Authors: Mark Ferguson
enry was dead.
Or so he thought.
It was the best explanation—the only one, really, that made any sense. Maybe he’d followed the kicking stone down to the water, or perhaps he’d jumped the railing and stepped in front of a car. In reality, at that very moment, he might be crumpled facedown on the asphalt, awash in the sound of sirens, his body painted in the blue and red of flashing lights. Commuters might be cursing their luck, wishing they’d left just a few moments earlier, telling themselves that of course it was horrible that somebody had died but
did it have to be right then? On the bridge, for chrissakes?
Henry didn’t have to work hard to imagine his unseeing eyes gazing down at the sky as reflected in a pool of his own blood, this house in the Catskills no more than his brain’s last big show. The ultimate dream.
But if it was a dream, he was impressed by the level of detail. He could smell the freshly fried eggs. The unreal green of the grass and leaves was so beautifully bright that he couldn’t look straight at it. The cardinal that had just happened to fly by, that bright red streak—a nice touch. And as for the two men he was with, perhaps they were just his idea of a joke. His life was passing before his eyes, but it wasn’t his past. It was his future. Which was good. His past was mostly boring or painful. Even the best memories could be so easily poisoned by the knowledge of what would eventually become of him once the sickness took hold.
Henry felt calm for a dead man. He believed that what he was experiencing was in some sense true, but he understood a more important truth. It didn’t actually matter. He’d learned months before to surrender to the mysterious forces that were pushing him along. The
was entirely subjective, and the idea that he’d ever had a choice about his hallucinations was in some ways the most destructive delusion of all. This was no different. He was going to sit down at the table and he was going to eat eggs. Not because it mattered or because the eggs were really there or because his body needed the nourishment. He would sit there and eat eggs because that was his only real choice. It was what the moment was requiring of him. There was no escape.
41 took the toast out of the oven and buttered each piece from a thick slab. “This butter is fucking incredible,” he said. “It’s from this dairy farm like three miles away.”
Henry crossed the kitchen and took a seat at the table.
“So you’ve decided then,” said 41, his voice rising above the sound of the faucet as he rinsed his hands.
Henry nodded yes. 41 placed a plate in front of him.
“80?” said 41. “Do you want to begin?”
80 cast his eyes down to his eggs. Each word out of 41’s mouth seemed to deflate the old man a little more.
41 stepped away, opened the silverware drawer. Metal sliding along metal, little fork tine finger chimes and butter knife splash cymbals. He placed a mound of utensils on the table and sat down. They all began to eat.
80 took a bite of toast, wiped the corners of his mouth with his fingertips. “41 and I would like you to tell us about the practice room,” he said.
This time, 80 wasn’t being ambiguous. Henry knew exactly what he was talking about. It had already occurred to him that what was happening was not entirely unprecedented.
“You must already know,” said Henry.
“It doesn’t matter,” said 41. “This is how we start this conversation.” He wiped some egg yolk from his plate with a bit of toast. “It’s the Socratic method. 80’s a fan, relies on it a bit too much for my taste, but I have to agree that it’s appropriate in this case. So just tell us.”
“I don’t know exactly when it started.” Henry’s tongue felt weak and clumsy. He stood up and went to the sink, drank cold water straight from the tap, then sat back down.
“Val left us. Left me. The stuff in the practice room—it was a while after that, but I think I knew something was wrong for a long time. I was hiding it. From Gabe. From myself.” Henry paused. He couldn’t help but feel that he’d started the story in the wrong place.
“I always heard things,” he said. “Things other people didn’t hear. When I was a kid I thought it was a game. All these sounds, they’d fit together. I was always singing along to it. I’d tell people—my mom, teachers, Gabe. Nobody else heard it, or if they did they refused to talk about it.”
41 sighed. “Until Val.”
“It got…complicated. When I was in high school, I’d get distracted and the music would get really loud sometimes. Then I met Val. The music was still there, but I could ignore it when she was around. She distracted me. And when I couldn’t ignore it, it felt like there was a reason, like the music was telling me things. Sometimes I could even get her to hear it. But then she left. There were so many things wrong after that, and nobody that could help me. My mom just got overbearing. And Gabe was weird about Val, like he didn’t want to say the wrong thing or get too involved or something. It was just easier to be alone. To deal with it alone. So I spent a lot of time in the practice room. I just practiced so much. I told myself that’s what I was there for.”
“But then,” said 41.
Henry slid his fork beneath a cold clump of egg and brought it to his mouth. He’d forgotten his hunger—it seemed immaterial now—but he couldn’t figure out how to continue. “But then…There wasn’t any warning or anything, it just happened.”
He chewed the egg slowly. He forced himself into remembrance.
“I was working on my four-mallet alternating grip—a total bitch—it had something to do with the resonance of the room. There was this phrase in an arrangement of Reich, I think—it would make the room resonate just right. A long roll on the low b-flat. When I hit that passage for the first time it was like the room was moaning. Like it was…I don’t know. Like I was fucking it or something.” He laughed. “It sounds crude, ridiculous, but that’s what it was like. I could feel it in my chest, like my ribs were made of the same thing as the bars of the marimba. Like I was playing myself, kind of. It felt so good that I just stopped playing the music on the page. I bowed my head and closed my eyes and just played that note over and over. And when I was zoning out to that b-flat, I saw the most beautiful things.”
Henry smiled at the memory.
“I didn’t tell anyone about it. I knew something was wrong, like I said. But I wasn’t afraid. It felt too good. So one day I’m all excited to get to school early because there’s a schedule and I’ve been pissing people off by hogging the practice room. I walk in, turn on the lights, ready my mallets, get everything just right, then I leave the room to go to the bathroom and get some water. I guess that was kind of my ritual at that point. And then I’m walking back down the hallway and everything’s really quiet.” Henry closed his eyes and breathed in deeply. He recalled the feeling. It made him want to cry.
He put his hands flat on the table and kept his eyes shut as he continued. “But when I get close, it’s not quiet anymore. I hear the room ringing and my first thought is that I’ve brought the room alive, you know? I don’t need to play anything anymore, I can just hear the room. It’s just
So I’m excited when I reach the door, touch the handle, and then I hear that it’s not just a single tone. I can hear mallets hitting wood. I open the door and someone’s there, bent over the marimba. He’s got dark hair and its curly like mine—he’s wearing clothes that I recognize. The hoodie. My pants. He’s playing the b-flat with my mallet in his left hand, and I can see his right hand down at his side. I freeze.”
Henry opened his eyes and glanced at 41.
“I’m looking at his hand the same way I was just looking at yours. It’s unmistakable. It’s mine. ”
“I lean back into the door, and the doorknob clicks as it closes and the guy in front of me turns. I kind of already know what I’m going to see, but it doesn’t make it any less…freakish, I guess. His hair is different and he’s skinny, but other than that we look exactly alike. He’s not older like you two, so there’s just no question. This guy is fucking
exactly like me,
and he’s playing the room just like I’ve been playing it, and when he looks at me he doesn’t stop—he just keeps ringing out that low b-flat. And then we’re locking eyes and it feels like I’ve never, never made eye contact before, like I’ve found an answer to this question that I never even knew how to ask. It feels like proof that I’m real.”
Henry leaned forward on the table. “Is that how you guys feel when you look at me?”
80 and 41 appraised each other. Henry could tell that something of significance was passing between them, though he couldn’t tell what. 41’s face seemed to soften momentarily to reveal a kindness that Henry hadn’t seen before.
“Not really,” said 41. “Not for a long time. I remember the feeling, of course, but it fades just like anything else.”
“I don’t feel it now,” said Henry. “Not like I did in the practice room, anyway. And even then it didn’t last long.”
41 nodded. “Because he started crying.”
“Yeah,” said Henry. “And I didn’t know why. And that’s just—it’s monumentally unsettling. I’m looking directly into my own eyes, and
don’t even know why I’m crying. Then he whimpers something I can’t understand, so I say
and the second time I hear him when he says
and he drops the mallet. Both ends of it hit the marimba and play this funny minor fifth that echoes back and forth in that little practice room until there’s nothing left. I feel like I’m going to scream. It’s all gone wrong, I don’t know this kid in front of me any more than I know anyone else, and the fear is so intense that I want to just dig my fingernails into my skin and start tearing. So I open the door and run out.”
80 tapped the table with his fork. 41 stared at the last bits of dried orange yolk on his plate.
“You asked 80—before—you asked him if he wanted to begin,” said Henry. “What are we beginning?”
80 stopped tapping. “To answer your stated question, 41 was referring to the difficult conversation we’re all enjoying at this very moment. But to answer your
question”—and with this 80 looked at 41—“the moment we took you from the bridge a whole new universe was formed. If we hadn’t picked you up you would have become someone else. 41 and I have been that person. We’ve lived whole lives as that person. But we’re not him anymore because
Henry is gone forever. Our pasts have been replaced many times over, and as you might have been able to tell by 41’s attitude toward me, those changes haven’t all been for the better. But if we can teach you how to control yourself, your travel through time, we can begin a new future for you and a new past for ourselves. One we can all be happy with.”
“So what happened in the practice room was real,” said Henry.
ed in the affirmative.
“And if that was real, this is real. That’s what I’m supposed to believe.”
“You think you’re dead,” said 41, “that this is all some last-dance illusion. I remember. That’s not the truth, but I won’t be able to convince you. Not right now, anyway, and it doesn’t matter. You’re going to behave as if we’re all sitting here, for real, because you have no other choice.”
“That feels about right,” said Henry.
“I also remember that you’re pretty tired of sitting, that maybe you want something to do with your hands. So you’re going to finish eating and then you’re going to do the dishes.”
Henry smiled gratefully. He was coming to prefer 41’s rough cynicism to 80’s cryptic positivity. He ate quickly, then stood and did as he was asked. 41 wiped out the pan he’d cooked the eggs in, and 80 dried as Henry washed. When they were done 80 carefully folded the towel in half and laid it over the handle of the oven.
He turned to Henry and smiled.
“Let’s go for a walk.”
he start of
Gabe’s junior year brought with it the cloudy nostalgia he recognized from every September of his life. Long habit had imbued early fall with a counterfeit poignancy, an excitement and sadness without reason or purpose. Gabe resented it.
Three days before classes began, he woke up to the vibration of his phone against the wooden shelf that was mounted above his head. The night before, he and Cal had passed a bowl back and forth until the difference between asleep and awake was more or less meaningless. Somehow he managed to reach the phone before it went to voice mail, but when he saw “Jan: Mobile” his stomach pooled with a thick, cold anxiety that yanked him from his burnt haze. He didn’t answer. Her voice mail was brief. She asked him to call her back.
Gabe closed his eyes and imagined what might come next. Jan would say Henry was doing better, and that she was wrong to have thought that Gabe could have prevented Henry from losing it in the first place. Gabe would be magnanimous, tell her it was okay, that he understood how awful the whole thing was and how nobody could be expected to act reasonably. They would talk together about what kind of help Henry might need. She’d listen and take action. After weeks—months, maybe—Henry would start to get better. Gabe would eventually forgive Jan and vice versa. They’d be as close to family as they were before. Closer, even.
He found her number on his recent calls list and tapped it with his thumb.
“He’s gone,” said Jan. No hello.
“Gone? What do you mean, gone?”
“I mean gone. He’s not here. He left the house sometime last night.”
In the lengthy silence that followed, Gabe imagined Henry wandering and alone, and what he wanted to say was
Fuck, that’s really bad,
but instead he said, “I’m sorry,” though he didn’t want Jan to think he had anything to be sorry for.
“He’s been talking about going to New Brunswick, so I wanted to let you know. If you see him you have to promise me—promise me, Gabe—that you will call me and that you won’t give him any drugs, okay?”
Gabe’s fantasy version of the phone call was being shotgunned into oblivion with every word out of Jan’s mouth.
“Jesus, Jan. I won’t give him any drugs. I’ll call you if I see him. I have to run to class.”
He hung up.
By late September, New Brunswick was littered with the multicolored molting of deciduous trees. Henry had been missing for almost a month. Gabe wondered if maybe he was dead. It was plausible—three weeks felt like a very long time to be wandering without someone taking notice—but it just didn’t sound right. Henry couldn’t die. He would come back from the brink, and Gabe would be there for him. Gabe felt sure of that.
But if Henry was still alive, where was he? At first it had seemed obvious that he would show up in New Brunswick. Gabe was so convinced of it that Henry was the first person he thought of when the phone rang or when he heard the sound of a key scraping the tumblers at the back door. Countless times a day he caught glimpses of men that looked like Henry, heard his friend’s voice in every crowd. He knew he should be hopeful for Henry’s return, but all he felt was raw, ugly panic.
He kept himself busy. For the first time since his first semester he went to all his classes. He took more hours at the store, too. Gabe had never meant to work at the Magic Dragon for so long. He obsessed over it sometimes, how the borderline legal status of the store might affect him later in life. And he’d grown to resent the way his customers treated him. Some were in awe, assuming Gabe had reached the pinnacle of stoner achievement. They asked
How did you get this job?
as though they thought he was the luckiest person on earth. Others were quietly judgmental. They asked
How did you get this job?
the way a self-conscious john might ask the same question of a hooker.
It was Wednesday afternoon and as quiet as the store ever got. Gabe did all the chores he could think of, then sat down to wait out the day. He turned up the volume on the stereo, lit a cigarette, and sent squadrons of smoke rings off into the air. The door alarm chimed its digital
and he looked up to see Joan.
The store’s most loyal customers weren’t Gabe’s fellow students, and they didn’t buy cigars or bongs. To the homeless of New Brunswick, the Magic Dragon was simply the cheapest place to buy cigarettes. Gabe’s boss made sure of that by filling his Escalade with cartons bought in Delaware and scratching off the tax stamps. And of all the homeless friends Gabe made at that job, Joan was the most disgusting. Her massive hips supported the rest of her body reluctantly and only with constant effort. She rocked a full thirty degrees left and right of center with each laborious step, and with her walked an impressive smell: a putrid mix of crotch sweat, beer breath, stale cigarettes, and strong perfume that lingered in the air minutes after she left a room. Gabe rarely saw her without a baseball cap pulled over her greasy curls, and the yellow skin on her face luminesced with a mixture of sweat and God knows what else even in the dead of winter. Her pièce de résistance was the bright pink lipstick that was caked on her cracked lips. It was an ironic punch in the groin, mocking the rest of her haggard ensemble while hinting strongly at a sexuality no one could possibly wish to confront.
Joan opened the door, propped it with her foot, and pushed out a “Hey” from deep within her gut. At high volume her wet rasp vibrated inside of Gabe’s own chest. When low, it sounded like a death rattle from the movies.
Gabe smiled and said hello back.
“You work today?” she asked.
“Yup, I guess so.”
“I was wondering if you were going to be here,” she said. “I wanted to ask you something.”
“What’s that?” Gabe said, reluctantly. He’d learned from experience that giving Joan an opening like that could lead to some pretty scandalous shit.
She waddled up to the front display case, reached into her pocket, and pulled out her tobacco and papers. “Well, I was down at the Krauzer’s on the corner and that Paki told me he likes blondes, said he’d give me a tin of Bugler if I find someone for him.”
“That right?” said Gabe. He smothered one cigarette in the overflowing ashtray on the counter and took another from his pack.
“Yeah. So, you know anyone?”
Gabe lit the cigarette in his mouth and said, “Do I know any blondes that you could hook up with the owner of Krauzer’s?”
“He’s the manager, I think,” she said. “And, yeah.”
“I’m pretty sure most of the girls I know aren’t really looking for that type of thing.”
Joan laughed. It sounded like the engine of a capsized motorboat. “Yeah, well, figured I’d ask,” she said. She took a too-large pinch of tobacco from her pouch and placed it into a too-small paper, rolled it loosely, and licked the glue. Her purple-red tongue looked like some vital organ that had migrated up into her mouth. Gabe offered his Bic, trying not to let her hand touch his as she shielded the flame and leaned in.
“Oh, and something else. There’s a new guy in the park,” she said. “Heard about him from Mike and Tim—those brothers who squat in that place on Drift Street. Went to find him—just curious, you know.”
“Hmm?” said Gabe.
“Well, I can tell he doesn’t know a fuckin’ thing about New Brunswick,” said Joan. “He’s too young, first of all, and he’s got this big hippie beard. He won’t say where he’s from or what’s his name or anything. All cagey. Well, I start telling him all about what he needs to know. I tell him where he can get food, where the cheapest beer is. And of course I mention the Dragon. You know how much business I send over here.”
“You’re our best customer,” said Gabe. Joan loved that shit.
“Well, so I tell him he’s got to come down here and then all the sudden he’s interested. Starts asking all these questions. He wants to know if I go here a lot, if I know the people.”
Gabe was suddenly on his feet behind the counter, though he didn’t remember standing up from his stool. “What kind of questions? Did he ask about me?”
“Well, kinda, but not in particular.” The hard
forced a white speck of spittle onto the glass counter. “He just said something about how he knew someone used to work here. I said sure, I know everyone down here and who’s he looking for? He says his friend used to work here, but I told him they only opened the place a couple years ago so he was maybe thinking of that other place on George Street.”
“What did he look like?” said Gabe. His blood was sour with adrenaline, a rush so strong he felt prehistoric, fight or flight in full effect.
“Dark hair, kinda curly, big beard. Something weird about his eyes, like they were too big for his face or something. Clothes seemed pretty clean but he was definitely sleeping under that bridge, cuz Frank who stays up in that gazebo told me. Frank seen him walking up from that stream at dawn the other day. Frank don’t sleep much ever since—”
“How old was he?” he asked.
“Oh, probably, I don’t know—maybe thirty-five? Forty-five or something?”
Gabe sat down, disappointed but relieved. That relief felt like betrayal. Why should he be happy that it wasn’t Henry? Why should he be happy that his best friend was still missing?
“He was probably pretty handsome, I think, under all that hair. Maybe I’ll ask him out,” said Joan with a lascivious grin. “What do you think?”
Gabe didn’t say anything.
Joan shifted her weight from one thick leg to the other. “Anyways,” she said, “just thought it was sorta weird, you know. You seen him here yet?”
Gabe shrugged, shook his head. “Tell me if you see him again,” he said. Then, as if to explain his pleading tone, he said, “We don’t like people asking a whole lot of questions about the store, you know?”
Joan grunted in agreement. She mashed the pink nub of her cigarette into the ashtray. “Gotta go, I guess.”
“You got enough smokes?”
“I’m fine,” she said. “See you tomorrow.” She hobbled out onto the sidewalk.
Gabe grabbed paper towels and Windex from the shelf underneath the cash register, then set himself to wiping Joan’s brown palm prints from all the cases and counters she’d touched. He tried not to think about how much older Henry might look with a few months’ worth of hair, how maybe Joan was wrong about the guy’s age, how maybe she was too drunk or just needed glasses.
He stopped cleaning and put his elbows on the top of the counter, held his head in his hands. “Goddamn it,” he said.
He put the Windex on the counter and grabbed the
BACK IN FIVE MINUTES
sign from its spot next to the cash register.
Half an hour later Gabe entered Buccleuch Park through the main gate across from the big brick hospital. On the way, like always, he took a shortcut through the circular drive in front of the ER. It felt strange, like walking on a grave.
From the way Henry had talked on the phone back before their final visit, Gabe didn’t think he’d be sleeping in some ditch at Buccleuch Park. He’d be home on Hamilton, trying to start a commune in the living room. But maybe Henry hadn’t run away because of the good fantasies. Gabe assumed his friend would be chasing something by leaving his mom’s house, but wasn’t it just as likely that he was running away? Maybe even more likely, given that Henry had been obsessively using air freshener for protection against some mystical evil. And if he was terrified and looking for a place to hide, why not a secluded a bridge in a familiar park?
Buccleuch was an expansive property that acted as a buffer between the Raritan River and one of the nicer residential areas in New Brunswick. There were baseball diamonds for Little League games, playgrounds, makeshift soccer fields with garbage cans as goalposts, and a white colonial mansion sitting on a low hill above it all. It was almost charming, but Gabe had heard enough from Joan to know that this park was ground zero for some of the worst things that went on in town.
Huge stone lions guarded the entrance to the park, their features softened by decades of wind and rain, gray skin mottled with dried chewing gum. Near their bases, the lions were nearly black from the exhaust of passing cars. Gabe opened his cigarette pack and was grateful to remember the half-smoked joint he’d stashed at the bottom. Judging that he was far enough away from other pedestrians, he fished it out and lit it with shaking hands, using one of the lions as shelter from the soft breeze. He was glad for the familiar release.
In the middle of the park was a thin swath of old trees that followed a little stream at the bottom of a deep ravine. Gabe got it in his sights and started walking. The bridge Joan had referred to was made of wood and stone and was far too big for its purpose. It looked like it was designed for a river and then plopped down to make the stream look even smaller and dingier than it already was. Gabe knew the area well. Like anyone else in New Brunswick who smoked weed, he had a mental list of public places where it was safe to take a few quick hits, and this ravine had been one of his and Henry’s favorites. It was deep enough to keep them out of sight and the trees gave additional cover. It was also quiet, and truly beautiful.
He reached the tree line and walked toward the bridge. When he hit the shade of the high canopy he felt the effects of the pot. It wasn’t much, and the fresh air and sunlight were sobering, but it was enough to make the trees above seem abnormally vibrant. Gabe stopped and looked up, watched the space between the leaves until the background of blue sky and foreground of greenery inverted. As his peripheral vision opened up, the field above him shattered into a panorama of random motion.
The sound of a far-off car broke the illusion. He walked again, down into the ravine, leaning back and taking small steps to avoid pitching forward. Momentum caught up with him and he bounced the last few feet down onto the gravel that followed the stream. The bridge was nearly above him, casting on the running water a dark shadow interrupted by the thin lines of sunlight that slipped between the planks.
Once in the shadow of the bridge, Gabe let his eyes adjust. He studied the ground for clues, as if he had any idea how to do that. He knew that most homeless people didn’t hang out where they slept and that they always hid their belongings in places where nobody could just happen upon them. He could see up the embankment to where the intersection of earth and bridge created a deep crevice, hidden in shadow. It seemed like the perfect place for a stash. Gabe stepped up the bank again, angling for a better look. As he got closer he saw a dirty black backpack, the canvas kind that every kid wore in third grade. It was jammed right into the cleft formed where the cement of the bridge’s foundation met the wooden walkway above. It was as if it had been waiting for him.