Prologue – The Sound of Winter

The Sound of Winter

By Ben Bjostad

Creative Commons License
Sound of Winter by Ben Bjostad is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at https://wordpress.com/post/54069415/.

This is an excerpt from a novel. The prologue takes place at the chronological end of the novel, then the body of the novel is a flashback from there. This is presented solely for others to read, review, and critique; reprinting/reposting of this is prohibited. This is a draft and may change as I finalize the novel, which is currently about 2/3 complete. For questions, please email me at ben.bjostad@gmail – dot – com

Dedicated to Rob Maner

Prologue: R-Evolve

Mind strong, Body strong
Try to find equilibrium
Head straight, screwed on
Been screwed up for too long

I don’t want to lean on the waves
I watch the storm evaporate
I think of you in starry skies
I keep you so alive

Let’s walk through the fire together
Disappear in the golden sands

It’s all in your face I see you break
It’s like the sound of winter
The bleeding love, the silent escape
You’ve got to hang on to yourself

It’s like the sound of winter

(Bush-The Sound of Winter)

This is the beginning of the end of the beginning, or maybe it’s the end of the beginning of the end. I don’t know for sure, not anymore. The future is a darker place than it has ever been before, but I find myself mostly at peace with the shadows, or maybe it’s just that I’ve had to overcome my fear as I’ve learned to accept the two most painful words in the English language.

If only. If only…

Autumn has always been my favorite season. The world inexorably begins to ebb, seeking a frozen sleep before the bloom of dawn. As I face my own autumn, the metaphor no longer appeals to me the way it once did. I’m self-cognizant enough to realize that I am not now where I thought I’d be at twenty, and that I can’t imagine where I might be at forty. It doesn’t matter; in my bones, I feel the chill. Winter is coming.

A ribbon of light creeps over the mountains, and the fire at my back seems somehow less warm, less bright than it was before. Laughter erupts as the artist and his friends chuck more wood into the furnace, and a fresh shower of sparks cascades across the air. To our left, the embers of the Man smolder and crackle; the orgiastic display of the night is slowly dying out as sunrise approaches. Winter is coming.

A girl I’ve never met puts her hand on my shoulder and when I turn, she hands me a beer, the top already popped off. She smiles, squeezes my shoulder, and floats back to the cluster surrounding the “Timestar,” the metal sculpture currently being stoked by a merry band of pyromaniacs. No words are needed; I take a sip of the beer, light a cigarette, and watch the ribbon of light grow closer, brighter, inching its way into the present.

Ash walks up and grabs my lighter out of my hand before I could put it in my pocket. “He should have been here,” I say quietly, never taking my eyes off the horizon.

“He is,” Ash says. “He’s been with us every step of the journey.” He lights a cigarette and hands the lighter back; quietly, Bane and Sam walk over from the crowd around the flames. The four of us stand in silence, watching the sun slowly approach, coming back to the reality of the last day of summer. The crowd behind us begins to quiet, humans becoming, reverently greeting the sun. All things come to an end, no matter how much we want to remain in this moment forever, free of everything but the killing burdens of memory.

I stub out my cigarette in an Altoids tin and slip the tin into my pocket, then shove my hands into the pockets of my jacket for warmth. The sun inches over the horizon, and the night fades to scattered shadows that falter and fade as the fire sparks up. He should have been here I think to myself. I can’t summon the simple faith of Sam, nor the hard-minded realism of Bane; I’m stuck in the middle, wanting desperately to believe that something, some energy, some spirit, some piece of Matty remains with us on this journey. Why did we do this if not for him? I know what awaits me upon my return, the sacrifices we have made to get this far.

This is the last sacrifice I can make for Matty Wilkins. I’ve forfeited my right to anything more.

It is only the idea that somehow, somewhere, Matty is watching this, watching us, which makes this an act of sacrifice and not indulgence. We should have made this journey years ago, tried harder to hold onto the torch. Have we learned anything? Or will this last act of summer become meaningless; will we allow the autumn leaves to stack up and wall us off from each other once again?

This city of light seems subdued by the sun as it rises above the mountain wall protecting us from the real world somewhere out beyond. We each have our own reasons to greet the sun, to emerge from the burn, our chrysalis and redemption.
I don’t want to emerge. I want to stay in this moment, in the here and now, forever.
I hear yelling behind us; as if to challenge the supremacy of the daystar, the artists are chucking wood into the sculpture/furnace as fast as they can, and fresh showers of stars explode out of the vents, ashes raining down into the tray mounted on its teeter-totter base. The bearded man from whose mind the sculpture sprang has a maniacal grin, cigar clenched between his teeth, appearing determined to use up all the wood they brought to fuel the fire before the sun rises high enough to leave no doubt that burn night is over. Sparks flash higher and higher, but the sun is winning the battle. Everything we have wrought, the fire and the light, cannot challenge the natural rhythm of the stars. We can only hold it at bay for a while.

The last piece of wood clanks off the edge of the sculpture; laughing, the artist picks it up and throws again, sinking the piece of wood into the furnace. The sculpture sparks for a few more minutes, but the battle is over. In twos and threes, the crowd begins to fade away, trudging back to the city that surrounds us, leaving an empty desert behind.

“He should have been here,” I say again. This time, Ash just nods. We need no words; as one, we begin to walk back toward the city of light, its magic dissipated by the onslaught of the final dawn.

#

It’s been six weeks since I killed my best friend.

I didn’t pull the trigger. I wasn’t even there. I know, intellectually, that I didn’t kill him; I know that sentence is melodramatic. You can tell me that he made the decision himself, that there was nothing I could have done. You can cite all the statistics and platitudes you goddamn well want to, but that won’t help me sleep at night. I should have known. I should have been there for him, the way he was always there for me.

It’s been six weeks since Matty Wilkins blew the top of his head, his mind, and his soul all over the ceiling and door of his stepdad’s garage.

#

Immortality has a time limit. We were once invincible, but when dawn came, so did the toll for the nights when we were kings and gods. We believed in a future greater than ourselves, a future in which we would rearrange the stars to carve out our names in the fabric of the universe itself. We were the outcasts, the homeless, the lonely. We were beautiful.

We would sit on the roofs of houses or in cars on long rides or in the food court at the mall, talking about photography and physics, novels and politics, hip-hop and hallucinogens. We were gonzo intellectuals and suburban wannabe gangsters, as comfortable arguing over Dylan Thomas as we were selling ecstacy in the corner of a club. We’d sleep our way through dead end jobs and rendezvous at night in front of a pair of turntables, dancing, screaming, dropping another hit of X or another tenstrip of acid, celebrating the angels and demons of our youth. Do a line to get through the dawn, make the long drive to the afterparty, hook up with someone, pass out, wake up, and repeat the process.

It was in this way that we bonded. It was in this way that we became a family, a tribe, fiercely loyal and bound by chains of iron and gold.

Later on, we were doing a lot less X and a lot more crystal meth. We became DJs and promoters. We hustled. Flip took the rap for a busted deal and went to prison. Ray-Ray joined the Army to get his head on straight. We’d almost all flunked out of college. None of us could hold a job.

Sara went to rehab so often we renamed her Detox. Too many of us did. Not enough of us got clean.

Somehow, we all made it through those days. Somehow, we survived.

The stars still shine in the same places as they always have. A decade later, the fire has died out for so many of us. Immortality is a forgotten word.

We burned so bright, suns that we thought would never go nova, but every fire must someday die. As we got our lives in order, had kids and went back to college and found careers, we slowly drifted apart. Under the harsh light of the dawn, our frailties were unmasked; we were judged and found wanting, titans cast back down to Earth.

Doc Clue was murdered in 2006 in a parking garage at school, a botched robbery, wrong place, wrong time. RJ contracted HIV and died of kidney failure a year later. Splendor, after four stints in rehab, finally got her shit straight and was working as a paralegal; they never found the man who raped and murdered her as she was running in Piedmont Park. Brenda, who had once been Brandon, died in a housefire; the autopsy showed (s)he was unconscious when the fire consumed her, a few too many oxycotin, a faulty wire setting her trailer home aflame.

We thought we made it through. We thought we made it out, but fate has a long memory. Destiny was hiding in the long grass, waiting until we thought we were safe to make its move. We were never built to handle the onslaught of daylight.

Fuck your logic. Fuck your reassurance. I’ve worked through the grief; I’m no stranger to it. I know nothing is forever. But this is not something to work through. It’s not something you smooth over with a few words of wisdom on Facebook. This is a sunrise I never want to see again, harsh light casting shadows on everything I once thought was true. This is being chained to a wall, a crow coming back to peck out my eyes over and over and over again.

It’s been six weeks since I killed my best friend. I’d like to see you work through that, you judgmental son of a bitch.

Part I: August And Everything After

Chapter One: Hear You Me

Picture, if you will, a dilapidated industrial park in a dilapidated suburb, just off an interstate beltway. The details don’t matter; there’s dozens of them in Atlanta, hanging off the I-285 perimeter like dead pine cones on a discarded wreath, decades old, neglected, with weeds popping up through every crack in the concrete wasteland. Featureless buildings of brick and stucco with windows almost precisely the width of the gap between jail cell bars, through which you can look at the warehouse workers and call center drones wasting away their chance to become more than who they believe they are.

Zoom the image in, rotate it around the scrawny belt of trees between buildings to find a combination warehouse/office building at the back of the park. A few semis backed up to loading docks, a row of cars and the only ones less than half a decade old are parked in the reserved spots for senior management right in front of the metal door carved into the featureless wall like an afterthought. A small sign by the road identifies the tenant as ‘Innovation Synergies, Inc.’, which doesn’t give the slightest hint of what type of business it is.

The map is not the territory; there’s no available imagery at this zoom level. Close the app and walk with me.

No one uses the front doors but senior management; park in the back, over there between the beat-up Corolla and the twenty-year-old Acura with twenty-four inch rims worth more than the car. Walk through the side door, cut through the office for the shipping department, which used to be the boardroom (you can tell by the faded wood paneling, with chunks missing all over the place) and down the hall past the receptionist’s desk, where Rachel is sitting and doing her nails, dreading the next time she asks for a raise and Grayson, the Senior VP, invites her back to his house to discuss the details. It’s a clichéd story; clichés have a way of coming true in these types of places.

Keep walking down the long hall past accounting, which is decorated in Longhorns memorabilia despite the fact that Lorna the accounting troll has never been within 500 miles of Texas. Pass the offices of the CEO and the VPs (this part has more faded wood paneling), the break room, and the conference rooms, and through the double doors into the cavern.

If you’ve ever worked in a call center, you can picture it. A byzantine maze of cubicles, the only two windows in the room mostly blocked by a neutral-beige cubicle wall, and a banner exhorting the staff to give 110% on each and every call. A matching banner on the opposite wall informs the residents that the customer is the reason why they’re here. Shake your head in disdain, turn right at the copy machine and head back toward the corner.

You’ll notice a guy in the cubicle in the corner, short plain hair the color of deerskin, leaning back in his chair and flipping a pen back and forth through his fingers with a supremely bored look on his face. He’s non-descript; you’d have to ask his name the first three times you meet him and you’d still call him the wrong name at least half the time. A hair over six foot, twenty pounds overweight, and dressed in a faded polo, khakis that look slept in, and scuffed hiking boots, the two words most used to describe him being ‘average’ and ‘wrinkled’. At the moment, he’s lazily doodling on scratch paper between incoming calls; he spends his whole morning looking forward to lunch, the afternoon looking forward to clocking out.

That’s me, Andrey “Lucky” Tereshkov, stuck in a comfortable, miserable little rut, watching the clock and wondering if college was worth it when this is all I have to look forward to, nine to six, Monday through Friday, and one Saturday a month. That’s me, five minutes before the bombs begin to fall.

My story begins here as it begins a thousand times, as many times as the heart can bend or break. My story begins the night I met Matty Wilkins in the parking lot of a warehouse party in the West End, two weeks after moving here in a desperate attempt at a fresh start. It begins on the tuxedoed day of my wedding as he stood as my best man. It begins with a six-pack of beer and his arm around my shoulder as I wept my regrets the night after filing for divorce. It begins with all the chains of iron and gold that bind us together, the infinite points where life’s course could have changed.

Press the play button. My story begins here, now, with the end of everything, and the beginning of a future I never wanted to perceive.

#

“Do prostate massagers have any effect if your prostate has been surgically removed?” The voice was well-cultured with a tinge of a British accent, the kind of voice you’d expect from a professor of philosophy or the host of Masterpiece Theatre.

“I’m sorry, we have a bad signal. Can you repeat your question?” I asked, to buy myself time to think. I glanced over at my cubicle mate and grimaced.

“I said do prostate massagers work if your prostate’s been removed? I was looking at the Eros Insinuator and it interests me, but I’m afraid my prostate was removed a few years back,” the voice said through the speaker. I continued pushing my pen around the piece of paper in front of me, doodling intricate patterns of geometric shapes nesting within each other, waiting for six so I could log out and go home.

“Well, sir, I don’t believe I’m medically qualified to answer that question. I’d recommend consulting your proctologist.”

“My mistress instructed me to find out about this as soon as possible and I don’t know what my proctologist would think of me…”

“I can assure you it’s not the first time your proctologist has heard of this, sir. Plenty of men enjoy having their prostate simulated as part of a healthy sexual life. You’re more than welcome to download a picture from the website and bring it to your proctologist. He is certainly more qualified to answer this question than I am.”

“What if I order it and it doesn’t work for me? Can I return it?”

“We only accept returns of our products if they’re unopened. Used toys are ineligible for return,” I informed him. I shaded in a trapezoid on my notebook and began sketching in a complex pattern of interlocking hexagons.

“Ah, well, I’ll call back if I have any other questions. Thank you very much for your most kind assistance, young man,” the caller said.

“You’re most welcome. Please let us know if we can assist your prostate in any other manner,” I replied as he disconnected. I typed furiously for a minute, logging the call, and checked my email. I picked up the phone and dialed shipping.

“Hey, Terry. I’m trying to track down a Belladonna LoveTongue masturbator for an overnight order. It was supposed to go out two days ago and I got a really angry email about it this morning. Order number 254541. I show it’s in stock.”

“I’ll check on it. Can’t he just use his hand in the meantime?”

“You’re telling me, man. Shoot me an email when you track it down, I really need it to go out today or have a definite answer on what’s going on to let him know.”

“Will do,” Terry replied and hung up.

My cell phone vibrated as I composed an e-mail to the man with the missing LoveTongue. I finished typing, checked the screen, and logged out of my desk phone. “I’m going to smoke,” I announced to Alexia and Lisa, who shared my cubicle bay.

In the shade of the UPS trailers backed up to the loading dock, I lit a cigarette, and tapped my phone to return the call. I didn’t know why Will was calling me; he was my friend Matt’s cousin, ran a body shop up in Cartersville. He’d done all my car work for years and was a good guy, but we didn’t really call each other just to shoot the shit.

“Will, it’s Andrey. What’s up? Saw you called, had to step out of the office for a second,” I replied, wincing at the grating sound of a tractor-trailer jumping the curb, trying to make the turn into the industrial park.

“Dude, I don’t really know how to tell you this,” Will said. I could hear him take a deep breath and I wondered what was wrong; Will had always reminded me of the mountain he physically resembled, completely unflappable. “Matty’s dead.”

#

I moved to Atlanta because I didn’t go to Iraq.

Rewind back to September 12, 2001. It’s a cool afternoon, like any other except that all the children are home and most of the parents are, and there are no planes on approach to Kenosha Regional Airport, two miles north. I’m sitting at the kitchen table, reviewing a sheath of papers I’d received at the recruiting station in Milwaukee that day, when my father walks into the house. His face is drawn and pale. It’s been thirty five hours since the towers came down.

Empathy runs in the family; it’s our blessing and our curse.

He makes no move to change out of his fireman’s uniform and tells me he’s on his way to Meijer; his shift just came off duty, and they are dispersing to local stores to stand out front, boot in hand, collecting donations for the families of FDNY’s fallen. He asks me what I’m looking at, and I tell him I spent the day at the army recruiting station in Milwaukee. He snatches the papers out of my hand and throws them in the trash.

For the first time since I flunked out of college, we raise our voices to each other. I had thought he’d be proud of me; he is a veteran, as was my grandfather. My great-grandparents escaped Russia to avoid Stalin’s purges; ever since, my family’s had the evangelistic fervor of the newly converted. The only God I was brought up to worship has stars and stripes.

And then he grows quiet and tells me he can’t afford to lose me too. Not after losing his brother, who he left behind in Vietnam. Not after losing my sister, although our viewpoints differed as to whether she was ever really lost at all.

We never again mention my enlistment, and two months later I impulsively move to Atlanta, joining my former college roommate and leaving my histories behind. As my nation drunkenly lurches into Iraq, I believe I’ve dodged a bullet. I believe that I am lucky because I will never be driven to my knees by the concussive force of an improvised explosive device. I am wrong.

Explosions come in many forms, and in a concrete wasteland on the home front, I am now discovering the terrifying power of dynamite, the devastating radius of plastique.

I never went to Iraq, but I’ve taken losses that would decimate a veteran platoon. I know that it doesn’t get any easier. I can feel the bombs going off around me. And I am afraid.

#

All of the noise, the traffic flowing past on Amberley Road, trucks shifting gears on the highway bridge, the guys in shipping cursing at each other, all of it seemed to fade like the rush of a subway train in reverse as I struggled to make sense of what I just heard. The phone seemed a million miles away. I was afraid to speak, afraid to ask if I’d misheard Will, afraid to move; once I did, I would have to acknowledge the words that Will had spoken.

“Andrey, you there?” Will asked.

I dropped to a crouch, uncertain of my balance, my fingers splaying across the gravel to keep me steady. I took a breath, fought back all the confused words that crowded the front of my mind like commuters fighting their way off a train. Control I thought, fighting to regain equilibrium, to maintain an island of calm even as everything fell apart around me. I am granite. I caught all the words I wanted to say, straightened my back, and steadied myself though it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.

I didn’t want to ask, didn’t want to know, was afraid to know, but somewhere deep inside I knew. I needed to know, and I knew that once the question was asked, I could never take it back. “What happened?” I asked, the words regretted as soon as came out, and then it was my turn to wait in silence, to wait for Will to gather his words that were better left unspoken.

“He shot himself Saturday night,” Will said finally. “I didn’t know if his parents had called anyone besides family. I wanted to make sure you knew.”

Not again. This isn’t happening. This is not happening. I can’t do this what the fuck were you thinking you fucking son of a bitch I can’t do this again this isn’t happening what the my eyes searched for something to focus on, something to grasp as a foundation, but there was no focus here.

There was only the choppy sounds of my breathing, echoing across the airwaves as Will waited patiently for me to gather myself. Not here, not now. I will not do this here.

“Does anyone know why?” I asked. I stood up, but I felt weak, like the way my legs used to feel after a five mile run, like hour eight of an acid trip when reality would descend and my body simply couldn’t handle any more stimuli. Shaking like my foundation, my bedrock, all I knew to be true was called into question. I gripped the phone like a life jacket. I wanted to cast my phone away.

“He left a note. No one’s seen it but his parents. They found him in his Jeep…”

“”Jesus…” I could picture the scene as if it was in front of me. The only thing Matt loved more than his Jeep was his .45 caliber pistol; my mind flashed to his garage, Matty sitting in the driver’s seat, looking at the pistol, lifting the barrel…I cannot lose control. I am granite.

                  “Yeah, it was his .45” Will said, anticipating where my mind had gone.

“Fucking Christ, Will, why the fuck did he…What did…”

“Andy, you know all I know. I was over there last night. I noticed you hadn’t said anything on Facebook about it and wanted to make sure you knew.”

I wanted to punch something. I wanted to kill something. I wanted to cry and I wanted Matt back alive so I could kill him all over again. If I could…Matt is the strongest man I’ve ever known. Was the strongest man I’ve ever known.

Until now. Did I fail you, my brother? “When is the funeral?” I asked, trying to stall off questions I never wanted to answer.

“Wednesday afternoon, out in Villa Rica. Do you have a pen handy?”

“Can you Facebook me the info? I’m going to have to spread the word. If I haven’t heard about it, a lot of his friends haven’t.”

“Yeah, Andrey, I can do that,” Will replied. “You OK, man?’

I can’t do this again. I can’t. I’m not OK. Matt’s gone. He killed himself. I wasn’t there. I can’t deal with this. “I’ll be OK, man. I’ll see you on Wednesday. Thank you.”

“I’m sorry to have to drop this on you,” Will said.

“I’m sorry, too, Will. I’ll get the word out,” I replied. I tapped my phone off and stood there for a second, staring at the traffic passing by, the world that looked no different even though it would never be the same again.

“Dude, you OK?” Alexia asked as I walked back into the cave.

“No,” I said, tucking my notebook into my messenger bag. “I’m not.” I hit the logout button on my phone and turned to leave.

I could hear her replying to me, but it never consciously registered/. I’ve got to get home. I’ve got to let everyone know. Hold it together, Andrey. Keep control. I have to. Every bit of energy I could muster was dedicated to keeping it together; the office felt like a section of tunnel I had to pass through to get home.

Melinda pressed the hold button on her phone, stood up and crossed the large double cubicle we shared. She grabbed my shoulder and pulled me to an embrace. “Andy, what’s wrong? You can’t just leave like this, what do I tell Darren?” By the time I could decode the syllables and start to frame a reply, she followed up. “What happened?”

I spoke robotically, methodically. “My best friend just died. Tell Darren I’ll call later, I’ve got to go. I need to go home.”

“Hold on a minute, get approval, Darren will be upset…” Alexia said over the cubicle wall, but Melinda held up her hand to forestall further discussion.

“I’ll take care of it, Andy. I’m sorry,” she said, embracing me again. My arms stayed at my sides; I couldn’t return the hug without breaking the façade I could barely keep in place. I am granite.

“I’ve got to go,” I said, hoarsely, and stepped around her. All I could think about was getting home, and the calls I would have to make when I got there.

#

Rewind the tape again. Go back to 2006, to the day we lost Doc. I remember it like it was yesterday, the day we all lost our immortality, the day my suit of armor cracked and left this frail construction of skin and bones defenseless against the poison-tipped arrows of loss. I remember the way we gathered from across this city to share our pain, our loss, our unwanted growth.

In the quiet journals I keep after midnight, when the world goes to sleep and I’m left behind with a uniball pen and a graph paper notebook, I refer to it as Shatterday. I was 25, working third shift at a convenience store, still married to Dawn, trying to do the adult thing.

Doc had been missing for days, but there was still that flicker of hope, like a candle valiantly flickering in the early moments of a thunderstorm. Goonies never say die.

John was the one to call me at work, to give me the news. They had found the body. I remember sinking to the floor, ignoring the customers in line. I remember the police officer that came in for coffee and waited there with me, glaring menacingly at the customers, silently daring them to say something about how slowly I rang them up, until the store manager arrived to take over. I remember Dawn arriving in response to the anguished words of a incoherent text message, and driving me to Doc’s apartment.

We gathered from all over this city to bring light to our shared darkness, to shut out the oppressive night. We gathered in our newfound fragility, in the hope that shared strength could outweigh the mass of our shared sorrow. We gathered in darkness, in the hopes that we could recreate the light.

That was six years ago. I’ve gotten divorced, gone back to college and graduated. My friends have gotten married and divorced, had children, moved away, returned. We’ve bought houses, settled into careers, grown into our thirties; some of us reluctant to leave our nights of fire behind, others eager to face the brave new world together. The night Doc died, everyone dropped everything to be together. The night Matty died, we only reached out to each other over phone lines and Facebook; in the end, after I spread the word, and shared what little I knew, I was left behind in darkness and pain, left only to remember all that we were and grieve for all that we now could never be.

In the darkness, with a bottle of cheap scotch and a pack of cigarettes, I wept for the days that once were, when we could drop what we were doing and gather to hold the shadows at bay. When Vicky arrived home, she didn’t understand why I was crumpled on the floor in a corner of our kitchen, sobbing; she could only hold me as I tried to explain my hatred of entropy, and failed to find the words to tell her what was wrong.

Chapter Two: The Weight of Water

“I’m not even sure I want to go,” Sam said quietly. “I don’t know if I can do this again.” He wiped the sweat from his scalp with a dirty rag and leaned against his work van. “Where does it end? Are we fucking cursed?”

“I don’t know,” I replied. “I don’t think I can do it again either, dude, but I have to. And I’ll understand if you can’t go, but brother, I need you there if you can make it through. This…dude, how could we survive the rave years unscathed and then watch so many people die? It’s like some sort of fucked up Final Destination thing.”

“I call not it on being next. You know, if death is listening in on this.” Sam took a long swig of beer. “Sorry, that was supposed to be funny.”

“I know. I’m just…numb. I can’t figure out whether to grieve or rage. A part of me wants him back so I can kick his ass.”

“Fat chance,” Sam replied. I laughed softly, picturing how a fight between Matty and I would have gone; I was tall but lanky, and Matty had the perfect build for the job he had when we met, bouncer at the Masquerade, breaking up fights at punk shows just by walking up to the combatants and looking menacing.

“You need another beer, dude?” Sam asked.

“Hit me.” I finished the beer in my hand and popped open the can he handed me. “Fuck, Vicky’s going to be home soon.”

“Everything OK?”

“Do I care?”

“I thought you guys were all good and sweetness and light. The Lucky Russian finally found a girl that doesn’t view him as an ATM or an emotional punching bag.”

“Pretend I never said my last comment,” I replied. “It never happened.”

“What never happened?” Sam replied. He opened another beer. We stood in companionable silence for minutes that seemed like hours, leaning against the work van in the parking lot of my apartment complex. One of my neighbors passed; she glanced over the two men drinking beer, at Sam in his paint-spattered work pants and me, disheveled in wrinkled business casual, and shook her head. How dare you judge my friends, after what we’ve been through? I thought and flipped her off.

“Do you ever wonder if we really are somehow cursed?” Sam asked. “Do you ever wonder if something happened back then, in the rave years, if all of the drugs and the craziness somehow altered our brain chemistries?”

I looked over at Sam and lit another cigarette, frowning at my almost-empty pack. “Dude, Doc was totally random, could have happened to anyone. RJ…RJ should have asked for help, but at the end of the day, he died of HIV. Barry and Matt are our only two suicides. Are you saying you’ve thought of killing yourself? Because I’ll fucking kill you if you do.”

Sam shook his head. “Of course not. But all the shit we did in our early twenties…what has all that shit done to us? What if we’re all just time bombs, ticking our way down to our destruction? Seriously, Andy, if you’re ever even close to that point, call me. I can’t do this anymore. Barry was hard enough. Matt…I talked to him two weeks ago. He seemed fine. Now he’s fucking gone.”

“He wasn’t fine,” I replied.

“What do you mean?” Sam asked. My mind flashed back to my last conversation with Matt, the final conversation I would ever have with Matt. My throat seized up and I couldn’t reply; I took a drag off my cigarette and crouched down, trying to steady myself.

“Dude…” Sam began to repeat his question.

“Not now,” I said. “Not yet. I can’t do this yet.”

“Andy, this isn’t your fault,” Sam said. “Talk to me.”

I dropped my cigarette on the ground, and lit another one. Sam stood there, patiently, outlasting me. “I talked to him two weeks ago too.” I said, softly, looking at the sky, the cars, the buildings, everything but Sam. My mouth went dry and I searched for the right words, coming out with a tangent. “You know he was in legal trouble, right?

“No, I didn’t,” Sam said. “For what?”

“I don’t know,” I replied.. “He never told me.”

“What happened when you talked to him?”

“He told me he had a lot of shit going on. He said he needed to talk to me,” I said. “I told him we’d go out for a beer the next weekend. Then I canceled on him, told him we’d do it soon, because Vicky wanted to go out to a fetish event. I never called him back; got caught up in stuff.”

“What did he say was going on?” Sam asked.

“He was really vague,” I replied. “He didn’t give any specifics. God, Sam, if I had any idea how bad it was, I would have dropped everything, you know that!”

“I know,” Sam said softly.

“I should have known,” I said. “I should have gone anyway. Fuck, every single time I needed Matt, he was there. Every single time. I should have known how bad things were.” I grabbed another beer from the twelve-pack in the van and cracked it open, drinking because I didn’t know what else to do. “He was there whenever I needed him. And I couldn’t carve one night out of my busy fucking schedule to drive out to Douglasville when he needed me.”

My anger spiked, and I punched the side of the van. Fire cascaded down my arm, a welcome feeling, a penance, a sacrifice. I punched it again and again, but there was no absolution.

“Andrey,” Sam began, grabbing my arm, but I pulled free and cut him off.

“No. Where the fuck was I? He reached out to me. This didn’t have to happen. Goddamnit, Sam, he needed me and I never fucking saw it.” I felt the rage fill me, and I’m self-cognizant enough to know it existed to cover up the bottomless sorrow buried underneath, but I could only suppress it for so long. I punched the van once more, trying to erase the grief with the pain, but I felt the rage turn to tears, and I couldn’t be strong anymore. I leaned against the van and tried to hide the tears, irrationally, desperately, but Sam knows me too well, and he grabbed my shoulder to force me to look at him.

“What if I could have stopped it?” I choked out the words, each one another knife into my heart. “What if I could have saved him?” I couldn’t breathe, and Sam grabbed me, embracing me as the tears flowed once again. I had never noticed Bane pull up in his Firebird, never noticed him walking up toward us; the breakdown was too complete.

“You couldn’t have, Lucky,” Bane said. “None of us could have. You know that. Matty was going to do what he was going to do. You’re not in his head. Do you know how fucked up someone has to be to fucking stick a gun in their mouth? You don’t think he knew that any one of us would have taken a bullet for him?” He lit a cigarette and grabbed a beer from the van.

“We all failed him,” Sam replied. “It wasn’t just you. It was all of us. You can’t just blame yourself. None of us were there.”

“I’m the one he reached out to. He was my best friend. Maybe I couldn’t have saved him. But I’ll never, ever, know,” I said. Bane tossed me a beer and opened his own.

“What were you supposed to fucking do, Lucky?” Bane asked. “We’ve all grown up. We don’t see each other every day like we used to. He lived all the way out in Carrollton, you live in Woodstock. You couldn’t know. We’ve all got responsibilities now; we can’t spend all our time hanging out. What are we supposed to do, quit our jobs and spend all our time on a mutual suicide-watch? OK, so he called you and said he had some problems. Dude, of course if you’d known how bad it was, you would have dealt with it. Any one of us would have. You didn’t pull the fucking trigger.”

“That’s what I worry about,” Sam said. “Who’s next? We don’t see each other enough anymore.” He drained another beer and tossed it into a paint bucket in his van, rapidly filling with cans. “I love you guys. I can’t lose anyone else.”

“None of us are going to fucking kill themselves,” Bane said. “Not after the last few years. Not after Doc, and Elliott, and Barry, and now Matt.”

“That’s what I would have said before Matty,” Sam said. We stood in silence again, smoking, drinking; I wondered if, like me, they allowed the silence to cover up the things we couldn’t say aloud.

A PT Cruiser coasted to a halt in front of us and Vicky climbed out. Normally I’d be able to appreciate the grace of her form as she swung her purse over her shoulder and brushed her burgundy hair from her eyes as she leaned in the window to say goodbye to her coworker. Today, I felt nothing.

“You OK, baby?” she asked as she walked up, leaning into me, socketing herself into the side of my body, the side of her head unerringly tucking itself into my shoulder. Her hand reached up to trace the lines that tears had streaked down my face.

I shook her off, walking a few paces away. She shifted to follow me, clearly hurt, but Sam put a hand on her shoulder and, when she looked back at him, simply shook his head.

My phone buzzed on the hood of the van; I ignored it. Bane finally picked it up. “Text from Ash. He’ll be on a flight in tonight at 1am. Wants to know if you can pick him up from the airport.”

“Tell him I’ll be there. Ask him if he wants me to take him to his mom’s or if he’s going to crash at our place,” I said.

“Will do,” Bane said, tapping the touch screen of the cell phone. I gathered the tattered shreds of my control, rose up and walked silently back to the group. I reached out and pulled Vicky into a tight hug, gripping her like a life raft; she returned my embrace, her fingers stroking the back of my neck, calming me. Silence enveloped us again; no one knew what else to say to make any of this better.

Hope you enjoyed it…stay tuned for more sneak peeks and the eventual sale and publication of the novel! 

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