It was an honest one, right?” You were feeling good about yourself. You were buzzed, you had a job, finally. It was for what was essentially a tabloid marketed to people who considered themselves above reading tabloids—a frivolous parody of frivolity. He shrugged. “Half-honest, I guess.” He said this. He looked at you, you smiled at him, like you were proud of him, for doing this. He said, “Can I ask you a question.” He wasn’t really smiling back, but you couldn’t think of a reason to stop, and said, “If you want.” He licked his lips, turned away from you, to face the room. His hair was a mess in a way that suggested he didn’t look in the mirror often enough to realize he looked this way, not because he wanted to. ‘He’s probably stoned.’ You nodded, as if this explained everything. He asked you what you thought of the paintings. You were going to lie to him, just to move onto another subject, which is your go-to reason for lying to people, but you didn’t. You don’t know why you didn’t, but you didn’t. Sometimes you accidentally tell people the truth, and it’s almost never as bad as you think, save the embarrassment of someone actually getting to know you, at least in the moment before you’ve segued back into prepared statements. “They made my head hurt,” you said, “and not in the too-dumb-for-proper-art way, but, like, I would look at them, and my head would hurt, and I thought maybe I got too stoned before coming here, and so I should just do the interviews, and then wait till I came down a bit, and then check them out again, but even then, it’s like my body was repulsed by them, but if I described the pictures to someone, they’d sound mostly pleasant. And all these people seem to love them—and that happens with me, sometimes—like there’s this virus that everybody else has, and it makes it so they can feel the worth in liking the idea of something, or what it would mean if something lived up to the potential of that idea, and ignoring the fact that what they’re dealing with maybe isn’t the thing they’re pretending it is. That maybe nothing is. Or maybe just one or two things are. And that just isn’t enough. Maybe I just can’t like these, and they can, and my readers probably will, too, and that’s okay, because we all get to be alive, so what’s the fucking difference.” He ran a hand through his shaggy hair, and it fixed the out-of-place-ness, for the most part. “I can’t look at them, either.” You snorted, lifted a hand to beckon the champagne-carrying dude, knocked back what was left in your cup, crouched down to set it on the floor, rose. He looked at you, but you couldn’t look back this time; you wasted it. He looked at his fingernails, which were dirty. He was making a face like you were suddenly in something together, and he was afraid to tell you what it was. You must’ve been looking at him again, because you can remember this, clearly. “What is it?” You must’ve said this, because you haven’t stopped thinking about his answer.
The phone shouts—you are wired, not yet used to how much caffeine is enough caffeine, not quite sure what time you’re suppose to stop drinking it, or when it’s actually working, or why you drink it (because it’s warm)—and, like we said, you don’t let it get out its first brrring before you’re grabbing the receiver and shoving it against your ear. “Hello?” “Hey!” It’s not him. It’s Angelo. He is somewhere loud. “Angelo, what’s up?” “Hey, where have you been, man?” Angelo is yelling. “I talked to you this afternoon, Angelo.” “No, I mean, where have you been tonight? Everyone is asking?” Angelo is Italian, straight from, and his accent and use of language and background noise make it so that you sort of have to squint at your typewriter as you listen to him, since you can’t squint your ears, and you really just need to squint some part of your head right now. Every second you’re on the phone with Angelo is another second your friend from last night might call, and get a busy signal, and never try again, leaving you stuck checking a Thesaurus for synonyms of groovy. “Look, Ange—” “Lydia’s here! You got grass, right? You should bring some. She on the make, man. She keeps asking about you!” You sigh, try to not make your obsession with this phone call that may never come push you into being rude to Angelo, who you’ve never seen be rude to anyone, even people who deserved it. “Lydia’s always on the make, man.” “I know!” You snort. “I got a lotta work to do. You won’t see me tonight, probably. Have fun, though. You sound happy.” “Of course I sound happy—I am alive.” “Far out, Ange; so deep, so deep.” You smile, though your heart is racing, worried, and so you won’t remember this as a smiling moment, which is too bad. “I will keep an eye out for you,” he says, “In case you change your mind. We can celebrate your new job!” You snort. “Call me tomorrow, huh? Either way.” Someone near him shouts something about the walls falling down, and Angelo laughs as the line becomes disconnected.
Arthur sat in the passenger seat of your car, last night, staring out the window. You were trying to keep the car straight, knowing it wasn’t the rain impairing your ability to see exactly what was happening beyond the windshield, thinking maybe the beverages at the gallery were spiked, or maybe it was residual headache from staring at the artwork too much, a side-effect Arthur insisted was actually keeping you safe. “You don’t wanna be like them,” he said, when you were standing at the passenger door, holding your umbrella over his head with one hand, holding the door handle with the other. “I know,” you said. He smelled sort of like dry cat food, stood this close to him, nose facing him, and he somehow made dry cat food something you wanted pressed against your body, and he said, “Good. Um…is the door locked or something?” And you laughed, but he didn’t, and you let him in the car, and you drove it to your place, very slowly, but safely. Arthur got out of the car and stared up at your building—it was raining less then, and so looking up had fewer consequences, and he said, “You have money.”
“My parents had life insurance.”
“Where are…oh. I’m sorry.”
“It’s cool. You coming in?”
You are always so surprised by how soft skin is. It scares the shit out of you, because one day you will touch skin, maybe even your own, and it will not feel this way. It will feel over-ripe, and almost-gone, and you try to tell yourself to be grateful for this, while you have it, but you don’t know how else to do that, beyond the marveling, and so you spent the night doing that as much as possible. Marveling quietly, marveling loudly, marveling through gritted teeth, marveling all over each other, bringing yourself to the edge of marveling, but holding back, dwelling in a distant, intellectual admiration, but then having no choice, but to marvel. You don’t like cigarette smoke, and had this radical idea that you wouldn’t let people smoke inside of your place, but that rule went out the window when he leaned over the side of the bad, grabbed his pants off of the floor, and pulled out a pack of cigarettes. Of course you can smoke.
You feel like writing about the gallery opening is almost some sort of inside joke, between you and the universe—and maybe your bedroom—at this point, but telling Angelo that you have work to do seems to have done the trick, turning that joke into something you can hand in to your editor tomorrow. But when faced with so much night, you don’t know how much you can keep this going—this sitting here, banging out something you aren’t sure anyone but you will ever care about. What you have to write next, we mean. You didn’t even want to have to. You wanted your phone to ring. When you’re alone you have this tendency to convince yourself that you’ve changed, that you’ve found a way to like someone without needing them to validate you—there is no one here to validate you but yourself, and you’ve become pretty good at it. But life accidentally gave you a taste of someone else’s validation, and it’s the only kind that seems compatible with your operating system anymore. You don’t know how you feel about the possibility that you’ll never be able to like someone’s presence enough to look forward to it without being consumed by it, and flushing yourself down the toilet in the process, dreading the day they remember a life can go on no matter who is attached to it, because it means you have to grab a plunger and suck yourself from the toilet, rinse yourself off, and pretend you’ve changed again.
“Do you really believe what you’re telling me?”
“About the paintings?”
“But how is that possible? It’s…it’s not possible, what you’re saying. This is canoe-ing, by the way.”
“I don’t know how it’s possible, but I think I might know who’s causing it. And pass me the lighter.”
He inhaled, coughed. “The same people who reduce every other possibly-beautiful thing in life into just another weird feeling.”
You snorted. “The Man?” You were mocking him, keeping his ideas at a distance, so used to never being expected to help anyone, or care what’s happening to them, so not used to this stranger relating to you earnestly, even if that’s what it’s all about, these days; you’re too accustomed to figuring out what you can get if you keep your mouth shut to notice an opportunity to get something from making noise. Which as the point of the conversation—to take advantage of an opportunity to be more than what people think when they look at you. Which is why you became a writer in the first place, right?—so people couldn’t ignore you? To his credit, he maybe had a better read on you—or people like you, which was scarier; that, despite your best efforts, you were a type, and a possibly-undesirable one, once you got to know it—because he looked at you, not smiling, though you were, but with compassion, like he expected more resistance from you, and this little bit was a nice start, and he said, “I know it’s an easy idea to mock, but there is such thing as power, and you’re fucking kidding if you think it’s something you have right now. The face you wear in the day has access to it, though. Mine doesn’t. But I’m meeting someone tomorrow, someone who used to be one of them, but who got out. He says they’re…convincing people to believe certain things, on a large scale. I don’t know yet, but…tomorrow.” “Call me. I need this chance to…I dunno, write something meaningful, or that makes the world before different than the world after me, but because I pushed it, and not because it got bored and changed anyway.” “Okay. Tomorrow night, I’ll call you. If you don’t hear from…just…just make sure we talk.” “Far out. I’m excited.” He snorted. You both looked at the clock—it was late. He swung his legs out of the bed. You looked, as if to make sure his penis was still there, and it was, so there was that to look forward to, as well, you supposed.
But you’re alone again, and your phone isn’t ringing, and the only place that’ll have you is the last place you’d like to be, and so you’ve just got this room, and nothing to do in it. You figure you could just go about and pity yourself, which is a sort of emotional masturbation you like to take part in every few days, when you’ve got hope, and that hope’s got nothing to do, except it does, doesn’t it? Your hope picks up the phone and dials the number Arthur left on your nightstand; your hope would get nowhere if it waited for you to shut up and do what you’re obviously supposed to be doing at any given moment, and likes to take your life in its own hands, in this way. He must have better things to do, because he lets the phone ring more than once. It rings maybe four more times, which is more than you like to let phone’s ring, but you imagine he’s had a chance to think about you, and your subtle ways of telling people to go fuck themselves, but he struck you as someone who might not just put up with you, but keep you in check, and each purr of the phone in your ear is like a different petal being pulled from a flower of love—he’ll pick up next ring, he hates me, he’ll pick up next ring, he hates me, I’ll settle for what I can get, I’ll fight for what I want, I’ll settle for what I can get, etc…
On the eleventh ring, the phone clicks, not because you’re alone again, but because someone wants it to stop ringing enough to pick it up. There is a thudding sound—on the other end, close to the phone you’ve reached, but not too near it as to suggest it’s caused by whoever picked it up—and there is a pause, at the end of which you say, “Hello?” And a voice—a deep voice, a voice you will never forget; a voice that will jerk you out of sleep for years, and that will speak to you, in your head, in place of doubt; a heavy voice—says, “Hello?” And you say, “Um…I’m looking for Art? Arthur? Is he, um…” “Who is this?” The voice says it like it’s telling a joke, like it knows who it is, like you know who you’re talking to. You lick your lips, and a cool breeze creeps through your window, joins you. Your room still smells like the pot and cigarettes of last night. “I’m a friend of his.” The voice chuckles. “Still?” “What?” “I’ll let him know you called?” “Who am I speaking to?” “Goodbye.” “What?” Click. You should go to him. He took a taxi last night. You can find his address that way. Even if you have to figure this all out on your own—what’s happened to him, who is trying to reinforce the status quo by infiltrating the art world, and making that just as much about the comfort of popularity as the regular world—maybe your attachment to this idea of Arthur will prove to actually be worth something, as it will push you towards actually accomplishing something that matters to you, instead of whatever you know will get you a compliment, or make someone jealous, or make you feel like, if someone is watching you, they’re pleased with what they’re seeing. Maybe you might just do something that makes you like yourself.
You grab your coat, because it’s raining again, and you grab your keys, and you grab the scrap of paper on which you’ve scribbled the address phoned in at around the time you and Arthur looked at the clock last night.
You don’t cut your fingernails like a regular person; you’re always biting them, and not even out of nerves, you just don’t like how it feels to cut them. The metal clipper, bending your nail (you guess?), then snapping it off. So you bite them when they get too long. But, more to the point, you think the issue is you don’t wash your hands nearly enough, so your current situation is your constant situation. You look at your nails; they are filthy. They always are. People talk a lot about germs, and how gross everything is, how everything is basically covered in someone’s semen, or has been in someone’s butt, or whatever, but you barely wash your hands outside of showering—and, obviously, after poops; you’re not, like, an animal or something, you’re just a busy guy—and you barely ever get sick, just figure people are really good at storing fears pumped into them by their parents and the hand-sanitizer industry (with good intentions, in this case), although, really, you just don’t like when your hands are dry, and soap, alongside water, dries the fuckers out, and you’ve maybe just adopted a worldview that justifies this behavior, instead of the other way around, like a reasonable person. Like the kind of person you try to be, usually. The kind of person you think might be taking a nap, inside of you; that might want to wake up soon.
Your nails, though.
The blood underneath them looks like the crud that usually builds up there, because you let them grow until their long enough to successfully bite off, not but because you never wash them. You’ve decided. This blood isn’t brown like it’s dried, but red, like it’s new, and what else would it be? You washed your hands, is the point, otherwise they’d be covered in it; you just haven’t cut your nails, and, so, there this blood will stay, until you do so—you try sliding the nail of an index finger against the zipper of your jacket, to scrape at what’s trapped there, but it doesn’t get any of the gunk out. You forget about it. You’ll bite them off, with the blood on them, for as much as you give a fuck anymore, about anything. For as much good as you’ve ever been handed, you don’t know how much worse some stranger’s blood could possibly make your life; you know this guy had no diseases, and it’s not like you know anyone to chide you over it. It’s not like you know anyone. You wait for your guest to arrive, and pretend you are clean, pretend you have slept, and pretend you are in the mood to see this thing through. Amen.
About eight hours ago, Goran and Ivana were stumbling down the street, downtown, as you stood outside Klaud’s place. Klaud, who gets drunk, and punches holes through walls; Klaud, who wears shorts, that ride up when he sits down, in a way where you can’t help but look for his underwear, which you never see; Klaud who looks strong enough to support your baggage, strong enough to prop you up; Klaud who is insane; Klaud who employs you. The sun wasn’t out then; the sun being out is something that is only just happening, now, but that had only just ended, then. The part of town where Klaud lives, the buildings are taller, and the people stay up later; on a Friday night, the streets are busier, as people making an honest living collide with riff-raff attempting to squeeze the meaning of life out of the weekend, hence you, standing next to this jewelry store, waiting for Klaud, who lives above it, to come down, and let you in; hence Goran, and Ivana, already tweaking their nights away, you jamming your thumb at the buzzer even harder, the jewelry store already closed for the night, you trying to pretend to see through the shutters, between buzzes. Most people around here can’t afford much in the way of jewelry, and the running theory is that there is no proper supplier to this place, that all of this stuff is stolen, lifted off tourists, in better cities, in better, nearby countries, smuggled in, and washed off here, a theory you are more than willing to believe, despite having no proof, other than nothing good ever happens here, which…is unfair. Good is an idea as made up as anything else. Nothing fair ever happens here. This makes much more sense. Klaud doesn’t answer his buzzer in time, which means Ivana’s chatting on the phone, and passing you, does not spare you a hint of attention, but Goran stops, wraps his arms around you, pulls you out off Klaud’s steps, and onto the sidewalk. You don’t hate the attention.
“What is up, chum?”
He says this. You laugh, pull away from his embrace, turn to him, nod at him; nod at Ivana, just to be polite, having been outed as someone who is here right now, but she is yapping into her phone, ignoring anything but that, ignoring you. Goran is a typically sweaty guy, but he’s especially sweaty here; it’s a warm night—you give him the benefit of whatever doubt. He asked you a question, and you answer it. “Nothing much.” “Seeing the Klaud? Getting le ganj? What happened to quit? You quit, no?” You shrug, look over to the door you were just buzzing—it is suddenly ajar. You ignore Goran’s questions. “You guys tumbleweed-ing somewhere special?” “Nadstarr Underground. It’s Nad’s birthday.” It’s a rave, he’s talking about, or whatever people call things that are what people used to call raves. Nad used to be your boy. He’s a dj now. “That’s cool, man. Maybe I’ll catch up with you guys.” “Dynamite, man. Tell the Klaud I said much hugs, huh?” You snort. “I will.”
You enter the not-quite-shut door, run up the steps that follow, pass through another door, also left open, also for you. Klaud’s apartment is flavored like several different sticks of incense, is eternally cleaner than your own. He gets more guests than, not that that’s a good excuse to live in self-induced squalor, but it’s your excuse. You slide out of your backpack as you hear pots clanging in the kitchen, like he’s just finished doing the dishes, or is about to dirty some, or is hiding drugs—you’re in the living room; you can’t see him. “Yo…” “Yo! Bout time, huh?” His TV is on, in here, but you don’t recognize what it’s playing; it’s an American movie, but it looks like shit, picture quality-wise, and your eyes scroll over to the corner, on the floor, beneath the TV, see his laptop, the wires creeping up out of it, into the television, making sense of this for you. Klaud steps into the kitchen doorway, dressed as he always is—shorts way above his knees, his meaty legs jutting down from beneath them; a basketball jersey one or two sizes too small; some local team, or maybe some local band, his meaty arms curling out of it, flexing even when he isn’t, his face, youthful in a way that inspires trust, and comfort, all while belying its age. Your brain goes through that every time you see him. “Hey.” You say this, despite having already said your hello, this one reserved for his body, you suppose, actually seeing it now. “And hey for you, sir.” “I got your money for that shit. That pound. It went fast. Like, for a pound.” He smiles. He’s barefoot. His dog pads out of the kitchen, sits beside him, panting. It is a Great Dane. They both look stoned. “It’s good shit,” he says. “I told you.” You snort, act cool, as you do; you adjust your hat, take off your sunglasses, look at the movie you don’t recognize, on the television. “I know you did.”
You only ever smoke with Klaud. You’re basically straight edge, though you would never use those words to describe it. Smoking makes you paranoid, and insular, and creative, and these are things that are useless around people, helpful when making art, or feeling sorry for yourself, none of which you feel like doing with Klaud laughing beside you, asking you what’s going on in the movie you’ve never seen, his body like a projection of what it’s okay to be, his personality like a collection of what it is not; but you are near it, and, up close, all of it is good. You do not feel cool here, and so have to try—when you are alone, though? Coolest guy in the room. You are not even comfortable with the way you enjoy being here. This is new to you. Something about the way this person wears this body, with the same parts as your own, more or less, makes it seem unknown to you, makes you want it not to be. You shake your head and exhale, put your face in your hands, wish it were socially acceptable to be wearing your sunglasses in here. You fondle them, in your jacket pocket, feeling yourself sweat, afraid to take your jacket off now, afraid of what it implies about you, think of asking for a glass of water, and Klaud goes, “Shit.” You look at the floor, at your shoelaces, down there, calming, in that you’ve changed them recently; calming in that you’ve done something right. You go, “What?” “This weekend is Easter.” You blink at him; his glazed eyes blink back at you, and you smile. “Last weekend was Easter.” He borrows your smile and does the same. “For most people, yeah, but, my guy is Orthodox, so it’s this weekend for him. Right?” You think. Your brain doesn’t know what to think about, so you just nod. “Yeah.” He shakes his head, worry drifting onto a face that usually spares itself such formalities. “What’s doing, then?” you say. He looks at you. Looks over your shoulder, at the front door, which is closed; he looks back at you, shakes his head. “You ever put something off so long it starts to not even feel like your responsibility anymore? Or like…you’ve thought about doing it so much that actually doing it becomes almost beside the point?”
It turned out Klaud was in trouble. Listening to him tell the story, and becoming familiar with his eyes, and his blemishes—coming up with theories on when was the last time he shaved, and how often he even needed to; on if he used lip balm or if his lips just woke up that way—you started realizing that you were in trouble, too. “Where is this guy?” you asked him, when his story was done, and you both had drinks in your hands—vodka on ice; the only liquids in the house that weren’t tap water. There is a man trying to make every drug transaction in this part of Europe his business; who’s turned every two-bit peddler into someone selling harder shit for less money, kicking what used to be gas money up to this faceless crook who happened to flip his supplier, seducing said supplier with the sort of protection only organized crime can provide (nevermind the fact that they’re effectively the threat, as well), turning guys who just need to pay their rent into guys who couldn’t go straight if they wanted to. Klaud’s connect is a coward. “He’s gonna give in to these guys, and I’m gonna be fucked. But I got another guy. I just gotta make sure this guy doesn’t give these two-bit mob dudes my name, because then they’ll be knocking on my door, and I’ll be kicking up to them, and you’ll be kicking up to them. In the or-else fashion, you know?”
Where is this guy?
Nad’s rave, obviously. You hate raves. You don’t hate electronic music, you don’t hate loud places, you don’t hate pretty young people, you don’t hate drugs (though you kinda do?), and you don’t hate sweat, and hormones, manifest. You just hate this shit all in one place, happening at you, as this seems to be. Seemed to be. Last night. His connect is an expat named Bobby who is looking to score a big night here, maybe get his dick sucked by a local, rolling-her-face-off teen, as one does, on a night like this, in the middle of nowhere. The setting is sweaty, dark, lazer-lit, aggressive. The music is hard, and the kids are responding in kind, thrashing into each other, getting into fights with people they can barely see, and do not know; a vast warehouse-like basement in which you would no doubt get lost, if Klaud didn’t immediately grab your hand the moment it looked like you might get separated here. His already-sweaty hand like a dream-come-true; the dark and the substance the only reason you’re even okay with feeling this way. He shook his head at you, grinning, lop-sided. “Stay close,” he said, pressing his face against your ear; the only way to hear him. You held his hand like you stole it, like it’s yours now. “I will,” you told him, and let him lead you into the throng of jerking bodies, toward the dj booth, and the long hall beside it, where he knew Bobby would be, waiting for the Man from London, to come and give him the rules. “People like Bobby like rules,” Klaud said, once you’d entered the white hall, and the music was dulled by the white walls, and the crowd was left behind, you waited for him to let go of your hand before letting go of his, “which is why, if you aren’t the one whose rules they’re following, they aren’t much use to you. You know what I mean?” You did, and you do. You nodded, smelled your hand, because you’re awful, saw Bobby—a stranger, but recognizable, as the only person in the hall, even way down there—let Klaud get a lead on you, as he ran, toward this figure, which ran in return, only away from him, didn’t get very far, before he was getting tackled to the ground, just as another man, in a suit, was entering the hall, coming in from the alleyway—not the man from London, but a man who knew him, who represented him, here; Klaud clenched his fists, straddling Bobby’s cowering frame, holding a hefty fist over his head, while sneering at the newly-arrived suit. “Bob’s gonna hafta meet you in the morning, if it’s all the same to you,” he said, “me and him got some talking to do, but, rest assured, he’s very excited about your partnership. Starting tomorrow.” Klaud gave Bobby a good pound to the head, and the suit fled. You put your sunglasses back on.
This was all last night, you carrying Bobby’s body to Klaud’s car, to take to the hospital, Klaud rambling, how he wants to quit drinking, how he only gets violent when he drinks, how he sells drugs, but doesn’t feel like a bad person, doesn’t believe in bad people, only assholes, who hate themselves, and take it out on others, and do you think he’s one of those people? “No. I don’t think so. Honestly.” Will you wait for him, until Bobby comes to, and agrees to let Klaud go? “Yeah. I’ll wait for you.” You can come back with him, if you want…back home… “Okay. I’ll wait for you. I’ll go back with you, yeah. That’s fine.” Okay. Thank you. I’m sorry. I’ll make it up to you, when I get back. Will you let me make it put to you? “Of course I will.” Okay. Cause I want to. “So do it.” I will. “Then I’ll wait for you.” And so, in this park, you do, reminding yourself to bite the tips of your nails off, as soon as you get another opportunity to wash your hands.
You only ever get the worst part of the sun. Maybe not the worst to look at, but the worst to feel, in that there isn’t much left to feel at all, mostly just it’s absence, the hint of it, how it’s coming soon. You wake up early to open the shop, because it’s how your family makes money, and all masses in your mother’s body seem to do is spread, all she seems to do is need more of the green pills that fuck her up, make he feel it less, and so you need to be able to afford them, and so the sun is barely shaking off it’s own sleep, by the time you are shaking off yours, unlocking the place, getting ready for the business that barely comes, but that does so, often enough to keep you guys afloat. To keep a roof over your head. To give you a room of your own. One with a door, to block out the moaning, the coughing, and, ultimately, the comatose snoring. You miss the sun, and you suck at missing things, so you hate the sun. Fuck the sun. The internet is filled with pictures of people enjoying it, so fuck them too. Oh, you’re in Ibiza for a few days? Go fuck yourself for a few days. But seven o’clock hits, and the sun sees you, and does that ‘I’ll call you’ mouth thing as it walks away, and you watch it go, because you’ll take what you can get.
You covet distraction. You covet other worlds. And as you skate home, you hit a book. You go flying toward the sidewalk, thrusting out your hands, like an asshole, scraping up your palms. And you curse this book. Lying in the sun, no less! How long has it been here. Fuck you, book! Fuck your book mom. You pick up yourself, and then you pick up the book, and it is Strange, and it is here for you, and it is a world that is not your own, and it is a world that takes its time, and it is a place you can’t go, each day, until it runs out, and you need a new one. There are worse things. (But seriously, it’s a fuckin good book, bro. Wash out those though, huh?)
The most analogous thing to uncontrollable danger you’ve ever actually been close to is when you were on a road trip, Spring Break, freshman year, and you really had to piss, and Carly didn’t want to pull over the car, because you were making what she called ‘good time’. You were going to the National Automobile Museum in Reno, because it was somehow Carly’s dream to work there after she graduated. This is actually kind of audacious, considering your own older sister’s dream was keep having babies, with different dudes, whenever she got convicted for meth possession, so that they’d always let her out, so she could have her babies, only to drag her back in, until the state finally ordered her tubes tied; a spinoff dream of hers seems to have been to ensure you have nephews to babysit until you leave for college, and mission accomplished, on her end. But, danger—road trip—you, Carly, her friend Sheryl, who was a senior, like her, and her little brother Rodrick, who was a freshman, like you—you only became friendly with Rod when you realized you’d be spending Spring Break together, and you already had the respectful rapport of people who like each other but sort of fear one another as well; like each of you recognized in the other an affinity for darkness and did not understand why you were spared, knew it was a matter of time before you were no longer so special, looked at each other every chance you got, making sure you still vouched for each other. But whatever, jeez—you had to pee, and you were making good time, and you and Rod were in the backseat, and you said, “Dude, I’m gonna pee out the window if you don’t stop somewhere,” and Carly knew you wouldn’t, and you knew you didn’t have a threat that would get you what you wanted—which was sympathy—and so you looked at Rod, who smiled, said, “I have to pee, too, guys. There’s that truck stop thing in a few miles…” It was too much to argue with you both, and so went to the advertised truck stop, which was really a shitty gas station, with a convenience store, with a bathroom inside. You were taking a piss when Rod ducked into the bathroom with you—you were freaked out, until you saw it was him, and then you heard the shouting, and then you were freaked out again; you heard the sound your uncle’s truck made when its engine backfired—the sound of a pistol warning the convenience store cashier not to try anything funny, like not shutting the fuck up, or not opening the fucking register right fucking now, or any of those kinds of things, but with your heart racing, and Rod sliding the bathrooms flimsy latch lock into place, being much calmer than you, or just being able to act like it; you wonder how much different you’d seem from other people if they were all as bad at acting as you are. There was only one more gunshot, then silence for about ten minutes, when sirens showed up, and you found your way out of the bathroom.
It wasn’t really scary during—only because you didn’t know what was going to happen—you didn’t know if the guy saw Rod sneak into the bathroom, or gave a shit—you didn’t know how these things worked; looking back, though, the possibilities made you want to shit in your pants. You could’ve died, and you couldn’t done anything about it, but beg to not, or accept that maybe you would, or wouldn’t, and just wait to see.
Your nephews are running around the house and screaming; your mom is trying to scrounge together some kind of lunch they might sit still long enough to eat—you are groggily trudging down the stairs; it is Saturday; you’re not a freshman anymore—you’ve got three more months of this shit, and you kinda don’t know what you’re gonna do without it. You don’t believe in magic, but are so used to any sort of good coming from having earned it, from having trudged through shit to acquire it; if things got even a tiny bit better for you…you’re just afraid of the deluge of shit it might invite. And so the kitchen phone rings, and your mom is making grilled cheese sandwiches, as the boys run around, or cry in cribs, or whatever their ages dictate, and it’s up to you to answer it. The phone. And it’s Rod. “Yo, brah.” “Yolo, bruh.” “You guys evacuating or going to the rec center?” You blink at Coby, one of your smaller nephews, who is staring up at you, and you rustle his hair, and he trots away, and you go, “I don’t get your reference, sir.” “I wake you?” “Nah. I just woke up, though.” “You haven’t seen the news?” You look past the hall, to the living room, to the TV there, see iCarly talking down to her audience, or whatever, doing comedy, go, “You know the news makes me sad, dude.” “Well, turn it on, already.” “Is it gonna scare me?” He laughs. “Yeah, probably. I’ll stay on the phone, though. Turn it on. Your mom should probably see it, too.” You pad over to the television, barefoot on the dirty floor, not minding, but suddenly wishing you’d bathed, if only for this phone call. You like the fantasy of being seen as you are, experienced as you are, and all you can imagine is how you smell like all the things yesterday did to you, and how badly you sweated through the balmy night. You imagine Rod’s fantasy is smelling a lot better than yours right now; Rod who gets up early; Rod who’s seen the news. You find the DVD player remote, and you shut off iCarly; you find the television remote, and you change from input 2 to cable; you find the cable remote, and you say, “Which news?” and Rod goes, “Whichever. The Weather Channel, probably.” You squint at the question your mind wants to ask in order to justify the nerves rattling to life in your body like zombies at some pagan midnight—‘How bad is it?’—and you guide yourself to the Weather Channel, where your answer has been revealing itself all morning.
You were thinking hurricane, but it’s tornadoes, your other favorite nightmare, behind getting stuck in an elevator, and dying alone. You sit on the recliner that used to be your dad’s favorite place to sit, and you watch as two huge purple blotches plow their way through the computer-generated version of your county, listen to Rod explain that his mother has to work at the hospital all day and night (she’s a nurse), and that he can’t leave, that there’s a shelter at the rec center, for other people in the same boat as him, that you should tell your mom to take the kids and go to your Aunt’s, or maybe your Granddad’s, but that you should stay here, if you wanted, at the shelter, with him. “I won’t let anything happen to you.” You snort. “You gonna fight a tornado for me?” “If you want me to.” “Mom!” “It’s important you get them out, though,” he says, “you do what you want.”
You help your mom and your nephews into your mom’s hatchback Saturn, which is like the 21st Century station wagon, or whatever, Arnold, your oldest nephew helping you basically cram all of their clothing into the trunk, your mom assuming your house will be fertilizing the local farms by morning. “Our house isn’t nearly big enough to do that,” you tell her, and she tries to talk you into going to her sister’s, with the little dudes, already bouncing around inside of her silver car, the sky already darkening, sullen at barely getting a chance to be a day before having to be a stormy night, not getting in a word edgewise, drowned out by everyone praying for it to just be over already. People around here pray. You don’t really believe in anything that sounds like the type of thing a person would make up in order to avoid knowing things that might scare them too much, but you pray, too; not on your knees, and not to a god, but sitting in class, or waiting in line, or having a conversation with a co-worker, or teacher, or classmate, supposedly listening, but actually begging the voice in your head to go easy on you; at least until you’re alone again, and your pained expressions have no chance of scaring anyone away. Your mom hugs you, waves over your shoulder, and you look over it, and Rod’s standing at his car, waving back. “Keep him in one piece?” “No more than two, I promise!” “Deal.”
What you like about people is how bad they are at keeping each other calm. It’s like the want the worst possible thing to happen, so they can be right; or maybe they know better than to think they’re so important as to be the kind of person that the worst possible thing happens to, so they talk about it as if it’s already happened, since that’s as close as they’ll ever get. The rec center’s upstairs has an auditorium/gym, and a cafeteria, and, like, counseling offices, but its downstairs is basically a massive bomb shelter type thing, the kind of thing that looks expensive, that you can’t imagine any town could afford or would have, but that you’re standing in, along with about two hundred of your brick-shitting fellow townsfolk. The space seems to run about the length of the auditorium, most people having brought sleeping bags, many opting for the already-provided cots, Rod taking this opportunity to squeeze adventure from life, to squeeze some experience worth having from this town, and so you’re helping him set up a small tent in the corner, or sort of one-person-er you will be sharing with him. He didn’t ask, he just brought the tent. “Is this okay? I didn’t…I don’t know if I’m being rude, I just though…” You look at him, the tent already set up, Mr. and Mrs. Mills, local deli owners, setting up a sort of buffet against the far wall, way on the other end of the shelter. “You thought what?” He shrugs. “I don’t know. You wouldn’t feel safe here by yourself.” You wouldn’t. You have tendency to get caught up in hysteria, and this is starting to feel like one of those times. You don’t know. You say this. “You want me to finish this?” He asks. You say yes, you need some air. He reaches into the tent and pulls a cup out, and he hands it to you. It’s filled with liquid already. It smiles like tequila and ginger ale. “It’s tequila and ginger ale,” he says. You say, okay.
Outside, the trees are just as dramatic as the people, all swaying, and hissing, and wishing they were someplace else. The tequila has nothing but nice things to say, so you lean against the building and let it regale you. “You got a cigarette, lil bro?” Some scraggly dude you recognize from someplace or other. You say no and walk closer to where the parking lot turns into grass, and grass stretches into a sprawling field, and the sprawling field waits for nature to grab the wind, and spin it, and laugh. The danger of a man, holding a gun, in another room, seems slight compared to the danger of a world without reason but capable of turning against you simply because it’s bound to happen eventually. You watched videos, in anticipation of this; you came to terms with death, in honor of this; you figure, as long as people survive you, there isn’t a lot to worry about. You think about this even as you see the first cyclone touch down, and your drink suddenly doesn’t seem strong enough, and the human lifespan suddenly doesn’t feel long enough, or protected well enough—you think about how only when someone dies do they really seem dead, and only when they’re a part of your routine; once you’re used to it, it’s sort of like they’re on vacation. You think about this, and you’re body couldn’t be more terrified to see what it’s seeing, and to be what it is—so easily capable of being destroyed as to be sort of arrogant for existing in the first place—and you spin on your heel, and march back into the shelter, realizing this version of survival only works if there was ever really anyone to know you in the first place, that you’re okay with the tent, that there are worse place to be than here, and worse things to be than expected to love someone who loves you, too. You unzip the tent, and Rod is inside, lying on his back, reading some book, and you wiggle your cup, his own cup standing next his head, and you go, “It’s coming.” He looks up at you. “And your cup is empty?” You snort. “Something like that.”
“It says the stars are wrong.”
You clear your throat. You guys smoked, in your cold backyard. “Can we go to bed? I thought this was us going to bed?”
“You don’t think that’s weird?”
“It’s an iPhone app. Maybe it’s not that smart. Plus you’re doing it through a window. You probly have to be outside.”
“It was doing it outside, too. It…shit. Alright.”
“Nothing.” He puts his phone back on the window sill, where it gets service, lies down. “I’ll see to tomorrow.”
He snorts. “Goodnight, man.”
The pillow over your head doesn’t really do anything, but you like it there. The sun is out; you want nothing to do with this. You are on holiday break, staying with your father until Christmas day, then staying with your mother, until New Years Eve, when you will head to Vegas, for a NYE celebration you can’t exactly afford, but Tino, your roommate, at school, assures you is comped, as it doubles as his anniversary to his aunt Debbie, who is Tigo’s age, and met his uncle while working as a hostess at one of those bars where being hostess means letting the customers flirt with you and buy drinks and maybe go home with you later. This is Tigo’s explanation, perhaps embellished as a way to get you to agree to take the trip with him, which you did, on the condition that he spend the other holidays with you, and your family, in the sticks.
But it’s your first night—first morning; it’s morning—and you’ve got your pillow over your head, and Tigo is snoring on the air mattress, on the floor, next to your bed, and you’re trying to pretend it’s still time to sleep, even though your borderline wet dream has already ended, until next time, and your father is cursing to himself, in the way like maybe he wishes he had someone to talk to, so he can complain to that person, in a way that suggests that person is going to be you, because he is doing it loudly, because he probably thinks you should be awake by now. You imagine having parents is a lot what having kids might feel like. You roll over onto your back, inviting the sun to sneak through your blinds and rest on your face. Your eyes aren’t really having it—they squint as much as they can, as if wanting to discuss this with you, privately, before committing to anything—and you try to talk, but there’s gunk in your throat, which you clear, then try again. “Tigo.” A pause, then a croaked, “Yeah?” “I think we’re supposed to get up.” You hear him in inhale deeply, let it out in a tired whoosh. “Okay. You wanna make me breakfast?” “Yeah. In a minute. You hear my pops?” “Nah. Just the angry dude on the other side of the door.” You’re too tired to give him any positive reinforcement for his obvious joke, but you hope he’s confident enough to believe it was funny, since he thought it was worth saying. “He’s probably gonna guilt trip us into doing some chore-like activity. Like, without even saying hello.” Tigo sits up, so that his shoulders and head are visible from your elevated height; your eyes are still squinty, though. “What makes you say that?” There is a pounding on your bedroom door, followed by your father’s voice: “You think you fellas could come out here and help me with this?”, then the sound of your father stalking back down the hall, cursing at no one. You sit up, look at Tigo, who is frown-grinning at you, his hair disheveled, pillow marks on his face.
You step out of your room and pad down the hall, briefly forgetting that you have to pee, following the sound of your father’s muttering voice, now in the shape of sentences, and you round the hall corner, face the front door, which is open, see your father with one hand on the top of his head, the other holding the cordless phone to his ear, and you go, “Dad, what’s…” and you obviously see what’s up, no need to be rude and ask the guy quietly freaking out over the phone. Your dad has five horses—his plot of land isn’t the biggest (might even be one of the smallest, at least in the area, at least for a dude with five horses) and he gives riding lessons as his second job (his first is as an electrician), and one of his horses—you don’t know its name—is on the front lawn, instead of in the stable off to the side of the property—and it, this horse, has been disemboweled, its entrails stretching out from a jagged hole that seems to have been ripped from it’s neck to whatever kind of genitalia it had before this morning; flies are already having some sort of surprise party amid the mess of it, the aforementioned entrails reaching toward the fence that surrounds the stables, the small grazing area—a large section of fence has been torn down, and blood trails from that opening, to the dirt of the driveway, toward the eviscerated carcass of this thing that probably had a name, probably bonded with more people than you have, despite its inability to express itself, to let that person know how much it meant, being able to gallop across this earth with someone on its back. You wonder what you were called out here to do about this—you wonder what did this—and then you look up, and you see the other horses, walking lazily about the property, free of the fence, a couple of them in the street, one of them on the lawn on the other side of the road, the old woman who lives there, Mrs. Brion, holding her robe closed, looking at her four-legged visitor like it might attack her at any moment, but not wanting to give up her view of the carnage laid out a few feet in front of you. “What happened?” you wonder, but it’s Tigo who says it, standing beside you now, blessed with the foresight to put shoes on. “I don’t fucking know,” your dad says, off the phone now. “I went out back to let the others out and then I see this shit. You boys round the rest of em up. I’ll lock em in the stable till the sheriff gets here.” Tigo looks at you, kinda smiling, because he’s never seen anything he didn’t think was at least halfway funny, including old people tripping, his own face getting punched for flirting with someone else’s girl, and animal slaughter, apparently. You nod to the horse across the street. “Come on.” And he follows you, mumbling something about not wanting to get kicked in the head, or bitten.
Tesla’s is the bar where all of your friends are meeting for the Welcome Back celebration, in honor of everyone who goes away for school; it’s a hole in the wall with cheap drinks, but it’s the only place the younger people get served while also feeling like they won’t get stabbed, so that’s where you take Tigo, after a day spent getting made fun of for living in what Tigo calls ‘the wilderness’, and listening to your father complain, you are now drinking whiskey with the people you grew up with, as country/Top 40 music channels from the jukebox, Tigo sitting at the bar chatting up the old truckers, you smiling politely at ex-girlfriends, and ex-best-friends, demurring when asked to play pool or darts, enduring a barrage of ‘remember when’ stories that always involve a younger you that wasn’t as in love with that moment as the storyteller invariably seems to be. Whiskey, though. Tigo winking at you from across the bar. These things help.
“You saw me talking to that dude at the bar?” Tigo asks you this, well after your father’s passed out for the night, as your TV softly displays a Cosby Show rerun, and you and two change from your drinking clothes to your sleeping clothes. “The old dude?” “Yeah.” “Yes, I did.” “You wanna know what he said?” “Is it gonna piss me off?” Tigo’s sleeping clothes are his boxers. He’s in the them now, plops down onto his air mattress, the sturdiness of which he’s got more faith in than you do. “Are you kidding?” You shrug. You always change with your back to people, even when they’re Tigo. You pull off your socks, facing your dresser, out of which you pull gym shorts you’ve kind of outgrown, which have now become bed shorts. “What he say?” Tigo puts his hands behind his head, like he’s posing for a photo shoot. “He said this has been happening all winter. Or, like, all fall. Since October, or whatever.” You turn to him, roll your eyes at him, snort. “What?” He says this. There are no lights on, but your bedroom is small, and the TV glows, and the blinds are open, and the moon’s glow chills with you. “Nothing. What’s been happening since October, though? Was he buying you drinks?” Tigo laughs. “Of course he was. I spent like five dollars in that place. He said that animals have been getting their hearts ripped out since October, since the night before Halloween. He says there’s been more stars than there’s supposed to be, and that something has been going around farms taking hearts from the animals. Like what happened to your dad today. Not taking all of them, just one at a time.” You walk over to your bed, sit on the edge, so that your feet are on the air mattress, and you’re facing Tigo. He puts a hand on your right foot. You go, “Maxie got her guts pulled out.” Maxie was the name of your father’s horse, the one he doesn’t have anymore. Tigo nods. “The guy—Marshall, was his name—he said he’d bet me a million drunken bucks that when the autopsy comes back, it’ll say dear old Maxie’s heart up and left her ass.” You sigh, look at the TV. Cliff Huxtable is eating a meatball sub that his wife has already warned him not to, because Muppets will show up, or whatever. You look back at Tigo. “Want me to set both alarms?” He smiles, halfway. “Go for it.” You reach over to your alarm clock, click the alarm on; you grab your cell phone, which is next to it, start setting that alarm for an hour earlier than the other one. Tigo goes, “He said to google Cherute. Or something like that. I think it was Cherute. He said it was…they think it’s…something baddish, in the way older dudes who drink alone in bars think easily understandable things are baddish, but…he didn’t…I think we should look it up. He seemed…I dunno. Convincing. I’m drunk, I’m sorry.” You put your phone on the nightstand, next to the proper alarm clock. “No, it’s alright. We’ll look. Not tonight, though? Is that okay? I’m drunk, and we can sleep in tomorrow, mostly.” Tigo nods, looks from the sky, through the window, to you. “That’s fine,” he says, and gets up off the air mattress, a star in the sky, seeming to spin in place, like it was last night, when he was also too drunk to know if it was just his imagination, and you were too worried about what might happen to your own heart, if bringing your new life so close to your old one means losing them both.
You jerk awake to your phone vibrating on the nightstand. It’s nine. Your pop’ll be up in an hour, will knock on your door, tell you what you already know, which is that he’s driving to see the fence repair guy, in town. You inhale, turn off your phone, try to keep your eyes as closed as you can while still knowing what you’re doing. “Tigo.” Your voice is a croak but he hears it, heard the phone shaking; he sits up, climbs over you, back onto the air mattress, without saying a word. You both drift back to sleep.