by Carl Fuerst
As Henry, Tiny, and Paul walked home from school, they exchanged no words about the year-long stretch of humiliations that had occurred to them, including how, at the beginning of the previous summer, they stole an old wine-jug full of quarters from Tiny’s sister’s closet to purchase bus fare to a town almost two hours away, in search of an aged prostitute who, according to rumors, would provide services at no charge if they agreed to sign a document verifying their virginity. Upon arriving, their directions led them to a tax accountant’s office. There were no prostitutes to be found, and they were forced to use the remainder of Tiny’s sister’s quarters to call Henry’s mom so that she could pick them up.
While walking home from school on the day this story started, Henry, Tiny, and Paul did not discuss how, in September, Henry’s mom had given him a tent for his fifteenth birthday, nor how the three boys pitched that tent in the dry retention pond behind the Pick & Save, nor how, long after all boys had fallen asleep, the ghost of Paul’s grandfather climbed into the tent and curled into a shivering ball on the ground and whimpered, “Oh mommy, it hurts, please mommy, it hurts,” just as Paul’s real grandfather had whimpered three years earlier in hospice care.
They said nothing about how, only a few hours before this story began, the scrawny freshman who Henry, Tiny, and Paul had been bullying since the start of the school year had confronted them in the crowded hallways between fourth and fifth period, kicking at their shins and spiting in their faces and punching the textbooks from their arms and even slapping Henry loudly on the cheek. They said nothing about how, during the unfolding of this event, they stared at their shoes and waited anxiously for a teacher to intervene.
On the way home from school that day, they stopped at the dumpster behind Hi-Five Wine & Spirits, where they had once, before the year-long stretch of humiliating events had begun, found an unopened bottle of Brigadier-brand gin. On the day of this story, however, they found only a shoebox filled with crumpled Polaroid pictures of themselves. Then, a few blocks later, they stopped at a place called Heartland Video, where they made an unsuccessful attempt to rent a pornographic film. As they left, they encountered three young women standing on the sidewalk directly in front of the door. The women were drinking Shamrock Shakes and smoking cigarettes.
One was a tall, with dark and complicated hair; she wore an oversized sweatshirt with an out-of-state college’s logo. She said, “You three look like idiots,” meaning their camouflage pants and worn-out Metallica T-shirts and Henry’s shark-tooth necklace and the crooked Mohawk that Tiny had received from his sister’s friend in beauty school.
A girl with a strawberry-shaped head asked about the boys’ ages. Henry, Paul, and Tiny claimed to be seniors in high school, while in fact they were only sophomores.
“I can’t believe we’re even talking to you,” said the tall girl with complicated hair. “We’re in college.” She’d pointed to the logo on her sweatshirt. “All three of us.”
“Can we borrow some cigarettes?” Tiny asked. A stout, blonde girl with two different colors of lipstick gave them one cigarette each. The girls entered Heartland Video, and the boys headed to Paul’s dad’s apartment because it was Friday, and on Fridays Paul’s dad went straight from work to a bar called The Empty Orchestra, and then, after the Empty Orchestra closed, to his girlfriend’s condo, where he invariably spent the night.
At Paul’s dad’s apartment, the boys smoked one Paul’s dad’s ultra-skinny joints and then they listened to a Pantera album while they mixed Paul’s dad’s Green Label scotch with punch-flavored Gatorade. When the phone rang, Paul lifted the receiver and said “Hello?” as soberly as possible. The caller was the ghost of Paul’s grandfather, still mumbling “Oh mommy it hurts,” so Tiny and Henry went on the balcony.
Once outside, they lit two of the cigarettes that they bummed from the girls in front of the video store. Henry then admitted that Lydia—a big-hipped, bird-faced girl who everyone knew he made out with at a roller rink in seventh grade—walked up to his crowded lunch table earlier that day and demanded that he stop leaving love notes in her locker.
Tiny admitted that his sister’s boyfriend had, only a few nights before, broke into their family’s home at four in the morning and poured bleach in their fish tank.
Henry said, “I wake up every night and I’m paralyzed. I open my eyes and see a cat-faced demon standing at the foot of my bed, staring down at me. This happens every night.”
Tiny said, “Every night I dream I’m in a bathroom in a Chinese restaurant, and I’m with some depressing middle-aged dude, and I’m begging him to help me escape from my parents who, in the dream, are trying to ship me to some religious brain-washing camp. I have no idea where this dream comes from. My parents hate church. My family doesn’t eat Chinese food. I think I’m having someone else’s dream.”
“I think it’s the dream of that middle-aged dude.”
Later that night, they filled a backpack with beer cans and wandered the dark streets of their neighborhood. They broke bottles behind the Pick & Save. They argued about rock bands. They sat on the swings in a playground behind an abandoned building that once housed a Catholic elementary school, and they smoked another of Paul’s dad’s joints.
Henry said, “They talk about heaven like it’s a place where everyone has their own mansion. Do those mansions have bathrooms in them, where nobody shits? Do they have bedrooms where nobody fucks? Think about if for two seconds and it falls apart.”
Paul said, “It’s just a guilt trip.”
“They say that, in heaven, people spend all of eternity worshiping God. How different can that possibly be from hell? I’d rather burn if it meant I could have my thoughts to myself.”
They become distracted by a flock of birds that descended on the playground. The birds were the size of house-cats, with reflective cat-like eyes and jagged, rough-feathered wings and human hands for feet. The boys watched in silence as the birds engaged in vicious combat over a cheese-crusted Styrofoam container.
Later, they made their way behind a strip mall and urinated against a dumpster. They were surprised by a shrill voice that exclaimed, “My god. Are they pissing? They’re obviously pissing. Oh my God.”
It was the same three girls they’d encountered earlier that day—the tall, dark-haired one, the stout, blonde one, and the strawberry-headed one. They wore short skirts and dark nylons and flat-bottomed shoes that didn’t cover the tops of their feet. Paul, Tiny, and Henry realized that these women weren’t the college-students they claimed to be—they were at least the ages of the boy’s mothers.
“You’re disgusting,” said the tall one, whose name turned out to be Brenda.
“We’re drunk,” said Tiny.
“So are we,” said the Strawberry-headed one, whose named turned out to be Maureen. “But you don’t see us pissing all over the place.”
“Where are you going?” asked Paul.
“Nowhere,” said the stout blonde one, whose name turned out to be Danielle. “Where are you going?”
“Don’t know,” said Tiny.
They all headed in the direction of Tiny’s parents’ house to drink on the deck behind the garage. Once there, they sat on white plastic chairs arranged in a circle. Everybody was an arm’s length from everyone else.
“Why don’t you share something embarrassing about yourselves,” Brenda said.
The boys giggled.
“We’re serious,” said Maureen. “Tell us something truly humiliating. It’s the best way to get to know a person.”
Paul told the story of how, two weeks ago, they’d purchased three EpiPens from a kid in their gym class, because he’d told them that EpiPens produced a powerful, long-lasting high.
“Turns out,” said Paul, “they just make you a little sleepy. Except for Henry, who got a headache.”
“What did you do to him?” asked Maureen.
“No. To the guy who ripped you off.”
They looked at her, not understanding the question.
Maureen then told the story of how, many years ago, after her first divorce, she began dating a man in Hawaii. Their relationship became serious, and they moved in to an apartment together. On the night he dumped her, she stormed out in a rage, and when she came back a few days later to collect her things, his new girlfriend had already moved in, and they’d hung a massive, elaborate sex swing from the bedroom ceiling.
Tiny said that, when he was eight years old, he’d begged his parents for a gerbil, which they bought for him on the condition that he be responsible for its care. On first day he owned it, it nipped him on the thumb. The bite didn’t even draw blood, but the gerbil died one week later because Tiny was too scared to open its cage and give it food and water.
Danielle said that she was so irrationally terrified of swimming in public pools that the smell of chlorine made her weep.
Brenda said that she’d once struck a dog with her car and kept driving.
Paul said that his mom had a twin sister who died before Paul was born, and the only remaining physical evidence of her existence was a pretty glass box she’d made in a jewelry class. On the day his parents told him about their divorce, Paul went into their bedroom and smashed the box on the floor.
Henry repeated his story about how, that very afternoon, Lydia had humiliated him during lunch. “It wasn’t even that many,” he said. “And they weren’t even love letters.”
“What were they?”
Henry looked at his shoes and lowered his voice. Almost inaudibly, he said, “Poems.”
The night stretched on, and everyone became very drunk. At one point, Henry climbed unsteadily onto the railing that encircled the deck, and, in a surprising display of agility, heaved himself onto the roof of the garage. He rolled onto his back and looked at the only star visible in that light-polluted place. He drifted off and when he woke Danielle was lying next to him. Her body touched his.
“I never kissed Lydia,” said Henry. “Everyone thinks we made out. It never happened.”
“I know,” said Danielle. “It’s ok. When I was little,” she said, “my family worked as missionaries on an Indian reservation. We stood outside the casino giving out Bibles, and my dad drove a van filled with foil-wrapped meals. One night, we set up a big tent for showing a movie about the life of Jesus, and we heard that some Indians were going to attack the tent and shut us down. But my parents showed the movie anyway, and dozens of people came to watch it, and while the movie was playing I was outside the tent to look at the stars just like we are now, and I looked back to the tent and I saw so many glowing shapes rise from the ground. They were tall, with broad shoulders and thick, glowing arms. They were angels, protecting the people who came to watch the film.”
Henry said that every night he woke up at four in the morning to see a demon in his room.
“He’s protecting you,” said Danielle. “Just like those angels protected me.”
She turned to face him, and her gray hair fell over her face like a sheet, and when they leaned closer, Henry never felt her lips; he only felt the shape of lips through her hair.
The next Monday, the kid in their gym class insisted that the money they’d given him for the EpiPens was only a down payment. Before Easter break, Lydia broke Henry’s nose in the school library. On the first day of senior year, Henry’s parents announced their divorce, and a few weeks after graduation, when Henry, Paul, and Tiny stumbled down the alley on another drunken Friday night, the earth cracked open and a putrid stink rushed from the crack, followed by the tentacles that wrapped around their torsos and lifted them into the black sky until the air was cold and thin, and Henry was the one who survived, his eyes closed, his hands in his pockets, his fist clenching the cocktail napkin that, on the night of this story, Danielle had taken from her purse and illegibly scribbled her phone-number upon and pressed into his trembling hands.
“When should I call you?” Henry yelled as Danielle and Brenda and Maureen walked away.
“Whenever you want,” yelled Danielle, who at that point was already several blocks down the street.
The number was fake, but Henry had dialed anyway, again and again and again, day after day, month after month, the phone cord curled around his wrist, the receiver nestled between his neck and cheek, his body curled around the phone, and the world curled around his body, all of it suspended in the upraised arms of an insolent child, poised and ready to smash against his parents’ bedroom floor in desperate urge to damage a world that he otherwise could not change.
Carl Fuerst‘s is an editor for “The Again,” an illustrated journal of odd stories, and head editor of “The Breakroom Stories,” an audio journal that specializes in strange stories. His fiction has appeared in Jersey Devil Press, A cappella Zoo, and many other print and online journals.