I spent the rest of the day hazy and distracted, so I ended up staying at the office hours late to catch up on everything I had to do. By the time I made it out of the office and parked my 2011 Honda Civic on the street in front of my parents’ house, it was getting dark outside. We had lived in this dinky, fall-apart ranch house for going on ten years now. Scarcely had I ever been so happy to see it. From the ancient, crumbling shingles to the lush, overgrown lawn to the screen door patched with shiny wads of duct tape that glinted in the moonlight.
My parents were asleep on the couch, the credits of some black and white film running up the screen.
Dad’s B-movie obsession used to drive my mom crazy. Every weekend when the other dads were watching football, he’d be dominating the living room watching with a 70s-pulp-horror marathon. I never got into it, and my mom (Catholic) found his obsession mortifying. But, over the years, in an effort to bring her into the fold, dad started incorporating more palatable films into the rotation. Everything he watched was still totally archaic, stuff he could get on DVD at the library, but he made an effort to pick around the blood and gore to find movies they could watch together. Akira Kurosawa’s Shakespeare adaptations. Black and white films by Jean Luc Godard. Spike Lee and the Cohen brothers. Mom became an Agnes Varda fan and bought a book of her interviews, translated to Spanish for easier reading. Nerds.
My mom stirred.
“Hey baby,” she said, groggily. “What time is it?” I glanced at the clock on the stove and told her it was eight.
“You worked late,” said a woman who gets up at 5 in the morning to clean apartments in D.C. until 5 at night. “We just had pasta for dinner, but I can heat up something up…”
“Nah,” I said, dropping my laptop bag. “I’ll fend for myself. Bedtime. Go.”
They made their way to their bedroom as I tossed together and ad-hoc dinner. I boiled a pot of tap water and found a box of instant mac and cheese in the pantry. Once the noodles were soft I strained the water and added butter, milk and mixed in about half the recommended dosage of powdered cheese-flavored-substance.
Then-here’s the trick-I added some real, fresh, sharp cheddar and melted it for ten seconds in the microwave before giving it a tap of cayenne pepper. Perfect comfort food.
I left the pot soaking in hot water to soften up the bits of macaroni seared to the bottom. Then I cracked a cold beer and went to sit on the porch (i.e. the slab of concrete extending 5 feet from the foundation of the house.) It was a cold, clear night. I took a bite of macaroni (delicious), sipped the beer (refreshing!) and then realized I had absolutely no appetite.
I know I've laid it on pretty thick with the whole “I’m just your average gal!” routine, but it’s true. I’m normal. Ninety nine percent of my life has been such a load of nothing I don’t even really know how to describe it.
There was just a period of maybe a month or two where I went through a phase. Remember when I told you that I hit a limit early in high school? When I felt like I was floating in the depths of deep space, screaming into a void so cold and bottomless and all-encompassing that I had no hope of surviving or preserving any sense of self? That was when I started hanging around with Lydia.
Lydia Bukovitch was one of the only white girls that went to our school. That resulted in some bullying, but not as much as you might expect, and frankly not much as I suspect there would have been if the demographics were flipped. Mostly she flew under the radar, largely invisible in her baggy jeans and dark hoodies decorated with Invader Zim and Jack Skellington pins.
We first started talking when our World Cultures teacher made us do an oral report where you explain an aspect of your ancestral culture. I just read a printed out WikiPedia page about the civil wars in ** ******** and my teacher gave me an A. That’s how it works in a really crappy school-you make the barest of bare bones efforts and you get the A. Plagiarism and cheating are non-factors. That might sound like a vacation at first, but I promise you that being surrounded by all that adult apathy day in and day out gets old.
For god knows why, Lydia actually decided to put work into her project. She did a presentation about borscht, this soup they make in Ukraine. Everybody was yelling over her about how nasty it sounded, but I thought it sounded pretty good. So, after her presentation, I scooted over by Lydia and asked if she would teach me to make borscht.
Lydia was the first friend that I felt like I chose. Throughout elementary and middle you get shuffled among lunch groups, arranged alphabetically, clumped together by race and language and sent off to play. The first time you really go out of your way to choose a friend, it’s a big deal.
Anyway, we hung out at Lydia’s apartment and made borscht. When it turned out to be as gross as the rest of the class had predicted, we made chicken fingers in the oven and watched T.V. Lydia’s mom was an RN who started work when Lydia got out of school and her dad was a non-entity, so we had the place to ourselves.
Lydia got me to do stuff I never would have done on my own. We would steal single, stale cigarettes from her mom’s bedside table and share them, blowing smoke out of her cracked bedroom window. They made me sick and I didn’t like them. But I wanted to steal them with Lydia, to smoke them with Lydia, to hold my breath with Lydia when her mom came home and we both stared at the T.V., praying that the lingering vapors wouldn’t give us away.
Lydia and I would go out at night and break stuff. Nothing that expensive or meaningful. We would just target a random house and rip their mailbox out of the dirt, or take an unopened bag of mulch from their side yard and spread it all over their driveway. Then we would go running back to Lydia’s and hunker down with our chicken fingers and cartoons, petrified that any minute the Prince George’s County Police would be kicking in the door.
Lydia liked to explore the darker corners of the internet. She would always find these weird games on the Chan sites. Games is probably the wrong word. They were more like instructions for self-imposed psychological torture. She called them “challenges.”
Challenges were composed of sets of instructions, set across a schedule that spanned as long as thirteen hours. The instructions directed you to watch compilations of gruesome killings from horror films spliced with footage from real executions. Sometimes it was snuff shot by people in cartels and terror cells. Then there would be clips of people screaming, like they were being tortured, that you had to listen to on loop with your eyes clamped shut, focusing on nothing else. Sleep deprivation was key. The challenges would give you ten and fifteen breaks to shut your eyes, but all the beaks really served to do was make you feel how exhausted you were.
These would be interspersed with little rituals. Once Lydia and I had to clip our fingernails and bury them in the lot behind the apartment complex. Another time we cut into the skin of our palms and our wrists and sucked each other’s wounds. Just for a second. For the challenge. Look, I swear I’m normal. Did I mention I drink almond milk?
I always thought the challenges were mostly bullshit. But once in a while, I would finish a challenge and feel like I was wrist deep in dark, cool soil, rich in earthworms and minerals. And I would feel a shudder of euphoria.
Most likely the challenges just exhausted me, and when I finished my brain rewarded me with a jolt of endorphins. But the shit still made an impression on me. It’s the craziest thing I’ve ever done, and the craziest thing about it is that it is not something that I would ever do on my own. I’m not dark or morbid like that. But Lydia was my friend.
Eventually though, Lydia was asking to do them more and more often. It became the reason she would ask me to come over.
After a while the challenges lost their excitement. I felt dread heading to Lydia’s house, knowing I was signing up for hours of horrible gore, sleep deprivation, weird chants and rituals. I started hanging out with other people. The more I hung out with kids who were into video games (or dating or sports or whatever) the less I wanted to spend time with Lydia.
I remember the last time I went over to her place. It was sophomore year of high school and I was hanging out with some classmates, smoking a little weed, watching a movie. I hadn’t been over to Lydia’s in the better part of a year. My phone buzzed, a text from Lydia.
“Can you come over?” it said. “New challenge. Looks cool as hell. Only takes a couple hours. I really want to try this one.”
I ignored it at first. But after an hour or so, I realized that I was not really interested in the movie, and that everybody except for me and a guy I was not interested in had paired off to make out.
I headed over to Lydia’s apartment. There were some guys sitting in the back of a truck outside her building, smoking and listening to music. They called out to me and I responded with a weak smile, my heart hammering. When I got inside and the elevator doors rattled shut, I sighed with relief.
Up on the sixth floor, it smelled like church. Incense, candle wax. But that smell was mixed with something sweet, like the rotten fruit stink of the grocery store trash compactor.
The smells grew stronger when I reached Lydia’s apartment. The door was propped open, and the yellow kitchen light seeped into the hall. Lydia was at the stove, stirring a big pot. All across the kitchen were cut up plants and herbs. On the counter I saw the knife she had used to hack them up. It looked less like a standard kitchen knife and more like something Rambo would carry, a big combat blade with a blood gutter and a handle wrapped in grippy cloth.
The old books stacked on the kitchen chairs were so musty that I smelled them before I saw them. Bits of roots and herbs, flower petals and spices were piled up on bits of newspaper arranged across the table. There was also something wrapped in paper towel, soaked through with pink juice.
“Hey!” Lydia said, smiling over her shoulder. “Close the door.” As I stepped inside I saw there were more books stacked in the other room, some of which looked even older than the ones in the kitchen. I picked one up, a hardcover rotting off its binding. There was no title. I started to open it when Lydia snatched it out of my hands.
“How cool are these?” she said, hugging the volume to her chest. “These are where they get the challenges. I found this website where you can trace them back to their source-texts, and I found another website where you can buy all these old books with crypto.”
She picked up three more volumes and displayed them proudly.
“These come from Scotland, Spain and Greece. How cool is that?”
“It is cool,” I admitted. “How much did all of this cost?”
“Come check this out,” Lydia said, ignoring the question. She led me over to the stove, where she was boiling something thick and dark in the sort of pot you use to cook a whole turkey for Thanksgiving.
“Breathe in the vapors,” she said. “It’ll relax you.” I hesitated. The fumes coming off the liquid were thick and dark. Sucking them in went against everything I had learned in AP Chem.
“Slow down,” I said, stalling. “First off, hi.”
“Hi!” Lydia said, smiling broadly and wrapping her arms around me in a big hug. It was the kind of hug little kids give. Lydia’s teeth were yellowed. Her hair was knotted and greasy. She had never been good at taking care of herself, and things had only gotten worse since I last saw her.
Before this, my assumption had been that Lydia resented me for having new friends. But here, she smiled at me with those sugar-rotten teeth and bright eyes like we were best friends again.
“So, let’s slow it down,” I sighed. “Explain again what these have to do with the challenges?” I picked up another of the books stacked on the kitchen chair and flipped to a random page. It was written in characters I didn’t recognize. I guessed (and it was very much a guess) that they might be Hebrew or Arabic. I flipped to another section to find writing that I could almost read like Spanish. I figured that was Italian. Another flip brought me to some kind of acrylic script.
“This is where they come from!” Lydia said. “The people who made the challenges online were adapting them from rituals described in books like these. Back in the old days, they used to do challenges as like, ceremonies and rites of passage, or tributes to the gods!”
“‘The old days?’” I said, skeptically. This was after I gave up trying to be smart, but keep in mind this was a version of me that already had several years of AP classes under her belt, including European history.
“Before the church,” explained Lydia. “And before the inquisitions and all that stuff made everybody afraid to be anything but a good Christian. People were free to explore their spiritual identities freely. They were allowed to dig deep inside themselves, through all their loves and hates and fears to discover who they really were instead of just conforming to what society wanted them to be. But now, religion is receding, and online people are re-building communities that have only existed in history books for a thousand years.”
“O.K.,” I said, half following. “Questions.”
“Fire away,” Lydia said, stirring the stove-liquid with a big wooden spoon.
“First, the challenges are online. ‘Watch this video clip. Listen to this MP3. Tune your FM radio to static, plug in your headphones and play it at high volume for an hour.’ How were they supposedly doing all that stuff in pre-Christian Europe?”
“Adaptation,” Lydia said, simply. She was rummaging around in a drawer. “The versions of the challenges we did were simulations. Like, if a ritual calls for blood to be spilt, the challenges substitute that with a video of a kill from a horror movie. Or from an execution. Or if the ritual calls for us to commune with nature in some way, that’s why we use the radio static. To tap into the cosmic background world hidden in the noise.”
She found what she was looking for in the drawer, a plastic, white ladle. She spooned two portions of the dark liquid into cereal bowls. It looked thick as wine, but it was tinted dark blue instead of red.
“This is the real thing,” she said, offering me a bowl. “Here, breathe in.” I kept stalling.
“What do you mean ‘religion is receding?’” I asked. “My family is Catholic.”
“Yeah, and my grandparents were orthodox, but my mom doesn’t care. It’s dying out. Nobody cares.”
“I mean, I sort of care,” I said. “I’m Catholic Lydia. I’m having my confirmation in fall.”
“Yeah, but this is not who you are,” Lydia snapped, her smile disappearing. My eyes fell on her white knuckled hand, gripping the ladle. She set the ladle down and closed her eyes. “I mean that is not who you are. Religion.”
“I get it,” I said.
“And anyway, the church was wrong to ever think this sort of thing was against them. The point is that they repressed it-”
“O.K., O.K.,” I interrupted. “Give it here. Let’s do this.” Grinning again, Lydia gave me the bowl. I lifted it to my face and inhaled. It smelled like it looked, rich and weird, thick with unfamiliar flavors and spices. I set it back down with a sigh.
“I don’t feel anything,” I said.
“Great,” Lydia said, distracted. She was flipping through a book she had open on the counter. “Give me a few minutes to get ready. Then we can start.”
Lydia lit candles all across the apartment. In the kitchen she mostly used tall, black candles. To light the rest of the apartment, she had to strategically employ some of her mom’s lavender and pumpkin spice scented bathroom candles, which clashed with the orgy of spices and scents already irritating my sinuses.
We sat down at the kitchen table, staring across at each other. Five bundles of newspaper were arranged in the shape of a star. By each bundle was a tall, unlit candle.
“Are you ready?” Lydia asked me.
She grinned again. “Follow my lead. We’ll try it first in English. Follow behind me and light the candles.”
Before I could ask any more questions, she began.
“We present these offerings,” she whispered. “To the ancient ones, whom we have not forgotten.” Lydia reached over to the wad of newspaper closest to her and opened it, exposing a small pile of dirt.
“We offer earth,” she said. “From the country where you once joined us in the bondage of flesh.”
Here eyes briefly flicked over to me which I took as my cue to lean forward and light the candle by the dirt pile.
“We offer fur, from a cloven beast, a descendant of your passions. We offer needles, from a conifer tree, a form divergent from the divine architecture. We give you wet wax, a sign that across the centuries we have remained vigilant, awaiting your return.”
Lydia tipped an already burning candle over a bit of newspaper, dribbling a dollop of black wax onto a Marmaduke cartoon.
“We offer blood,” she said. I sat frozen as she picked up the Rambo knife and sliced open her palm. “So that one day your divine spark may return to our plane, and that your seed of flesh may grow into an inferno that swallows the partition dividing our clan into the living and the dead.”
She turned her wrist and let the blood drip from her palm down to the newspaper. The blood looked almost black in the darkness. Her eyes flicked up to me and I realized I hadn’t lit the candle. I leaned forward quickly, almost knocking it over. Once the wick was lit, I sat back and we waited silently. After just a few minutes, Lydia sighed.
“It didn’t work,” she said. “I didn’t have high hopes for English anyway. We’ll try it again. Maybe Latin will get us there.” She pinched the newspaper bundles shut and snuffed out the candles.
“Just like before?” I asked, my eyes fixed on the still dripping gash in her hand. She hadn’t even flinched when she made the cut.
“Yeah, I’ll just be speaking Latin. So when I stop talking, follow behind me and re-light the candles.” Lydia went through the ritual again, speaking Latin. Thanks to my Spanish I could actually understand, like, half of it. Here’s some dirt, here’s some blood, and so on. I followed after her, lighting the candles. When it was over, we sat back and waited.
“What are we waiting for?” I finally asked. “And who are we talking to exactly? I thought this was about diving into our own subconscious or whatever.”
“Just… Be patient,” Lydia said. “We’ll try Aramaic. I’ve got a good feeling about Aramaic.” She blew out the candles and crumpled the newspapers again. I was getting bored. The shock of watching Lydia cut up her hand had worn off. My mind had wandered to working out how I was going to explain all this to the emergency room doctor when we went to get her stitched up.
Two syllables into the Aramaic, those blue fumes were hit me, all at once. For the first time in my life I actually felt my pupils dilate. My brain got ahead of my senses. I could hear the echoes of the things Lydia was about to say before she said them. I could think around the contours of the sounds of the Aramiac words and decipher their meanings without knowing the language.
“This is how babies would see,” I muttered. “If their eyes worked.” I’m not sure what I meant. I was real high.
Lydia offered the earth and the fur and the needles, the wax and the blood. My mouth was dry. My heart was thumping and my blood felt thick.
“Return to us,” Lydia said, her breath heaving, her palms flat on the table, oozing blood. “Return to us, sacred spark…” The candle flames throbbed in the darkness. The whole room felt hot, like a living organism.
“Return to us, return to us, return to us…”
When we came out of it, the candles were burned halfway down to the table. Rivulets of black wax had crawled across every surface in the kitchen.
“What did you give me, Lyd,” I sighed, slumping in my seat.
“Good shit,” Lydia panting. “I’m sweating. Are you sweating?” I looked at the time on the stove-clock and groaned. It was 3 a.m. It felt like we had just sat down, but hours had passed.
“Is that right?” I moaned. “I’m fucking screwed. I was supposed to be home hours ago.”
“So fuck it,” Lydia said, standing up. “Stay out.”
“What about your hand?” I asked. “Doesn’t that hurt? We’ve got to get you to a hospital or something.”
“We could absolutely do that,” she said. “Or.”
She produced a baggie containing two fat, pre-rolled joints from her sweatshirt pocket.
“We could get so high that neither of us care.”
I considered being responsible for about two seconds.
“So in the morning we go to the ER and get you sewn up, then you help me think of a lie to tell my parents.”
“You’re overthinking it,” she said. “Smoke with me.”
We went up to the roof. It was a cicada summer. The insects serenaded us with their monotone wail until dawn broke.
Between the two of us, we smoked both the joints in around an hour.
“We’ve got to do this more often,” Lydia said, exhaling and resting her weight on her elbows. “That Aramaic. It was working. I’ve got a bunch of other rituals we can try that on.”
She passed me the stub of the last joint and I rolled it between my thumb and forefinger.
“For sure,” I said. I passed back the stub without taking a hit. “Kill it.”
She killed it. Morning streaked across the sky like a pale red hand. The cicadas hushed. I sat by the roof's edge, with my knees hugged to my chest.
“We should do it soon,” I said. “I don’t think I’ll be able to keep doing this after high school. So if we’re going to do it, we should do it soon.”
Lydia was quiet for a long time.
“Why though?” she asked, her voice hoarse.
“ROTC,” I said, keeping my voice even. “They piss-test. And I guess after that the Army probably. I’m pretty sure I can’t get into a decent college at this point. So I’m talking to a recruiter.”
“So,” Lydia said. “No more hangouts like this.” I saw the silvery tears running down her cheeks from the corner of my eye. I pretended not to notice.
“Yeah,” I said. “No more rituals or challenges. I’ve got to take all these pledges and oaths.”
There was a slurping sound as Lydia sucked up a sob. When she exhaled, she disguised it as a yawn. She gave me a gentle kick in the back and I turned to look at her. She smiled. This was my best friend, complete with dirty jeans, frazzled hair, fucked up teeth, and a mangled hand wrapped in gauze and scotch tape. She had wiped her tears. But in the morning light I could still see a viscous layer of repressed misery shimmering in her eyes.
“So one last ride,” she said. “Maybe next weekend? I’ve got a cool one we can try.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Yeah, definitely. And we can make a whole night of if. Pizza. Movie. Like old times.”
“Hell yeah,” Lydia said, hoisting herself to her feet. She extended her hand to me and helped me up.
I didn’t set anything up for the next weekend. Instead, I shoved it to the back of my head. Lydia didn’t call either, and that helped me convince myself that we were both blowing it off. Weeks passed, and soon I had gone months without speaking to her again. I didn’t even notice when she stopped showing up at school.
After graduation, basic training, a couple years of Excel spreadsheets, and an awkward meeting with an assortment of intelligence agents, I sat on my parents’ front porch and scraped the last off the cheese sauce from the bottom of my bowl.
There was a shrill ringing in my ears. I dug my pinky into my earhole to try and disrupt it. Nothing happened. The sound was external. Cicadas, I realized. It was another cicada summer, the first since I'd last seen Lydia.
I went inside, rinsed my bowl and collapsed into my big, warm bed.
Before we move on, I should tell you that Lydia killed her mom. It happened while I was in basic training. Someone emailed me a link to the story from a local paper. I didn’t make it all the way through the article.
Here’s what I’ve pieced together secondhand: Lydia was acting strangely, like she was on something. She had covered a tree out behind her apartment complex in bloody handprints from a cut on her palm. Her mom came home to find her writhing in the dirt, bowing, like she was worshiping the tree.
Her mom called an ambulance. By the time it got there, it was a bloodbath. “Unlike anything I’ve ever seen,” one of the EMTs told the paper. The EMTs around here have seen a lot.
I told myself that Lydia had to have somebody. There had to be family back in Ukraine that would come to see her, or some other friend who would get involved. There had to be someone besides me.
I made myself forget.