The Swarm and the Flyer

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Steeped in Uncertainty

Then…

I’m sitting alone in the upper loft of the Cy House, a textbook in my lap and the steam from Tyler’s hot shower turning my cheeks red. It’s Friday night, late September of 2015. I start to doze off with my textbook in my lap when the darkness outside begins to move.

The hell? Even though the TV is blaring and most of my attention is on Piper Chapman’s hellish stay at Litchfield Penitentiary, my eyes get rooted to the wall of black outside the three windows behind the TV Something out there is shifting. No… swirling.

I start to sit up, my mouth hanging open. Is it a trick of the light reflecting off the glass and half-open blinds? I’ve lived in a couple of different houses and more than my fair share of apartments, but for some reason, the shadows that settle into the backyard of the Cy House tonight grip me. The mass outside stirs and breathes, watching me.

I’m halfway up from my spot on the couch when the shower cuts off. There’s the snick of the shower curtain hooks, then a grunt from Tyler before he snaps his towel a couple of times. I look back over the couch at the shut restroom door on the other side of the stairs. Steam is already drifting from under the door. For whatever reason, Tyler had just came home, yelled a quick “Sup guys,” as he ran up the stairs, and jumped into the shower.

But that moving figure...

I turn and sink back into the faded couch before blinking. The glare on the windows grows duller. All I can make out now are the lonely tree branches and dim outline of our house’s backyard fence. No shimmering black clouds. Relax. You’re tired, Rayland. Grad school’s wearing you down.

“Yo, Rayland!” Brad, our newest roommate, calls to me from downstairs, his voice nasally as always. “Come on, man! Don’t make me and Eric take another shot by ourselves.”

“Yeah!” Eric chimes in before he shuts the fridge. “It’s Friday. Let loose!”

Let loose.

All I have to do is swivel my head to the railing on my left, which overlooks the gorgeous kitchen that I’m still as proud of as if I’d built the Cy House myself. I snicker and, pushing my textbook on Transpersonal Psychology to the edge of the couch, call back, “We have a race next weekend, guys.” But the words on the page still nip at the edges of my mind:

Loss-oriented processes. Restoration oriented processes.

Intrusive memories.

“There is no one right way to mourn the deceased.”

From my spot on the second-floor loft, I can see the top of Brad and Tim’s reflections in the three kitchen windows overlooking the backyard. How they’re both shaking their heads. Brad snorts and says that I’ll have all next week to bounce back before our next cycling race. There’s another clink of shot glasses down below. Eric lets out a hoot. “Let’s go, Rayland! Come oooon, we’re almost done with this season anyway.”

It’s true. After the U.S. Open in Rockwall, there won’t be any more races this year. Then we’ll rack all eight of our bikes up in a line along the banister to my right and let them become decor for the house again. And yes, between the four of us, we have a total of eight awesome bikes. Blue, Felt, and even a Cervelo P3. It’s not excessive, not in the slightest.

I groan and kick my textbook off Brad’s couch. It falls to the carpet with a thud. Once cycling season is over, that means all my focus will be on finishing this grad school semester from hell. In short, these theories on transpersonal psychology and near-death experiences ain’t gonna get any easier to crack. Plus, I still gotta submit my next e-log and my formal therapy case presentation for practicum by next week. Balls.

“Roll tide!” Brad manages to slur the Alabama chant from down in the kitchen. Eric’s disbelief practically washes over the whole house in a heat wave.

“Bro, there’s no roll tide in this house! Come on!”

I shake my head and slip my phone into my shorts pocket. That’s before the restroom door flies open. Out steps a mostly naked Tyler, towel around his waist. I can see him look my way in the window’s reflection. A haze washes over me and gives my brain a little squeeze. Tyler strides over to me. He’s a washed-out reflection in the black pause menu on our HD TV, Netflix asking me for the first time tonight: ‘Are you still watching?’ Yes, bitch, did I tell you to stop playing my show?

“Sup buddy.” Tyler’s voice is chill and captures that clichéd stoner vibe real well. I let my head hang over the back of the couch and stare up at him. Tyler is easy to take in: his still-damp blonde hair, those blue eyes. Springy chest hairs curling in on themselves. He leans over the couch, his arms crossed, before his eyes swing to the TV screen. “Orange is the New Black? Nice.”

“I’m binging,” I say, doing my best to stop myself from drooling. Tyler chuckles. Every syllable of his laughter coasts like ocean waves rolling in the middle of the night. He just finished putting up some neon purple lighting in his room yesterday, after I’d gotten home from my on-campus job at the psych clinic. Gotta love a roommate who lives like he’s in a frat house.

Then it hits me: Tyler’s face has softened. He pulls his lower lip in, then reaches over and plucks a couple of sealed mail envelopes from the side table. All the mail Brad had brought in earlier. Tyler holds out the top two letters to me.

“Thanks.” I let the word ring out, my throat going hot before I take them. They’re all addressed to Alejandro Calderón. My dad.

Josiah once told me that, if you laid out all the arteries, veins, and capillaries of the human circulatory system end to end, they’d stretch 60,000 miles. Tonight, all it takes is a couple of letters in the mail for me to feel every single one of those branches tighten in me.

“Hey bud, I’m here if you ever wanna talk,” Tyler says with a sigh and a shift in his lightly freckled shoulders. “Y’know you can always update the mailing address-”

“I’m fine.” My voice is wire tight.

Tyler sinks. “Yeah. I hear ya.”

The LED lights of Tyler’s room are blips on a far-off horizon. Before I can rise to his mellow vibes, he tries again. “Hey, so I’ll get dressed, then we can head downstairs, yeah? Hang out with Brad and Eric for a little while.” Tyler leans over me and waggles his eyebrows. “I’ve got some pretty good kush. Eh, eh?”

There. Someone finally tried to pull me out of the shell that I’ve curled into. It’s been less than three months since my dad died, and these stupid life insurance letters still make me want to smash the mailbox with a baseball bat.

Dear Alejandro,

Life often changes in ways we can hardly imagine. Are you ready for the unexpected? Will your family be ready when you're gone?

Fuck. Off.

I sit up, adjust one of my tank top straps, and shove the letters into my textbook as a bookmarker. “Alright, alright. I’m comin’.”

“Right on,” Tyler hollers with his usual pointy grin, then spins around in his towel before he sprints for his room. That soft purple neon glow spills out of his door.

Before I can get my hands on even a single drop of alcohol or a hit of weed to numb my half-frayed head, the front door to the Cy House opens. A slightly high-pitched “Hello!” cuts my high hopes short.

“Hey team, knock knock,” Josiah Knect calls, just as cheerful as ever.

Great.

“I brought some baked goods! And not the THC kind.” Josiah’s laughter echoes throughout both floors. A couple of seconds of silence pass, then Eric and Brad start to snicker in the kitchen.

I peer through the balcony railing on my right, the one that overlooks our living room. There Josiah stands, wavy curls spilling all over his head. He’s holding a mixing bowl and beams at the empty living room. “Eric! Brad! This vegan cookie dough is the bomb!” Josiah’s voice couldn’t be any more Mrs. Doubtfire-esq.

Then Josiah looks up at me and dips his head. His cheeks are soft, while his chin is chiseled. Out in the dark, the cicadas’ cries grow less shrill. There are no moving shadows outside the windows next to Josiah.

“Sup, Josiah,” I call, not bothering to turn down the volume when I fire up the next episode.

His response is chipper. “Hey there, Rayland! Happy Friday night.”

From down in the kitchen, Eric and Brad both shout “Cookie douuuugh!” once what Josiah said registers in their half-drunk stupor. They drop their shot glasses and utensils down on the granite counter before making a beeline for the living room. “Ohh, ohh! Sample guy right here,” Eric hollers. I dig my toes into the carpet and smirk. That’s a hungry cyclist for you.

Tyler comes out from his room, still shrugging on an American Eagle tank top. I rise and stretch, then stumble around to face him. If he notices my eyes falling down to his bulge and swimming back up, he doesn’t say anything. Instead, Tyler drapes an arm around my shoulders once I walk up to him. “Tonight’s gonna be awesome,” he assures me, “I promise, bro.”

“So it’s really vegan?” Eric asks Josiah, him and Brad sounding super suspicious. Tyler and I share a snort before I follow him down the first few steps, my hand never leaving the banister.

“Hey, I’m allergic to that egg substitute stuff,” Brad adds. There’s the crinkle of aluminum foil as they take the cover off the bowl and inspect it for themselves. Josiah laughs and, slinging off his drawstring bag, says, “I imagine it’s hard to be allergic to this dough when it doesn’t have eggs or flour. But hey, better to play it safe, right?”

Tyler and I swing around the banister and step onto the hardwood floor. I look up to face Josiah, the swell in my lungs dying down. I balk and watch Eric and Brad dance back into the kitchen. I better start drinking now, before Josiah makes some off-handed comment about how alcohol “is a brain killer.” Give me a break.

But Josiah doesn’t trail after my roommates like I expected. Instead, he stands right under the chandelier of the dining room, where our love seats are facing each other. He sets his cookie batter bowl on the coffee table in between the seats, then puffs out his chest. There’s a tremor in his almond-shaped eyes. The blue of Josiah’s tank top looks so soft.

All of that melts away the second Josiah’s eyes start to water. My toes go cold. Clearing my throat sure as hell doesn’t change that. Neither does Tyler, who chuckles and mutters, “Not the THC kind,” in a lightly mocking tone once he passes Josiah.

Before I can hold up a hand, or put him off with a super impersonal head nod and warbly “Sup,” Josiah has his arms around me. He squeezes, and I’m crushed in a hug that knows no personal space. I fall into his cloud of citrus, patchouli, and fresh sweat. Somewhere in all those soft waves of clean scent, a couple of whimpers rise up. From him? From me? I dunno. All I know is that Josiah’s muscles fill crevices I didn’t know I had: around my shoulders, my chest. I’m fluttering.

“I’m glad to see you, Rayland,” he says in a soothing voice. “I’m here for you, no matter how bad things get.”

I can’t wiggle, not like I want to. Josiah’s hold is all I know. Even after he lets go and walks with me into the kitchen, where Tyler and the others are already pouring shots of vodka, I know of a new truth.

Josiah has my heart.

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