“TONIGHT IS GOING TO BE EPIC.” Brad and his roommates surveyed the basement of their rented house, planning a keg party. A three-story Victorian, it was one of the biggest houses in the leafy residential neighborhood a mile west of campus.
They wandered the unfurnished space, their two medium-sized mutts following them and sniffing at the ground wherever they went. A beam of midday light shone through the window high in the opposite wall, illuminating a rectangle of the grimy, concrete floor.
Gabe went to the corner near the patch of light. “So, Birdman, you guys are setting the band up over here, right?”
“Totally.” Birdman’s words tumbled out in a loopy rush. “That way we can broadcast our vibes throughout the whole house, from down in its root chakra. Just explode up from deep in the house’s subconscious and infect the whole place with cosmic energy.” He raised his hands above his head in a sunburst.
Casey nodded her head. “Awesome.”
Gabe couldn’t take his eyes off Casey. She dressed like the boys—sloppy shirt, flip-flops, corduroy pants—and with her freckled face and jaunty voice, she radiated natural beauty and charisma.
Brad pushed his black hair from his eyes and walked toward a closed metal door on the opposite wall. “We should put the kegs over here, by the boiler room.”
“That’s fine, I guess.” Gabe stroked his weak chin and eyed the boiler room door. “As long as we leave that shut.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Have you ever looked in there?”
Gabe opened the metal door. Out poured a clammy, rancid tide of air. The dogs approached the doorway, sniffed at it, and quickly backed off, licking their chops.
Brad crinkled up his nose. “Jesus Christ, what’s that smell? Did something die in there?”
Casey tried the switch, but no light came on. The four of them squinted and looked inside, none daring to enter. At the far end sat an old furnace and a rust-spotted water heater. Above, tattered spider webs stretched across a maze of metal pipes.
The unsettling mumble of flies filled the room. Just behind the water heater and the furnace, down near the floor, a dark patch about two feet in diameter stained the wall.
The patch was the swarm of flies. Likely hundreds of them, crawling over each other in filthy waves.
Birdman’s face went uncharacteristically flat. “That’s some sinister shit.”
Brad waved a fly away from his face. “Someone’s going to have to clean that up, whatever it is.”
“I’ve got the kitchen,” Birdman said. “It needs to be cleaned before the party.”
“Bathrooms,” Casey sounded off.
“Living room,” said Brad. He turned to Gabe, “Sorry, buddy, that leaves you with the basement.”
“Uh uh, there’s no way I’m getting near that. We’ll just leave the door closed. Nobody will see it.”
“I don’t think so.” Brad’s voice was firm. “We’re not leaving it like that.”
Gabe crossed his arms and narrowed his eyes. “Oh, that’s just rich for you to decide it had to be me, Brad.”
Gabe’s dog, Morrison, growled beside him, channeling his anger.
“I didn’t decide, Gabe.” Brad stepped closer to him. “Everyone else called a different part of the house, so you’re the only one left to do the basement. Is that hard to understand?”
Brad’s dog, Odin, barked at Morrison.
“Oh, I understand perfectly well. Just pile the nasty crap onto the one who doesn’t immediately jump up and call a different room. That’s really, really fair.” Gabe felt his face getting hot, his heartbeat pounding in his temples.
The dogs’ growling grew louder.
“Well, life isn’t fair, Gabe. That’s just how it is. You’re a big boy, so do your part and stop being such a goddamn baby, okay?”
“What did you just call me, you prick?”
“A goddamn baby, you goddamn baby.”
Suddenly Odin and Morrison charged at each other. They collided in a feral tangle, yelping and snarling with wet-toothed rage.
Casey stepped back. “Woah!”
The dogs fought on, lunging and snapping at each others’ necks. As they spun into a frenzied climax, they shot up on their hind legs and coiled around each other in the air like two snakes climbing an invisible cord.
Then, just as quickly as they had begun, the dogs stopped fighting. Heads down, they glanced at the open boiler room door and slunk away to the opposite side of the basement.
“What the hell was that, you guys?” Casey said. “Your bitchy little tiff made Odin and Morrison almost kill each other.”
Gabe and Brad stood speechless.
Birdman’s eyes were still bulging. “Holy crap that was trippy. What kind of otherworldly shit did we just witness right there? That was like, like some kind of dog double-helix infinity event.”
Nobody laughed or smiled.
Brad inhaled loudly through his nose. He pointed at the boiler room and stared down Gabe. “End of discussion. Use the strongest cleaning product you can find. Drench it in bleach if you have to. That shit has to go.”
Gabe bought two bags of cleaning supplies from the drug store. Sullen and unmoved by the sunny skies, he hurried back home through town.
When he returned, the house was deserted. No doubt his roommates were out enjoying the rest of the beautiful fall afternoon. He carried his bags down the basement stairs.
Even with the boiler room door shut, he could hear the unsleeping swarm of flies inside. He steeled himself and opened the door.
The damp, sickly-sweet stench of decay washed over him. He felt the bile rise in his throat, and with it came an acrid wave of bitterness and hate, bubbling up from the shadowy corners of his mind.
Another swell of nausea hit him. Lightheaded, he sat down on the concrete floor, head in his hands. The dark room lay open before him like a rotten mouth, its air too thick to penetrate.
He didn’t have the will to clean it, at least not now. Holding his breath, he stood up and tossed the bags of cleaning supplies inside, then slammed shut the metal door.
Birdman’s slender fingers fluttered over the keys as he rocked to the music. Beside him, the drummer writhed behind his kit, the guitarist bobbed his head, and the bassist grooved with her eyes shut. In front, the wiry lead singer moaned into his microphone from a low, serpentine crouch.
At the other end of the basement, a line of people filed up to the keg to fill their cups. A tall, muscular guy in a baseball cap manned the tap, as he had been since he first arrived, his back against the closed boiler room door.
Between the beer line and the band, a larger group danced to the music. Swaying among them were Gabe and Casey. They had both taken psychedelic mushrooms an hour earlier, and now he was starting to feel the effects.
Really starting to feel the effects.
He had always been a bad dancer, but the mushrooms made him feel like he was controlling his limbs from outside his body, via remote control. All he could manage was to shuffle left and right, elbows pinned to his sides at right angles as the guitar reverberated in his ears. He was absolutely sure that if he dared to move any more energetically, he would lose all remaining control and the drugs would send him into grotesque, flailing fit.
Perhaps by focusing on Casey he could keep everything from getting out of hand. She had taken the same amount of mushrooms as him; how could she dance with such abandon and still remain so incredibly graceful? He yearned to touch her, but every time he drew nearer, the force field of his own insecurity and terror repelled him.
He caught her stealing a furtive glance at him and his heart jumped. She quickly looked down at her feet, a tiny, self-conscious smile on her lips.
The band grew louder, the beat more urgent.
Still dancing, she stepped closer to him and gave him her back. Holy shit. Was she inviting him to embrace her? He could barely decipher human body language in this mental state, but especially the body language of a creature as spellbinding as her. What if he was misreading her signals? What if he stumbled into her, arms open, only for her to spin around and gut him with a glare of astonishment and disgust?
She looked over her shoulder at him and again his heart nearly exploded.
Now or never. Nothing would ever happen between them if he didn’t take a chance. He reached out a tentative hand, nearly touching her waist.
“John, what’s wrong?” a young woman cried, loud enough to be heard above the music. Gabe froze at the startling sound. Casey, too, stopped dancing.
They looked in the direction of the shout. Dead-eyed and silent, the guy who had been running the keg shoved through the beer line. He stomped to the stairs, a girl in a red T-shirt and jeans chasing after him.
“What are you doing? Why are you acting so weird?” the girl shouted as she scampered upstairs.
Gabe stood with his hand on top of his head, stupefied. “Did that… did that just happen?”
Casey looked at him, a crazy grin appearing on her face. “Apparently.”
Gabe didn’t share her amusement. His vision tunneled around the basement steps as they expanded and contracted before him like a giant accordion. “Do you think something’s wrong?”
“Sure, I guess.” She laughed, but he could hear a hint of mushroom-induced nervousness in her voice. Or at least that’s how it sounded to him. She took his hand and started dancing again, bobbing his arm like a horse’s rein. “Come on, shake it off, man.”
For a few minutes, he tried to dance, but he could barely muster any more movement than his earlier, side-to-side shuffle. His eyes remained locked on the undulating stairs as his thoughts conjured all the insane things the feuding couple were probably screaming at each other outside on the sidewalk.
Suddenly a skinny, long-haired kid appeared on the steps. “Gabe!” It was his friend, Kevin, looking straight at him. “Gabe, come quick!”
Casey stopped dancing. “What the hell?”
Gabe didn’t move.
Kevin frantically waved him over. “Gabe, snap out of it man, come on!”
Kevin led him through the kitchen, up to the second floor, and up another set of stairs to Gabe’s room in the attic. Casey followed.
Brad and a handful of other people were looking out Gabe’s open window. Just outside, on the roof, the girl in the red T-shirt stood with her back turned to them.
“John, I’m serious, don’t!”
Gabe and Brad looked at each other. Eyes ablaze, Brad slowly shook his head as if to say, I’m on way more drugs than you.
Gabe took a deep breath, crawled out the window, and joined the girl on the roof.
Fifteen feet in front of them, John peered over the edge, his silhouette glowing in the dim, yellow light of a street lamp.
“You have to stop him,” said the girl, her voice trembling.
“What’s going on?”
“I don’t know. Everything was fine, and then he just stopped talking to me. Wouldn’t even respond when I said his name.” She quieted to a whisper. “And he had this, like this really scary look on his face. Then all of a sudden he charged up here, and I’m afraid he…”
She took a step toward him. “John? John, please.”
John inched closer to the edge. The girl gasped.
Gabe heard him muttering darkly but couldn’t make out the words. Thoughts on fire, Gabe struggled just to formulate a basic sentence. “It’s… it’s okay, John. No need to… there’s no need for—”
Suddenly, John tilted forward. Not a jump or a hop, but a slow, head-first dive. The girl screamed.
John hit the ground with an audible thump.
Hand over his mouth, Gabe rushed to the edge and looked over. Two stories down, John lay in a motionless heap on the lawn.
Two kids ran out from the front porch and crouched next to him. “He’s not breathing,” one yelled. “Call nine-one-one.”
The grisly sound of John’s impact with the ground echoed over and over in Gabe’s mind. In a panic, he scrambled through the window like the roof was collapsing.
Inside, Brad and Casey stood dumbstruck with the other onlookers.
“Is he okay?” said Casey. “Gabe, is he okay?”
He pushed past them and made for the stairs.
Jaw clenched, he hurried down to the first floor. When he looked back from the foyer and saw Brad and Casey following him, he broke into a run—down the hall and through the kitchen, toward the backdoor.
“You can’t just take off, man!” he heard Brad say. “Hey!”
He had to get out of there. He had to get the hell out of there now. With Brad and Casey still in tow, he bolted out across the backyard, down the alley, up the adjoining street, and down another street.
Six blocks later, he reached the university golf course. Empty and dark, it called to him with its perfect, gentle slopes of green, like some mystical Disney meadow come true. He dashed onto the fairway without looking back.
“Gabe, you’re an asshole,” Brad shouted from behind him.
Gabe reached the putting green and collapsed onto his stomach, out of breath, brain reeling.
He heard Casey’s voice above him. “Gabe.”
“Please, just…” he said between gasps of air, face down in the grass. “Just leave me alone, guys.”
He felt her small hand on his back. “It’s just me, Gabe. I think Brad is heading back.”
“Did you see that? How that guy just…”
He sat up and put his hands on his face. Beneath his fingers, his eyes felt like the empty sockets of a skull. “He fell head-first. He could be dead, Casey. He could be dead.”
“It’s gonna be okay. It’s gonna be okay.”
“Seriously, what are we going to do?”
She sat in front of him and sighed. “I don’t know. Let’s just… let’s just chill for a minute.”
“Shouldn’t we get back to the house? Aren’t the police going to want to talk to us?”
She held the silence. The perfect calm of the golf course breathed around them.
“We don’t have to go back right now, Gabe. Brad and Birdman will be there, they can talk to the cops. And I’ll bet that guy’s already on his way to the hospital in an ambulance. He’ll be okay. I’m sure he’ll be okay.”
“We’re in such deep shit, Casey.” He ran his hands hard through his sweaty hair.
“No, we’re not. What that guy did to himself is not our fault. Alright? It’s not our fault.”
Overwhelmed, he flopped flat onto his back, hands above his head in surrender. The world spun around him like a malfunctioning amusement park ride.
Some indeterminable amount of time later, Casey spoke in a hush, “Gabe.”
He sat up. Dawn was breaking through the fog. It unleashed a flood of amber across the grass and bronzed the wispy clouds in the sky.
Casey kicked off her flip-flops and skipped out to the center of the putting green. Gabe watched her twirl as the growing warmth of the morning sun soaked into his skin. With total abandon, she continued the silent performance through the full unfurling of morning.
Gabe’s adrenaline finally ebbed and the fatigue broke through. He put his elbows on his crossed legs and his chin in his hands, then let his eyelids slowly close to the most beautiful thing he had ever seen.
From the stillness and quiet, he awoke to a light touch on his face. The softest skin, gliding against his, made its way from his right cheek, across his lips, to his other cheek. Then back again.
He opened his eyes. Casey knelt before him, leaning in.
A wave of tingles cascaded from his scalp down the back of his neck. The rush of euphoria and disbelief paralyzed him where he sat.
She passed her lips across his face once more. This was it, the moment at last. There, on the immaculate grass, with nothing but the gentle scents and sounds of September around them, he would embrace her glancing touch and finally ignite their passion.
He took a breath, about to catch her lips with his.
“Holy crap, you guys really are still here.”
Gabe’s eyes stuttered open. Casey pulled away and looked up with shock. Gabe reached out to her. She stood up.
“Brad, what the hell?” she said.
“What?” Brad shrugged like he had been accused of something unfair.
“You startled me. We thought you went back to the house.”
“I did, but it was crawling with cops, so I wandered around for a while. Then I came back to see if you guys might still be here.”
Gabe glared at him. The slightest trace of a smirk twitched on Brad’s mouth.
“I kept thinking about what that poor guy did to himself.” Brad sounded so fake. “Think he’ll be okay?”
She just looked at Gabe, speechless.
Brad stuffed his hands in his pockets. “Well, we’d better get home. Bird’s probably shitting himself wondering where we went.”
Casey sighed. Her bright eyes were dulled with exhaustion. “You’re probably right.”
Brad started walking and she turned to follow. Gabe remained sitting on the grass.
She stopped and looked back. “Coming, Gabe?”
“Going to stay here a little while.”
Gabe watched them cross the green together. Every dozen steps or so, Casey glanced back at him. As the two left the golf course and crossed the adjacent street, Gabe saw Brad put his arm around her and laugh.
Morning slumped into the murky hangover of afternoon. The cops hadn’t been there when they got home, and all the partygoers had long fled, so Casey and Brad had gone straight to their rooms to crash.
But not Gabe.
With Morrison nowhere in sight, he stood alone in the living room, staring out the window at the rain. Through the open front door, he heard the pick, pick, pick of the drops hitting the empty plastic cups scattered across the lawn.
A grim quiet filled the house. He visualized John’s clean-cut face slamming into the unforgiving ground, his neck snapping in an instant. The sheer, abrupt senselessness of the tragedy gave him a shiver. Just hours earlier, John had been so full of life, nodding his head to the music and giving high fives as he filled cups in the basement.
A damp wind blew in through the open door. It swept past Gabe, down the hall, toward the kitchen.
He followed it.
He descended the basement steps and went to the closed boiler room door. Like an electric charge, something in the air bristled the hairs on his arms.
He never did clean that room. Brad, of course, would be incensed when he found out. He would rant that everyone else did their part and Gabe totally blew off doing his. And he would be right. So disgustingly right.
The thought of Brad’s face—that snide, cocky face—lit a ravenous brushfire of wrath in Gabe. He fixated on the corroding, metal door, unable to control his thoughts.
The next morning, Gabe lay in his bed, eyes open and bloodshot. He hadn’t slept. Morrison was still nowhere to be found, but he didn’t care. He had other things on his mind.
He listened for Casey and Birdman to leave for their ten o’ clock classes. Once they were gone, he went downstairs and sat at the small, circular table in the far corner of the kitchen.
There he waited.
An hour later, footsteps descended the stairs. Brad came into the kitchen, a backpack slung over his shoulder. Without noticing Gabe at first, he got a glass from the cupboard and went to the sink to fill it with water.
When Brad turned around and saw Gabe brooding in the corner, he nearly dropped his glass.
“Jesus, Gabe, you scared me. What are you doing? Don’t you have an eleven fifteen too?”
“Um, okay. Were you in your room all day yesterday? I don’t think I ever saw you come out.”
“Well, the cops came by last night. Talked to Casey, Bird, and me. Turns out that John dude died on the way to the hospital. Can you believe that shit?”
No reaction from Gabe.
Brad sighed. “Good thing is, the cops said they won’t be pressing any charges, because technically we didn’t do anything illegal. John wasn’t underage, and everyone who saw what happened said he jumped on his own.”
Still no reaction.
“Anyway, I called my dad last night and told him what happened. He started yelling and talking about a possible lawsuit from John’s family. But he’s always been paranoid about stuff like that, so I don’t know. What do you think? Think we’ll get sued?”
“You all right, Gabe?”
“I cleaned the boiler room yesterday.”
Brad blinked from the sudden change of subject. “That’s good. Would have been nice if you had done it before the party, but whatever.”
“Want to see it?”
Brad gulped down his water and put the glass in the sink. “I gotta get to class. Running late as it is.”
“No, really. You need to see what I did. It’s amazing how different it looks.”
“No, dude. I’ll see it later. Gotta go.”
Gabe gave him a malevolent sneer. “Look, Brad, you’re the one who made me clean that godforsaken hole, the least you could do is take one measly minute to see what I did.”
Brad gawked at him. “Okay, fine. But make it quick.”
They went downstairs.
Gabe opened the boiler room door. “I changed the lightbulb, but I think there’s a blown fuse. You can see what I did if you take a closer look.”
Brad stepped inside. “Damn, well it sure doesn’t smell any better.” He crouched down to inspect the space behind the furnace. “You lying bastard, you didn’t clean anything!”
Brad stood up, and when he turned around, his face brushed against the rope Gabe had left dangling from the ceiling pipes. He swatted it away with his hand. “What—”
Gabe slammed shut the metal door. He took a padlock from his pocket and quickly secured it to the latch.
“Hey!” Brad yelled, rattling the door. “Open this goddamn door! What the hell are you doing?”
Gabe calmly walked up the basement stairs. Expressionless, he grabbed his acoustic guitar from the living room on his way to the front door. He stepped out on the porch, sank into the ratty couch, and began to play.
The sweet sound of the strings concealed Brad’s shrieks as the rain intensified into a downpour.
A man carrying an umbrella walked by. Gabe played louder. “Nice weather we’re having, huh?” Gabe joked over his strumming. The man gave him a polite smile and walked on.
Over time, Brad’s screams gradually wore down into sobs. For a few more minutes the anguished weeping continued.
Then, abruptly, it stopped.
Gabe put his guitar down on the couch and listened carefully for any trace of Brad’s voice. All that remained was the steady babble of the rain. He loved a nice, early-autumn storm, the way it washed away all the grime and left the air smelling earthy and alive.
He stood up and checked his watch. It was 3:42, about fifteen minutes before Casey usually got home on Mondays. As the sun peeked through the breaking clouds, Gabe walked back inside, went down the basement stairs, and removed his padlock from the boiler room door.