CHAPTER 1: SHROOMMATES
In a metaphysical sense, Bethesda, Ohio is the closest city to the center of Hell; here, mischievous nights fill the empty lives of its residents. Every weekend, the youth pollute their blood with whatever they can get their hands on, while the adults drift through their lives preoccupied with small-town gossip, too oblivious or unwilling to recognize what their children are doing under their noses.
Not everyone who dies in this sinful town wakes up in damnation. Chris knew that if life exists after death, his dear Aunt Beverly now lives forever among deep blue skies, where crystal clear waters flow between evergreen mountains. Despite his unconditional love and respect for Aunt Beverly, Chris also knew religion was some bullshit made up by drugged-out cavemen who feared death.
To Chris, Aunt Beverly was the closest thing to a real-life saint next to Mother Teresa. Beverly raised him from his earliest memories until she passed away last September. Although Chris does not believe in Heaven or Hell, God or Lucifer, he always tries to make the decisions his aunt would approve of, just in case she’s looking down—just in case there’s something after death. So far she hasn’t reached down from the sky and slapped him across the cheek, her hand decorated in ten sizeable rings from the sale rack at the antique shop—leaving behind the deserved welts Chris was all too familiar with.
Chris’s family never had much money, but Beverly did everything she could as a single parent to raise Chris like a second son alongside her own—Chris’s cousin, Ronnie. Given all the traditional red flags of adolescence—absent father figures, trouble making peers, and opportunities for mischief—Chris and Ronnie surprisingly didn’t turn out to be complete hellions. Yet, in the wake of Beverly’s death, the behavior of these two unguided young adults speaks to her absence, especially on the weekends.
Ronnie spent this Friday evening home, slouched on the couch, staring into his new Grateful Dead poster like he was dissecting a Picasso, the “dancing bears” earning their nickname in the reflections of his dilated pupils. The kitchen door squeaked open, and the sound of a collection of keys hit the table. The familiar noise of a bottle cap bouncing off the floor echoed through the house. Chris’s silhouette filled the kitchen’s door frame, as he stood there with a beer in hand, staring at Ronnie, still lost in his art, a drop of drool rolling off of his bottom lip. A curious Chris sat down next to his cousin, placed his arm around his shoulders, took a big chug of beer, and together they watched the inanimate decor.
“Interesting piece we have here. Sets the room off,” Chris facetiously complimented. “Excellent placement too, I might add. Right beside Aunt Bev’s Jesus painting.”
He looked at Ronnie for a laugh, but Ronnie didn’t raise an eyebrow.
Ronnie spoke slowly, “Isn’t it crazy how they move?”
Chris observed the painting and entertained Ronnie, fully knowing those bears looked 110% different through Ronnie’s eyes.
“Oh, yes. Yes! I like how the artist used his knowledge of warm and cool offsets to make the bears come alive,” Chris offered his commentary to a silent, oblivious Ronnie.
Taking another sip of beer, Chris lost himself in the poster, recognizing its true meaning derives from a combination of the artist’s skill and dependence that his customers will appreciate it under the influence of drugs.
Speaking of drugs, “What are you on, Ronnie?”
Without detaching his eyes from the ride, Ronnie reached into his brown Carhartt pants pocket and handed Chris a scrunched-up, plastic sandwich baggy.
Chris unfurled the bag and held it overhead in the sunlight, examining its contents under the rays peeking through the blinds behind the couch.
“Ah-hah! Magic morels,” Chris said, slapping the bag back into Ronnie’s chest with just enough force to temporarily jog his cousin back to reality.“Well, I was gonna see if you wanted to catch that Men in Black show at seven, but I see you’ve already started a poster-watching marathon instead.”
“Have some,” muttered a dazed Ronnie, a purposeful squint in his eyes.
Chris took another giant swig of beer and stood up to remove his motor oil-covered shirt. Chris exchanged it with one draped over the back of the rocking chair, instantly recognizing the fit as one of Ronnie’s because it was so damn tight. The size didn’t matter to Chris because, like his cousin, he didn’t care much about anything lately and changing again would be more of a burden than walking around like an adult in a child’s shirt.
Chris was much larger than his scrawny cousin—in a healthy way. He always chose to remain physically fit for the ladies. Even when he wasn’t taking a girl home, Chris’ build served him well in numerous bar fights over the years. After high school, Chris wanted to “be all he could be” in the army, but his dreams of being a hero were dashed by a dishonorable discharge. Chris couldn’t resist the temptations of smoking weed in the barracks and banging the lieutenant’s daughter, who just so happened to be in his unit. Chris stayed swol with creatine and the two dumbbells he picked up at the neighbor’s yard sale a few months back.
Growing up, their differences made Chris and Ronnie the perfect odd couple. Chris was an outgoing, attractive blonde with icy blue eyes. Ronnie was a shy, lanky brunet, an adult trapped in a teenage body, who hadn’t been on a date in months.
“You know I fuckin’ hate those things. Last time we did shrooms I had a 40-minute conversation in my head between my left and right shoes. Plus, I have a lot on my mind right now,” Chris looked down at the logo on his chest and threw a jab his cousin’s way, “Donkey Kong, huh? You get a lot of ass wearin’ Nintendo to the bar?”
Ronnie finally broke his stare and wiped the drool off his chin. “Why don’t you ask your love to the movies? You know, the one who makes everyone puke because you’re so disgustingly into each other?”
“Oh, you mean Aloe?”
Ronnie knew Aloe by name and sometimes thought of her as a better friend than his asshole cousin.
“Yeah, we broke up.”
“Whaaaaaa?!” asked Ronnie, his drawn-out tone morphing it into both a question and exclamation of disbelief that perfectly encapsulated his stoner personality. “What was it this time? You look at another girl on the strip? She wanted pizza but you wanted tacos?” said Ronnie poking fun at the immaturity of their relationship.
“A cat,” said Chris, biting his lip because he felt silly saying it.
“A cat,” he said as he disappeared into the kitchen.
The fridge opened and closed, and another bottle cap swirled around the kitchen floor before ringing to a stop, as Chris reappeared with a new beer in hand.
“A white pawed, Hitler-moustached piece of shit, whining, meowing, annoying the fuck out of me, cat. You wouldn’t believe this fucking cat, man.”
Chris finished rattling off his description of that fucking cat, punctuating it with a punch to the wall that created a concave dent, camouflaged amongst the many others formed by his fists.
Chris paced back and forth across the living room floor, continuing to explain the origin of his lovers’ quarrel.
“So we’re walkin’ down the strip, right? We pass the pet store window, and there he is, sittin’ there all stupid lookin’, and she actually asked me if we could get him.”
“That bitch! She knows you hate cats,” Ronnie said to appease his cousin.
“That’s what I said! But you know how it goes. This leads to that. She called me an asshole; I called her a bitch, and yeah—we broke up.”
Chris looked down at his left hand. His middle finger sat shorter between the ring and index. A freak encounter with a cat in his younger days, while under his dad’s drunken supervision, left Chris with two thumbs and seven and a half fingers. His uncle’s mangy cat Ferris gave his middle finger a nice chomp. Turns out, Ferris was infected with Bartonella henselae, also known as Cat Scratch Fever. Chris complained to his dad for days about his wound, but it wasn’t until he went back to school after summer break that his second-grade teacher Mrs. Bartels noticed the infection and reported it. By then, it was too late, and the virus had spread to his bone. The doctor had no choice but to remove everything from the second knuckle up. Coincidentally, this incident finally placed him in Aunt Beverly’s custody, liberating him from his alcoholic excuse for a dad.
“Fuck it. Nothing a couple of brews at the drive-in with my favorite cuz can’t fix,” said Chris, shooting Ronnie a stare that spoke “please?”
“Not me, brother from another mother. I’m ordering a Jay’s deep dish and avoiding people at all costs.”
Shaking his head with a crooked smile, Chris brushed aside the Slim Jim wrappers and Mountain Dew cans from Ronnie’s coffee table and helped himself to his cousin’s plate of brownies.
“Been watching your figure, I see,” teased Chris, as he struggled to finish the rather distasteful treat.
“So what’s a Man in Black?” asked Ronnie.
“Will Smith ‘n’ Tommy Lee save the world from these evil aliens who walk among us disguised as humans. They could be anyone.”
Chris bent over to Ronnie’s eye level and slithered his tongue over his lips like a snake before he whispered, “Even me.”
Ronnie gave Chris a punch to the arm, hard enough to leave a bruise.
“Not funny, dude! That shit’s for real.”
“Oh, Jesus Christ. You sit around couch wankin’ to so many sci-fi movies that you’re beginning to think you’re part of one.”
“They’re real, man. You and all the other self-righteous people can think we’re alone in the universe if it soothes you, but we’re not that special.”
“So tell me, space cadet,” began Chris, pausing to grab another brownie. “What do you think these so-called aliens look like? Short, green men with giant disproportionate heads, maybe?”
Chris raised his shoulders hiding his neck, and straightened all four limbs, waddling around the living room chanting, “Take me to your leader.”
“Purple, actually,” replied Ronnie with an annoyed face. “Light purple to be exact. Physically impeccable. Bunch of cord-like antennas stick outta their heads every which way, amplifying their senses, giving them an insane edge in hand-to-hand combat.”
Chris looked dumbfounded at his burnout cousin.
“Oh—and on a whole different level of largesse,” said Ronnie.
“What’d you do, read a thesaurus while I was at work?”
“It means generosity. Saw it on a Wordplay rerun.”
“And how does one come to draw up such a precise description for something that doesn’t even exist?”
“Saw ‘em the one time me and Doan smoked DMT.”
Chris responded with an even more amazed face. He could only shake his head at Ronnie’s endless stoner theories.
“Ew,” Chris said, holding up the plate and examining the remaining brownies. “These things taste like ass.”
Chris washed the rest of the brownies down with the last of his beer and made his way to the fridge for a third brew. Ronnie’s thoughts were in a million places at once, as he sat there caught between the swimming patterns of the natural wood floors and his floating head. When Ronnie came to process Chris’s words, he jumped up like he had been electrocuted, and his lips silently mouthed “Shittttt!”
Ronnie picked up the plate and stared hard at the brownies, hoping two more would magically reappear, but his leftover brownies were already digesting in Chris’s stomach and would soon hit his brain. Around Bethesda, Chris was a known loose cannon, especially when Aloe, drugs, and large amounts of alcohol were involved. Tonight, Chris checked all the boxes: problems with Aloe, a six-pack of beer, and now the many grams of magic mushrooms Ronnie added to his mother’s old brownie recipe swirled around his stomach.
Once again, Chris’s beer cap rattled on the kitchen floor, but this time it was followed by the melody of his keys. Ronnie popped up out of his chair and ran to the kitchen. Chris’s bottle caps were just a small contribution to the many pizza boxes, empty beer cases, two week’s worth of trash bags, and the spilled Cocoa Puffs that together comprised the tapestry of their kitchen floor. Chris already had one black boot through the door and one arm through his black leather jacket.
“Wait!” yelled Ronnie.
“Where ya goin’?”
“Uh—to the movies?” Chris said.
“We haven’t really done anything in a minute. What do ya say the two of us go together?” said Ronnie, feeling responsible for the madness that was sure to ensue.
“Remember like two minutes ago when I suggested that, and then you were all like, ‘no’?”
“Dude, I know how breakups are. You’re probably a little down ‘n’ I thought, ‘Hey! Nothin’ a couple of brews at the drive-in with your favorite cuz can’t fix.’ Am I right?”
Chris found Ronnie’s behavior odd, but then again, when did he not? He gave a suggestive “right,” and the two hopped into Chris’s Mustang, rusty and painted red. To most, it was a piece of shit, but to Chris, it was his baby—his greatest achievement. Chris played his favorite Nirvana cassette as he roared away down Somerton Avenue, the pink and orange sunset lighting up the sky in their rearview mirror.
The two cousins barreled down Main Street in the Mustang, and Ronnie sunk into his seat, nervously observing Chris struggle to keep his eyes on the road, while he rubbed his face and squinted at the vivid street lights overhead. Ronnie imagined that lights shone extra bright tonight. The duo approached the Old North drive-in on the outskirts of town but not before Chris made a pit stop at Seven-Eleven.
“What are you doing?” Ronnie asked, questioning his cousin’s every action.
“Gettin’ gas, dumbass,” Chris responded, again thinking Ronnie was acting weird.
Chris pulled up to the pump, scraped his pockets for money, and handed Ronnie a fist full of crumpled dollars.
“Here, tell ‘em pump number five. Oh, and get a blunt wrap!” he yelled out of the window for all to hear, as Ronnie sheepishly headed toward the entrance.
“He’s joking,” said Ronnie, comforting an old woman who shook her head disapprovingly.
The entry bell rang repeatedly in Ronnie’s dazed ears as he stood in the doorway, staring at the glowing neon Bud Light sign behind the desk.
“Can I help you?” asked the impatient cashier.
Ronnie approached the counter and emptied the unknown amount of crumpled bills replying, “pump five.”
The cashier indignantly began unraveling the bills while Ronnie browsed the selection of wraps behind the counter, before an all too familiar voice called over his shoulder.
“Ronnie? Ronnie Hill, is that you?”
He turned around to find Aloe, looking stunning as always. She was dressed in black, with bright red lips, and long blonde curls dangling before her blue eyes and dark eyelashes.
“Oh, um—hi, Aloe. How have you been?”
“Oh, ya know. Just livin’ and workin’ to get by. Isn’t that all any of us ever do?”
Aloe was Ronnie’s favorite of Chris’s countless love affairs. Partly because she was the only one who stayed around longer than a month, but mostly because she was a thrill-seeking, weed-smoking, independent woman who was never scared to serve Chris his bullshit right back.
“I haven’t seen ya around the house much lately.”
“Yeah. Me and Chris…Well, we kinda…”
“—I heard,” interrupted Ronnie mercifully, bringing the conversation to an uncomfortable silence.
Ronnie was awkward enough sober, let alone spaced out of his mind. He looked for somewhere to focus his eyes and landed on a bag of Conn’s sour cream and onion chips, when the entry bell rang again, drawing everyone’s attention to the door.
In walked Danny Tambrin—the former high school All-American football star and straight-A student. Danny got a full ride to Cornell, and everyone said he was going to be President of The United States one day. His family was the gold standard of this small town—a 1990’s Brady Bunch. They went to church every Sunday and had family dinner around the table every night. It’s rumored Danny’s never had sex or so even committed a sin, for that matter. Chris says it’s because Danny’s gay. He had recently gained his degree in Political Science and told everyone in town he would soon be the mayor of Bethesda, faithfully on his path to the Presidency.
Danny’s dad owned the bank in town, and his mother was a stay at home mom who kept the family straight. Other moms hoped their daughters dated Danny, and some secretly wanted Danny for themselves. Maybe it was because Danny kept another side hidden around certain company—a real machinating politician. He was the polar opposite of Chris, which may be why they always butted heads. . . well . . . that and the fact he was Aloe’s only other long-term ex-boyfriend.
Ronnie swore Danny’s jawline and cheekbones were more prominent and perfect each time he saw him. Not to mention his perfect head of thick black hair that waved lusciously with each step.
“You ready or what, babe? You know how pissed I am if I miss the start of the movie. I heard Tommy Lee Jones blows up like ten aliens in the opening scene,” Danny said as he approached Aloe and threw an arm around her shoulders.
Danny’s antipathic looked measured Ronnie from head to toe.
“Who’s your loser friend?”
“I’m sorry, we really have to run,” Aloe said with a hint of sorrow. “Always good to see you, Ronnie Hill.”
Aloe reveled in calling Ronnie by his full name after doing it a couple of times as a joke before it finally stuck. Ronnie, assessing the situation that just unfolded before him, couldn’t even find the words to say goodbye. He nervously muttered, “uh-huh,” and Aloe showed her perfect smile before the two left out the side door.
“Good thing I got the fastest ride in the valley!” Chris hollered, as Ronnie made his way to the Mustang, his face pallid, haunted by the high school ghost of Danny, who he just watched take off with his cousin’s girl. Ronnie hopped in the passenger’s seat and stared into the dash, contemplating whether or not to come out with the truth or do everything in his power to keep the night as peaceful as possible, which meant hiding the news about Aloe and Danny from Chris at all costs.
“What’s up with you?” asked Chris. “You’re actin’ weird as fuck.”
“Huh? What do you mean?” Ronnie nervously responded, looking in the rearview as Aloe got on the back of Danny’s motorcycle.
“What took you so long? You get the wrap or what?”
Ronnie was too distracted by the scene in the mirror to answer. Out of nowhere, another motorcycle cruised into view, occupied by Jaime Finnigan and his girlfriend Sarah Landry. Jaime was Danny’s lackey, and everyone swore he’d blow Danny if the opportunity ever presented itself.
“Is that the little gayboy, Danny Tambrin?” asked Chris, angling his eyebrows with irritation. “I swear to God, the next time that dickcheese tries to act tough in front of his douchebag friends, I’m knockin ‘em all out.”
“Hard to tell. Lot of Harley’s. Could be anyone, really,” said Ronnie, lowering into his seat.
Chris shrugged his shoulders in agreement.
“So anyway, I was thinkin’ we could go to the South Side and hit up the mall theater. I’m not feelin’ the drive-in. Always someone makin’ out in the car next to you or some tall ass truck blockin’ the view. What’dya say?” asked Ronnie, trying to keep Chris as far away from Aloe and Danny as humanly possible.
“I say you’re a tool and we’re goin’ to the drive-in two feet away,” said Chris as he reached into his jacket pocket, removed a flask, and took a pull. “I’m tryin’ to drink and smoke, and well, they tend to frown on that in the theater.”
“I’m pretty sure they frown on that everywhere.”
“Drive-in it is!” said Chris as he fired up the Mustang, the two of them bound for trouble.