AP went home eventually, we both did. I climbed into my room and stared at the ceiling, reimagining everything that had happened. Rerunning the events over and over again in a way I couldn’t when I had been with AP. My mind was taking me through the inner workings of the dull nightmare we all live. Finding new terrors to throw at it while it slowly eats away at your motivation. At your life.
The anguish I felt over my parents’ deaths, over Sugar’s. The confusion over the lies, the fear that somehow we would be next. I had no idea what was to come.
We had opened Pandora’s box and there was no way back from it. We were fucked, and now we had to decide if we should pull the rest of us in on it.
But those who see the truth are rarely accepted.
The next morning I was abruptly woken up by my uncle. I was tired and brain fogged like hell. The subtle sting of burning licked the corner of my eyes, but he had decided that we were going to be spending the day together.
How could I refuse?
I tried to scramble to find any excuse he might believe. Anything that might convince him that spending the day with me was not in his best interest, but my uncle was an interesting man. It’s like he constantly struggled with being a good man. Like he wanted to be one so bad. A fair, loving, caring, fun man, but at his core he was rotten and would never escape his own fat filth.
There was no swaying him and attempting to reason with him led to an instant display of an animal baring his teeth at his prey. So off we went to our ‘family’ outing.
I made sure to leave a note on my window, just in case the guys came looking.
I’ll admit, it was kind of nice. Spending the day with my uncle. If I had actually loved him, hell, if I had even cared for him an ounce, I might have truly enjoyed the day. He bought me breakfast, lunch, ice cream, caught a movie. But I didn’t. My mind was elsewhere.
I still remember the movie. ‘Night of Wonders’. Did you ever watch it?
-Of course. One of the greats.
Betterment of the state, right?
See, I think the real wonder was how everyone overlooked the people that were stepped on for no reason other than to give the leaders of the state an unnecessary amount of power. The other nations suffered, while a single nation thrived.
-You don’t think sacrifices need to be made at times to help better the world?
Necessary ones, sure.
-How do you determine what’s necessary and what’s not?
Stepping over your neighbor’s throat simply because you believe yourself better than them is not a necessary sacrifice.
-What if your neighbor was slowly poisoning the rest of your neighborhood and by doing so, you not only healed the rest, but gave room for a better contributing member to join you? One that actually helped make things more efficient. Better.
There is no ‘perfect world’. One man’s customs are no better than the next. You can only respect their way of life and understand that the line is crossed when you believe your life to be above another’s.
Anyway, the whole time we were running around, I was thinking of the guys. I was hoping my uncle would get bored quickly and decide to bring us come early. Like most people, though, he found my usual silence to be an indicator that he needed to fill it with his own voice.
On and on the fat ass went. Trying to relate to me, tell me about his golden years. Girls, parties, football. Apparently he had been quite the running back back in the day and like most, life kicked him so fucking hard in the teeth that it made him realize he wasn’t shit outside of Juniper City.
I’m sure to him, we were probably bonding. He probably thought I could become the son he never had, or maybe couldn’t. I don’t really know. I think he had wanted kids. I think he was bitter that shit had ended up the way it had for him but instead of lashing out at my aunt, he just stopped giving a damn about anything.
As I said, I don’t really know. I’m just speculating.
We got home around seven or eight. Too late for me to leave with permission and while I could have snuck out, the missing note on my window led me against it. Besides, I was tired and as soon as my ass hit the bed, there was not getting me up ‘till morning.
I slept like a true teenager. Long and deep, but also like I was used to. Full of nightmares and dreams that I was unable to wake myself from. Reliving every horrible moment with no escape.
-Do you still dream like that?
Worse. I feel like I live like that. It’s not just guilt anymore. You always gotta check over your shoulder, they’re always there. Watching.
-Do you ever wonder if you might suffer from-
What? That I’m a fucking schizo? That I’m fucked in the head?
-You did witness something extremely traumatic at a very young age.
Fuck you! You know what? I’m done with this. Shove this interview up your ass.
-Eric, I’m sorry. That came out wrong.
No, fuck you.
-I didn’t m-
You! Get this shit off me. Get in here and get it all off me. I’m done with this dickhead.
-Hold on! Just, wait. *silence* I told you, I have to ask tough questions, get all the angles. I’m sorry if it comes off offensive.
You’re trying to paint me out as a psycho.
-No, I’m not. You have strong supporters Eric, but you also have a lot of people who want you dead. They already think what you said. If I don’t ask them, I’m not hitting all angles and I can’t sway anyone in one direction or another. They would see right through it all if I were blatantly biased. I’m just telling the story you refused to tell when you should have.
No one would have believed me.
-What’s made you believe they will now?
I…get the fuck away from the door. You missed your chance. Can’t you see we’re talking here?
I saw the guys the next day.
Just to clarify, I’m not a fucking schizo dickhead. I don’t have PTSD or any of that shit. Okay?
-Okay. I get it. I believe you.
So he had already told the guys what had happened. I could tell they didn’t believe him, not over what we saw. They had been blown away that we’d had the balls to break into Sugar’s house and steal the drive, but they still felt that AP was grasping. Rightfully so. I wouldn’t want to believe someone who told me a fucking mechanical octopus was out to kill us, but they were also too scared to tell him that. Maybe of him, but I think they were more scare of his mental health.
They looked to me, obviously to fact check, but in a way that told me to step up and be the one to break his delusions. I didn’t, and would never have, but it also didn’t elp that I couldn’t describe the thing well if it would have saved my life.
It’s never easy to describe something for the first time. I’ve had years to make sense of it in my head. To find the right words, the right objects to compare it to, but it never does it justice. It get close, though. But that time, it was nothing more than a fucking toy starfish that flailed about like it was trying to wave hello.
Real stuff of nightmares.
I’m sure they wanted to laugh. Not at me, or AP, but at how stupid the whole thing probably sounded. Out of respect, they kept their lips pursed and followed along, likely believing that he would snap out of it eventually, when the ‘ritual’ was complete.
AP had decided he wanted to upload all of Sugar’s songs. Somehow finish the ones he had left half done and show the world that Sugar hadn’t been the monster they thought he was.
-How would his music have done that?
I guess he hoped people would listen and realize that in an era where all music revolved around hate, violence, abuse, sex, me, me, and me, his rejected all of that to support those in need. His music was to help, to give hope.
I don’t know if that would have changed after being signed by someone who was notorious for being ludicrously explicit, but I’d like to believe he would have stayed true.
AP just wanted the world to see what he already knew.
So for the next week they started working on just that. It’s like he forgot completely about what we had seen together and become fucking dead set on making this thing work. He had all of them tied up with it. Might as well have been a slave driver. The twins came back and we spent probably an hour on the subject of Sugar only to reel them in as well.
I was becoming frustrated. Probably because I was so scared of what all of it meant. They seemed to not lose any sleep and I would lay awake waiting for the moment they would come for me.
It didn’t matter though. They kept posting all of Sugar’s shit up. Everything he had ever made. Even the early stuff that sounded like a little girl getting fondled in the church spotlight. Man, when AP was determined there was no stopping him. Somehow he got a hold of some dudes who had agreed to finish the rest of the songs without butchering them into all the new age trash that was on the radios. I don’t really know how much AP had offered them, but I do know it couldn’t have been cheap. As I said, though, he was dead set.
That became more obvious when his parents came back from their business trip. THe thing he had wanted most and when they were actually there, it was as if they didn’t exist. There was obvious resentment there and I can’t really blame him. It still wasn’t easy to watch.
They were very sweet people. You could tell, well, I could, how much they cared for him. In their eyes they were finally getting some time off and they wanted to spend it with the person they were sacrificing it all for, but he wanted nothing to do with them. It’s like he though that if he showed them he cared too, it would somehow hurt more when they left again.
He was wrong.
So they did what he allowed them to; share their time with us.
They spent a lot of it trying to speak with me. I was the only one they had never met before and also the only one likely to give up something the others knew to keep quiet about. And also, well, I stuck out like a sore thumb. Only kid not really doing anything.
Like usual, Benny pitched in his two cents. I can genuinely say that it was the only time I was glad to have Benny’s banter on hand. Don’t get me wrong, they were nice enough people, warm and serving toward anyone who called themselves a friend of their son’s, but being interrogated ain’t my idea of fun.
-I’m surprised you weren’t trying to get them to help you prepare for, well if they came after you.
I was worried shitless. Couldn’t fucking sleep proper. Kept waking up at every sound that I heard at night. Could be the spring on my mattress as I shifted and I was scanning my room, ready to run. Or die.
As I said, it felt like he just forgot all about it.
I tried to bring it up to him but he dismissed it as if it were something from long ago. I began to feel like he was being dismissive of me, like if somehow this had been my fault. I let it go quickly and kept the worry to myself. Instead, I continued to offer my help where I could, but I didn’t know about any of that shit. I was a broke kid from Mattern. After a few days of me just sitting around, I decided that it was probably best if I give them all their space.
They had a lot of recordings to sift through. Tons. More than I would have expected a seventeen year old kid to have given up part of his time for.
-I would imagine so if it took them a week to upload all of it.
They weren’t just uploading it. They were mostly re-editing it, making sure it all sounded how it was intended to. I guess Sugar had never been the best at it and he was lazy about getting it all to AP so AP could take care of it for him.
Considering I didn’t really know a thing about how it all worked, I shouldn’t have been surprised that I was being mostly ignored.
-A kid your age should have had at least some tiny grasp of modern technology, no?
I had grown up broke in the slums with addict parents who were more interested in spending on their next score than their kid’s tech. Highest piece of tech in our has had been this old beat up flatscreen TV.
You ever lived in projects like that?
Didn’t think so. Anyone catches a whiff of you having nice shit, next you’re concerned, your ass is beat and left right back at zero. Not like they try to do it in a dark alley or behind a building either. Nah, they fuck you up in front of everyon and no one does a god damn thing. It’s like they like knowing that their neighbor is being humiliated for trying to better themselves.
One of the reasons why it’s nearly impossible for people to get out of the poverty line. The ghettos. Everyone around you hates seeing someone else succeed because it’s a constant reminder of how shit they truly are. That’s just the small part of it, though.
I think people are brainwashed into doing this. Maybe not so much externally anymore, they all seem to just pass it on through generations now, hence the public beatdowns. But at one point! At one point there was. At one point they were trained. They had it bashed into their heads and shoved down their gullets until there was nothing else, it was just the way things were.
A beautiful system that required no further effort once it was implemented.
That’s how. I never had a cell phone. Never had computers, video games. Just a TV and books.
I’m starting to wonder if you’re even listening to anything I’m saying.
-I am, yes. I just mean with the constant – nevermind.
Ads and all other bullshit that’s in everything you own? Yeah, I get it. I guess, in a way, it was. But when you’re in that spot, you wish you had it all just so you don’t have to be the odd one out. So you can be like everyone else.
-So what did you do? While they worked on the music.
I mostly just stood around and thought. Turned things over in my head. Made them way worse than they ever actually were. I convinced myself that the group had started to hate me, blamed me for everything that happened. They had stopped coming to get me in the mornings, stopped trying to teach me how to help what they were working on, stopped trying to talk to me at all. AP because I had seen Sugar in his last moments and had refused to help him, the others because I had allowed AP to explore a delusion and egged him on. I was confident that they had lost all respect for me, that I was unworthy of being their friend, of having their backs in their time of need.
But if that had truly been their thought, they were dead fucking wrong.
Every morning I was startled awake by a nightmare or random noise, sure I was about to die. I would go eat and then wait by my window, hoping my crew would once again come collect me. After around eleven I’d realize it wasn’t happening and find something else to do. The first few days I sat in the living room all day, watching TV with the volume nearly inaudible just in case a knock at the window would come. It never did.
It didn’t take long to change up the plan and go exploring on my own.
I went to Sugar’s place first. I kept my distance, of course, but I sat and watched the house for a long time. I think I had been hoping to see one of those things crawling around in broad daylight, or the strange detectives that had snatched up Sugar at my house. Anything really. All I saw was a taped up house with police going in and out.
Torrance was there too. He seemed, worried, conflicted. I guess I couldn’t really be sure since I couldn’t see his features from far away but there was something in his mannerisms, the way he was behaving around others. It just seemed, weird.
I left when I didn’t find what I wanted.
I began heading toward AP’s place, like a lover who’s endured an unexpected breakup. My mind didn’t feel that it would be appropriate and that I wasn’t wanted there, so I ended up in the only other place I knew. The park.
At first I watched some of the children playing at the playgrounds. I didn’t think I was of an age to make anyone think I was some kind of pedo, but when the mothers started shooting glances toward me, and not the friendly I-want-to-fuck-you kind either, I knew it was time for me to move.
You want to hear what’s peaceful? Try a toddler playing among other toddlers. No care or worry in the world because they know their mother, who loves them dearly, is only a few steps away, ready to fight off any potential danger even if they would lose.
I moved on to another area of the park, found someone who I hadn’t expected to and frankly didn’t want to. Juice sat there on one of the benches, a couple of his other buddies that played ball with us by him. I tried to turn around quickly, hoping he wouldn’t notice me but I was never much on that luck thing.
“E!” he called out to me. He waved me over and like the good obedient boy I was, I strolled right over to him. He looked like shit, bags under his eyes like he hadn’t slept in days. “Where’s your boys?”
I bit my cheek and shook my head.
“Listen man,” he said, a sad tone in his voice. “That shit about Sugar, that shit ain’t right. Can you tell AP that I’m sorry.”
I looked up at him and analyzed his face.
“Dude didn’t deserve that,” he continued. “Just want them to know I didn’t have anything to do with that.”
He seemed genuine, even scared. I nodded and tried to step away.
“Hang on.” he said, stepping off the bench and taking me by the arm. He got close to me, enough to where I felt the need to tense up and be ready to fight. “I got a question for you.”
I pulled my arm from his grip and stepped back. He started looking around as if nervous someone was listening.
“What is it?” I said.
“You, uh…” he kept looking around as he stepped toward me again. I felt like he was either going to try and sell me drugs or get me to sling them for him. “You feel like shit’s just off?”
I stared at him, not saying anything until he finally continued.
“I don’t know how to say it nigga, but this ain’t right. I didn’t sell Sugar any Butter.”
“Okay,” I said.
“No, I mean, that nigga was completely against it, and he was right. Nigga gave me a lashin’ after the whole thing with the kid happen.” He took another look around and I realized that his two buddies did too, as if they realized that, even though it was a conversation they couldn’t hear, it was one they needed to keep an eye out for. “He came to me the night he died, paranoid as fuck, askin’ for a gun. He wasn’t high, though, just…you know? I was pissed at the nigga at the time, but he was my homie. I wasn’t about to turn my back on him, not with how sure he was that he needed it. Kept telling me that they was watchin’ him, that he didn’t know when but they were coming for him.
“I didn’t know what that nigga meant, but I’m convinced that he had it right. Since that night, I ain’t been able to shake the feelin’ that we being watched. I ain’t sleeping and I ain’t even touch no uppers. I’m done with that shit, I ain’t even slingin’ no more. Sugar never would’ve touched that shit. I don’t know dog, the whole thing is wrong, and now I get the feelin’ that I be next.”
“Next for what?” I said.
“Whatever killed Sugar and his moms, it’s coming after me. I can feel it in my bones nigga,” he said frantically, trying to take my arm again and lean in closer. “They watchin’ us, waiting. You feel it too? Tell me you feel it. Tell me you feel it nigga!”
I ripped my arm out of his grip and pushed him back. I put my fists up, expecting him to take a swing at me but instead he looked back at his two buddies as if becoming aware of how crazy he was sounding.
“You feel it too,” he said as he started stepping back and pointed a finger directly at me. “I know you do. We ain’t safe man. Only a matter of time.”
I watched him walk off, scanning the entire area as he did so. I finally let my guard down and let myself breathe. It took me a moment to regain my composure and decided that I needed to move.
I ended up close to the basketball hoops where a group of guys was playing. I was trying to figure out what had just happened but found myself watching their game. They were the type that came to play not because they enjoyed the game, but to get the fuck away from their wife and kids. They craved social interaction with other men so they could feel powerful and free. They wanted to feel dominant.
They invited me to join them but I declined. Once again, feeling awkward about continuing to watch another random group, even if it weren’t children this time, I moved. This time, to our bench.
Our bench right in front of the house.
You ever stare at an object for so long that you convince yourself that it moved?
I stared at that fucking house until it began to breathe. All the shit that Juice had just told me ran through my head as I was transfixed on that thing. It was as if something within its rundown walls was causing it to pulsate. A sinister throb echoing out into my eyes and ears. I swear to you, I began to feel a trembling beneath my feet, like an earthquake, but more rhythmic. More…organized.
And then I watched something dart across one of the upstairs windows. The only one that faced out into the street. A room we had all been in, one that had been empty of life, like the rest of the house.
I shot up off my ass, my heart racing at a million miles an hour. I narrowed my eyes, trying ard to focus on the darkness behind the distant window. I looked around me, hopeful that maybe someone else had been watching as well and had seen what I had.
People must have despised that house, been so scared of it that they would try and avoid it at all costs. Drive a different road, walk a different street, play on the opposite end of the park. It was a surprise anyone even considered purchasing the homes next to it.
I tried to convince myself that I had simply imagined it all, just as I had imagined an inanimate object breathing, but Juice’s words kept echoing in my mind. I kept staring, hoping I had been wrong, but right there, in the darkness, a bright red glow stared back.
I watched it, my eyes wide and unmoving like a japanese cartoon, until it became two. Then three, four. More and more until it became too many to count and from the darkness emerged a long mechanical tendril that placed its long thin claws over the glass. It slowly trailed the sharp blade down the glass.
I wanted to scream or cry, to plead or do anything, but all I could do was watch until I couldn’t go on without oxygen in my lungs anymore. I ran blindly into the street, intending to get far away, as far as I could, but not a few steps in and the sound of a car’s screeching tires stopped me short.
It was a squad car, an inch from my body.
The officer got out and I knew I was in for it. Torrance hadn’t even got all the way out before he was saying, “What the fuck you think you doing boy?”
My heart was still pounding hard, now with the added near death experience. I checked over my shoulder toward the window, too quick to tell much but just enough reassurance to look away. “I’m sorry sir,” I said.
“Check both ways before you cross. Ain’t nobody ever teach you that?” he said in a condescending tone. “I almost killed you.”
I checked over my shoulder once again.
He seemed to take a different approach, a softer one, letting me know he needed something from me. He breathed out and said, “Listen kid. Just be careful. I could’a ran you over. That shit would’ve haunted me for life.”
Little did he know.
I glanced over my shoulder again and this time he took note.
“Everything all right?” he said.
“Yes sir,” I said, bringing my attention back to him. Behind him, the hooded man watched and I dropped my gaze to the floor. I could feel him watching me closely and felt forced to add, “The house spooked me is all.”
I immediately felt stupid saying it. I should’ve just stayed quiet.
“Look at me. Hey! Look up at me,” he said.
I raised my head and looked in his eyes as he scrutinized every inch of me.
“What’s going on?” he said. I shook my head before lowering it again only for him to say, “Hey. Hey!” causing me to look up again. “You on something?”
“No sir,” I said, stealing a glance behind again, hoping it would make him believe me.
He took my face in his fingers and watched both my eyes.
“Okay,” he finally said, letting go of my face and standing up straight. We both stood there, not knowing what to say.
“I’m sorry again,” I said as I tried to side step around him only to have him step in front of me.
“Hang on a minute,” he said. “I got a couple questions for you.” I nodded and he continued. “You hear what happened with Sugar?”
“Yes sir, of course.”
“You been inside his house?”
“We tried to go visit him the day-.”
“I mean after, boy,” he said. I could tell he was trying to keep himself under control.
“No sir,” I lied.
“The other boys?”
“I wouldn’t know sir. I’m not allowed out past dark. They ain’t told me nothing either,” I shifted, feeling increasingly uncomfortable.
“They ain’t told you nothing,” he said, nodding. “Who’d he get the Butter from?”
I shook my head. He must have seen it as defiance because he scoffed and immediately took a more aggressive tone. “Well if you hear something, you tell me,” he spat out. “Ya hear?”
I nodded and stepped to the side. This time he let me and I began to walk off.
“One more thing,” he called out. I stopped and turned toward him as he walked toward his open car door and leaned on the edge of the roof. “Why you hanging out with these boys?”
“Sir?” I said.
“I heard what you did. Those boys don’t need that shit in their lives,” said Torrance. “Sugar was a good kid.”
He spat on the floor and I felt my blood boiling. I wanted to kick his fucking teeth in and yell, “you hear about what I’m doing now, bitch?!”
I couldn’t believe he was suggesting that somehow I had led to that. That I was responsible for Sugar’s death. He knew absolutely nothing about me. He was just another dickhead who had seen the news and believed everything those greedy fucks had fed him without question. A token black.
I reminded myself that that’s how it would always be from now on. I was marked.
“They’re my only friends,” I managed to say softly.
Torrance stared at me for a long time before getting into his squad car and driving off. I took one last glance at the upstairs window. It was empty. Dark as if what I had seen had all been in my head.
I ran back home.