Steve Hundley, who coached pee-wee fencing and volunteered at Fayette Dog Hospice and was just straight-up a peach of a human being, was asleep, probably dreaming of gluten-free brownies or new methods of de-oiling swan feathers, when Brbek called and blasted him out of sleepytown for good. It’s three or four in the morning, some godawful hour, and as usual Brbek is wasted out of his steroid-addled mind. He’s calling because he’s got one of his Craigslist party-babes passed out at his place, and he’s worried she’s not going to wake up. Her hands are cold, her face is blotchy, and when he shakes her—like really fucking hard—she kinda moans but doesn’t flinch.
At first Hundley’s like WTF, I’ve gotta work in the morning. He doesn’t go into specifics—he’s got two busloads of disabled kids coming to the museum, it’s been scheduled for months, they’re really gonna benefit from the experience, blah blah blah—but it’s not like Brbek would’ve listened anyway. Turns out he and the chick—name Krystal Blue or Blue Krystal or something like that—they did this homemade meth-ecstasy combo cooked up by Brbek’s Knoxville guy, and Brbek basically carried her home like a sack of wet birdshit, her babbling the whole time about some guy named Detroit Dave.
It’s another Brbek shitstorm, and Hundley knows it. All he wants to do is sleep, just close his eyes and slip away, but instead he’s wiping cornea boogers from his tear ducts, listening to Brbek freak out about being cooked and fucked and screwed and cooked and screwed. He’s not going to the joint again, Brbek says over and over. There’s fuckin’ fuckers in there, man, and he’ll hang himself with his underwear band if he has to. There’s how-to shit on YouTube about it, he’s seen it and he’s serious.
Hundley says nobody’s going to jail and asks about the chick again. Is she breathing? She have a pulse?
“She fuckin’ puked in the Vette,” Brbek answers, “and it was like nasty, burning shit, like fuckin’…like fuckin’…”
“Like acid?” Hundley says.
“Yeah, exactly,” Brbek says. “The leather’s fuckin’ scorched, man. You believe that shit?”
By now Hundley’s completely awake, got Land’s End robe and slippers on, the whole thing. “Calm down,” he says.
“The leather’s fuckin’ scorched, man! You calm down!”
Hundley takes a deep breath. He might as well be talking to a downed power line. “Call 9-1-1,” he says. “If it’s as serious as you say, she needs to see a doctor.”
“That’s why I called you,” Brbek says. “You need to get over here right now.”
“A medical doctor,” Hundley answers, his voice finally starting to rise. “A medical doctor.”
“No fuckin’ way,” Brbek says. “They got a file on me. I know it.”
Hundley’s like huh? “Who’s got a file?”
“The I.R.S., man! Wendy and the Hamburgler! How the fuck should I know?!” Hundley’s arm can’t take it anymore—it draws the line at Hamburgler—and it flips the phone in the air in total disgust. Hundley’s on board with the move for about a heartbeat until he remembers a little thing called gravity, which has already joined the party and is about to show everybody what’s what and who’s who. Suddenly—instantly—the phone becomes as vulnerable and valuable as a newborn, and Hundley knows with every scrap of his soul that if it hits the floor it’s going to cry and then die or else be retarded forever—so he lunges and tries to grope it out of the air, but now it’s falling like a goddamn comet, and he’s already swearing and damning when the thing plops onto the bed, safe as kittens. At this point everybody—the phone, Hundley’s arm, the laws of physics—they’re all getting a free pass, because it’s on Brbek directly that Hundley’s about to unload. But when he lifts the phone off the pillow Brbek’s gone from the line and there’s something so perfect about it Hundley actually laughs. It’s exactly how Brbek lives his life: on or off, zero or ten thousand. Asleep or awake, with no falling in between.
Hundley takes his slippers off, puts on his Skele-Toes, zips on a windbreaker. Brbek’s place is only fifteen minutes away running through the park, so screw it. You want Hundley, you got him. It’s probably even better this way. He can tell Brbek straight to his face: this is the last time I do rescue duty for you ever. Starting tomorrow, whatever you get yourself into, you get yourself out. Hit and run, Russian mafia, overdue library book, doesn’t matter. From this day forward, you’re on your fuckin’ own.
Hundley rehearses the words in his mind as he turns onto Third and heads for the park. He knows they need to be steady, rock solid, so Brbek can’t steamroll them into oblivion, then replace them with the night-stalking madness du jour: after-hours strip club crawl, drive-thru dine-‘n-dash scheme. Sober Brbek’s a handful—a cross between a toddler and a terrier, basically—but whacked out on party favors he becomes a maniac of appetites, ego to opso and everything in between. A change happens, and instead of having a manageable condition, Brbek himself becomes an affliction, allergic to reason, immune to common sense. Why equals why not, and if you’re not careful it’s all contagious, because for Brbek the fever—whatever it’s for—is even better when it’s shared. So he fixes those wild, roulette-ball eyes on you just long enough for you to glimpse the part of them that’s the same color as yours, and then he makes you feel like he’s an orphan on planet Life, like all he wants for a change is for someone else besides him to not be Dead. If you still won’t budge he says let’s let the gods decide, and then he beats you at a game the two of you know by different names. You call it Rock, Scissors, Paper. He calls it Smother, Cut, and Smash.
At the intersection of Third and Parkside, with none of his lines memorized and the whole script a jumble, Hundley stops, waits for a car to pass, and then starts running again. It’s been raining all night, and puddles have formed in the dips and craters of the sidewalk, and though normally Hundley would make an effort to avoid them, tonight they don’t seem to matter. He’s in a hurry—a hurry to never be in a hurry again—but a hurry regardless. He needs to get to Brbek’s, check on the girl and say his piece, and then leave, and anything else is a pointless diversion—as idiotic as Brbek, as pathetic as himself. Hundley courses down the sidewalk stride after stride, splashing rainwater with every footfall, not zigzagging or hopscotching, but just running, and almost immediately there’s something nourishing about it, some simple, stupid, senseless joy. It’s kids’ stuff —puddle jumping, after all—but he’s not doing it on purpose. He’s simply going where he’s going, and landing where he falls.
To get to Brbek’s place, Hundley enters the park at Parkside and Grand. He takes the Grand sidewalk past the bocce lawns and the fountains and the jungle-themed playground, and though he can see where he’s going, he moves essentially by memory. His glasses are spattered with rain, and the light from the streetlamps shimmers on the lenses, swelling into crazy arcs and blobs and bows. Even so, Hundley keeps a steady pace. Maybe it’s the wind dispersing the drops or maybe it’s the special scratch-resistant, polycarbonate UV-coating the girl at the glasses place convinced him to pay extra for, but somehow he can see through his glasses just fine, funkified light swells and all. It surprises him too that he doesn’t miss the music that usually floods his ears as he runs, but above him some of the streetlamps are broken, or off for whatever reason, and the dark spaces beneath them breathe like the breaks between songs—two or three seconds long, full with the shadow-sound of silence, a barely perceptible fuzz.
Past the Grand gardens Hundley turns onto the Central Trail. He passes the overgrown shrubs across from the Information booth and expects to see Jack and Jill, the leathery homeless couple who live there and who use Hundley’s coffee change to buy coffees of their own, but of course they’re not there. When it rains they sleep in the pavilion behind the museum until the morning security guy shoos them away, and then they slink off without a word, or at least not very many. For a second Hundley thinks about heading over to the museum to see if they’re there. Maybe he’d even have an honest-to-God conversation with them, ask them what the hell happened, where did everything go wrong? Maybe he’d apologize for never asking them their real names, and for only ever giving change. Maybe he’d ask Jill if she ever said that the trellis of moonflowers behind the museum was their headboard on nights like this, or was that something he made up in his brain? For a second it all seems like a good idea, but the fever isn’t a fever at all. It’s a cool and shallow curiosity at best, and then just like that it’s gone.
Deep in the park, near the center if there is one, Hundley veers off the trail and cuts through the sports fields. His feet leech into the muck where the grass has been trampled away, and he thinks of the mudfest football games Brbek used to gig up back in the day—ten years ago? A dozen? More often it was Frisbee, thrown for hours while stoned, and during which Brbek would strike up conversations with girls regardless of the circumstances, the more outrageous the better. What are you reading? You guys dating? Need another player for your team? Meanwhile Hundley would hang back and watch from across the field, knowing what Brbek was saying without even hearing him, marveling at the pure shameless audacity of the guy, his insatiable need for risk, his indifference to rejection. Then, once it would become obvious that the Frisbee wasn’t coming back, he’d walk over and be introduced. Ladies, this is Steve. He’s like my brother. You’re gonna love him.
Now Hundley feels old. Barely past thirty, already nostalgic and bitter. On his way to junk a friendship corroded by misuse. He slogs through the last of the sports fields, covered in mud but mind crystal clear. Tonight he’ll explain everything: how Brbek brought it all on himself—jail, the chick in his apartment, the exodus of his friends from back in the day. He’ll explain how friendship is a two-way street, and how ultimately people get exactly what they deserve. Sleep is sacred, he’ll say. Didn’t anybody ever teach you that?
The thought of it—of trying to say it all in a way that will somehow get through, having to deflect the deflections and reject the excuses—adds a layer of exhaustion that Hundley can barely endure. He’s almost out of the park, only a couple of blocks from Brbek’s, but during the trudge through the sports fields he’s developed a stitch, this killer cramp like he hasn’t had in years. It took root in his left side, and for a quarter-mile it spread with every stride he took, and now it’s in his ribs and all through his guts, and it’s on him like a curse and not letting go.
Getting off the grass and back onto pavement doesn’t help, but Hundley can see the west boundary of the park so he tries to power through, rev up the old Hundomatic, as Brbek used to say, but after twenty more feet the cramp is so intense it literally makes him stop and stand there in pain. He gives it a few seconds—gets his heart rate down, tries to stretch a little bit—but when he gears back up it stops him cold again. It’s wringing tears from his eyes, this cramp; it’s like it won’t let him go. For anybody else no big deal, but for a guy like Hundley it makes no sense. He’s a jogging machine, does eighty miles a week, marathons, 10–K’s. Maybe it’s the adrenaline, he’s thinking. Maybe he still hasn’t woken up. Maybe he was in the middle of a dream and the dream’s pissed off because he’s not remembering it. Nothing really explains it, but Hundley’s brain wants an answer so it keeps offering up possibilities. The salad and baguette he had for dinner at the museum? Slice of key lime he had for dessert? Finally he just stops thinking about it and tries to clear his head. Bring everything to nothing, listen to the rain. He sits down on the pavement and closes his eyes, presses his fingers into his side and kneads the muscle. The cramp subsides a little—not much, but Hundley feels it like a reprieve—and almost without realizing it he unzips his pocket and pulls out his phone. Dials 9-1-1. Emergency.
The operator on the line takes all the information down—Brbek’s address, early twenties female, possible O.D. She has a steady voice, professional but soothing, a little like the narrator of the museum’s Winged Wonders audio tour, and Hundley gets some connection to himself back, some edge that he didn’t even know was missing. Screw Brbek’s psycho paranoia, he thinks. Emergency Services doesn’t have a file on him, and so what if they do? That girl in Brbek’s apartment is a human being, and calling for help is the right thing to do. There but for the grace of God, Hundley tells himself. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
Hundley walks as he answers the operator’s questions, and the more he walks the more the cramp recedes. When he hangs up it’s still there, but it’s lost its fangs. And Brbek’s apartment complex is just within view.
As he approaches, Hundley looks at the tiny, evenly spaced balconies that dot the building’s façade all the way to the top. That they’re called amenities is laughable, but why even bother? That the building is on the nicer side of the park doesn’t bother Hundley either, nor does the fact that Brbek bought it with inheritance money while Hundley still rents. The place is a monstrosity of New Cheap construction: two hundred units, all-faux design. Everything about it screams Brbek, the residents most of all: scenesters and night-owls and women of age, party-girls and singles and ILFs of all ilks. Brbek sails through the courtyard like he’s running for office. Yes, he’s the guy in the rental car ads. They should go grab a drink when he’s done working out.
Brbek’s unit comes with permit-parking too, and there’s the Vette, Suzette, parked in front of the complex, her right front quarter-panel still unpainted after some long-ago mishap, a grayish patch of Bondo still stubbornly showing through. As Hundley walks by the car an image of Brbek peeling Blue Krystal out of the passenger’s seat flashes into his mind, the girl’s probably-blonde hair spilling over her doubtless-enhanced chest. He pictures her slung over Brbek’s shoulder, eyelids fluttering, registering Brbek’s ravings about the Vette’s ruined seats vaguely if at all. The scene is enough to piss Hundley off, and though he knows it would be pointless, he has the urge to tell Krystal Blue that the Vette’s seats are worthless pieces of shit, that the seams on them have been ripped for years, were in fact already ripped when Brbek won the car arm-wrestling with his Knoxville guy, and that of all the things in the world she should regret, puking in Brbek’s car should be dead last on the list.
Hundley enters the courtyard, walks up the concrete stairs, follows the walkway to Brbek’s door, knocks. Music’s playing in the apartment, low but audible, some Gregorian jazz nonsense that Brbek thinks is cool, and Hundley stands there trying to ignore it, realizing how soaked he is, how tired and shitty he feels, how late it must be. He knocks again, louder. “Open up, Brbek,” he says. “It’s me.”
Five seconds go by, ten, and still there’s no answer. “I know you’re in there,” Hundley yells. “The Vette’s outside, you’ve got music on, now open the fucking door!”
Hundley waits for Brbek for what he swears is the last time, killing seconds by gazing at the apartments across the courtyard. Their doors and windows form a dull, generic pattern, rectangles and squares unimaginably plain. Hundley turns back to Brbek’s door and pounds on it with his fist now. The door shivers against the deadbolt strike after strike. Hundley says nothing, and continues to pound.
In a moment there’s a movement of the door, or against it, and Hundley stops pounding. Brbek cracks the door open, keeping the chain latched. Under his nose the chain is a gold metal moustache, a dumb comic touch that doesn’t match his eyes. “She’s not here,” he says.
“Yes she is,” Hundley replies.
Brbek opens his mouth to lie again, but whatever’s coursing through his system seems to rattle him.
“Yes she is,” Hundley says again.
Brbek stands there staring at Hundley, almost like he’s asking for forgiveness, and then he opens the door. Hundley follows Brbek inside and the light from the bathroom draws his eye.
A tan arm hangs over the edge of the tub beyond the half-open door.
“This is your fault,” Brbek says. “Your fault.”
Hundley glares at Brbek, who’s standing near the kitchen, the slack jaw of the dishwasher open behind him, dirty dishes sticking up like rotten, busted teeth. “Who do you think you are, man?” Hundley says. “You ever ask yourself that, ever in your life?”
“I tried to tell you,” Brbek says.
Behind Hundley the apartment door closes, and now he understands. He turns around to see a kid—literally a kid—pointing a gun from the shadows. He’s twelve or thirteen, fourteen at most, and the jeans and Detroit Lions hoodie he wears are so baggy they look like pajamas. When he looks up from under the bill of his cap his eyes glisten, and the whole room seems to pulse like a bruise.
“Idiot,” Brbek says. “I tried to fuckin’ tell you.”
The kid nods toward Hundley. “You here to fuck her, too?”
The kid wants the words to sound hard, but his voice isn’t deep enough. If he wants to call himself Detroit Dave he needs another year, maybe two. Until then it’s just a pose. The gun is for real, but the rest is a pose.
“No,” Hundley says, shaking his head.
“I didn’t fuck her!” Brbek shouts, as if he wants it taken down for the record. “I would tell you if I fucked her, and I didn’t fuck her!”
“You lie,” the kid says. “You know you lie.”
Brbek taps the last cigarette from a pack on the counter, turns on a stove burner, and lights it from the flame. “I’m smoking this on the balcony,” he announces. “If you got a problem with that you’ll just have to shoot me.”
“I’m gonna shoot you anyway,” the kid answers back.
Brbek blasts a stream of smoke from his mouth into the room. “She’s fine!” he bellows, flinging open the balcony door. “She’s passed out! Asleep! Fucking grow up!”
The smoke swirls and flees from the heavy rainy air. It will hang there for hours; naturally, Brbek’s removed the detectors. “Let me take a look at her,” Hundley says to the kid.
“Let me just see if she’s breathing.”
“If she’s dead I’m killing both you guys. I swear to fucking God.”
Hundley pauses. “Okay,” he says finally, knowing now that if she’s dead Blue Krystal is about to miraculously come back to life, to be resurrected not to full consciousness, but to a harmless drunken sleep state that might last as long as day or two or even three, but that is absolutely, unequivocally not remotely related to death. “You’re the boss.”
Hundley walks to the bathroom, steels himself to what he’s about to see, and looks in the bathtub. Why Brbek has placed her in the tub is a mystery, but there she lays, her eyes closed, her clothes every bit as soaked as Hundley’s. Her hair is brown and her breasts are too small to be fake, and though mascara is smudged around her eyes and lipstick is smeared around her mouth, she’s breathing. Her chest moves up and down in a steady rhythm, until she pauses for a moment, draws a deeper breath, and then resumes the rhythm again. All the while her eyelids tremor, as her eyes flicker back and forth underneath.
Hundley walks back into the living room. Brbek is still on the balcony, eyeing the kid, who stands pointing the gun at him. He takes a last drag of his cigarette and flicks it into the darkness, its red ember dropping away. “He says he’s her brother,” Brbek says.
“Half-brother,” the kid corrects.
“He’s like a foster brother or something. She told me about him.”
“Bullshit,” the kid says.
Brbek smiles. “You’re in love with her, aren’t you.”
The kid flinches the tiniest bit, like with his eyes or something, and if he wasn’t pointing a gun at him Hundley would feel sorry for him. He feels sorry for him anyway, in fact, knows that whatever the kid does, no matter what the outcome, he can’t blame him for it. Without Brbek, none of them are there. It’s a quiet, empty room in the middle of the night.
Brbek knows he’s hit something though, and a grin crawls over his face. “What a little perv,” he says, practically singing the words.
“Fuck you, man,” the kid barks, jabbing the gun. “I will end you!”
But it’s too late. Hundley sees it all, feels it like a quickening. The best days with Brbek—the ones where he scored girls and got everybody comped into the club and made you laugh until you cried—followed exactly the same arc. You strapped yourself to his firework madness and flew up and up and up until whatever it was that fueled it busted apart in a shower of sparks, and the whole thing pinwheeled down into whatever the darkness held—ass-kicking by bouncers, cop with a flashlight, Detroit Dave.
“She’s dead, isn’t she,” Brbek says now, never taking his eyes off the kid.
“No,” Hundley says quickly. “She’s passed out, but she’ll be fine.”
“Bullshit,” Brbek says, as if it’s all a silly joke. “She’s dead. Tell him.”
Hundley looks at the kid. “She’s fine,” he says. Then turning to Brbek, “What the fuck is your problem?”
“I killed her.”
The kid’s chest starts to heave, and the noise that he makes is like he’s choking on shards.
“He’s lying,” Hundley says to the kid, but the kid’s somewhere else, on the descent from the high, thin air, already turning into ash. “He’s lying!” And Brbek’s eyes are gleaming now, sparkling—they’ve come out from behind the drugs and the doubt and the fear to where he actually lives, in this hideous, glorious moment and every version of it he can manage—and Hundley knows that that every word he’s spoken since the night began were written for him by Brbek, and he’s uttered them with style, the perfect shill once again. Hundley sees Brbek’s ploy for exactly what it is: stupid and reckless and dangerous, and with Brbek's luck, probably successful.
“How dare you!” Brbek booms, roaring and flailing, feinting toward Hundley and then grabbing for the kid, smacking his arm as the gun jerks and then fires.
Now Hundley allows himself to remember. The last time he saw Brbek, the time when he last swore that he was done with him, the girl’s name wasn’t Krystal Blue. It was Liliana. She was five foot two, sucking on a circus peanut, Czechoslovakian, giggly and high, and she showed up with Brbek at the Museum’s gala fundraiser, drop dead gorgeous, and after Brbek left her to talk to a dozen other girls half as beautiful as her, she looked into Hundley’s eyes as if she’d known him forever. Liliana. Spoke English with an accent, an unbelievably sexy accent. Tight summer dress, no bra. Liliana.
They began to talk, and then—it was true, Hundley hadn’t imagined it—she was vibing with him, legitimately interested—fascinated even—by literally everything he had to say. Subjects he could rap about for days but that made other people yawn—disturbed children, Southern rock, hairless cats—she was into them. And the museum she was into especially. She had ideas for publicity and fundraisers, knew some guys in Massachusetts who would print T-shirts at cost, as long as the cause was for real and the logo was wicked cool. Hell, she could organize a flash mob herself in under twenty minutes. Did Hundley want a hundred people or a thousand? Was he ready to open a new branch of the museum in Prague? Was he ready to roll things out worldwide?
Liliana. He would’ve slept with her forever, but it was only that once, and then she was gone. And when Hundley found out that Brbek had paid her, paid for her, set it all up, a gift for his librarian buddy who obviously needed it, it was that same feeling, that stitch in his side, that ache.
“I’m not a librarian,” Hundley had said. Two years ago? Three?
Brbek was wasted though. “I know, I know. Museum guy. Right?”
Now Hundley’s processing. He’ll be doing it for years afterward, but right now it’s easy because he’s there and it’s happening. He’s lying on Brbek’s wine-colored carpet, blood spilling out of one of his thighs—maybe the right, maybe the left, but definitely his—and he’s in pain like he’s never been in before, only now he’s not in it so much, and Brbek and the kid are on the carpet too, eyeballs like peeled eggs, locked in some sort of double helix, holy-shit wrestling fight embrace. And the soundtrack to it is some surreal Gregorian ambient something, but only for a moment, until it becomes a siren, so loud and clear and piercing it must be waking the entire world.
JONATHAN GOTSICK is a native of eastern Kentucky and a graduate of the University of Pittsburgh's MFA program in fiction. As an actor, he has appeared in films including American Shopper and The Summer House, and as a comedian he has performed in more than thirty states across the country. His prose has appeared or is forthcoming in The Drum Literary Magazine, Bartleby Snopes, Steam Ticket, Kudzu, and Little Patuxent Review. He currently teaches writing at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.