The Silver Year: Chapter 15

Chapter 15

The Happy Banshee

 

As​​ Walter​​ approached the​​ captivating​​ music, it fell into a​​ meandering​​ instrumental. The bar​​ from which it was emanating was just one​​ small​​ door​​ among many​​ that lined the bottom of a four-story,​​ dilapidated and​​ faded,​​ redbrick​​ building. There was a sign above the​​ entrance, dimly lit​​ by a yellowed light and​​ spotted with graffiti. Its edges were wrapped in​​ years of​​ rust.​​ The weathered words​​ on it​​ read:​​ Maloe Melo- Home of The Blues.

Looking​​ inside the open door,​​ Walter​​ saw nothing but a sea of​​ dancing​​ tie-dye.​​ Outside, as expected, were​​ some​​ old men, also dressed in tie-dye, smoking and conversing.​​ A​​ playbill​​ was posted to​​ the​​ left​​ of​​ the​​ door​​ under​​ a sign saying: TONIGHT LIVE!/ OPTREDEN VANAVOND!​​ On​​ the​​ playbill​​ was​​ a​​ portrait​​ of a​​ young woman​​ with​​ bright​​ gray eyes and​​ flowers weaved into her​​ wavy​​ vermillion​​ hair. A​​ wry​​ smirk played across her​​ pink cheeks​​ as​​ she mimed​​ playing an invisible guitar.​​ 

Kali​​ &​​ The Easy Wind: A Tribute to The Grateful Dead, Walter read above her image.​​ So​​ that’s​​ what this mysterious sound​​ was.​​ He​​ knew of the Grateful Dead from much of the music he listened to, but​​ remarkably​​ he​​ had​​ never​​ actually​​ listened​​ to them​​ himself.​​ ​​ 

The old men​​ smiled as he walked toward the entrance. One of them gave him a peace sign. “Have a grateful time!” he said.

 

On the other side,​​ the place was perhaps slightly larger than a​​ one-bedroom​​ apartment with a bar running​​ nearly​​ the entire left-hand side​​ length.​​ The​​ narrow corridors were wallpapered with American and European blues festival flyers and an assortment of collected oddities typical of​​ any​​ dive bar. Wall to wall, beneath colorfully backlit​​ mists​​ of​​ swirling​​ marijuana smoke, men and women of all ages​​ danced, many of them in tie-dyed,​​ bohemian attire.​​ There were​​ no subdivisions​​ in the crowd, just a giant mass of varied personalities and energies stitched​​ together by the hand​​ of​​ communal​​ soundwaves.​​ It was as if​​ Walter had​​ stepped through a time portal into the Summer of Love.

On​​ a​​ corner​​ stage,​​ a​​ young and​​ statuesque​​ female​​ drummer​​ tapped along with an​​ energetic​​ female bassist in baggy overalls​​ and pigtails.​​ To their left,​​ a lizard-looking guitarist​​ was​​ whipping​​ his long hair and tongue about​​ manically,​​ while a middle-aged and balding,​​ mad-scientist of a man​​ fingered​​ a​​ stack of keyboards.​​ However where or whom​​ the singer was, was​​ still​​ a mystery.

But as​​ Walter’s​​ eyes adjusted,​​ he saw her​​ at last, the​​ redhead from the playbill,​​ in the crowd, dancing​​ in the whirlpools of tie-dye.​​ She was​​ dressed in​​ a​​ white​​ summer dress and​​ white​​ fringed and fingerless gloves​​ that went to her bicep.​​ Her long and balletic​​ body​​ was​​ spinning​​ wildly while people poured around her like​​ prairie​​ grass.​​ 

Turning​​ his​​ way, her spinning stopped. Smiling,​​ she​​ then​​ pulled back her wet hair and​​ splayed her elbows like the​​ cape​​ of a cobra​​ as an upsurge of music filled the room.​​ She then threw her​​ arms​​ down in a​​ dramatic​​ arc​​ timed with a disco-tinged synth chord​​ struck by​​ the mad-scientist.​​ The crowd went into a frenzy of​​ ahs​​ as everyone seemed to be anticipating something only unknown to Walter.

The redhead then​​ hopped​​ on stage and picked up a well-used, black​​ Gibson S-1​​ and began playing​​ it, bopping along to the music with a shit-eating grin.​​ You tell me this town ain't got no heart…” she sang​​ like a happy​​ banshee.

​​ Well, well, well, you can never tell…” the crowd​​ chanted​​ back,​​ dancing​​ as​​ if​​ they were​​ alone​​ at home​​ in their​​ underwear.

The sudden jostling of feet pushed Walter to the center of the room​​ and his​​ arms and legs​​ began​​ wagging​​ unconsciously​​ like the others around him.​​ WOO!​​ everyone​​ then​​ yelled​​ as they​​ jumped​​ into the air and landed on a springy chorus​​ about a place called “Shakedown Street”.​​ 

Like the first, this song too eventually went into another​​ long​​ and​​ meandering​​ jam, during which Walter was passed​​ several​​ joints​​ and handshakes​​ from the people around​​ him.​​ The​​ jam​​ then​​ tumbled into another bouncy tune,​​ but​​ this one more reggae-rooted, but not exactly reggae.​​ The change inspired another flurry of excitement​​ from the crowd.

“Shakedown to Scarlet—that’s unheard of!”​​ someone yelled nearby, while everyone shook their heads and bodies in agreement that they were indeed sharing in on something special.​​ 

As the song played and the​​ happy​​ banshee sang, phrases of verse caught​​ Walter’s​​ ear, each one​​ more relatable, until it seemed again his thoughts were being sung into​​ lyrics,​​ lyrics​​ he had​​ just​​ heard​​ earlier that night.​​ “Once in a while you get shown the light​​ in the strangest of places if you look at it right...” ​​​​ The​​ phrase​​ stunned​​ him​​ into stasis.​​ Apparently the therapist in his head was a Deadhead.

To his surprise, the banshee also appeared to have been shot​​ by​​ the same​​ sensation.​​ Fingers frozen​​ over​​ her​​ fretboard,​​ she was now​​ dumbstruck​​ by​​ Walter,​​ glaring him down with​​ bewildered​​ ferocity, making her miss the cue for the next verse.​​ She shook her head, then signaled​​ to her confused bandmates​​ to play another​​ measure, after which she finished the song flawlessly, but​​ without​​ the typical​​ extended jam.

“Thank you.​​ Dank je,” she​​ told the applauding​​ audience​​ in what Walter​​ assessed​​ to be an American accent. “We’re going to take a​​ very​​ short intermission now, but we’ll be back soon.” Unlike her singing, her speaking voice had the​​ tranquil​​ nature of a folk song,​​ the banshee all but​​ dispelled—that is until she​​ advanced on​​ him.

 “Where did you get that shirt?” she​​ demanded. Walter, in disbelief she was actually speaking to him,​​ could say​​ nothing. “Spreekt u Engels?”

“What?”​​ he said.

“English.​​ Do you speak English?​​ Where​​ did you get that shirt?”

“Oh…” he looked​​ down at​​ his shirt.​​ “I-I​​ borrowed​​ it from a friend.”

“Who’s​​ your friend?”

“Um,​​ I’m not​​ so​​ sure I​​ should tell you by the way you’re looking at me​​ . . .​​ Why? What​​ is this​​ shirt to you?”

She pulled​​ back​​ her emotions​​ a bit​​ before answering.​​ “It’s​​ a lot of things to me,” she said,​​ “but​​ luna hunny​​ is​​ me.”

Walter​​ shook his head,​​ thinking​​ his brain was​​ playing​​ tricks on him again.​​ “Did you just say you’re​​ luna hunny?” he asked.​​ “You’re the​​ artist​​ on my shirt?”

“I was,” she replied,​​ “but I haven’t been​​ for​​ over two years now.”

“No way​​ . . .​​ I​​ have so many questions​​ for you—”

“And so do​​ I, like who’s your friend and where did he get that shirt?”

“My friend…”​​ Walter​​ hesitated, not sure what he should reveal.​​ “My friend, well, I only met him tonight. I’m visiting from California and this is my only night​​ in Amsterdam.”

“California? Where in California?”

“Orange County and L.A. Right now I’m kind of​​ in between.”

“Hm…​​ I’m from San Fran myself.​​ I​​ moved to​​ Amsterdam​​ on​​ a​​ student visa​​ thinking​​ luna hunny​​ had a larger fanbase here​​ than in the States.​​ Come to find out​​ later​​ though,​​ after I was out ten thousand dollars for​​ a​​ new inventory​​ buy​​ and design costs,​​ the European label I​​ thought​​ was selling so much merchandise and records for me was nothing but a laundering front for a cocaine operation. In reality, I had no fans​​ in Europe​​ at all.​​ That’s why I want to know where you got that shirt,​​ because​​ I assumed no one had​​ them except​​ the​​ asshole​​ who ripped me off.​​ Sound​​ anything​​ like your friend?”

Inside, Walter began freaking out.​​ If​​ she was to be believed,​​ clearly​​ Dug was this asshole. No wonder he was so​​ against​​ this​​ bar. He must’ve known she​​ would be​​ here.​​ But​​ having just met this girl,​​ Walter was unsure where his allegiance stood.​​ 

“I’m not sure,”​​ he​​ said.​​ “It’s possible.​​ Like I said, I only met him tonight, so I really don’t know him that well. But​​ he didn’t seem like that bad of a guy.​​ I was​​ pretty​​ fucked up​​ earlier​​ and​​ had made a​​ real​​ mess of myself,​​ but​​ he went​​ well out of his way to help me​​ even though I was​​ a​​ stranger.​​ He​​ even​​ let me clean up​​ at​​ his​​ house​​ then gave me some new clothes to wear,​​ and that’s how I got this​​ shirt.​​ We​​ didn’t part on the greatest terms​​ though.”

“Why’s that?”

“I wrecked his​​ tandem​​ bicycle​​ we were riding so he​​ got angry and​​ left​​ me here—or more so I chose to stay.”​​ 

“Where is he now?”​​ 

“I’m not sure, and I have no way of contacting him.”​​ Walter​​ showed her his obliterated cellphone.

“What happened​​ to your phone?”​​ she asked.

“I was having a bad trip on some edibles​​ and​​ thought monsters were coming out of it​​ so I threw it. Like I said, I was pretty fucked up earlier.”

She let out a guffaw. “Making the most of your stay in Amsterdam I see…” she said,​​ scanning him over, searching​​ for any hint of fabrication, which none of​​ it​​ was, he just​​ omitted​​ the most​​ damning details.

“What’s your friend’s name?”​​ she asked.​​ 

Walter​​ swallowed nervously. He wanted to lie, but somehow felt she would know. “Dug,” he​​ answered.

“Doug?”

 “Yeah, spelt​​ D-U-G​​ though.”​​ Her face told him this was not​​ a​​ name​​ familiar to her.

“Where did he live?”​​ she asked.

“God if I know.​​ Some​​ apartment on some canal.​​ We​​ went​​ a​​ secret​​ route​​ only he knew​​ here,​​ and​​ I was on the back of the bicycle so I was​​ just​​ along for the ride.”

Her​​ brows​​ furrowed​​ and she became silent.

“Can I ask you something​​ now?”​​ Walter said.

“What?”

“What’s​​ the​​ phrase on my shirt mean?”

I think​​ the meaning is​​ pretty straightforward,​​ to say life has no meaning is not to say it has no value.​​ They’re lyrics from one of my songs.​​ The inspiration​​ was​​ a​​ birthday​​ I​​ spent alone in​​ a place called​​ Pacific Grove​​ in​​ northern​​ California to​​ see the​​ monarch​​ butterflies​​ that​​ gather​​ in the trees there during their​​ annual migration. And as I watched​​ them take flight to continue​​ their​​ journey over thousands of miles, a journey they wouldn’t live long enough to complete, I thought​​ how meaningless their lives were to themselves, but everything to the species.​​ But our lives are no different; just pieces of a journey we’ll never see complete unless we somehow find ourselves at its end, which for us and butterflies could be soon if we don’t start caring more about the journey and less about ourselves​​ . . . Are you​​ tearing up?”

“Sorry,” Walter said wiping​​ his eyes. “That was​​ just​​ beautiful.​​ I also just cry easily​​ nowadays.​​ For the longest time I never let myself cry, but I’ve sure made up for it in the last year.”

She smiled and took his hands​​ away from his cheeks.​​ “Don’t apologize,” she said. “There’s never a reason to hide your tears.​​ Crying is​​ the most beautiful thing a man can do. I cry easily too. I used to​​ also​​ not be that way, but​​ now I find myself needing​​ to​​ just to feel balanced​​ sometimes.”

“God, me too,” Walter said.​​ “Is the image​​ on the shirt​​ yours​​ also?”

“No, the label provided it. I had my own​​ artwork, but when they sent me that, I couldn’t refuse.​​ It was perfect.​​ I never did find out who made it though.”

“Is there anywhere I can hear this song?”

“Nope. I​​ wiped​​ luna hunny’s​​ recorded music​​ from the earth​​ and the internet​​ because it​​ became nothing but a​​ painful humiliation for me. And no,​​ I’m not going to play the song​​ myself​​ for you. I know​​ it​​ sounds melodramatic, but​​ the whole experience​​ gave me a breakdown I almost didn’t recover​​ from.”

“No, I​​ actually​​ completely understand.​​ So there’s nothing​​ left of​​ luna hunny?”

“All that’s left of​​ luna hunny​​ that I know​​ of​​ is your​​ shirt. I did my best to destroy everything. In​​ retrospect,​​ maybe​​ it​​ was an overreaction, but​​ I​​ was an​​ artist​​ going through an identity crisis, and artists​​ can be​​ overly​​ emotional​​ sometimes.”​​ They both began laughing,​​ then​​ were​​ interrupted by her lizard-looking guitarist.

“Hey Shiva, you okay to go back up​​ yet?” he asked​​ in​​ an​​ Australian accent.​​ “The crowd’s getting antsy since we cut the first set so short. But also,​​ I​​ was hoping we’d have time to​​ play ‘Cobrasnake’ again​​ tonight.”

Shiva, Walter thought.​​ Her name is Shiva.

“No Lou,” Shiva said. “If I let you play your song​​ again, then Cage will want to play his stupid song about his​​ cat​​ again.​​ I only let you guys do them​​ that one time​​ because I was drunk.​​ This is a​​ Grateful Dead​​ tribute, not your own band.​​ Ashlyn and Jayleen never ask me to play their​​ own​​ songs.​​ I’ll go up when I’m ready.” She signaled him away.

Men,” Shiva​​ said​​ to Walter​​ after​​ her guitarist left.​​ “Why do they​​ always​​ have​​ to stick their ego in everything? But he’s right. I should​​ get back up.​​ You​​ a fan of the​​ Dead?”

“I think I will be after tonight,” he said.​​ “This is my first time hearing the Dead—or I​​ think​​ it​​ is. I keep having this feeling like I’ve been here before.”

She​​ smiled.​​ “The Dead’s music can have that effect on you,” she said. “That just means the magic’s working.​​ You don’t know what you’ve got yourself into.​​ Second set hasn’t even begun.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, let’s just say​​ anything can happen during​​ a​​ second set of​​ the​​ Dead—even if it’s​​ just a tribute​​ show.”

Shiva​​ then​​ eyed his​​ bright orange​​ fedora, the only article of clothing​​ to survive the urinal. “I like your hat,” she said.​​ “Mind if I wear it​​ for second set? I promise to give it back​​ after.”

“Okay,” Walter​​ said with no objection.

She leaned in​​ as if going for a kiss, but at the last moment maneuvered​​ up​​ and​​ lifted​​ the hat​​ away. She​​ put it on and​​ tilted​​ it​​ back​​ so that the brim formed a​​ bright orange halo behind​​ her head.

“How do I look?”​​ she asked.​​ 

“Like a psychedelic Virgin Mary,”​​ he​​ said. She seemed very content with that.

 

In her​​ long and​​ breezy dress, she​​ appeared​​ to fly back onstage. She​​ then​​ picked up her guitar and romanced from it an icy blues riff, and like well-drilled soldiers,​​ her band fell in​​ step​​ as​​ the house lights​​ drenched the room in a​​ bottomless​​ blue​​ while​​ a tune​​ crooned​​ like​​ cancer​​ slowly squeezing the life from its victim like toothpaste from a tube.

Y'know death don't have no mercy in this land” Shiva cut the​​ air​​ like a preacher​​ from a​​ pulpit.​​ In contrast to their earlier playful manner, the crowd fell silent,​​ drifting away behind their eyelids​​ as they rocked to the​​ funeral​​ march rhythm.​​ A​​ Dead show wasn’t​​ just​​ flowers and sunshine​​ Walter​​ was seeing,​​ but​​ more​​ so​​ a journey which mirrored the​​ perverted​​ path and beat​​ of life.​​ 

After the song burned itself out,​​ from​​ it​​ arose a new one, fluttering​​ like the first flaps of freshly-budded butterfly wings​​ off​​ Shiva’s fingertips.​​ The house lights began casting warm​​ rays of​​ red​​ and​​ orange​​ as​​ her​​ lips​​ neared​​ the mic,​​ her gray eyes​​ glowing in Walter’s​​ direction.​​ My favorite, she mouthed​​ to him, then​​ told the epic of​​ “Terrapin Station”,​​ a story​​ which​​ again seemed​​ to​​ strum upon​​ every​​ part of him.

The​​ rest of​​ the​​ second set was​​ as​​ tumultuous​​ as promised. At one moment exultant and​​ droll,​​ the next forlorn and frightening; at​​ one moment psychedelic, the next country,​​ jazz, then who knows what to call it.​​ For​​ fifteen​​ minutes, the music​​ just hung​​ in an ambient space of hallucinogenic​​ soundscapes​​ and drums, while everyone including​​ the​​ band took turns​​ going to the bathroom. Then​​ like​​ a​​ tiny​​ crack,​​ a​​ spidery​​ preamble​​ crawled into​​ the suspended air​​ and shattered it with the tale of someone named “St. Stephen”. After that,​​ someone named​​ “Bertha”,​​ then someone named “Althea”,​​ then a song about women being smarter, and then​​ an​​ acoustic​​ and palliative​​ encore about a place called​​ “Brokedown Palace” just to send everyone​​ off equalized.​​ 

Shiva took a​​ humble​​ bow in front of​​ the small​​ sea of​​ roaring adulation​​ after,​​ of​​ which Walter was ardently a​​ part of, clapping his hands until they hurt.​​ After​​ some​​ schmoozing​​ and tidying away​​ of​​ her things onstage,​​ she​​ soon​​ floated​​ back​​ to​​ him.

“Here,” she said lifting his hat​​ from​​ her head. “See,​​ I promised I’d​​ return​​ it.”​​ She​​ came in​​ close​​ to​​ crown​​ him​​ with it.​​ He could feel the heat of the performance​​ still​​ radiating from her​​ body.​​ She​​ fussed​​ with his hat​​ for longer than seemed necessary​​ until it was​​ seated​​ just​​ to her liking.

“You’re unlike any performer—or really any person​​ I’ve met before,” Walter said to her.

“Thank you, but you hardly know me . . . Perfect,” she said taking her hands from his head. “But let’s change​​ that. Come with me to the bar.” ​​ ​​ 

 

Taking a seat at the now​​ mostly empty bar,​​ Shiva​​ hailed an older gentlemen behind it with a mustache,​​ smoking a cigar.​​ “Patrick,​​ can you get me​​ an Amstel​​ with​​ a shot​​ of​​ Jack​​ and my​​ friend here a...” she​​ eyed​​ Walter to finish the order.​​ 

“Make it two of that.”

“You got it my​​ dear,”​​ Patrick​​ replied​​ in a Dutch accent​​ and got their drinks.

Sante,” Shiva said holding up her shot​​ to Walter.

Sante,” he replied. “Et merci pour les boissons.”

Tu parles français?​​ 

Oui, mais juste un peu.​​ J'aime beaucoup de philosophes français.​​ ‘Je pense, donc je suis.’”

She laughed.​​ D’accord​​ Monsieur Descartes,” she said. “Et j'aime beaucoup de poètes français.​​ ‘Il pleure dans mon cœur comme il pleut sur la ville.’”

“You lost me​​ on that one.​​ I also don’t know a lot of French poetry.”

“Verlaine,​​ but that’s okay.​​ Also you’re​​ welcome​​ for the drinks, but​​ thank him,”​​ Shiva​​ nodded to Patrick.​​ “They’re​​ on the house, but​​ that doesn’t mean you can’t tip the man…” Her eyes and smile insinuated​​ Walter​​ should.​​ He​​ took a few Euro coins from his pocket and splashed them on the bar.

“No,” Patrick said pushing them back, “but thank you.​​ This young lady​​ brings me so much business I feel guilty she doesn’t ask for more.”

“You​​ perform​​ just for drinks?” Walter asked​​ Shiva.

“Of course not.”

“Yes she does,” Patrick​​ insisted. “All she asks for is free drinks​​ and joints.​​ The rest goes to her charity, half the cost of every drink and joint sold here tonight.”

“You​​ run​​ a charity?” Walter​​ asked.

Shiva​​ looked at​​ Patrick​​ annoyed.​​ “Yes,” she said. “Technically it’s​​ run​​ under​​ my​​ roommate’s​​ name​​ though​​ since I’m not living here legally. She’s​​ actually​​ the ‘Kali’ in Kali & The Easy Wind, the name of the band and​​ the​​ charity. But​​ Kali’s​​ just her legal name. She’s​​ ‘Mags’​​ to everyone who knows her.​​ We started​​ the charity​​ together,​​ but​​ it’s really just​​ been​​ me for​​ a while​​ now.”

“What’s the charity for?”​​ Walter​​ asked.​​ 

Helping​​ human trafficking victims​​ in Amsterdam.​​ Although prostitution’s legal,​​ a​​ lot of girls are still trafficked​​ here​​ when they’re young and​​ brainwashed​​ by pimps who pretend to be their boyfriends,​​ or what’s​​ called a​​ ‘loverboy’.​​ Mags,​​ whos an independent​​ prostitute,​​ introduced me to this uglier side of the sex trade.​​ Originally we planned a charity cabaret show based on David Bowie’s​​ Diamond Dogs, but​​ then​​ Mags’s ‘career’ started taking off,​​ so​​ it​​ really became my love child after that, and since I grew up listening and playing the Dead all my life,​​ I came up with​​ the idea of a​​ tribute​​ with some musicians I knew in town.​​ ​​ 

That​​ Diamond Dogs​​ cabaret show​​ would’ve​​ been​​ awesome though.​​ David Bowie is my favorite​​ artist.​​ We’re your parents​​ Deadheads?”​​ 

“Bowie is​​ Mags’s​​ favorite​​ too.​​ Yes, but more so my dad. My mother always liked Neil Young more. I cant fault her; Neil Young is second​​ only to the Dead for me. Neil and the Dead were all I heard growing up.”

“Really?​​ Neil Young has some significance for me too.”

“How so?”

“It’s a lot to explain and unload.”

“We’ve got time.”

“It’s not a fun conversation.”

“My mother died when I was six. Does that bring down the mood enough for you?”

Walter shook his head in disbelief. “‘See The Sky About to Rain’ was my girlfriend’s favorite song,” he said.​​ “She​​ passed​​ away last year, but it’s because of her I’m even here.​​ I’m on a European trip she bought for my birthday that we were supposed to take together.”

Shiva​​ nervously nipped​​ her beer. “I’m sorry I pressured you,” she said.

“It’s fine,”​​ Walter said and began nipping too. For a brief moment they were silent.

“It’s also strange​​ though,​​ don’t you think?”​​ Shiva said.​​ 

“What?”

“All the alignment between us?”

“If you mean coincidences, yes, I’ve taken notice of that​​ too,​​ more than you know. My mother also died when I was young. She died giving birth to me. I also have a​​ ‘musical identity’ you could say​​ back home I’m trying to run away from.”

“You’re songwriter also?”

“Currently​​ on hiatus, but yes. Funny enough, I was also in a tribute​​ band, Guns N’ Roses though. But​​ regardless,​​ I don’t really​​ believe in​​ ‘alignment’, otherwise I might have to start believing in astrology and every other pseudoscientific​​ or religious​​ system of divination.”

“What​​ system​​ do you believe in then?”

“Reason, and reason says​​ alignment is nothing more than​​ our exceptional​​ human​​ pattern recognition​​ skills​​ stringing together​​ anomalous coincidences​​ into meaning something more;​​ our own evolution​​ playing tricks on us​​ essentially.”

Shiva​​ burst into laughter.​​ “So you’re basically saying​​ alignment​​ is​​ only​​ acceptable when it can undoubtably be proven not to be​​ alignment?​​ That’s the paradox about you​​ ‘reason’​​ types: on one hand you’re trying to disprove God, yet on the other you want to prove the universe has some predictable course so long as it’s under your control.​​ If it’s not ‘anomalous coincidences’ guiding our lives, then​​ what is?​​ Do​​ you think the monarch butterfly​​ knows why it flies to​​ places it’s never been​​ yet somehow knows how to find?”

“So​​ what?​​ You’re saying​​ some​​ greater power​​ brought​​ us​​ together?”

“I don’t know and I don’t care, but I won’t ignore​​ the signs.​​ And it’s not everyday the universe sends me someone wearing my past​​ on​​ their shirt.”

She​​ reached into her handbag and​​ pulled​​ out​​ a well-worn hemp case containing a deck of cards.

“What are those?” Walter asked.

“Tarot cards.​​ You don’t mind if I do a reading for us?​​ I’m sure​​ ‘reason’​​ says​​ you have nothing to be afraid of.”

“No,​​ I suppose this should be fun​​ if anything.”

Shiva​​ shuffled​​ the​​ deck, then dealt out four cards in​​ a​​ cross formation​​ on the bar. “We’ll keep this simple,” she said. “The card on the left will represent you, the card on the right will represent me, the card on the bottom will represent what brings us together,​​ and​​ the card on top will represent our future.​​ You first.”

Walter​​ flipped his card.​​ “The Fool,” Shiva​​ said.​​ “The Fool is number​​ zero​​ in the​​ Major Arcana​​ deck​​ so he can be placed at the beginning or end of it.​​ Because of this, the Major Arcana is often considered the Fool’s journey.​​ As you can see​​ on the card, he’s​​ setting​​ out on a journey with nothing but a knapsack,​​ gazing​​ up​​ into​​ the​​ sky unaware he’s about to walk off a​​ cliff​​ into the unknown.​​ But​​ by​​ his​​ side​​ is​​ a small​​ white dog,​​ there to protect, guide, and motivate him through the​​ lessons he​​ came on this journey​​ to learn​​ . . .​​ The​​ Fool​​ kind of​​ reminds me of someone.”

​​ “I’ll admit,” Walter said staring​​ uncomfortably​​ at the card,​​ “the Fool and I have some​​ uncanny​​ similarities. Okay, you​​ now.”

Shiva turned her card.​​ “The Tower,” she said.

“What’s the Tower mean?”

“Upheaval, destruction, chaos.”

“That doesn’t sound good.”

“Yes,​​ but​​ in the end, it’s​​ for the highest good.​​ As seen on the card, a tower has​​ been​​ built upon​​ a​​ shaky foundation. A lightning​​ bolt​​ from the universe​​ of​​ sudden​​ clarity and insight​​ then strikes it down along with​​ a crown​​ which once stood​​ atop​​ the​​ tower. From the tower’s windows,​​ two people​​ are​​ leaping​​ into​​ the unknown,​​ however around them are twenty-two flames, representing​​ the twelve signs of the zodiac and the ten points of the Tree of Life, reminding them divine intervention is always there.”

“So are you like the Tower?”​​ Walter asked.

“I did​​ come to Europe on a​​ ‘tower’​​ of false premises,​​ and I’m still living in​​ its​​ ruins​​ you could say.​​ I just can’t decide whether to start all​​ over or rebuild from the rubble, and it’s been that way for a while now . . .​​ Maybe​​ my answer​​ has to do with​​ whatever’s brought us together.”

Shiva​​ turned the card,​​ a skeleton in black armor, riding a white horse: Death.​​ They stared at​​ it​​ for several seconds, then nearly simultaneously asked:

“How’d​​ your mother die?”

“How’d​​ your girlfriend die?”

“Um, you first,” Walter said.

“How about we just answer at the same time​​ again?”

“Okay . . . One, two, three…”

“Suicide,” they both​​ said.

“God, I just got chills,” Shiva said. “Suicide is only half the story​​ in my case​​ though.”

“The same can be said in my case, or really any case involving suicide . . . How?”

“Overdosed on pain pills. Your girlfriend?”

“She hung—I ​​ mean,​​ hanged herself.​​ Please don’t ask why.”

“I​​ won’t. My mother’s why is​​ also difficult to discuss​​ because it​​ may make you see me completely different.”

“Well, that’s the same reason I don’t want to tell you . . . Maybe that means we should.”

“Oh, so you’re finding meaning in this​​ suddenly?”

“I don’t know what to believe right now.​​ There’s just something… something I need to show you, but I can’t unless you learn first.​​ Do you have a phone with internet access?”

She handed him her phone and he brought up the Rolling Stone interview and handed​​ it​​ back. “There,” he said.​​ “That’s who I really am, and that’s​​ where you’ll find​​ why​​ my​​ girlfriend killed herself, although at the time of the interview​​ I didn’t know. I thought she had passed away​​ from a​​ seizure.”

Walter​​ then watched fretfully as​​ Shiva​​ began filling up on all of his most intimate secrets​​ over the next several minutes. Every so often she’d stop and look up at him as if to reassure herself he was indeed the same hideous creature on the screen, then at last she set the phone​​ down​​ and sighed.

“Your name is Walter Huxley?”​​ she​​ asked.

“Yes. I guess we forgot to share names. Yours is Shiva—or at least that’s what everyone calls you around here.”

“Your name sounds​​ like a bad penname​​ you know, and your stage name isn’t much better. Quinn Quark?” She​​ smiled​​ unexpectedly. “Wow, you weren’t kidding when you said you had a musical identity back home you were running away from, and I was totally oblivious that anything in rock was still going on back in The States​​ . . .​​ But​​ um,​​ Amber...​​ I’m still not understanding.”

Walter explained​​ everything.

“Oh,” Shiva said after. “I see​​ now​​ why you didn’t want to tell me.”

“So does​​ it​​ change your mind about me?”

“I don’t know. I’ve hardly known you long enough to form an opinion. But​​ everyone has that one secret they don’t want anyone to know, yours unfortunately just became frontpage news.​​ And if you think accidently killing someone makes you a bad person, then I’m​​ just as guilty.​​ Before my​​ charity​​ was a charity​​ for human trafficking victims,​​ it was​​ really​​ just​​ robbery​​ for human trafficking victims. Mags,​​ myself,​​ and some other friends—some formerly trafficked girls​​ themselves—would​​ prowl the swankier places in town to find rich,​​ gullible tourists who were too drunk or​​ too​​ high to know what they​​ were​​ spending,​​ and sell them on a girl we knew​​ was under the control of a loverboy.​​ We’d then​​ deliver the sucker​​ personally​​ to her, but not before taking double​​ the money she​​ would’ve cost otherwise. We’d then give​​ it​​ to the girl to pay​​ her loverboy and pay herself just as much, that is until one night when a loverboy became wise to​​ the​​ scheme because I got too drunk and was sloppy​​ about​​ the hand off of the money.​​ He took it out on the girl and put​​ her​​ in​​ a coma in​​ the hospital, where​​ she​​ died two weeks later.​​ Her name was Maria, and only one person outside of you knows about​​ her.”

“I guess​​ Death connects us​​ in more ways than one,” Walter said​​ agape.​​ “Outside of Karen, I didn’t think I could​​ share that​​ kind of​​ guilt with anyone. There’s​​ also​​ something else​​ though. A connection I’ve been trying to rationalize all night,​​ even before I met you,​​ but alignment keeps working against me.”

Walter​​ then​​ reached into his wallet and removed​​ a​​ small​​ plastic bag with​​ a​​ note​​ inside.​​ “Amber’s suicide note,” he said giving it to her. “You only need to read as far as the first sentence of the second paragraph to​​ understand​​ what I mean.”

Shiva​​ read​​ then​​ gasped, unable to continue or speak. She then read it again, and again, unable to take her eyes from it.

“‘What value does a life have without meaning?’”​​ Walter said. “‘To​​ say​​ life has no value is not to say it has no meaning.’​​ Sounds like​​ something from the​​ Tao Te Ching, right?​​ So,​​ what’s your take?​​ I’m still new to all this occultist stuff and​​ this​​ is​​ just way​​ too much alignment for me. Honestly,​​ I’m​​ expecting to wake up any moment now.​​ Something about this whole night doesn’t feel quite​​ real.

Shiva handed him back the note, then took his palm and pressed​​ it​​ near her sternum. “Does that feel real to​​ you?” she said. “Do​​ you feel how fast it’s beating? Yeah, I definitely think the universe is trying to say something. Maybe instead of trying to fight reality with reason, you should​​ just​​ listen to reason​​ even if you can’t reason it.”

“Well, until I wake up, it’s not like I have any other option anyhow. So, since you know about my girlfriend now, are​​ you​​ going to tell me about your mother?”

“She was just very sick and in a lot of pain and had been for a long time before she killed herself,” Shiva said. “And honestly,​​ in the same situation I might’ve done the same. But that’s all I’m going to say. Sorry, but everyone​​ gets​​ one secret to themselves,​​ right? And​​ that secret’s between my mom​​ and​​ me.​​ Besides, it has no relevance to us.”​​ 

“However,​​ our​​ future​​ card might,” Walter said.

“That’s right, I almost forgot.​​ Do you want to do the honors?”

Walter​​ flipped​​ it.​​ “The Ace of Cups,”​​ Shiva​​ said.​​ “A​​ chalice​​ is​​ overflowing with five streams of water,​​ representing the​​ subconscious​​ and the five​​ senses, indicating you are a​​ deep​​ vessel for love​​ from the universe​​ as it pours​​ into you and​​ out into the​​ rest of the​​ world.​​ Below the overflowing chalice​​ is a sea covered in lotus blossoms,​​ representing​​ an awakening of the human spirit​​ from​​ this love, but only if you​​ accept the​​ universe’s​​ invitation​​ for love​​ first,​​ an invitation few actually ever​​ do,​​ for​​ divine​​ love always​​ looks like​​ certain madness​​ in the beginning.​​ However,​​ peace isn’t​​ sewn without passing through the eye of insanity first.”

Shiva brought her hands to her face and sighed.​​ “Now this is starting to become too much alignment for me,”​​ she said, then​​ put the cards away​​ except for the Ace of Cups. “Here,”​​ she said handing it to​​ Walter. “I want you to keep this as a reminder of​​ us because I don’t know what’s going to happen to us after tonight. I would never think to give away any card in this deck because​​ it​​ was my mother’s, but if I’m not there, I don’t want you to forget there’s still a chalice in you.”

“I don’t understand,” he said.

“Neither do I completely, but​​ that’s what​​ alignment​​ is​​ telling​​ me​​ . . .​​ How about​​ a change of atmosphere?​​ Patrick’s closing up soon anyway.”

“What about your gear?”

“I keep it here.”

“All right. Where to?”

The only place I know to go this late at night, a​​ place unlike no other in Amsterdam​​ where​​ we can practice our French,​​ dance to​​ music, and see some titties:​​ La Lune Rouge.”

 

 

 

The Silver Year: Chapter 14

Chapter 14

Madcap Laughs

 

“Stand up . . . stand up​​ . . . stand up mate! You’re sitting​​ in a fucking​​ pile o’ piss!” Two tattooed arms forklifted Walter to his feet.​​ He​​ staggered to​​ a​​ nearby canal​​ where he​​ again collapsed to the ground. He crawled on his belly to the​​ canal’s edge,​​ then​​ evacuated his​​ demons​​ into the water—about​​ four​​ still-semi-solid​​ pot​​ brownies. ​​ ​​ 

“God​​ damn it. Now you’re really fucked,” the Aussie stranger​​ said. “The locals​​ don’t take lightly to tourists chundering​​ in their​​ canals. That’s what these dunnies​​ and rubbish bins are here for. You’ve really got​​ your head on backwards don’t cha​​ mate?”​​ He​​ went over to​​ Walter.​​ “Come on, we’ve got to get out of here before the police find you.”​​ 

He helped​​ Walter​​ to his feet​​ again.​​ Walter stood​​ like a​​ wobbly​​ fawn.​​ The unknown Aussie put an arm under him for support.​​ “Holy shit​​ you reek,” he said. “Can​​ you​​ make it​​ a​​ few blocks? I’ve got a flat up the road;​​ let you​​ clean up and​​ get your head on​​ straight​​ if you’d like.”

Walter’s head​​ was​​ still spinning from his nosedive​​ back​​ into reality​​ from inner space.​​ As his vision stilled, his rescuer​​ came into​​ focus. He was a mustached man,​​ about the same age as Walter.​​ His mouth rested in a​​ permanent​​ smile​​ with​​ a severe gap​​ in the middle,​​ which was periodically interrupted by the cigarette he was smoking.​​ His medium build was dressed in black from his ragged Cleveland Indians cap to his dirty and frayed Vans shoes. His unkempt hair stretched out wildly under his hat​​ and his jeans only reached his ankles. His pulled-back​​ black​​ flannel sleeves revealed an extensive collage of horror​​ movie​​ figures,​​ obscure metal bands, and​​ bizarrely, more​​ Ohio​​ sports teams.​​ He was part clown,​​ truckdriver, and​​ bum.​​ There was something​​ frightening​​ about him, yet also​​ congenially welcoming as if he was​​ a​​ chimera stuck between two​​ orders​​ of character.

“Do I know you?”​​ Walter asked.

No you don’t, but now you do.​​ I’m Dug,​​ Dug DeMargo. And that’s spelt​​ D-U-G. You can thank my illiterate mum for that.”

“Okay…” Walter said still confused. “Then why are you…”

“Saving​​ you? Don’t know exactly myself. I’m a​​ wee​​ drunk, but it seems the right thing to do.​​ I’ve never laid down in the bottom of​​ one of these​​ dunnies, but​​ sure​​ felt like it​​ many times.​​ It was so dark I​​ almost​​ pissed​​ on ya​​ until you suddenly started talking​​ to yourself—or​​ somebody. Whoever it was, ya had me in stitches mate.​​ The least I can do​​ is help you out for the entertainment.​​ So how ‘bout it?”

Walter stared at​​ him​​ questioningly.​​ 

“What?” Dug said. “You afraid I’m going​​ to take you home and pull some Buffalo Bill shit on you?​​ Ha!​​ No, I just​​ wanna take that​​ purty​​ face of yours​​ to​​ bed.”​​ Walter’s eyes widened. “Sorry, just kidding. Never mind me. I’ve just got a sick sense of humor I​​ suppose. But really, nothing​​ nefarious, just one mate trying​​ to help another​​ mate. Just adding​​ to my collective of karma​​ you could say. Never know when you’ll need a withdrawal.​​ Plus, I don’t think you’re in any shape to be on your own. You can barely stand and you’ve​​ got​​ puke and piss​​ all​​ up and down ya.”

Walter looked down and realized​​ he​​ was​​ right.

“But your choice,” Dug said.​​ “Just thought I’d offer. I’m just as fine leaving​​ you here and letting​​ you be someone else’s problem—most likely the police.”

With​​ a broken​​ cellphone,​​ no clue where he was, and no recollection of the hotel he was staying in, Walter was desperately in need of a savior, and indeed Dug was a savior for the desperate. All points of logic advised against going to some stranger’s home in an​​ unknown​​ foreign land. However,​​ cluelessly​​ combing​​ the streets​​ covered​​ in excrement​​ didn’t​​ seem much better. And​​ a shower did sound​​ so​​ nice.

“I guess you’re right,” Walter​​ said. “Uh, thank you.​​ Thanks a lot.​​ My name is Walter.”

Walter?​​ What are​​ you​​ a seventy-year-old man?​​ I’m gonna call you Walty. And don’t mention it.​​ It’s been a​​ shit​​ night​​ anyway, so​​ I’m willing​​ to throw the dice​​ on​​ a dose of different. C’mon, this way,” Dug​​ said and​​ skipped away.

“So you like the Indians?” Walter asked, seeking to learn more about his​​ new friend. “You don’t sound like you’re from Ohio.”

That obvious, huh?​​ Nope, from a little place in Queensland, Australia​​ called Edmonton—nothing​​ like its Canadian counterpart. I had a roomie back in uni from Cleveland​​ who​​ turned me onto them and all American sports.”​​ Dug​​ tore​​ out his​​ right​​ arm from his flannel and pulled up his shirt​​ sleeve​​ to reveal a huge Cleveland Browns​​ helmet​​ tattooed on his upper arm and​​ a​​ Cavs logo on the inside of it. “Naturally, all​​ of​​ Cleveland’s teams became my favorite​​ . . . So​​ lemme guess, you’re from​​ Cali-for-nee-ya?”

“Is it that obvious?”​​ Walter said.

Yes, all you​​ Cali-for-nee-yans​​ look and sound like people in the​​ movies.”​​ Dug​​ paused​​ in front of an upscale Victorian apartment complex.​​ 

“Is this your place?” Walter asked.​​ 

“Yep. Not a bad little shag pad,​​ huh?”​​ Dug​​ said, then​​ waved an electronic fob over a sensor on the entrance to the foyer. He then ran his fob over another sensor​​ to​​ the elevator, and they​​ took​​ it​​ to the top floor, then went​​ to a door at the​​ very end of a​​ long​​ hallway, where Dug waved his sensor again to​​ unlock​​ it.​​ 

When the door opened, the polarity​​ of Dug continued to perplex Walter. In contrast to his​​ black attire and​​ disheveled appearance, the immense apartment was​​ colorfully​​ and​​ immaculately​​ styled​​ in loud tones of red, orange,​​ and dark​​ blue.​​ ​​ From a windowed​​ balcony​​ door, the Herengracht Canal was visible,​​ and the lighting of an overpass below cast the room in a charm​​ that one could​​ only compare to Christmas—even if you weren’t a fan of it. ​​ 

“Shoes off,” Dug said. “And don’t even think about sitting​​ on anything​​ with those​​ stinking​​ fucking​​ clothes​​ . . .​​ Here,​​ you can put​​ ‘em​​ in this.” He handed Walter a trash bag from the kitchen. “Shower’s down the hallway,​​ and I’ll get​​ you some new clothes​​ and put ‘em in the​​ guestroom for you.​​ We look about the same size…” He​​ then​​ looked Walter over puzzlingly. “Shit, now that we’re in the light, you​​ actually​​ look like you could be my brother​​ or something.​​ But what’s up​​ with​​ those hideous flares mate?​​ You​​ go to​​ a throwback party​​ before this​​ or something?”

“I’ve​​ always worn​​ bellbottoms—or​​ ‘flares’,” Walter said. “Many have tried to get me out of them​​ Dug, but​​ bellbottoms​​ are just a part of who I am.”​​ 

“Ha, right! Probably because they’re so​​ goddamn tight.”

 

The​​ shower was a​​ renewing​​ lift,​​ just enough of home to help​​ Walter​​ find the rest​​ of​​ his mind. After, Dug​​ showed him the guest​​ room—or as he called it, the “Box​​ Room”. Dug​​ ran a small indie record label and it was chocked full of boxes of records, shirts, and other paraphernalia.​​ Boxes were stacked neatly three to four high along every wall of the room. Other than a queen-sized bed and a small nightstand, the boxes were the room’s only inhabitants.

“It’s nothing​​ big,”​​ Dug​​ said​​ of his operation. “Just​​ a grassroots type of thing. You probably never even heard​​ of​​ the bands,​​ real off-the-wall​​ metal stuff, jazz,​​ hard house—stuff no one listens to.”​​ 

“Seems more than a grassroots type of thing​​ to me…” Walter said gesturing to the elaborate abode​​ around them.

“Well,” Dug said​​ aloofly, “let’s just​​ say I​​ come from some money, and​​ that’s what pays for the digs.​​ This…” he gestured to the boxes, “this is just my rich kid pet project​​ you could say​​ . . .​​ But anyhow, here’s some pants, socks,​​ and​​ some unworn​​ undies I had,” he said throwing them on the bed. “Feel free to take whatever​​ shirt​​ you​​ want​​ out of these boxes here, but only these​​ ones,” he said​​ pointing​​ emphatically​​ to​​ four boxes​​ of band shirts​​ on​​ the right-side​​ wall.​​ “Anyway,​​ I’ll leave ya be​​ now.”

The pants Dug gave Walter were highwaters​​ like his. While​​ he​​ wasn’t fond of​​ them since they showcased his cankles instead of hiding them, his bellbottoms were​​ irredeemably soiled.

For his shirt,​​ he found​​ one​​ in the box of mediums​​ with a​​ woman​​ and words​​ painted on it​​ which​​ stirred​​ his​​ imagination​​ as to the band behind it.​​ The woman​​ was​​ feral-looking​​ and​​ blue-skinned,​​ with​​ wild​​ red hair​​ and​​ four arms​​ centered between two​​ encircling,​​ orange butterfly wings.​​ She​​ was formed​​ from a chaos of splashed paint and organic matter which​​ looked to be​​ swirled into ten-thousand​​ more, tinier worlds of chaos and organic matter.​​ Her​​ eyes seemed​​ to follow​​ his​​ as​​ his head​​ moved​​ back and forth​​ over the shirt.​​ He​​ then​​ faintly heard music in his head and a​​ voice​​ he imagined was her. She then began singing his thoughts into lyrics​​ as if​​ she was reading​​ his mind.

He put​​ down​​ the shirt.​​ 

He​​ took a few deep breaths and​​ shook his head.​​ Perhaps it wasn’t completely cleansed of bad chemicals yet. He then​​ picked​​ up the shirt​​ again and​​ read the​​ all-lowercase​​ Sanskrit-like print​​ ringing​​ the image:

 

to​​ say​​ life has no meaning is not to​​ say​​ it has no value​​ ​​ luna hunny

 

Why did that sound like an answer to a question he didn’t know he was asking? He then remembered. Amber’s suicide note.​​ 

 

“Who is​​ Luna​​ Hunny?” Walter asked Dug as he came out​​ of​​ the room. Dug was in​​ his​​ kitchen, behind an island counter,​​ pouring​​ himself a beer from a tap​​ built​​ into​​ it.​​ Dug’s​​ eyes shot up quickly, and for a moment Walter thought he saw a flicker of panic in them.​​ 

“Uh, sorry, what’d​​ you say?”​​ Dug asked.

“Luna​​ Hunny.”

Dug​​ squinted at the shirt. “Bloody hell​​ if​​ I can remember,” he said.​​ I’ve had​​ so many bands​​ over the years, I​​ can’t remember​​ em all. I’m mostly​​ just​​ a​​ European​​ distributor for​​ vinyl reissues and​​ bands​​ outside Europe.​​ I hardly​​ ever meet bands​​ face-to-face, and they’re always coming​​ and going.​​ It’s a cool shirt though . . . Care for a pint?”​​ 

“I’m good​​ for now,”​​ Walter​​ said.​​ “Just enjoying being sober again for the moment.”

“Figured, but thought I’d ask.”

Dug then​​ viciously​​ clamped​​ onto​​ his beer and guzzled it like a crocodile swallowing​​ a small fowl.​​ It was followed by​​ two​​ less rapid​​ shots​​ of​​ Jägermeister,​​ Dug​​ seeming​​ to enjoy​​ them more.

Hm-hm-hm…”​​ he​​ said. “Don’t care what people say about it, but Jäger is the shiz tits.​​ Stuff tastes like Dr. Pepper​​ and always makes me feel better. However, it’s usually​​ also​​ what made me feel​​ bad​​ in the first place. But you know, the hair of the dog that bit you or some shit. But in that case…” a​​ large, Jack-Nicholson-like grin overcame his face—however​​ not​​ quite as sinister since he had that gap, “…there’s something​​ else I need to make amends​​ with.”​​ He​​ then​​ ducked beneath​​ the counter​​ and reappeared​​ with a​​ large​​ bag of​​ what looked to be​​ cocaine.

“Want some?” he offered​​ to​​ Walter.

“Never really been my thing, but don’t let that stop you,” Walter replied.​​ 

“Wasn’t planning to.” Dug​​ poured a pile onto​​ the countertop,​​ chopped​​ it into two fat lines, then​​ dove into them like a seabird. After, he​​ arose more relaxed than he’d been the entire night.

“I have a feeling​​ you’ll want my next treat​​ though,”​​ Dug​​ said​​ and​​ dipped​​ again beneath​​ the​​ counter, coming up this time with​​ a large glass bong blown into the shape of a​​ nude and​​ upside​​ down Marilyn Monroe. Her legs were wrapped around​​ the​​ mouthpiece protruding​​ from her crotch, and inserted into her mouth was​​ the​​ bowl. While the American icon looked absurdly degraded, it was hard to deny the awesome artistry of the piece.

“Wanna take a hit outta Marilyn’s pink bits?” Dug​​ asked.​​ “The finest​​ Pineapple Express​​ you’ll ever find. If you need up, it brings you up; if you need down, it brings you down. It’s never treated​​ me wrong; hangovers, spins, binges, depression, anxiety—it cures it all.​​ I​​ swear it’s fucking​​ magic!​​ I got​​ it​​ from this​​ Sinatra-looking​​ motherfucker up the​​ road. He grows it​​ for​​ himself and only shares it with​​ his friends—never sells it, but​​ I​​ managed to get a​​ couple of​​ ounces​​ by trading​​ him​​ some rare records.”

“Well, if​​ I need to pick a poison, that’s​​ the​​ one,” Walter conceded. “And after all, I am in Amsterdam.”

“Hey, I’m not forcing​​ you, but I guarantee you won’t regret it.​​ Let’s go enjoy​​ it​​ on the​​ balcony​​ though.​​ View’s​​ much better.”

 

Dug’s​​ weed was good—almost too good. But Walter had a better grip on the steering wheel this time​​ and a companion in the passenger seat​​ as​​ he​​ cruised​​ through the celestial orbits​​ of his​​ thoughts.​​ They both sat in silence, saturating the​​ sounds around them​​ while passing​​ Marilyn back and forth. The top-story​​ balcony​​ overlooked a bend in the canal, allowing their eyes and ears to venture​​ far into the city. Bicycle bells chimed,​​ water​​ lapped,​​ a classical guitar played​​ distantly,​​ a group of girls​​ giggled from below; the city was alive and​​ murmuring with a​​ cadenced​​ clarity.​​ A​​ freeform jam of life, Walter​​ thought.

​​ “Ya know…” Dug turned to Walter with his index finger pointed to the air​​ as if readying a conductor’s baton. “There’s music​​ in​​ the sound of life,​​ you just have​​ to shut up once in a while to hear it.”

“Did you just read my mind?”​​ Walter​​ said.​​ “I​​ was​​ just thinking sort of the same thing.”​​ ​​ 

“Na mate, it’s this weed. It creates connections between people,​​ puts​​ ‘em on​​ the same​​ plane​​ of perspective​​ if you know what I mean.

“Yeah, maybe so​​ . . .​​ Either way,​​ this is​​ great​​ fucking​​ weed.”

“Walty, I don’t do anything​​ but great—or I​​ at​​ least​​ always​​ try. God knows I’m far from perfect​​ though.”​​ 

“At least you’ve never managed to end up in the bottom of​​ a​​ urinal​​ talking to yourself covered in piss and puke.”

Dug laughed.​​ “Well, while I’ve​​ never managed that​​ in a literal sense,​​ I sure have​​ plenty of times​​ in a metaphorical sense. I’ve really gotten myself deep in my own shit.”

Dug momentarily lost his loose posturing and fell into straight sternality​​ as he lit a cigarette.​​ “My life’s full of fuckups,” he said​​ after​​ exhaling his first puff, “great,​​ giant, donkey-dick​​ ones. But​​ it comes with the territory of​​ trying​​ to​​ live​​ in the moment; of trying​​ to live the​​ most exciting​​ life I can.​​ And​​ I’ve learned​​ over​​ the years,​​ that​​ my​​ troughs,​​ detours, and setbacks​​ are just​​ as​​ important as the​​ termini​​ in life,​​ because​​ there’s no peaks without valleys​​ if you know what I’m saying?”

Walter somewhat did, but conversing with Dug was like a game of​​ philosophical​​ charades.​​ 

“I’ve​​ learned to​​ treasure​​ my mistakes,” he continued,​​ “because otherwise they’ll lead your life​​ astray from the moment. I see it all the time, and it usually has one or a mixture of three​​ flavors: people who don’t​​ want to face their​​ mistakes, so they​​ lead their lives in the future—real anxious types;​​ ones who​​ can’t​​ forgive​​ their​​ mistakes,​​ so they dwell in​​ the​​ past—real depressed types, and ones who​​ try to​​ mask​​ their​​ mistakes with​​ someone​​ or something​​ else—real pathetic types.​​ But it’s​​ only natural. Living​​ for yourself and with yourself​​ goes against the very success of our evolution. We are afraid to be alone​​ with ourselves.​​ However, if​​ you​​ can​​ find​​ comfort​​ in​​ that fear,​​ the world​​ gradually​​ becomes a much easier​​ place​​ to​​ navigate.”​​ Dug​​ then​​ relaxed back into​​ his​​ careless​​ manner.​​ “But again, I’m far from perfect, so what the fuck do I know?”

So what ‘navigated’ you to​​ Amsterdam?” Walter asked​​ genuinely wondering what kind of life​​ created Dug.​​ He​​ couldn’t pinpoint it, but he​​ felt​​ an odd​​ sense​​ of chirality​​ to​​ him.​​ ​​ 

“As​​ trite​​ as it sounds, a girl,” Dug replied. “But she was just the ending of​​ a​​ long​​ journey and the beginning of​​ a​​ much shorter​​ one.​​ I originally​​ came​​ to​​ Europe to study mathematics at Cambridge.”

“You studied​​ mathematics​​ at Cambridge?”​​ Walter said surprised.​​ ​​ 

“Yeah, but in​​ my​​ second​​ year I realized it just wasn’t my scene or thing, so I decided to move to Paris​​ since it always seems to be the​​ place​​ where​​ people​​ go to​​ figure​​ shit​​ out.​​ I got tangled up in the late-night jazz scene, and about​​ three​​ months​​ later​​ I​​ was putting​​ together​​ my first​​ operation, reissuing​​ old American jazz records that had long gone out of print. I then took on some local acts, and before you know it,​​ I was off and running.

Soon after​​ that,​​ I​​ met this​​ beautiful​​ Parisian​​ girl—and when I say beautiful, I mean​​ damn near​​ perfect.​​ She​​ also​​ had the best ass I still have ever seen.​​ Anyway, she was​​ a​​ cabaret​​ dancer, but her​​ true​​ passion was paintingreal abstract shit. She’d​​ mix​​ her​​ vomit into the paint, along with some other things at times:​​ semen, blood, pissit seemed the​​ weirder the better, and that​​ was also her philosophy in bed​​ too.​​ I mean,​​ sometimes she’d have me​​ put​​ four fingers​​ right​​ up her​​ bumhole​​ just​​ to make her cum properly.​​ Dug​​ held up his right four​​ fingers and spread them. “I’d​​ have to​​ spread​​ ‘em​​ nice and wide too!”​​ He​​ lit​​ off​​ a firecracker-like laugh.

“Anyway,” he continued,​​ “she was the freak​​ of​​ freaks.​​ And I’m not gonna lie,​​ daddy liked—actually, I loved.​​ I loved​​ her​​ so much I let her convince me to move my label to Amsterdam​​ after​​ only a little more than​​ six months​​ together. She had lived in Paris her whole life,​​ and as​​ an​​ artist she said she needed a ‘change of scenery’ for​​ new​​ inspiration,​​ and I was happy to appease. However,​​ three​​ months​​ after I moved here, she​​ told me one day she’d fallen in love with someone else and that was it.​​ I never found out who or​​ how,​​ but after a while I didn’t care. I realized it was my​​ prick​​ that was in love, not me, and​​ I​​ haven’t seen her for almost two years now.​​ Not sure if she even still lives​​ in the city, but despite everything, I ended​​ up really liking​​ Amsterdam,​​ a lot more than Paris,​​ so I stayed.”

Dug took a long toke of his cigarette, then blew out a perfect smoke​​ ring​​ before snubbing it out in an ashtray.​​ “Anyhow,”​​ he​​ said,​​ “been passing​​ out enough pieces of me.​​ What’s your story​​ Walty?​​ What​​ was​​ your​​ journey to the bottom of an Amsterdam dunny?”

“I’m still trying to piece that together,​​ but before that I was on a Contiki tour. Have you heard of Contiki?”

Dug began laughing. “Ah, you came on​​ Contiki,” he said. “Explains a lot. There’s hordes of you idiots running​​ around Amsterdam, but I don’t mind. Can’t tell you how many one-night stands I’ve returned to Hotel Nieuw Slotania.”

“Is that the Contiki hostel? I kind of forgot where I’m staying.”

“Jesus, and to think if I never found you?​​ Yes, and it’s not​​ that​​ far.​​ You​​ begin walking now and you’ll be there in twenty minutes. Hopefully you stick around​​ a little​​ longer​​ though.​​ I’m really enjoying​​ our time together. Haven’t laughed this much in a while.”

“Me too. I’m glad you found me​​ Dug. It’s weird, but I feel like​​ I know you​​ from a past​​ life or something.​​ I was​​ actually​​ a physics major at UCLA.”​​ 

​​  “Physics mate!​​ That’s what my uni roomie from Cleveland was studying—actually still is. Sometimes he still sends me stuff to get my take on it, but mathematics is obviously a much more leisure activity for me nowadays.”

“Physics is for me too.​​ Mind if I throw some stuff at you though?”

“Of course not!​​ I hardly ever get to​​ talk shop​​ anymore.”

“Me too!”

And so for the next​​ half​​ hour they​​ did.

“Not that I’m any authority,” Dug said,​​ “but I think you​​ might’ve​​ undersold yourself on​​ theoretical physics.”

“Thanks,” Walter said. “I do miss it a lot​​ sometimes.”

“Hey,” Dug​​ thumped​​ him on the chest. “It’s​​ always still​​ in​​ there.​​ You can go back any time. You don’t need school. Fuck, they’ve​​ got MIT​​ courses online for free now. If someone wants to become a theoretical physicist​​ without school, it’s never been​​ a better time.”

Dug​​ looked​​ at his​​ wristwatch. “Well,​​ surprisingly​​ it’s​​ only a little after​​ midnight,” he said. “If you’re up for it, we​​ can blab​​ more​​ someplace​​ else—preferably an establishment with alcoholic drinks and​​ some​​ women.​​ Plus, it​​ is​​ your only night in Amsterdam.​​ But don’t worry. I won’t let​​ you end up back in​​ a​​ dunny.

“I am feeling​​ much​​ better now,” Walter said. “And you’re right. I do​​ only​​ have​​ tonight in Amsterdam.​​ Okay.”​​ 

“That’s the spirit mate. We’ll keep away from the Red Light District for now;​​ go to a locals’ sector. There’s a great lounge I like. But first, shall we partake​​ of another bong rip before we get on the bike?”​​ 

“The bike? What do you mean​​ the bike?”

“I’ve got a custom tandem bicycle—a beach cruiser from your part of the world.”​​ 

Walter let out a belly laugh. Nothing​​ could’ve​​ sounded better to​​ his​​ stoned mind​​ than​​ a​​ tandem bicycle ride through Amsterdam.

 

After pulling it out of his garage, Dug threw his leg over the beastly tandem. It was the gaudiest thing Walter had ever seen. It was more motorcycle than bike, painted candy gloss white with red pinstripes running down each​​ of its​​ oversized​​ fenders. Attached to the front handlebars was a chrome headlamp, large enough for a motorcycle, and a basket with a built-in stereo. Dug flicked a switch in the center of the handlebars and the bike became accented with more red and amber lights than a semi-truck. “Safety first,” he​​ said. “You ever ridden a tandem?”

“No, can’t say I have,” Walter​​ said.

“Well, you’re in for an adventure.​​ But first, some rules. First, the bike​​ paths can be hairy, so​​ leave the​​ piloting to me​​ up front. As you can see, you​​ also have​​ handlebars, but they are connected​​ to my​​ seat,​​ so if you try to steer them,​​ the only thing you’ll​​ be​​ steering​​ is my arse, and you’ll knock me off balance if you do. Rule two is synchronicity. Peddle with me and not against me.​​ And​​ lastly, don’t ring your fucking​​ bell unless I say so.​​ Now get on.”​​ 

Walter threw his leg over​​ the beast​​ and sat on the over-cushioned seat. “All right,​​ position yourself…” Dug said,​​ “…and on the count of three, we’ll take off​​ . . .​​ One, two, three!”​​ The bike had a wobbly launch, nearly tipping over.​​ By instinct,​​ Walter​​ tried to correct by steering. “Whoa! What’d I say about steering?” Dug shouted back.​​ “Never fails,​​ I swear.”

 

The streets of Amsterdam welcomed​​ them​​ back​​ warmly. A slight breeze carried the sounds of a city still very much awake at twelve-thirty in the morning as the enormous bicycle floated down the paths like an old, cushy Cadillac.​​ Cool wind tickled every follicle of Walter’s scalp and stretched his cheeks into a broad​​ smile. The sky had cleared, leaving a dark backdrop for the evening’s show of stars, while Dug blasted​​ Queen’s​​ “Bicycle Race” on repeat and barked incoherently at the moon. People’s reactions to the bike were mixed; they either shook their heads at its ridiculousness, or chimed their bells with approval as they passed by. In the latter case, Dug would​​ shout, “Ring the bell!” and took a swig of Jäger from his bottle riding shotgun in the basket. ​​ 

They crossed over three major canals, then went through a network of back alley residential streets that ended at a line of local​​ dives and restaurants along an intersection of two smaller canals. As they drew closer to one dive, Walter was hit by music and a voice unlike any his ears had​​ ever heard. A funky rhythm line loped like a three-wheeled​​ jalopy,​​ while a​​ wild​​ vibrato snarled with sensational​​ emotion. The music and voice then​​ lifted​​ like​​ a​​ geyser.​​ California!” The word waterfalled over the air. “California!” it spouted again.

“What bar is that?” Walter asked Dug.

“Which one?”

“The one with the music.”

“Some old man’s blues joint. You don’t wanna go there. It’s horrible. No girls, only grimy old men.”

“But that sounds like a girl singing . . . God, that voice, it’s-it’s . . . I don’t know, but it’s doing​​ strange things to me. It’s so​​ moving, yet strange and sexual all at the same time. I’ve never heard anything like it. We have to stop.”

“Believe me,” Dug said noticeably frustrated. “You do​​ not​​ want to go there. It’s not a place for tourists, just a lot of old men and seedy scumbags who will probably pickpocket you the moment you step in. Where we’re going​​ is much, much nicer; a lounge full of fine women​​ who get drenched at the sound of an American accent.​​ Don’t worry, we’re almost there.”

“But I’m more of a dive bar type of guy anyway.​​ Can’t we just check it out?”​​ Dug ignored him and kept pedaling. “Dug!” Walter shouted. Dug turned up the music and remained unresponsive. “Fucker!” Walter said then pushed back on his pedals and gave his handlebars a sharp jerk to the right.

“What da fack!” Dug yelled as the bike went squirrely. Unable to regain control, it eventually ejected them off, and came crashing down on its side, its bells shrilling painfully as it skidded down the pavement.

“What the fuck did you do that for?!” Dug​​ screamed.

“I’m sorry,” Walter said. “I don’t know what came over me. I just wanted you to stop.”

“Well, we’re stopped! You happy?! Jesus Christ, I save you,​​ bathe​​ you,​​ and​​ clothe you, and you repay me by wrecking​​ me bike? You’re a real fucking​​ wanker, you know that? . . . My baby!” Dug cried as he lifted the bike and inspected it over for damage. “Great.​​ I’m gonna have to get it repainted now. Look at all these scratches.”

“I’m sorry Dug. I’m really sorry.​​ I don’t have a lot of money, but I’ll give you everything I have left for repairs. I’m so sorry.”

Walter’s beggarly face seemed to soften Dug a little.​​ “Oh fuck, it’s fine,” he said. “It’s not that bad I suppose. I can probably paint ‘em over myself. But just why Walty? Why would you do that when I’ve been nothing​​ but a mate to you?”

“I don’t know,” Walter said just as confused. “I just wanted you to stop so badly. It was like this sudden urge. Then when you ignored me something came over me…”

Walter’s attention trailed back to the music which had continued to chug along unchanged. Dug noticed and shook his head​​ cynically.

“Please Dug?” Walter begged again. “Just a song or two?​​ It’s my only night in Amsterdam. Shouldn’t we be spending it how I want to?”

“No.​​ You lost that privilege when you decided to crash my bike.”

“It seems I never had that privilege to begin with.”

“Well, if it was any other bar, I’d be fine, but not that one. Really, I’m looking​​ out for you. Remember, I’m supposed to keep you out of trouble,​​ and that bar is not a tourist-friendly place. C’mon, the other place is just five minutes​​ more​​ up the road.”​​ Dug​​ then​​ put his leg back over the beast.​​ 

Inside, Walter was being torn apart.​​ The music—and especially that voice—had gaffed his heart​​ and wouldn’t let go.

“Fine,” Walter said​​ after a while. “If it’s five minutes up the road, I’ll meet you there. I’m sure​​ the​​ big bike out front will​​ make it​​ easy​​ to spot. I just need to see who that band and especially that girl is. I’m sorry.”

Dug shook his head.​​ “Of all the bars in Amsterdam,” he said,​​ then pressed​​ the​​ pedal forward,​​ soon disappearing​​ into the night. And like that, Walter was alone again . . . alone again. ​​ 

 

 

 

 

 

The Silver Year: Chapter 13

SIDE​​ B

 

 

Chapter 13

A​​ Love Most Supreme

 

Each palpitation of​​ bass​​ pushed Walter​​ farther​​ away from himself.​​ But really,​​ who is myself?​​ the quivering voice inside​​ his head asked.​​ I’m thousands of miles away from any type of familiarity. I don’t know these people,​​ their language,​​ this country,​​ this​​ city, or even what type​​ or how many drugs I’m on.​​ I don’t even know how I got here​​ . . .​​ Am I at​​ a​​ rave?​​ 

Electronic dance music chomped with the precision of pneumatic machinery, slicing the air around​​ him​​ into rhythmical bouillon cubes of music and noise. Blacklit glowsticks and the smell of​​ Vicks​​ VapoRub pulverized​​ the dark​​ as glistening skin pumped and humped around him in an​​ orgy of​​ neon​​ movement.

What beautiful oddity allured me to this strange plane of existence and time?​​ He​​ soon​​ found his answer​​ in the half-naked​​ woman​​ bouncing​​ her buttocks upon​​ his hips.​​ His​​ females are friends only policy had​​ apparently​​ gone out the window.​​ 

Walter’s body​​ had a tendency to “go exploring” when​​ he​​ was blacked out—which wasn’t often, but it was​​ a fatal flaw in a city​​ as​​ bipolar as Amsterdam. In the sobriety of day,​​ she was​​ a​​ serene​​ Dutch beauty, but in the inebriation of night, a shape-shifting she-devil, and not the​​ place you wanted to​​ come to​​ in not​​ knowing​​ where​​ you​​ were, how you got there,​​ or​​ where your friends went.​​ 

Hello​​ Planet Amsterdam!​​ You are strange and so am I, so please accept me as one​​ of​​ your own​​ . . .​​ Please?​​ Walter begged​​ as the​​ inside​​ of​​ his head​​ began running wild.

Tracers of light​​ started​​ to sputter and freeze,​​ faces within his vicinity​​ started​​ to​​ change and​​ unhinge.​​ He​​ felt himself​​ suddenly​​ falling,​​ cannonballing​​ down​​ a​​ mineshaft​​ inside his​​ mind.​​ How far above reality was and what​​ waited​​ below was unclear,​​ but if he could somehow find a tether,​​ perhaps​​ he could​​ still​​ save​​ himself.​​ He​​ just​​ needed to find​​ out​​ when and where reality​​ began falling away.

I am​​ Walter​​ Huxley—for the most part,​​ I am Walter Huxley,​​ he started with what he​​ could last remember​​ to be true.​​ I​​ am in​​ Amsterdam.​​ I came here on a Contiki trip…​​ And that was all memory​​ gave him.​​ Thunderclouds of​​ fright​​ began​​ gathering.

Well, this is a new high.​​ I’m not even sure if I’m really alive.​​ This feels like a dream . . .​​ Well, you did it Walter.​​ Your greatest fear about this trip came true.​​ Whatever​​ drug​​ or drugs​​ you’ve taken has made you lose your mind in a foreign country,​​ or possibly​​ killed you​​ or put you in a coma or​​ somewhere in between,​​ because​​ whatever this is,​​ this​​ isn’t real life . . .​​ But then what is it?

No this is real. This is real. It has to be real. I just​​ need to find a restroom because​​ not only​​ do​​ I​​ suddenly really need to pee, but this​​ orchestration of strobing​​ lights​​ and​​ merciless​​ EDM​​ is​​ fucking​​ my​​ psyche with the​​ grace​​ of a jackhammer.​​ Once​​ I’m​​ there,​​ I’ll​​ get​​ a​​ good​​ look over​​ in the​​ mirror to reaffirm​​ my​​ existence,​​ and that will​​ fix everything​​ . . . I hope.​​ ​​ 

Fog​​ machines​​ then​​ began​​ dusting​​ the dancefloor​​ with​​ a pulsating cloud of​​ color​​ and​​ confusion​​ as the music crescendoed. Panicked, ​​ any grip he had on​​ reality​​ suddenly​​ left​​ as​​ he was sure​​ the​​ ground​​ was​​ lifting​​ with​​ the​​ music.​​ 

Doooo​​ you know where the bathroom​​ izzzzz?”​​ he​​ yelled to the​​ behind he’d been​​ humping.​​ Inside his head, his voice​​ sounded like​​ it​​ was being run through a pitch-shifter.​​ The music was so deafening it was not only affecting​​ his​​ hearing, but blurring his vision from the reverberations of his skull. Certainty’s outlines kept going in and out of focus.

The owner of the behind​​ looked back quickly and​​ shrugged, then​​ continued​​ rubbing​​ her behind on him.​​ He turned her back around.​​ “Is there a proper place to urinate, or shall​​ I just go on this dancefloooooor?!​​ he cried.​​ Punch​​ drunk​​ and​​ now​​ sure​​ he was in a​​ lucid​​ dream,​​ he​​ unzipped his pants and exposed himself to the girl​​ in a challenge to reality. “Wheeere​​ do I take this​​ guyyyy?

The girl screamed, but before Walter could start​​ discharging​​ himself, two hefty​​ and very real​​ security guards​​ hauled him​​ out​​ of the cloud and onto the cobbled streets of the Red Light District. “Thank​​ yooooou!” he yelled​​ as​​ they​​ tossed​​ him​​ onto​​ the ground.​​ 

 

The industrial stomp​​ of the​​ nightclub​​ soon receded​​ into​​ sounds of urban nightlife​​ as​​ Walter’s​​ mind calmed​​ for the time being.​​ Okay, so I’m still in reality,​​ he thought​​ as he petted the​​ hard​​ ground.​​ Im​​ still​​ in Amsterdam​​ . . .​​ God, I need to take a piss.​​ He​​ then​​ remembered​​ a​​ green,​​ spiral-shaped public urinal​​ he’d​​ pissed in​​ earlier​​ on his way to…​​ 

The sex show!​​ the memory climbed out of the abyss.​​ I went​​ to​​ a sex show​​ and​​ . . .​​ and​​ I ate​​ a​​ banana?​​ . . . I ate​​ a​​ banana out of​​ a​​ girl’s vagina​​ . . .​​ I was pulled onstage and ate a banana out of one of the performer’s​​ vagina . . . Okay, nope.​​ I excitedly volunteered myself.

The​​ memory flow​​ ceased.​​ Walter’s​​ thoughts​​ went back to his bladder.

Setting out in search of a urinal, the air was cool as it hit​​ his​​ lungs. The​​ roads​​ were​​ polished​​ by​​ a​​ recent​​ rainstorm​​ and were​​ gleaming​​ and​​ menacing​​ as the District’s​​ red​​ lights echoed off them​​ as if the city was bathed in blood, battling Walter’s bearings as to what was real or imagination. Soon, an​​ animated​​ symphony of demonic voices​​ arose from the blood, and​​ began​​ cooing​​ and​​ cackling​​ at him​​ from​​ every​​ corridor​​ and​​ every​​ passerby,​​ faces contorting​​ and​​ warping​​ around his mind’s eye,​​ enfolding​​ him in​​ paranoia​​ like a​​ boa constrictor,​​ squeezing​​ him to​​ surrender, but he slipped out and ran.​​ 

Setting a frenetic​​ pace,​​ he​​ bounced​​ down​​ alleys​​ and​​ roads​​ like a pinball off​​ bumpers. The faster he​​ ran​​ and the more he changed direction,​​ the less time his​​ psychosis​​ had to play tricks​​ with​​ his environment, and fortuitously​​ by this method,​​ he​​ almost ran straight into a city urinal.

Shelter!​​ Walter​​ thought as he​​ clambered into​​ its​​ piss-soaked​​ walls.​​ Surrounded by​​ only​​ green-painted​​ steel and darkness,​​ the​​ malicious animations​​ of his mind​​ had little to work with.​​ The urinal was​​ just​​ a spiraled shade around a hole in the ground.

He​​ waited​​ until his heartrate and breathing regulated​​ before​​ finally​​ relieving​​ himself.​​ The​​ piss​​ felt as good as an escaping possession, but​​ stirred up​​ a​​ foul odor of stale​​ urine, vomit, and spoiled milk.​​ 

After finishing, he​​ fished​​ into his pocket for his cellphone. He couldn’t make a call, but it did have a front-facing camera​​ and he needed to see his own face just to assure himself he’d​​ found​​ the​​ way out of​​ his mind.​​ But​​ when he turned it on,​​ he​​ was only greeted by a black screen.​​ He pressed the​​ screen​​ and his face​​ against​​ the steel walls, hoping to catch some​​ reflecting rays,​​ but​​ the darkness ate them all up.​​ He​​ then​​ resolved​​ to​​ using​​ his​​ phone’s​​ primary camera​​ which​​ had a flash, but​​ his eyes and mind were in a tenuous state,​​ barely beginning to reclaim​​ normal function.​​ So with eyes closed, he pointed the camera​​ at​​ himself​​ as if it were a loaded gun. The flash​​ ignited​​ and​​ an imaginary force of voltaic monsters​​ came rushing​​ in under​​ his eyelids.

Reactionarily, he threw the phone,​​ and after several seconds of blindness, a​​ sad image​​ waxed​​ into view.​​ There,​​ in a pool of public​​ excrement,​​ it​​ lay like his spirit:​​ shattered.​​ He squatted down and picked up the splintered device and its assorted pieces. He pressed the power button with both thumbs as if​​ choking​​ it, but​​ to​​ no avail.​​ Unable to confirm himself,​​ he gradually​​ waned back​​ into the ether, left to swim again with his​​ chemical demons.​​ 

Inner​​ catcalls​​ began​​ oozing​​ in​​ from​​ grates above​​ as​​ Walter​​ cowered fetally​​ onto the floor and​​ over the urinal’s hole, covering himself and his hands with a mucus-like filth coating the ground.​​ Unthinkingly, he then​​ held his​​ hands​​ to his face​​ to cry,​​ putting the​​ filth​​ in his eyes,​​ soon making​​ him​​ blind.​​ But sight wasn’t the last of​​ Walter’s​​ senses to​​ forsake​​ him.

Slowly, he​​ retreated from any​​ bodily​​ sensation until there was nothing left but​​ thought,​​ then​​ only​​ one thought:​​ This​​ must be what death feels like.​​ It​​ bounded down​​ the halls of​​ his empty consciousness until it was​​ nothing​​ but a whisper, then​​ impenetrable​​ silence.​​ 

Undisturbed​​ by​​ the outside world,​​ he​​ was left to​​ wander​​ within himself in search of any trace​​ of himself;​​ any proof he​​ had​​ ever existed. An ember of life​​ then​​ flickered. It was the oldest memory he could​​ conjure​​ from the database of​​ his​​ existence.​​ A young woman​​ was​​ humming, the light hush of her breathing and the rhythmic pulse of her heart pressed against his ear.​​ There was no sight, only sound.​​ He​​ was in his mother’s womb.

Walter​​ always felt​​ unwelcomed​​ by the world he’d been born into, but​​ now​​ in​​ her womb,​​ he​​ realized​​ that was never​​ quite​​ true. There was​​ and​​ always would​​ be​​ one person​​ who​​ saw​​ worth in​​ his existence—she gave her life for it.​​ And although he never knew his mother, he’d always known her love; it was his life.

Soon her​​ heartbeat​​ became​​ all​​ he​​ could hear. It​​ beat​​ like​​ a war drum until​​ his outside tormentors​​ withdrew.​​ Gradually,​​ corporeality​​ returned​​ to his soggy corduroy bellbottoms,​​ rinsing​​ in a marinade of​​ urine,​​ rain water and​​ whatever​​ else​​ he was​​ sharing​​ the floor with.

Pretending it was still operable, he​​ then​​ put his cellphone to his ear. ​​ “Hi​​ Mommy,” he said.​​ Mommy,​​ he wasn’t​​ sure if​​ he’d​​ ever said the word​​ before.​​ “Even though​​ I’ve only met you in​​ pictures​​ and Grandma’s stories,​​ I​​ realize​​ now​​ I’ve been meeting you all my life​​ through your love.​​ Your love is my life,​​ my​​ love​​ most supreme. And​​ I don’t know the last time or if I’ve​​ ever told you this​​ directly, but I love​​ you. I love you with all​​ the​​ heart and life you gave me,​​ and​​ I’m sorry I​​ forget that sometimes.​​ I love you Mommy. I love you.”

Walter sat up​​ from the floor​​ with a​​ more​​ peaceful mind.​​ He was still high as shit, but at least the monster was manageable​​ now.​​ 

“I thought you came here​​ to be inspired and to honor Amber?”​​ the​​ therapist inside​​ his head​​ now​​ spoke.​​ “I don’t think the bottom​​ of this​​ urinal​​ is doing much for either.​​ But I suppose,​​ once in a while you get shown the light in the strangest of places if you look at it right,​​ including a goddamn urinal.​​ But still,​​ you shouldn’t be​​ wasting​​ time​​ in a​​ goddamn​​ urinal​​ reflecting​​ on​​ your​​ past. You should be outside​​ of this goddamn urinal​​ creating​​ a past worth reflecting​​ on;​​ inspiring​​ a story​​ to​​ keep you entertained for​​ an eternity,​​ because​​ in the end​​ your life may be​​ the only story​​ you have​​ left​​ to read.​​ 

Now as​​ you know,​​ Im an advocate of​​ moderate​​ drug​​ use, but you’re​​ doing it​​ all wrong.​​ Traveling the world is​​ already a​​ mind-altering​​ experience​​ and​​ additional intoxicants should be​​ taken with extreme​​ care—especially when you’re in a place you’ve never been​​ before.​​ And​​ while​​ drugs​​ may open the path to enlightenment, they’ll never​​ get you​​ to the​​ destination.​​ But there’s hope​​ for you Walter.​​ I’m glad I found you when I did. You still have a chance to salvage​​ your​​ one night in one of​​ the greatest cities in the world. Don’t blow it on account of​​ a bad trip. We all have them. But that’s why it’s called a trip, you can always​​ stand up

 

The Silver Year: Chapter 12

Chapter 12

Sisyphus Smiles

 

Walter’s feet autonomously danced as he slept. They were happy, spinning in circles and curling in on themselves. It had been awhile since they’d done a happy dance.​​ 

Unlike his feet, however, Walter was not a morning person. He loathed the hours before nine a.m. and anyone or anything that disturbed them—including morning head.​​ 

Goo mooring bab,” Billie said with a mouthful of Walter. He continued to pretend he​​ was asleep.​​ Goo mooring bab,” she said a little louder. She shook his leg. “GOO MOORING BAB!

“Yes-yes, hi . . . Ah great, oh, aw.”

Dis eh ah fir time I don dis,” she said under the covers.

“What?”

Dis eh ah fir time I don dis.”​​ He reached down and pulled his member out.

“I’m sorry,​​ what?”

“I said, this is the first time I’ve done this.”

“What, morning head?”

“No, a blowjob. I’ve never given one. Do you like it babe?”​​ Babe. That word made his spinal cord squirm.​​ 

“I’m not disliking it,” he said, “but I’m extremely tired right now. So you can continue if you’d like, but I’m warning you, you’re probably not going to get the response​​ you’re hoping for. Truthfully, I’m going back to sleep.”

“Wow, you’re in a lovely mood this morning.” She came up from under the covers.

“I’m never​​ in a ‘lovely’ mood in the morning,” Walter said, “especially after…” he looked at the clock on the​​ bed stand, “...not even four hours of sleep. What the hell are you doing up?”

“I told you. I have to get up early for work. I had room service bring you some breakfast.” Walter noticed a brown paper bag on a nearby table.

“Thanks,” he said.​​ 

“You’re welcome babe.” Babe again. This time his spine shook so harshly it brought him out of the bed and onto his feet. “What are you doing babe?” Billie asked. “I don’t have to leave yet. Come back and cuddle.”

“Okay, I’ve got to be honest,” Walter said. “For someone I just met, you are way too comfortable calling me babe and it’s freaking me out a little. Especially since I was supposed to share this bed with my girlfriend.”

“Girlfriend? What happened to ex-ex-girlfriend? And yes, I know we just met, but something special happened last night. We connected more than just physically.”

“Yes we did, but a connection doesn’t always mean it’s something special. You’ll learn this about one-night stands.”

“So last night meant nothing then?”

“I don’t know, kinda.”

Kinda?​​ Well, it meant a lot to me, and those feelings were very real​​ to me. How dare you take advantage of them.​​ You’re no different than all the rest of the assholes here. In fact, you’re worse because you pretend not to be.”​​ 

Walter groaned.​​ What the hell happened?​​ he thought.​​ She was so delightful last night.​​ Should’ve never fucked a virgin.​​ Good job Dick, you did it again, always hogging the blood flow so Brain can’t have any.

“I’m really sorry,” he said. “I really, really am. But please try to look at this logically. I’m on vacation, here for two nights. I just wanted something​​ fun,​​ and I​​ don’t think I was​​ deceitful about​​ this. As I remember it,​​ I told you not to do this, but​​ you still insisted that I​​ ‘fuck the Mormon girl glow’ out of you, so I did.​​ Now, just like last night when you didn’t bother to tell me you were a virgin until I was already inside you, you’re pulling​​ a​​ bait and switch​​ again. You’re the asshole, not me—sorry, I didn’t mean​​ to say it like​​ that. It’s just hard to be graceful about my feelings​​ this early​​ in the morning.”

Billie became quiet for a moment. “I​​ said that?” she said.

“Oh God, please tell me you remember?”

“I do, but I forgot about it until you​​ reminded me. I just normally would​​ never​​ say something like that.”​​ She​​ then​​ began​​ crying​​ like a belligerent cat.

Walter crawled back into bed and held her.​​ “I’m sorry,” she​​ cried into his chest, “but I don’t know what I’m doing.​​ This is all new to me,​​ drinking and sex.​​ I thought I was ready to do it;​​ I thought it wasn’t going to be a big deal, but it is—it really is. I lost my virginity, something so sacred to me for most of my life, and I just threw it away. The worst part is, I actually thought it’d be okay when I woke up this morning. I woke up feeling great—feeling in love. I fell in love with you last night and I thought you fell in love with me. Now you’re telling me that it was just a shift in the sack? You made me feel more attractive and special than I’ve ever felt in my life. The way you kissed me, the way you looked at me; how careful you were to make sure I was comfortable because you knew it was my first time; the way you ran your lips over my body and told me how beautiful you thought my curves were even though I’ve been self-conscious about the weight I’ve gained. I know I don’t have a lot of experience, but if you weren’t trying to make me fall in love, you​​ failed miserably. Please, you can’t tell me that last night meant nothing to you—please.”

Walter’s head​​ sank​​ in anguish​​ against the headboard.​​ The light of morning had exposed an ugly truth: he had fucked a child. He had defiled a twenty-two year old child without any thought to the mindfuck it would unleash upon her. While he had tried to stop himself, it was more like a rolling stop, only giving the appearance of effort.

“It didn’t mean nothing,” he said. “It always means something, just not always​​ forever. Yes,​​ in the act of lovemaking it always does feel like love​​ to some​​ degree, but​​ ninety-nine percent of the time​​ that feeling​​ eventually fades​​ away,​​ usually​​ immediately after,​​ but​​ sometimes a little longer.”

“But what about the one percent of the time?”

“Then that’s​​ a​​ forever I suppose. But finding someone like that​​ on your first try on your first time together​​ is​​ practically impossible. Even what most people think of as forevers are​​ just​​ compromises.”

“How would​​ you know?”

“I don’t.​​ But​​ I do know​​ this​​ isn’t forever.​​ There’s no way a relationship​​ can​​ work from across the world, and I’m in no​​ shape​​ for a girlfriend​​ right now.​​ But also,​​ I​​ actually​​ fell in love with my first​​ too,​​ but​​ luckily she was well-versed in​​ human​​ neuroscience​​ and explained to me that I was not in love, but just​​ had my mind blown with a firehose of dopamine and oxytocin for the first time, making me think I was in love. I, like you right now, was literally high off my balls on sex and mistook it as love because I didn’t know any better.​​ Sex is just a drug, and like any drug it makes you feel awesome, but at the same time do stupid things like telling someone you hardly know you’re falling in​​ love​​ with​​ them. Eventually​​ you build up a tolerance​​ though.​​ That’s​​ why your first time​​ really​​ should be with someone you care about, or someone who can at least tell you what’s going on​​ with​​ your brain​​ chemistry.​​ But​​ still, it’s not a big​​ deal.​​ You’re just a dopamine drunken ape smart enough to recognize her animal instincts, but too smart to realize that’s all they really are.”

The look on her face was lost somewhere between shock and revulsion.​​ “Was that supposed to make me feel better?” she asked.

“Maybe​​ the​​ strictly​​ scientific explanation wasn’t​​ the​​ best​​ choice​​ in this situation.”

Billie​​ began crying again.​​ “I’m such an idiot,” she said. “This was the worst mistake of my life.”

“Please don’t say that,” Walter begged. “I’m sorry, but because we just brushed over your virginity last night, I didn’t really think about the repercussions because I actually took your word when you said you were​​ annoyed by it and didn’t care if it was special, but obviously that was​​ a​​ mistake because I know better.​​ C’mon,” Walter said rubbing her back, “you didn’t make the worst mistake of your life. That’s just the shedding of twenty-two years of brainwashing that you need to marry and seal yourself to someone for time and all eternity in the eyes of God just to get laid. That will go away eventually too, I promise.”

She pushed his hand away and got up from the bed. “Fine, whatever,” she said. “I get it. I’m just the crazy virgin, or drunk ape or whatever you said.”

Billie​​ then​​ moped​​ about​​ the room​​ silently, picking up her scattered articles of clothing Walter had thrown like wrapping paper the night before. She covered her breasts and crotch the best she could, feeling ashamed of her naked body now.

“Do​​ you see​​ my bra​​ anywhere?”​​ she asked.​​ Walter, still sitting in bed,​​ looked under the covers​​ and found it.

“Here it is,” he said holding it up to her.

“Thanks,” she said and turned away from him to put it on.

“Listen...”​​ he​​ said awkwardly to her back,​​ “...I really appreciate everything. The breakfast and the... you know. It was… very thoughtful. I’m​​ also​​ honored I got to be your first. Please don’t hate me.​​ I really did have a great time with you last night, and​​ you’re really a​​ great person, it’s just—”

“Just shut up!”​​ Billie​​ said to​​ the wall in front of her. “Please, just shut up.”​​ 

After​​ she​​ finished clothing​​ and​​ opened the door to leave, she​​ looked back​​ at him still sitting in the bed, now​​ with tears in his​​ eyes. “Why are​​ you​​ crying?” she​​ asked, but didn’t wait for a response​​ before​​ the door​​ slammed​​ and she was gone.​​ Walter​​ then noticed​​ the writing on the​​ outside of​​ her paper bag breakfast:​​ Walter :-) XOXO​​ in black permanent marker.​​ That happy face killed him.

 

While​​ he​​ had plans of visiting Westminster Abbey and the Royal Institution of Great Britain,​​ Walter​​ was​​ put into​​ an unmovable depression.​​ He​​ kept staring at​​ the door​​ from​​ his​​ bed, hoping​​ it​​ would​​ reopen and he’d see​​ Billie​​ smiling​​ like the night before, and the longer it didn’t, the larger his fire of internal hatred grew;​​ hatred for hurting​​ her; hatred for wasting his vacation in his hotel room; hatred for every small imperfection and transgression he could find within his twisted imagination.

He then thought back to​​ all​​ the​​ women he thoughtlessly plunged into​​ before​​ Billie​​ and wondered why​​ she​​ was affecting him so​​ differently.​​ Was​​ it​​ only because​​ he’d​​ defiled​​ a virginity, or was something​​ else​​ hiding beneath his thick flesh of meaningless conquest?​​ A​​ realization​​ then​​ itched: he was​​ only wearing this flesh for his ego’s happiness, not his own.​​ But​​ ego is​​ the​​ master at making its happiness our​​ own,​​ but​​ what​​ ego​​ doesn’t consider​​ is​​ other people, and that’s​​ why ego​​ has no place in finding​​ love.

But who needs love when so many women are willing​​ to senselessly sleep with​​ you?​​ his penis seemed to say.​​ One needs a variety of lovers as one needs a variety of friends, and once I’m inside​​ one of​​ those delectable​​ morsels again​​ you’ll​​ wonder why you ever wasted any time​​ on finding​​ love​​ . . . Yes, that’s it. Think of​​ all​​ the​​ jiggling breast tissue and creamy meat​​ you’ve put​​ me into.​​ We’ve​​ got a good thing going on​​ you know?​​ You reel ‘em in with those good looks and whispered sweet nothings,​​ then BAM!​​ I​​ finish ‘em off like a semen soufflé. Why would you ever want to break this​​ tag team up?​​ 

“Because​​ you’re​​ a dick—literally and figuratively,​​ Walter said out loud.

Yeah, but​​ I’m​​ the​​ only thing protecting you from love.

“Love isn’t a venereal disease​​ you know?”

For me it is. Love is the death of me.

“And maybe that’s a​​ good thing. As Grandma said, enemies are better beaten with understanding,​​ and I understand now why this​​ snake​​ in​​ my pants—aka​​ youneeds to be kept​​ under control, and I don’t know​​ why​​ it took​​ Billie​​ to realize​​ it​​ when you’ve​​ already​​ committed​​ much​​ worse​​ atrocities.​​ If I​​ keep​​ getting pulled​​ astray​​ by​​ all​​ your​​ appeals, my heart will never​​ find​​ love,​​ but​​ that’s exactly what you want. You work for the ego, not the heart.

But what does Heart know? We​​ both​​ know he’s an idiot too. How many times has he got you in trouble?

“No more than you.”

Point taken, but at least my trouble comes​​ with​​ some​​ fun. His trouble is nothing but agony and blue balls​​ and is always so much worse.​​ Plus, do you really think​​ love​​ is​​ for you? Love is for homebodies, not restless spirits. Love is going to hurt you much more than​​ I​​ will.

 “And that’s​​ the conundrum I​​ always​​ face;​​ you’re right.​​ Love has always​​ been painful for me.​​ But​​ then again, have I ever really attempted​​ to find it​​ without falling into​​ it​​ by accident​​ first?​​ But for now, so neither you or Heart can fuck things up while I try to figure myself out, females are friends​​ only​​ going forward​​ until I​​ learn how​​ to​​ see them​​ only​​ as​​ such​​ before I see them as anything else, despite how unnatural that​​ might feel for any twenty-five-year-old​​ single​​ straight male,​​ yet​​ alone one​​ who’s​​ used​​ to having​​ women​​ senselessly throw themselves at​​ him.​​ But I do want​​ and believe in​​ love, no​​ matter how much​​ finding​​ it may hurt me, and breaking up with​​ you​​ is the first step.

His penis stopped talking to him, and soon the other dissenters followed,​​ encouraging him​​ enough to finally get out of bed. He ate his​​ paper bag​​ breakfast, a​​ now cold​​ egg sandwich, but needed some coffee.​​ Looking​​ at the clock, he realized the hotel’s​​ continental breakfast was still open for five more minutes, so he​​ threw some clothes on and​​ hurried​​ downstairs.

 

Making it just​​ as the hotel staff was clearing everything away, the coffee pot had enough​​ left​​ for one good-sized cup. “Damn, is that the last of it?”​​ a female Australian or Kiwi accent—he still couldn’t​​ distinguish​​ the difference yet—asked from behind him​​ right before he was going to take it.​​ 

“I think so. They already put everything else​​ away, but we can split it.”​​ Walter​​ turned around and was met by a girl about​​ his ageevery guest in the hotel was​​ about​​ his age.​​ A bit of a tomboy, she had dark, shaggy, moptop hair, and wore a baggy, black​​ shirt under a plaid flannel. Her face was warm and makeup-free with large​​ pea green​​ eyes and a​​ charming​​ Koala-like nose.

Females are friends​​ only, females are friends​​ only, females are friends​​ only...​​ He​​ chanted​​ his new mantra to himself. He sort of had a thing for tomboys.​​ 

Her mouth suspended open​​ and​​ she​​ suddenly became nervous​​ upon seeing his face. “N-no, that’s okay,” she said.​​ “Take it.​​ Not enough for two cups anyway.”

“No, really. I think we can make two cups out of this.”

A​​ guy with​​ shaggy hair and baggy clothes like​​ her then came out of the nearby elevator. “Did we miss it Kourt?” he asked​​ coming over.​​ They​​ looked like​​ relatives, but his accent was distinctly American, twanging​​ somewhere between a meow and Tom Petty.​​ His stoney eyes drooped lackadaisically, and he had a permanent and slightly crooked smirk.

Woah,” he said noticing Walter.​​ “I see you made a new friend.”​​ Walter tensed.​​ The first American he’d encountered​​ on the​​ trip and already he was recognized. “Aren’t you going to introduce me?” the guy​​ asked the girl.​​ 

“Actually,” she said. “I haven’t even introduced myself.”

“Why not? You’re​​ a​​ huge fan.”

“I just figured this wasn’t the right time for that​​ . . . I’m Kourtney, this is my brother Curt,” she said to Walter.

“Just​​ like...”

“No, different spellings.​​ And​​ no correlation, just a coincidence. We​​ didn’t even know we were brother and sister until​​ last​​ year, but that’s a long story.”

“Nice to meet you both.​​ Well, I’m​​ just​​ Walter​​ now, in case you had me confused with Quinn Quark.” They laughed. “And​​ I really​​ appreciate you​​ trying to respect my privacy,” he said to Kourtney.

“Of course. I don’t know what I’d do if I had to always be worried about people recognizing me. I already worry​​ enough​​ that​​ people​​ are​​ judging me​​ . . . But since you are here, can I ask you something,​​ what tuning is ‘The MagPi Song’ in?”

“How do you know about ‘The​​ MagPi Song’? I only uploaded a demo to a secret name on SoundCloud.”

“Like Curt said, I’m a huge fan.” She smiled bashfully.

And apparently a musician,​​ Walter thought smiling back.​​ Friend only, friend only...

“It’s​​ DGCGCD,” he said,​​ “I borrowed it from ‘The Rain Song’.”

“That makes perfect sense. Thank you.​​ So are you here with Contiki?”

“Yeah. The European Horizon tour.”

“Us​​ too.”

“Wow,​​ and​​ I​​ thought​​ Contiki tours were only​​ for​​ partying​​ college kids and bogans.”

Kourtney laughed. “What makes you think we aren’t?” she said. “That’s their reputation, which is somewhat earned, but also somewhat exaggerated.​​ It’s​​ really​​ just​​ a​​ great way to travel cheap. This is my second one and I still have friends from my first I talk to all the time.”

“Hey,” Curt said​​ with the last of the breakfast pastries in his hand,​​ “Don’t mean to intrude, but either of you going to drink that coffee?”

“Take it,” Walter said. “I was going to see if I​​ can​​ get some fresh coffee at the pub or a café anyway.

“Thanks,” Curt said and poured all the pot’s contents into his cup.

“Guess I’ll be getting some coffee at the pub too,” Kourtney said​​ to Walter. “But after that, if you don’t have plans for the day, we’re​​ heading out to Stonehenge on​​ a​​ bus​​ in an hour if you want to join?”​​ She brought her index finger to her lips.​​ “We also brought​​ some​​ weed​​ to smoke.”

 

On the bus ride,​​ Walter learned Curt and Kourtney were technically half brother and sister, and​​ also​​ to his relief, that Kourtney was gay.​​ They shared a father together who​​ had​​ been a roadie for Dire Straits during their 1986​​ Brother in Arms​​ Tour,​​ and sometime during the band’s four-night stint in Sydney, their father impregnated Kourtney’s mother after he told her he was the bassist for the band. But being a rather active groupie in the eighties, by the time her mother realized she was pregnant, she couldn’t even recall all the candidates, so Kourtney spent most of her life without one. However, after taking an at-home DNA test the year before, she was matched to Curt, and with the help of their parents, the pieces of the story were connected. Contiki, though, was the siblings first opportunity to acquaint themselves in-person.  ​​​​ 

When they arrived,​​ Stonehenge was nowhere near as exotically isolated as it looked​​ in pictures—instead it was surrounded by ropes, a walkway, parking lots, and of course a gift shop, but the group was able to find​​ some​​ solitude​​ to smoke​​ atop one of the many surrounding burial mounds that sprouted up from the countryside like lumpy land warts.

“How’d you get weed on the plane?” Walter asked Kourtney after she pulled out a joint.

“In tampons. But only five joints. I could’ve waited until Amsterdam, but I wasn’t going​​ to​​ not get stoned at​​ Stonehenge.”

After sparking up,​​ they leaned​​ against the land wart​​ to smoke.​​ Passing the joint, they​​ sucked in the​​ verdant​​ expanse of English​​ countryside​​ speckled with sheep​​ to their left and Stonehenge in the distance to their right.​​ Above them,​​ an endless quilt of cloud was lathed, and​​ beneath​​ them, an ancient civilization lay, a​​ reminder​​ all of presence would someday​​ decay.​​ Even the universe isn’t excluded from that lurking misfortune of​​ entropy, but​​ beauty is nothing​​ without​​ death.

“This is some really great shit,” Walter said passing the now nub of a joint back to Kourtney.​​ 

“Finish it off,” she said. “I got greens anyhow.”

“Curt?” Walter asked.

“All yours my friend.”​​ And so Walter did.

“What​​ a great day,”​​ he​​ said after, “the first one in a long time.​​ I’m so​​ glad I met you​​ guys.​​ I’m so​​ happy we’re on the same tour​​ together.”

Kourtney began laughing. “You weren’t kidding when you said you haven’t smoked in a while,” she said.

“Yes, seriously, thank you.​​ I needed this.​​ But also seriously, fate’s​​ been dealing me​​ a lot of shit hands​​ lately, but​​ just in time it​​ deals me​​ Curt and​​ Kourtney.​​ I feel like I’ve​​ already​​ known you forever, like​​ something from this book​​ I’ve been reading that a friend recommended called​​ Cat’s Cradle, something called a​​ karass.​​ It’s​​ when​​ a group of people are cosmically​​ connected​​ for a purpose, but they may never know fully what that purpose is or everyone involved.

“I know that book,”​​ Curt​​ said. “It’s one of my favorites.​​ If you find your life tangled up with somebody else’s life for no very logical reasons, that person may be a member of your karass.’”

“Of course​​ you​​ would!” Walter said​​ smiling.​​ “You’re member of my karass.​​ Man,​​ I love you guys. This has been​​ such​​ a great day.”

They all started laughing.​​ “We love you too​​ man,” Curt said.

“Well,​​ I​​ kind of​​ already loved you​​ both​​ before this,” Kourtney said, “but​​ now I love you​​ even more. And​​ how freaking lucky are we—me especially—to be on the same tour with you​​ Walter?”

“No, I’m so much more lucky to have you.​​ This is going to​​ be​​ a great trip.​​ It already is.”

 

When they​​ returned to the​​ Royal National Hotel​​ that evening​​ for their​​ pre-trip meeting​​ in the Contiki Basement,​​ however, Walter’s great day​​ was​​ quickly​​ rained on.

“Hey, it’s Quinn Queer!” a short American serviceman—judging by his crewcut—immediately shouted​​ as​​ Walter​​ entered​​ the basement. “Where’s your dress?”

Unlike​​ the​​ night before​​ in the pub,​​ there were plenty of Americans​​ going out on​​ his​​ Contiki​​ trip. His European safe harbor was vanishing.

The serviceman​​ along with two other servicemen he was with erupted in laughter, but in​​ Walter’s mind it was everyone in the room. They​​ were​​ all placing a mask on him carefully crafted by the media and he was defenseless to do anything about it. Again he was the monkey in a cage, and although a continent away from Quinn Quark’s grave, he was realizing​​ quickly​​ he still shared​​ the same planet with his corpse.

He​​ tried to laugh it off, but inside he was drowning and the laugh came out sounding like​​ a​​ gag for air, while tears began​​ refilling his eyes.

“Are​​ you​​ crying?” the serviceman said,​​ and began​​ laughing​​ harder.​​ “Oh my god, you really are a little girl.”

“Okay​​ enough!”​​ a​​ female Contiki representative​​ barked​​ like an Aussie​​ drill sergeant.​​ “You are all at least considered adults back in your home countries, so​​ let’s​​ please act like ones.​​ I know​​ the​​ meeting isn’t supposed to​​ begin​​ for another​​ couple​​ minutes, but​​ let’s make something very clear upfront; there is zero tolerance for disrespect. Maybe you’re not offended by​​ the name Quinn Queer,​​ but​​ I am.​​ I don’t care who he is or what he did​​ to you​​ outside of this​​ tour, if I hear you say that name again or​​ make​​ any other derogatory​​ remark to anyone​​ it will​​ be my absolute​​ pleasure​​ to send your ass packing. Is that clear?”

“Yes ma’am,”​​ the serviceman​​ said​​ soberly​​ as​​ his​​ friends chuckled under their breaths.​​ 

“Thank you,” she said as she went to the front of the room. “With that out of the way, let me introduce myself. My name is Anna,​​ I am your tour manager,​​ but​​ not your babysitter. Before we start roll,​​ there’s​​ a​​ few things you need to know. Our bus along with another group’s bus​​ will be leaving from the hotel courtyard at​​ eight​​ a.m.​​ tomorrow,​​ but you​​ need to be there​​ no later than seven-fifteen so we have time to weigh everyone’s luggage. Please keep this time in mind if you go out drinking tonight. Also, hopefully you already weighed your luggage at home as the European Union requires all bags to be under twenty kilos or forty-four pounds each.​​ After weighing the luggage, both buses will then​​ travel​​ together to the channel ferry in Dover, then once we arrive in France,​​ our bus​​ will​​ continue​​ to Amsterdam​​ while the other​​ will​​ depart for​​ Paris…”​​ 

“Hey man,”​​ Curt​​ whispered​​ to Walter, “once this shit’s done,​​ Kourt and​​ me are going to Camden Town.​​ You in?”

“I guess,”​​ Walter said.

“Come on, cheer up.​​ You’ll love it. There’s a reggae​​ show​​ tonight that’s rumored to be 420-friendly. You know another joint and some music will get you smiling again.”

Walter’s face was able to make a half-grin until…

“Amber​​ Evans,” Anna​​ said.​​ ​​ “Amber Evans​​ . . . Is​​ there an​​ Amber Evans here?”

Unthinkingly,​​ Walter​​ stood​​ from​​ his​​ chair​​ and​​ ran for​​ the exit.

 

Outside​​ on the street,​​ he​​ began​​ pacing and breathing heavily​​ like​​ a​​ disorientated drunk, bumping into people and tripping over his toes. His mind felt like a sock in​​ a​​ dryer, unable to orient its spinning surroundings. Almost by accident, he stumbled into one​​ of​​ London’s famous red phone booths​​ and fell to the floor. There he​​ huddled into his knees​​ and​​ stayed​​ until Curt and Kourtney eventually found him.

I’m sorry,​​ Walter​​ said​​ as they opened the door.​​ “I think I might be—may​​ be-be-be—having a mild to severe​​ anxiety attack​​ right now.​​ I’m not sure.​​ I just don’t know what to do.​​ I​​ want to run​​ away,​​ run away back home, but​​ I can’t.​​ Back home is​​ even​​ worse. I just want off this planet​​ right now.​​ Is it too much to ask to have one place in the world where nobody knows​​ you, where​​ I’m not Quinn​​ fucking​​ Quark? I​​ hate this! I fucking hate this!​​ I don’t want to be here anymore—

“Stop it!” Kourtney​​ grabbed him forcefully by the shoulders. “What are you​​ getting so worked up​​ about? No one’s out to get you,​​ calm down.​​ You’re​​ just​​ famous, not at war. And that guy back there is a complete asshole and everyone knows it. You are a good, kind, extraordinary​​ person, and anyone who can’t see that isn’t worth your​​ worrying.​​ They’re probably just jealous or insecure about themselves,​​ and it’s​​ not your responsibility to make them feel better.”

Kourtney squatted down to meet Walter eye-to-eye.​​ “We love you,” she said, “and we would be crushed if you left now because I don’t think we’re going to find what us three have with anyone else back in that basement. Remember, we’re in the same karass, and​​ our journey together has​​ just​​ begun.​​ We already gave Anna your name for roll, so you don’t have to go back. What do you say we get​​ some music and weed in you, then see how you feel once you’re thinking straight?”

Walter smiled at her.​​ She smiled back.

Why do the good ones always have to be​​ friends?​​ he thought.

 

After a great night of reggae in Camden Town,​​ the trio returned to​​ the hotel​​ a little past​​ midnight. Thoroughly stoned and exhausted,​​ Walter​​ was eager for bed, but when​​ he​​ opened​​ his room​​ door,​​ he found​​ something​​ already occupying it.

“Hey,​​ you’re finally back,”​​ a naked Billie​​ said​​ rubbing her eyes​​ as he turned on a light. “I’ve been waiting​​ for hours.”

“How’d you get in here?”​​ he​​ asked.​​ 

“I can get keys for any room. Remember, I deal them out.​​ So, I waited around all day for ‘the sex’ to wear off, but nope.​​ I still feel like I’m in love with you. I know you don’t and won’t ever, but at least I can have you one more night. If that’s all I can get, I’ll take it.”

She stood from the bed and walked toward him. He could smell the sickly scent of vodka and orange juice on her breath. She then began kissing his neck.​​ “I’m all yours,”​​ she told him.

“How about instead I get you back for breakfast this morning and order you some room service to sober you up?” Walter said politely peeling​​ her from his neck.

“But I.. But​​ why?”

“Because I learned my lesson last night.​​ While it’s kind of creepy you snuck in my room, I’m actually really glad you’re here.​​ There’s some things​​ I need to say I wish I would’ve said this morning . . . Last night was my fault. I knew better.​​ I wish I could change what I did, but I can’t. I can only say I’m sorry.”

Billie sighed and fidgeted uncomfortably, then sat on the end of the bed.​​ “It’s all right,” she said. “I forgive you.​​ We all do regrettable things when we’re drunk, including myself,​​ like not deciding to tell you I was​​ a​​ virgin until it was too late. That wasn’t your fault. But being an​​ insensitive​​ asshole this​​ morning, you can take the blame for that. Also, it really wasn’t such a horrible first time. Better with you than a lot of other guys. I don’t think most guys would’ve cared as much​​ in the same situation. I’m sorry I said it was the worst mistake of my life.​​ I actually learned a lot about myself, and my brain chemistry too I guess.”

“So you don’t hate me?” Walter said.

“No. But I will take you up on​​ some food.​​ I’m starving.​​ Room service isn’t operating right now though.”

“Fresh air goes well with food.​​ C’mon, let’s​​ go find a place.”

Billie smiled, smiled like she had the night before. “Okay,” she said. “That sounds great actually . . .​​ Hey, you know what?”

“What?”

“I think the sex just wore off.”

It was then Walter realized Billie too must be a member of his karass.​​ 

The Silver Year: Chapter 11

Chapter 11

Mormon Girl Glow

 

Walter’s​​ seat jerked forward as the airplane clawed​​ the Heathrow tarmac.​​ He grabbed at the empty air in panic as his mind was still unsheathing itself from​​ sleep.​​ He looked out his window torpidly and it dawned on him he​​ had​​ made it;​​ he​​ had​​ landed in​​ London. So far it​​ looked just as he imagined—cloudy and dreary,​​ so dreary in fact he fell back asleep.

“Sir . . . Sir,”​​ his​​ British​​ flight​​ attendant​​ nudged​​ him​​ awake​​ again​​ later.

“Yeah-yeah, what?”​​ Walter​​ said, arising​​ to a​​ now​​ empty plane.​​ 

“As much as I’ve enjoyed having you here, I’m sure you have other places you need to be.”​​ 

“Not right away.​​ This plane’s kind of nice now that it’s quiet and empty . . . But I can’t stay on,​​ can I?”

The​​ flight attendant​​ shook his​​ head amused.​​ “No, unfortunately not. Did you need help with anything?”

“No,​​ I think I’ll be​​ okay,”​​ Walter​​ said standing woozily.​​ He’d overdone​​ the wine trying to make himself fall asleep during the flight. It worked, just not until an hour and a half before the flight landed.​​ “Just a little tired,​​ kind of hungover—just a little of everything right now, that’s all.”

“It was a stressful flight for everyone,” the flight attendant said,​​ “but​​ you​​ especially.​​ That’s why I let you sleep​​ as long as I could.”

In​​ an​​ ominous beginning to​​ Walter’s​​ trip, the elderly British lady in the aisle seat of his row​​ had a​​ heart attack​​ an hour into​​ the flight, forcing an emergency​​ landing​​ in Las Vegas for two hours​​ where​​ paramedics boarded the plane and unloaded her, leaving​​ Walter​​ alone the rest of the flight with Amber’s memory​​ still occupying the middle seat​​ which​​ mysteriously went unfilled​​ by standby.

“I saved you some​​ fruit and muffins​​ since you slept through breakfast,” the flight attendant​​ said handing him a paper bag. “Also​​ a​​ coffee.​​ Figured since you’re American​​ you’d prefer​​ it​​ over tea.​​ Would you like any cream or sugar?”

“No, black’s​​ just fine,” Walter said eagerly taking the to-go cup. “Woo, still hot. You must’ve just made this.”

“I did, just for you.”

“Thank you. Thank you so​​ much.​​ Really, you didn’t have to.”

“Just​​ doing my job sir. On a flight like this, we’ve got to go above and beyond so you Americans​​ don’t sue us.”

Walter chuckled. “Very true. You’re funny... what was your name again? Sorry, it always takes me two or three times to remember and my brain is at its worst in the morning.”

“Ambrose.”

“That’s right. Like Saint Ambrose. How’d I forget?​​ Anyway, thank you for everything. You’ve been very kind.”

“Again,​​ just so you don’t sue us sir.”​​ The flight attendant smiled.

Walter​​ picked up his backpack and​​ began​​ moving​​ up the aisle.​​ “Oh,” he said turning back. “Do you know what happened to...”

“Abigail?​​ The hospital​​ said she’s​​ still​​ recovering, but doing fine. The heart attack was just a small one.”

“Oh thank God. You don’t know how happy I am to hear that . . . Well, take care Ambrose.”

“You too Mister Huxley. Also, welcome to London.”

 

After​​ going through​​ customs​​ and​​ getting​​ another​​ coffee,​​ Walter​​ sat on a bench in baggage reclaim to​​ sip​​ it while waiting for his​​ checked suitcase.​​ As he​​ did so,​​ people​​ passed​​ him​​ as if he wasn’t even there. As a test, he took off his hat,​​ leaving​​ his freshly-shaven​​ face​​ unobscured, but still, not even a​​ stare.​​ He​​ was​​ no one again.​​ The​​ bells of his bellbottoms began​​ swinging​​ excitedly​​ beneath​​ the​​ bench.

Once​​ with​​ his suitcase, he​​ walked​​ slowly​​ through the airport, taking in his surroundings​​ without interruption from fan,​​ paparazzo, gawker, or heckler​​ until​​ reaching​​ the​​ London Underground—aka “the Tube”.​​ As he​​ boarded​​ the train,​​ funny English accents chattered​​ like companies of parrots;​​ the trashcans​​ read​​ “rubbish”;​​ someone said his phone battery was “flat”.​​ The most minor of quirks were the first to catch​​ his​​ attention, but were the most​​ affirming of his new​​ existence: he was alone,​​ five​​ and a half​​ thousand miles away​​ from​​ home;​​ a foreigner​​ in a​​ foreign​​ place;​​ an​​ American with an accent.​​ It wasn’t a​​ third world country—the natives even spoke English,​​ but that didn’t​​ mean he wasn’t allowed to be a little culture shocked.​​ He’d also been so caught up in the trip being Amber’s gift that he’d forgotten indeed it was a trip, a trip​​ to a place he’d never been in a world he​​ thought he knew so well.

As the train accelerated, the gray and sooted outer​​ west​​ reaches of the city jetted​​ over​​ the windows, many​​ of the​​ cracked and cobbled buildings looking​​ as old or older than his native country.​​ So used to the full​​ color​​ of the California sun,​​ the muteness​​ made​​ him​​ feel off kilter, as if he​​ were inside​​ a black and white television set.

Nearing the city’s center, the​​ train dug underground​​ and began​​ stopping more frequently,​​ billowing​​ with​​ occupants—drunk​​ occupants, so much so there was a​​ miasma​​ of​​ stale​​ beer in the car.​​ A​​ group of men​​ then​​ boarded with paper masks​​ on​​ of​​ the​​ most​​ well-known members of the monarchy​​ and squeezed in next to Walter.​​ He​​ asked the paper-faced​​ Duchess Catherine​​ the cause.

“Whaaaat?!” the man behind the mask​​ cried.

“What’s going on?”

“What do ya mean what’s going on?​​ The fuckin’ queen​​ mate!​​ The fuckin’ queen.”

That’s right,​​ Queen Elizabeth’s​​ Diamond​​ Jubilee.​​ Before her heart attack, the elderly lady on his flight had made mention of it.​​ The Queen​​ was​​ going​​ to be carted down the River Thames​​ today​​ for all of London to see in celebration of​​ her​​ being queen for sixty years. But also​​ it was​​ an ornate excuse to be drunk in public.​​ 

At​​ the​​ stops​​ nearest Buckingham Palace,​​ the miasma dissipated, and by​​ Walter’s​​ stop,​​ Russell Square,​​ the car was almost empty.​​ A​​ wide elevator—or “lift”—then​​ carried him​​ and his luggage​​ up from the deeply buried​​ station​​ and​​ spit​​ him​​ onto the sidewalk.​​ There, he​​ drew​​ in​​ his​​ first breath of moist, outside​​ London air. The​​ roads​​ around him​​ were narrower​​ than the​​ ones​​ back home,​​ and all the buildings looked to be​​ laid in brick or​​ carved out of stone, earthly shades of red, brown and tan, stained with rain and glossed with moss.​​ Bright green treetops lined​​ the​​ street perpendicular to him,​​ and red and blue Union Jacks hung over the sidewalk in front of him​​ and​​ everywhere​​ he looked.

He continued following​​ the directions provided in his Contiki travel wallet—almost getting run over because he forgot the​​ new orientation of car traffic—until he arrived at the Royal National Hotel. The instructions guided him to an underground side entrance of the hotel labeled “Contiki Basement”.​​ Inside he​​ was welcomed by a cutely chubby Aussie girl behind a stainless steel counter. The place looked like an empty underground club, layered with color like a cake from the bottom up:​​ blue, yellow,​​ and​​ red. In comparison to the loud streets above, it was a​​ deadened​​ silence. ​​ 

“Ello,” she said cheerfully. “Checking in?”

“I guess so.”​​ 

“Your last name?”

“Huxley, Walter Huxley.”​​ Her eyebrows furrowed as her search came up empty.

“Could it be under a different name?”​​ she asked.

“Yeah,​​ my hitchhiking ghost,​​ Amber Evans.”

“Your what?”

“I mean my girlfriend—ex girlfriend. Uh, forget about it.​​ Sorry,​​ I sometimes make these inside jokes with myself and forget there’s other people around.”​​ She looked at him puzzled, but politely humored​​ him.

“Long trip?”​​ she said.

“Yeah…”​​ 

“Where you coming from?”

“California.”

“Oh, lucky you. I’ve always wanted to go there . . . Ah, found it. Sorry about that.​​ Amber Evans and Walter Huxley. I’ve got a single room with a double bed for two nights. Is she arriving later?”

“Um,​​ no. She won’t be arriving at all.”

“Ah, you booked the trip before the breakup.​​ We see that a lot.”

“Actually there was just​​ this​​ kind​​ of thing, this​​ uh…​​ event. Truthfully,​​ she kinda...​​ she kinda​​ died.”

“She​​ kinda​​ died?

Walter cursed himself for not leaving it at breakup.​​ “Not kinda,” he said, “she just died.”

“Oh my goodness.​​ Like on the way here?”

“Oh, no-no. It was​​ over a year​​ ago.”

“I’m so sorry. You poor thing. And now you’re going on the trip in​​ her​​ memory? That’s so sweet.​​ You must’ve loved her a lot.”

“Yeah” he laughed uncomfortably. “Actually, she became​​ my ex-girlfriend before she diedI mean like,​​ right​​ before she died.​​ She’s not my ex​​ because​​ she died. So she’s​​ kind of​​ like my ex-ex-girlfriend​​ . . .​​ Maybe I should call her Dos Equis.

The counter girl​​ shook her head slowly and was​​ bug-eyed as if he were holding up the place. He​​ couldn’t tell if she was just extremely confused or thought​​ her life was in danger because​​ the only reason he had an ex-ex-girlfriend was he had killed an​​ ex-girlfriend—which he​​ kinda​​ had.

“You know Dos Equis,” Walter said,​​ “like the beer—Spanish for two X’s?​​ That’s right,​​ maybe you​​ don’t have Dos Equis​​ over here.​​ But​​ yeah, you’re​​ kind​​ of​​ right. We—I mean she—booked this trip before we broke up,​​ then we broke up,​​ then​​ she died, and then​​ I still came,​​ alone and single . . . I’m sorry,​​ can you just ignore me right now? I’ve​​ gotten maybe an hour or so of sleep in the last​​ twenty-four​​ hours​​ and I’m​​ starting to​​ go a little haywire.”

The girl looked afraid to speak.​​ “Um… yeah,” she said.​​ “So here’s everything you need for the room. Lemme go get your sleeping bags—I mean sleeping bag,​​ just one sleeping bag.”

“Sleeping bag?”

“Yeah. You won’t need it here, but​​ for​​ some of the hostels you’re​​ staying​​ at​​ during​​ your trip. I’ll be right back,” she said leaving then returning with the sleeping bag. “So that’s everything. If you have any questions, or need some suggestions of what to do here in London just lemme know—I mean let us know, as in the Contiki staff. I obviously won’t be here all the time, but somebody will be . .​​ . Oh,​​ I almost forgot, take this paper​​ to the hotel front desk to get your​​ keycards—I mean keycard because it’s just you​​ now, but​​ you can​​ still​​ get more than one​​ if you’d like​​ .​​ . .​​ I’m sorry,​​ I’m​​ still​​ new here​​ and​​ honestly the whole​​ dead girlfriend—or dead ex-ex-girlfriend​​ thing​​ is throwing​​ me​​ off.”

“Hey,​​ it’s okay.​​ I’m new​​ here​​ too,​​ Billie,”​​ Walter​​ said reading her nametag. “You’ve been very helpful​​ . . .​​ Well,​​ if I’ve got​​ everything I need, I​​ guess I’ll​​ go​​ now.​​ 

“Yes, you’re all set​​ . . .​​ Hey,​​ I get it now.”​​ 

“You get what?”​​ 

“Your inside​​ joke​​ with yourself. It’s because your​​ ex-girlfriend—I mean, your ex-ex-girlfriend​​ is​​ d…” She stopped. “I’m​​ sorry.​​ I shouldn’t find that​​ kind of thing​​ funny.”

Walter smiled.​​ “I wouldn’t have said​​ it​​ if I didn’t think it was funny myself.”​​ 

At his room door,​​ Walter​​ struggled to open​​ it​​ with the keycard​​ he’d been​​ given. Two jockish males​​ dressed like they’d just come from a pool party​​ approached the door​​ to his right.

“Contiki?” one of them asked in an​​ Australian​​ accent.

“Yep,​​ Contiki,”​​ Walter​​ replied.

“CONTIKI!” they both yelled.​​ 

Down the hallway, two more jocks​​ appeared, looking almost identical to the first two.​​ “Contiki?” one of them asked,​​ also in an Aussie​​ accent.

“CONTIKI!” the original two yelled again.

“Contiki,” Walter said​​ after​​ and apathetically.

“CONTIKI!” the other two yelled back.

“CONTIKI! CONTIKI! CONTIKI!” all the Aussie jocks began to chant.​​ 

Just what I expected,​​ Walter thought,​​ frat boys.​​ Except,​​ why is everyone​​ an​​ Aussie?​​ I thought​​ this​​ was London.​​ Is Contiki​​ some weird Aussie frat?​​ ​​ 

His​​ door​​ finally​​ opened after​​ jamming​​ his​​ keycard​​ into​​ the receptacle​​ innumerable​​ times​​ and ways.

“Where ya going mate?” the​​ original Aussie​​ asked.

“My room…” Walter said in a bothered tone.

“Put your​​ stuff away and let’s go drink​​ at​​ the pub downstairs.”

“It’s still a little early for me to start drinking. I’m honestly pretty tired guys​​ and just want to relax for a bit.”

“Ah,​​ don’t be a puss bloke. C’mon,​​ let’s go drink.”

“How about I​​ join​​ you down there later?”

“All​​ right, but you better come. You heading out on Escapade tomorrow?”

“No,​​ I think my trip is called European Horizon. It heads out in two days.”

“Ah, that’s a bummer;​​ you won’t be with us.”

Thank God,​​ Walter​​ thought.​​ See you​​ later guys,”​​ he​​ said, and closed​​ his​​ door.​​ CONTIKI, CONTIKI, CONTIKI...​​ they began chanting from the other side as they marched down the hallway.

He set his bags down and stood by the window​​ staring blankly at his partial view of the London skyline. Below him, bubble-shaped taxis went down the wrong side of the road and London’s iconic red telephone booths littered the streets. He felt like he was dreaming and the abatement of sleep only heightened it, like the glass in front of him was not a window, but a television screen. Everything on the other side​​ looked​​ like a movie set.

Fatigue​​ came​​ on​​ again and the bed​​ was tempting him in.​​ Must not sleep.​​ Must not sleep. I came too far and have too little time​​ to sleep,​​ he thought​​ but still​​ sat on the bed. Two minutes later​​ the bed had him​​ knocked out​​ in its arms.

Four hours later he awoke at twilight. By the time he slothfully showered, brushed his teeth, and got dressed it was dark.​​ Starving, he opted for the​​ pub downstairs for some fish and chips and​​ figured he could make good on his promise to​​ join​​ his​​ frat boy​​ neighbors for​​ a​​ drink if they were still there,​​ which, they were,​​ along​​ with​​ many​​ brethren.​​ Even though they had forgotten​​ inviting​​ him,​​ they​​ still poured​​ him​​ a pint​​ from one of their pitchers,​​ but Walter​​ quickly grew​​ tired​​ of​​ trying to decipher their drunk and high​​ Aussie​​ dialects​​ through​​ a​​ melee of “cunts”, so he​​ slyly slipped away​​ after​​ the beer.

Mingling​​ about the pub, he​​ found​​ most people​​ were leaving on a month-long tour​​ the following day​​ or​​ had just returned​​ from one.​​ On a daily basis Contiki sent out waves of young people from all over the world on rotating European tours of various​​ lengths from their London hub.​​ Amongst him were South Africans, English, Irish, Canadians,​​ Mexicans,​​ Germans, East Indians, Kiwis,​​ and of course Aussies, but​​ not a single​​ American​​ because to most Americans a month-long vacation​​ was​​ unimaginable.​​ 

From a side entrance,​​ Walter​​ noticed the Contiki counter girl​​ enter​​ the pub.​​ She​​ also​​ spotted​​ him​​ from his bright orange fedora​​ and approached.​​ “Ello,” she said.​​ “It was Walter,​​ right?”

“Yeah,​​ and​​ you’re…​​ I’m sorry I just had your name on the tip of my tongue and lost it.​​ I’ve been drinking a little.”

“Billie. No name tag since I’m off work now,” she said pointing at her ample​​ left​​ breast.

“Right,” Walter said,​​ completely forgetting​​ her name​​ again​​ and​​ only​​ remembering​​ the​​ breast.​​ But​​ it wasn’t the only thing he took notice of. She​​ also​​ had the most charming face,​​ like​​ a​​ cherub with​​ crystal​​ blue eyes,​​ and pale,​​ rolling blond hair.​​ “I’m surprised you’re talking to me.​​ I thought​​ I​​ freaked you out earlier.”

“A little.​​ But then I wondered how I’d act in the same situation. I found you interesting more than anything,​​ especially the way you dress. I​​ wasn’t sure about it at first, but now I think it’s kind of cool, like you went running randomly through some op shop​​ and threw on whatever you found kind of cool.”

“And I was trying so hard to avoid cool​​ . . .​​ So​​ I’m guessing from​​ your accent​​ you’re​​ Australian?”

Ouch,” she scowled. “I’ll let that​​ pass since you just got here, but​​ I’m​​ from New Zealand.​​ 

“What, Kiwis and Aussies don’t get along?”

“Yes, but as you can see...” she said eyeing the​​ frat boys, “…us Kiwis are​​ a little more refined.”

“Are you trying to say all Aussies are like those guys over there?”

She laughed.​​ “No. Truthfully, it’s just a neighborly rivalry.​​ Those​​ blokes over there are​​ what​​ you call bogans. They love Contiki tours. And even though Contiki is a Kiwi company, bogans​​ are​​ very​​ Australian.”​​ 

“I didn’t know Contiki was​​ a​​ Kiwi company.​​ That must be​​ why​​ there’s​​ so many of you​​ from​​ down under​​ here.​​ I didn’t​​ do much​​ research​​ about Contiki​​ before I​​ left.​​ I​​ only found out​​ about​​ this​​ trip​​ two weeks​​ ago.”

“Why​​ is​​ that?”​​ she​​ asked​​ then​​ realized​​ she​​ had stumbled into sensitive territory.​​ “Never mind.​​ It’s not important.”​​ 

“Thanks,” Walter said. “Despite my joke earlier, it​​ still​​ isn’t easy​​ to​​ talk about. Perhaps that was​​ just my way of masking it.”

“Say no more.​​ While not quite for the same reason,​​ I have my own ex back home I’m trying to forget​​ about.​​ How about​​ I get a round of shots to help us forget them?”

“Let me​​ get​​ it.”​​ 

You​​ get the next​​ round.​​ Then I’ll get the one after that, and by the end of the night we’ll both have spent the same but never looked impolite.​​ I’m still kind of new to this, but​​ that’s​​ how it works, right?​​ Her demeanor was much more driving than the bumbling girl​​ from​​ earlier.​​ “C’mon!​​ Don’t be a tosser.​​ It’s the 21st​​ century. Let a​​ Sheila​​ buy you a drink.​​ 

As they continued conversing​​ over​​ drinks,​​ conduct became increasingly flirtatious,​​ especially after they hid themselves away in a booth in a dark corner of the pub.

“So​​ Contiki’s okay with you fraternizing with the travelers?”​​ Walter asked as their fingers danced​​ together​​ under the table.

“Very much so,” she said. “Just so long as certain body parts don’t come in contact.”

“And which parts would those be?”

“Maybe you’ll just have to find​​ that​​ out​​ yourself,” she said​​ raising her eyebrow​​ and placing his hand on her thigh.​​ The additional drinks had continued to peel away​​ her​​ shy​​ shell,​​ exposing a rather vampy core.

His hand began​​ sneaking​​ up.​​ “Keep going...”​​ she​​ said.​​ It​​ continued to​​ walk, then​​ paused on the crest of​​ her hipbone. She gave​​ an agreeing​​ smile. A finger​​ then​​ dipped beneath her waistline. “Stop,” she said,​​ “but stay right​​ there.”​​ She bit her lip​​ and​​ shook her head​​ at him.​​ “I had you pegged as a complete dag​​ earlier.”

“Not sure what a dag is, but I think I can say the same of you.”​​ Her lips neared his, wanting​​ to be kissed, so​​ Walter​​ did.

“Oops,” she said​​ after.​​ “I was supposed to stop you.​​ Lips​​ are on that list of body parts.​​ Oh well,​​ no​​ going back​​ now.”​​ Her​​ lips​​ went​​ back to his​​ and her hands began crawling up his legs, but then stopped.​​ “Not here​​ though,” she said, “too many people​​ from work​​ around.”

“My hotel room?”​​ Walter suggested.

Billie​​ looked at him​​ apprehensively.​​ “I​​ shouldn’t,” she said.​​ “I’ve got to​​ get​​ up early​​ tomorrow.”

“Okay. Maybe some food then?​​ I think it’s my turn to pay.”

She smiled.​​ “You’re so sweet,” she said. “And very cute. These dimples...” she grabbed his cheeks.​​ “How about I take you to your door and say goodbye to you there?”

 

They managed to make​​ it to​​ the hotel lobby elevator before resuming their​​ groping and making​​ out. Walter pressed​​ the button for his floor, but when the doors opened on the third floor, neither of them proceeded forward. The doors shut and the elevator lowered​​ back to the lobby​​ floor then​​ opened​​ again.​​ Walter hit his floor button again,​​ and the doors closed again,​​ and the elevator rose​​ again.​​ This repeated​​ two​​ more​​ times undisturbed, the groping, making out, and unzipping of clothes intensifying with each pass.​​ There didn’t seem to be a soul awake​​ in the hotel,​​ or perhaps they were all still at the pub.​​ 

On the fifth pass​​ they​​ managed to​​ finally​​ leave the elevator, but not​​ make it quite to his room,​​ but​​ instead​​ a​​ nearby stairwell.​​ “Fuck it,” she said​​ with his​​ hard​​ penis in her hand.​​ “Just fuck me here.​​ I can’t take it anymore.”

“Yes mam,” he said,​​ and they​​ dropped​​ trou.​​ After putting his condom on, Walter then lined up.​​ “Wow...”​​ he​​ said as he​​ entered, “...that’s​​ really tight.​​ I’m in​​ the right hole, right?”

“Um, yes,” she said, “but​​ I should probably tell​​ you​​ I’m a virgin—or was a virgin.”​​ His penis came running out, causing him to fall over backwards.​​ 

“What?” he​​ cried​​ from the floor.​​ “Why didn’t you tell me?​​ I can’t do this.​​ You don’t want to do this,​​ not this way, not with me,​​ not in some​​ filthy​​ hotel stairwell.”

“But​​ I kind of already did…”

“No,​​ I only pumped once. I think it doesn’t​​ constitute as sex until three​​ or so,​​ right?”

“How would I know?” She laughed,​​ seeming​​ far less concerned about her virginity than​​ him.​​ “Would you prefer to take my virginity in your room?”​​ she asked.

“I’d prefer not to​​ take​​ it​​ at​​ all,” he said. “Plus, you don’t want to lose your virginity​​ to me. I’m still having trouble remembering your name.​​ You deserve someone​​ more special​​ than me.”

​​ “I’ve​​ gotten over the whole​​ ‘special’​​ thing.​​ I’m twenty-two years old now.​​ If anything, my virginity​​ is​​ just​​ annoying​​ to me.​​ And it’s Billie again by the way.”

Okay​​ Billie, can​​ you at least tell me​​ why you waited so long just to lose it like this​​ then?”

“Really?​​ Long story short, I was Mormon and engaged to someone,​​ then​​ realized my life was complete bullshit, so I broke off the engagement and moved halfway across the world to figure things out. Then I met this guy who dresses a little daggy but is irresistibly cute​​ and sweet​​ and funny and​​ very​​ smart, and I said to myself about half​​ way​​ through our third​​ or fourth​​ elevator ride, ‘Hm… I really like this guy. It’s about time I got laid, but there only seems to be a bunch of​​ bogans​​ around​​ me​​ and I sure don’t want my first time to be with one of them. Maybe I better take advantage​​ of him​​ while he’s​​ still​​ here because he may be the most decent​​ thing I’ll get​​ for a while.’”​​ She held out her​​ hand and helped him up from the floor.​​ “So​​ it’s okay. You’re all the special I need.”​​ 

“You were Mormon?” Walter said.​​ “So was​​ I​​ at one time. I knew there was something​​ familiar​​ about you.​​ Must be​​ the​​ Mormon girl glow.”

“Oh good. You​​ understand then​​ . . . Please​​ fuck that Mormon girl glow​​ out of me. I​​ don’t want to be that girl anymore.”​​ 

“You know,​​ I’ve never taken somebody’s virginity.”

“Good,​​ I guess​​ it will be special after all​​ then.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Silver Year: Chapter 10

IF YOU’RE JUST JOINING, CLICK HERE TO BEGIN YOUR JOURNEY. IF YOU’RE SOMEWHERE IN THE MIDDLE, SELECT THE MENU ICON IN UPPER LEFT CORNER FOR A CHAPTER SELECTION. WHILE THIS JOURNEY IS FREE OF CHARGE, IT DID TAKE ME EIGHT YEARS OF WORK, SO IF YOU’RE ENJOYING THE RIDE AND THINK IT’S WORTH A FEE, YOU CAN PAY ONE OF YOUR CHOOSING HERE. THANK YOU IN ADVANCE FROM THE BOTTOM OF MY HEART. <3

Chapter​​ 10

A Garage is No Place to Write a Book

 

“Walter…” his grandmother Mary tried to​​ gently​​ nudge him from his trance. He was staring​​ intensely​​ into a digital camera at the end of a black PVC tube. At the other end was​​ one of​​ her​​ garage’s​​ fluorescent lighting fixtures.​​ “Walter—”

“Shhh…” He waved up his index figure. “One sec Grandma . . . Ah, got it!​​ I​​ did it!” He jumped up and down looking at the digital camera screen.

“You did what?”

“I built a spectrograph​​ out of one of your leftover PVC​​ tubes.​​ Come check​​ out​​ how it works.”​​ He waved her over​​ to the instrument.​​ “A​​ rubber cap​​ with a thin slit in it on​​ the far​​ end​​ of the tube​​ focuses the light​​ coming​​ in​​ from the fixture,​​ then​​ a holographic film inside the​​ tube​​ diffracts the light, and this camera captures the result.​​ See those green and blue lines?”​​ He pointed to the camera screen.

“Yeah…”

“Those are​​ mercury​​ electron footprints!​​ They come​​ from the mercury​​ vapor inside the​​ florescent​​ bulb.​​ Electrons can only occupy certain orbital paths within an atom,​​ so​​ in order to​​ jump​​ up to a higher orbital path,​​ they get​​ energy​​ by absorbing light,​​ but only specific colors​​ of light. Then when they jump back down, they emit​​ what​​ they absorbed, and that’s what you see here, a​​ partial​​ mercury​​ emission spectrum. Every element has a unique one​​ and it’s how​​ we​​ identify​​ what something​​ is made of, even​​ faraway​​ planets​​ and​​ stars.​​ It’s like these little electrons are saying...” he continued in a high-pitched voice, “Hey,​​ I might​​ be small, but I still play a big role in your world.

“That’s great,”​​ Mary​​ said unimpressed, “but I asked you to fix this light fixture two days ago, not​​ turn it​​ into a science​​ project.​​ How much weed have you been smoking?”

“None Grandma. I​​ promise.”

“Well,​​ when’s the last time you showered or went outside​​ in the daylight?​​ I know I said I wouldn’t intrude, but​​ you sure​​ you’re​​ okay?​​ You’ve hardly​​ left this garage​​ the last​​ two weeks.”

“Yes,​​ just trying​​ to avoid the paparazzi,​​ that’s all.”

“They haven’t been around for a​​ while now. I think they moved on since you stopped wearing dresses.”

“Well, still, I’ve been making some progress on the novel​​ finally,​​ and I just​​ want to stay​​ focused​​ on that.”

“So this science project has something to do with​​ the novel?”

“Yeah, research. The main character is​​ kind of​​ a science enthusiast,​​ and I was thinking about using it for a scene.”

“Really…​​ Have you figured​​ out​​ what the book is going to be about​​ then?”
“I’m getting there.”

“I see . . . So​​ what about the​​ trip? It​​ leaves tomorrow in case you forgot.”

“I know,​​ and​​ after a lot of thought,​​ I’ve decided​​ not going is best. I’m just starting to get​​ a​​ grip on​​ my mental health​​ again​​ and​​ the stress​​ of a trip​​ might​​ make me lose​​ it​​ for good, and I sure don’t​​ want​​ that to happen in​​ a​​ foreign​​ continent I’ve never been.​​ Also, although I do want to go to Europe someday,​​ on​​ a bus tour​​ is not the way​​ I want to see it, nor did Amber in her heart.​​ So for myself—because I really do need to start caring about myself better,​​ and in respect to Amber,​​ I’m​​ staying​​ here​​ until​​ the​​ novel is​​ done.​​ This garage will become to me what Thoreau’s​​ cabin was to him.​​ I need​​ to​​ isolate myself from the​​ world and​​ journey within,​​ not​​ be vacationing​​ in Europe on someone else’s dime​​ on a trip that​​ was​​ never​​ truly​​ mine.”​​ 

“Well,​​ no offense,​​ but​​ you don’t seem to be​​ making much progress​​ ‘journeying’ within​​ from all​​ the​​ noise​​ coming out of this garage. Sounds​​ more​​ like​​ learning​​ the drums​​ and building science​​ projects​​ to me.”

“Like I said,​​ I’m​​ just starting to make​​ progress​​ with the novel. Then during breaks, yes,​​ I’ve been taking advantage of Mom’s old drum set.​​ I’ve also been sharpening my French​​ too.”

“For​​ the trip?”

“No, so I can finally read that copy of​​ Candide​​ in French​​ I’ve had on my bookshelf forever. I’m also giving​​ Swann’s Way​​ a shot. Amber always wanted me to read it, but it’s proven even more difficult​​ to do​​ in French.

“Hm,”​​ Mary​​ said eyeing him skeptically.

She then​​ began walking around the garage, a virtual maze of​​ open​​ boxes and crates​​ crowded around​​ the​​ drum set​​ and Walter’s​​ injured​​ camping​​ cot​​ he’d set up​​ for napping.​​ His​​ grandfather’s old​​ woodworking​​ station​​ had also been cleared off​​ for​​ science experiments and aspirations​​ of​​ a novel​​ one day​​ arising​​ from​​ his​​ sporadic and​​ sloppily-written​​ journal​​ entries, what he​​ was​​ counting​​ as​​ “progress”.

“You​​ found​​ your mother’s old records,”​​ Mary said looking​​ into one of the​​ open boxes. “Where​​ were they?”

“Up in the rafters where I found​​ grandpa’s hat.”

“I still don’t understand your fascination with​​ that ugly thing. You look like a construction worker​​ you know.”

Walter and the​​ absurdly bright orange fedora​​ from his dorky dad costume had become almost​​ as​​ inseparable​​ as his bellbottoms. Like his bellbottoms, the​​ hat, which was in antithesis to everything rock star,​​ had​​ taken​​ on​​ a​​ denotative meaning being​​ that it​​ demarcated the death of Quinn Quark​​ and the beginning​​ of​​ the search for himself. But​​ also​​ like his bellbottoms,​​ the hat​​ concealed a part of him he didn’t want the public seeing: his face. However, in regards to​​ passing​​ cars​​ on his evening walks, he was more visible that ever,​​ the most important tip he’d taken away​​ from​​ recently​​ reading​​ Stephen King’s​​ On Writing.

“Oh my, look at this,”​​ Mary​​ said pulling a​​ framed​​ photo​​ out of​​ another box. “My little​​ boy​​ scout.”

“I wouldn’t​​ call him​​ little,” Walter said looking at the picture of his younger​​ self.​​ “Looks like he​​ ate​​ another boy scout.”

“Oh,​​ that​​ was just baby fat.​​ You​​ were​​ just a late bloomer, that’s all.​​ This must’ve​​ been​​ taken a few months after​​ you​​ moved here. Look at those pudgy cheeks and your always perfect​​ uniform you ironed yourself.​​ You’ll always​​ be​​ this​​ chubby​​ little​​ boy​​ scout​​ to me.​​ I think he’s who you​​ should​​ get back in touch with. Remember how happy you were?”

“Because I’d just been​​ wrenched​​ from the clutches of hell.”

“And​​ here you​​ are again,​​ yet​​ now​​ you’re refusing to be saved.”

“What do you mean?”

“Do I really have to spell it out?​​ Walter, you​​ may be brilliant,​​ but​​ sometimes​​ that​​ brilliance​​ blinds​​ you​​ of​​ what’s most​​ obvious.​​ If you’re trying to escape Quinn Quark, why​​ stay​​ in​​ America​​ where​​ you’ll always be chained to​​ him​​ when you have​​ an​​ opportunity to go​​ somewhere you’ll be free of him? Isn’t​​ that​​ what you’ve been saying you want all along?​​ And​​ I know you don’t believe in​​ God​​ anymore, but​​ I’ve been praying for you,​​ and​​ I​​ think if you’d open​​ your​​ mind to it,​​ you’d see this trip​​ is his hand reaching out for you.​​ It wouldn’t be the first time he’s intervened​​ to save​​ your life.”

“Grandma,​​ you​​ realize people​​ mostly​​ go​​ on these tours to​​ party, drink, and fornicate, right?​​ I’m not sure God would approve.”

“We don’t know God’s will.​​ The world is full​​ of​​ temptation,​​ yet the world​​ and its temptations are still God’s creation, and they are here for a purpose,​​ and that purpose is​​ not to hide​​ away​​ from them.​​ Enemies​​ are better beaten with understanding than ignorance, and my shielded​​ upbringing​​ was​​ helpless​​ once​​ temptation​​ entered​​ your mother’s life, temptations I never understood, and perhaps judged too harshly, which only drove her further into them and farther away from me.”

Mary​​ came out of the maze and stood in front of Walter with a record in her hand.​​ “Your mother’s favorite,” she said handing it to him. “I couldn’t remember it until I saw the​​ little man lady on the​​ cover.”

Purple Rain​​ was her favorite record?” Walter said.

“At the time​​ she was pregnant with you, yes.​​ She used to play this almost every day, and every time this one filthy song came on, she’d sing it at the top of her lungs just to spite me because I​​ had thrown away the record so many times.​​ After​​ the​​ fourth or fifth time​​ she rebought it though,​​ I gave up, so I made her listen to it​​ in​​ her bedroom​​ only. But every time that song came on, the door would fling open​​ and​​ out came​​ your mother​​ dancing like a stripper, sometimes in nothing but her underwear with her tatas and big belly hanging out, just screaming that song as loud as she could.”

“Oh my God, no way,”​​ Walter​​ said laughing. “No​​ wonder I am the way am.”​​ He​​ placed the record​​ on a player and dropped​​ the needle​​ on the last song of the first side. “Was it this​​ song?” he asked.

“Oh yes,​​ that’s it,” she said as soon as it started to play.​​ “It’s​​ scarred in my memory for life.”​​ Mary​​ brought her hand to her face​​ and sighed as if she was going to cry, but didn’t.​​ Walter had never seen his grandmother cry.​​ “Funny,” she said,​​ “I don’t seem to mind it as much​​ now.”

“I guess there’s a lot I still don’t know about my mother,” Walter said.​​ Never in a million years would’ve​​ I have​​ guessed​​ Purple Rain​​ was her favorite record.​​ I​​ would’ve thought​​ Tapestry​​ or something like that from the few songs of hers I’ve heard.​​ 

“Yes, I much preferred her music. It was so sweet in contrast​​ to her behavior​​ sometimes, but​​ I think​​ I was somewhat to blame for that. Deep down​​ though,​​ she was more like her music, and​​ by​​ George​​ was she smart​​ and had a heart of gold.​​ She was always​​ trying to help someone or save something. From the time she could walk she​​ was always bringing​​ home​​ stray cats and injured animals to adopt, or rallying for this cause or​​ protesting that one,​​ none of which I ever really understood. Again, I wish I just would’ve been a little more open-minded,​​ then maybe she would’ve opened up​​ to me​​ more.”

With tears in his eyes because he was bought to them so easily now, Walter went to his grandmother and hugged her like a firm handshake.​​ This​​ was how his grandmother always​​ hugged. Coming from a family of​​ awarded​​ Marines​​ and athletes,​​ she was not a​​ small or​​ fragile woman, and​​ her resolve​​ and stamina​​ to the service of others​​ was unlike any person​​ he​​ knew. Even at the age of seventy-five, she still worked nearly forty hours a week​​ as a​​ rehab​​ nurse at Torrance Memorial, a post she’d been serving in longer than​​ he​​ had been alive,​​ despite being able to​​ easily retire​​ two​​ decades​​ earlier.

“Walter...” his Grandmother​​ said​​ into his ear​​ after kissing his cheek,​​ “I love you, but you’re wrong. A​​ garage is no place to write a book. Also,​​ wasn’t that​​ the​​ real reason for this trip anyway, so Amber could find inspiration to write​​ a​​ book?​​ So if you’re​​ really​​ trying to escape Quinn Quark, write​​ a​​ book, and pay respect to​​ her, I don’t see​​ how you​​ have any other option than going,​​ unless I’m missing something?”

“No,” Walter​​ replied​​ into her ear, “you always seem to catch everything.​​ I love you too, more than anyone. If God exists, you’re​​ his​​ strongest proof,​​ and​​ I don’t want you to ever think you did anything other than perfect in raising me.​​ You obviously learned something from having to deal with my mother. And although I’m not perfect,​​ that’s​​ no one’s fault but my own.”

“Well, you might not be perfect, but I would say you’re​​ a​​ pretty extraordinary​​ grandson,​​ and​​ I’m​​ so​​ privileged to call you mine. But you mind turning off the music now?”

“Yes of course,” Walter said and lifted the needle.

“So did I convince you?” Mary asked.

“Yes, I think that’s very obvious now. It’s all​​ strangely​​ obvious now, and I don’t know why it took you​​ for me to see it.”

Maybe because I keep my ears open to God, and maybe you should too every once and awhile like that chubby little boy scout used to.​​ While it’s never good to be ignorant,​​ sometimes​​ faith​​ is the only way through fear.​​ But also, if I had to endure another two weeks of your tinkering and drumming, I​​ think​​ my​​ mental health​​ would’ve been at stake.

The Silver Year: Chapter 9

Chapter​​ 9

There​​ is​​ Always a Silver Lining

 

“Hi​​ Karen,” Walter​​ said.

“You weren’t kidding when you said bright orange hat,”​​ the mother of his dead ex-girlfriend​​ said as she​​ sat​​ across from him. “I wouldn’t have​​ recognized you otherwise.”​​ She​​ tucked​​ her eyes​​ under the brim​​ of his hat​​ to meet his.​​ She smiled.​​ “Hi​​ Axl.”

He​​ smiled​​ back​​ fretfully​​ at​​ the​​ steel blue​​ irises​​ he’d exchanged so many​​ wonderful​​ discourses​​ with.​​ They and she​​ still had the​​ same sultry​​ vitality he​​ remembered,​​ however,​​ the​​ prominent gray streak in her​​ jet black curls​​ was​​ a tad more striking.

“A milkshake?”​​ Karen said. “Aren’t​​ you​​ lactose intolerant?”

“Yes,​​ and​​ my stomach hates me,”​​ Walter​​ said​​ grimacing. “But damn,​​ does it taste good though.​​ I haven’t had a milkshake since I was, well, a fat kid​​ who wasn’t lactose intolerant.​​ I just saw it on the menu and made an impulse​​ buy.​​ But no going back now.” He took a dramatic gulp.

“You’re going to regret that​​ . . .​​ And​​ now​​ you’ve got milkshake​​ all over​​ your beard. Here...”​​ She reached to his cheek to​​ clean​​ it away, but stopped short. Her hand hung on the air;​​ their eyes hung on each other’s.​​ Time​​ paused, and traveled​​ briefly​​ to the last time they touched.​​ Walter could taste the​​ smooth​​ skin of her neck and breasts in his mouth, hear her warm moan in his ear, and feel the tight clench of her hand around his penis and the satisfying flush of her shuddering center over his own.

He​​ picked up a napkin and wiped​​ his​​ face, hand and eyes​​ then​​ fell away​​ and he was back in the present.​​ 

Karen​​ cleared​​ her throat and​​ gave an uneasy smile, her eyes​​ beginning to roam the diner for an exit. There it was:​​ fear.​​ The confident wind that carried​​ her​​ in​​ was fading​​ fast​​ now that there wasn’t any​​ small talk​​ left​​ to pick at.​​ They​​ couldn’t ask how they​​ were doing. They already knew.​​ It​​ was shit times for them both.

“Listen...”​​ Walter​​ said, “I want you to know I never intended for our​​ ‘affair’​​ to become national headlines.​​ During the interview a lot came up about my past​​ and I had been drinking and it accidently slipped.​​ I never would’ve intentionally put your career in​​ harm.​​ I​​ feel horrible. I’m​​ so​​ sorry​​ Karen.​​ You didn’t deserve to be brought into this."​​ 

“Yes I did,”​​ she​​ said​​ adamantly,​​ “more than you know.​​ And past​​ the​​ embarrassment​​ and some harassment from nobody that matters,​​ only​​ headlines​​ in science journals can​​ affect my career, not tabloids.”

“But hardly anyone reads science journals, and this shouldn’t be how the rest of the world comes to know Doctor Karen Evans. It​​ should be your​​ legacy; all the lives​​ you’ve​​ saved.”

“Please don’t​​ say that right now.​​ I’m sure you’ll understand​​ after I tell you the truth.​​ That’s why I called to meet you today, not the magazine article.”

“The​​ truth?”

Karen took a long sigh.​​ “I lied to you,” she said. “I lied​​ to​​ you, and​​ I lied to a lot of​​ other​​ people, but I feel the worst about​​ you.”

“You lied to me about what?”​​ 

She​​ attempted​​ to​​ answer, but​​ every time​​ her​​ mouth opened, no words came out.

“Um…” she finally​​ muttered, “what I’m about to tell you isn’t going to be easy to hear.​​ It’s why I​​ didn’t tell you in the first​​ place; I wanted to protect you. But now that everything is out​​ in​​ the​​ open,​​ the truth is​​ inevitably going to come out,​​ and I don’t want you to​​ hear it​​ from someone else…”

Walter’s heart​​ began​​ punching​​ his​​ sternum​​ and pulling​​ at​​ his lungs​​ while​​ she​​ took a few​​ more​​ moments to compose herself,​​ but it didn’t seem to be​​ helping.​​ Her​​ eyes began watering​​ while​​ her​​ mouth​​ continued to​​ fight​​ her tongue.

...Amber​​ didn’t die from a seizure,”​​ she​​ managed​​ to​​ blurt out, “she hung​​ herself with a belt​​ on​​ a pull-up rack that​​ was​​ on​​ her bathroom door.​​ That’s how I found her the morning​​ I called you.

Walter had had so many doses of traumatic news​​ lately,​​ his mind was on high alert to preserve itself. He​​ had​​ heard​​ her​​ clearly,​​ but before he could process it,​​ he​​ got​​ hung​​ up​​ on​​ her saying​​ hung​​ instead of​​ hanged.​​ 

I know​​ hanged is the​​ correct​​ past tense of hang​​ in this case,​​ but it sounds so silly.​​ I don’t think anyone actually​​ says that. Why don’t they just make hung the past tense whether​​ it’s​​ a person or picture? Is it because a human​​ being​​ deserves special treatment? What if you were to hang an animal? Would it​​ still be​​ hanged or hung? The English language is so unnecessarily complex and inefficient. But​​ French​​ is​​ even worse

“Walter?”​​ Karen said.​​ He blinked several times, then​​ stared​​ emptily​​ at her. “Did you hear me?”​​ she asked.

“Yes. Amber huuung—haaanged . . . hung-hanged, hung-hanged…” he repeated several times then​​ stopped​​ abruptly.​​ Karen​​ then​​ watched helplessly as the realization slowly​​ congealed on​​ his face.​​ “Was​​ it because​​ I broke up with her?”​​ he​​ asked.​​ 

Karen bit her lips and closed her eyes. When they reopened, tears came falling out​​ again.​​ “Um, no,” she said. “She… she... I’m sorry.” Karen​​ paused to wipe her eyes. “She​​ saw​​ us​​ in the car​​ and​​ thought​​ we’d been having an​​ affair all along.”

Walter’s​​ head​​ went​​ into his palms. “No-no-no…​​ Please no!” he pled. Tears began leaking through his hand’s creases. “How do you know​​ for​​ certain?”

“Her suicide note.”

The flows between his fingers continued to grow, then​​ became​​ audible​​ enough​​ to catch the ears of the​​ surrounding tables.​​ “I shouldn’t have​​ told you here,” Karen said noticing​​ their staring. “What was I thinking?​​ I’m so sorry.​​ I just wanted to meet you somewhere I knew you were comfortable,​​ and I know how much you love this diner and pier—”

Walter​​ stood unexpectedly​​ grabbing​​ his gut.

“What’s wrong?”​​ she​​ asked.

“Milkshake was a​​ really​​ bad choice,”​​ he​​ cried as he​​ went running.

Having to climb a flight of stairs, by the time​​ he​​ reached​​ a​​ stall and pulled down his​​ drawers,​​ evacuation had already​​ begun​​ not only​​ on the​​ inside​​ of​​ them, but since he had decided to wear shorts,​​ also​​ down his legs. But​​ neither​​ humiliation​​ or his twisting​​ intestines could​​ shake off​​ the uncompromising​​ compunction​​ of now knowing​​ he was undoubtably responsible​​ for Amber’s​​ death.​​ With​​ no one​​ else​​ in the bathroom,​​ and​​ only​​ the acrid stench of his own shit to comfort him,​​ his tears wailed​​ at full​​ volume,​​ jarring​​ loose​​ snot and slobber from his face like a melting waxwork.

 

After​​ Karen returned​​ with​​ a new pair of​​ sweatpants​​ for​​ Walter​​ from the pier’s​​ giftshop,​​ they made haste for her car​​ in the parking garage.​​ 

“How you doing?”​​ she​​ asked​​ him​​ once inside the sealed and leather-swathed silence of her​​ crossover SUV.​​ 

​​ “I don’t know,” he said, a​​ dull​​ ringing​​ still​​ swinging in his head from aftershocks of the revelation.​​ “How you fairing?”​​ 

“I was doing okay, but telling you was, well,​​ it​​ was​​ like digging up a body I​​ already​​ buried. But,​​ I should’ve told you the truth to begin with.”

“Why didn’t you?”​​ 

“I couldn’t.​​ I couldn’t tell anyone the truth, not​​ right after it happen. I​​ couldn’t accept I was responsible for my own daughter’s death.​​ Of course​​ though,​​ as distant as most of them were​​ to her,​​ family members​​ eventually​​ found​​ out, and then I had to face it all over again, just as I am with you.”

“Did they​​ know​​ it was because of us?”

Karen’s​​ jaw clenched.​​ “No,” she said. “Everyone presumed it was​​ the breakup with you​​ and I​​ just​​ went with it.​​ It wasn’t until the​​ Rolling Stone​​ article​​ that​​ they​​ figured​​ out the real reason . . . God,​​ I’m​​ such​​ a horrible person.​​ I​​ killed my daughter and let someone​​ who I supposedly care deeply for​​ take​​ the blame.​​ See,​​ I deserve this—all of this.​​ Not you.​​ A mother isn’t supposed to do what I did to my daughter.​​ Even before​​ that night,​​ I crossed lines​​ with you​​ I​​ never should,​​ like texting​​ you​​ and sending you pictures every day like a smitten high school girl. I made it possible for​​ what happened that night in your​​ car​​ to​​ happen.​​ 

“We both did​​ Karen.​​ I acted in ways that were inappropriate too, and I had inappropriate feelings for you, I just didn’t recognize​​ them as such​​ until, well,​​ it was too late. I’ve never been good at recognizing love.”

“So it was love?”

“I mean, I didn’t mean to say that . . . Yes. I don’t know what else to call it.​​ I’m sorry.”

She​​ smiled.​​ “I​​ only asked because​​ I’ve​​ never​​ been good at recognizing​​ love myself.​​ I’ve been a stranger to it practically my​​ whole​​ life unless you count my work.​​ But​​ also, you​​ did say​​ it​​ in​​ the interview.”

“Oh yeah. It’s hard to keep track of everything I confessed to when I can hardly remember confessing them. But again,​​ I’m sorry.”

“Walter, stop apologizing​​ for love, especially since I loved​​ you too​​ and still love you.​​ You’re​​ the only person who’s ever made me feel like I’m not alone​​ inside my head,​​ and