I’ve never tricked with a guy from a group home. I was compelled to press palms with the house manager, a beefy black dude decked out in Adidas, and he insisted that I articulate my promise to return Darren sober and unharmed by midnight.
We get high before leaving the subdivision.
The bedbugs and indistinct moans of Tomball’s oldest motel entice me, but Darren pleads for me to first drive to a place he calls “the ranch.” They killed her, he says. I can bring her back, but we must hurry. The dead chick is named Simone, and I want this boy’s ass like a dying mother wants peace for her child, so we’re going to save the bitch.
I drive past the high school, through a neighborhood of one-story homesteads with fading paint and cracked driveways. Darren urges me onto a gravel-paved side road. An iron fence corrals the pastures on both sides of the lane. It’s dusk, but mighty steeds gallop and sprint within the distance; their silhouettes ripple upon the ground.
He tells me to park before a chained gate. The padlock is a ruse, he says. I have a friend who likes to smoke dope out by the pond. It occurs to me that “the ranch” is likely a sort of rehab. The dude in Adidas would not be pleased.
The chain clanks against the gate as it slips onto the grass. Before I realize it, Darren has left the car. Before I realize it, he’s retreating, deeper into the property’s shadows, insisting that Simone needs him. He won’t fail her again, he cries.
Then he’s gone.
I shut the passenger door to silence my car’s irritating ding. I leave the engine running. This seems like the sort of situation that might demand a nimble escape. My headlights reveal a vista of tall, sickly weeds and wildflowers, my would-be trick already swallowed by the darkness looming beyond the beams.
He promised to blow me in the motel parking lot. I suppose that obligates me to wait.
A month before his desperate trek across Tomball to revive Simone, his future lover left baffled at the gate, Darren stroked the blond mane of a horse named Rumor. Like others in the equine therapy group, he unloaded a secret at the horse’s hooves. The animal responded to his confession by dropping a mound of dung. Darren would’ve settled for a nod or a snort.
“Animals can sense our emotional state so acutely,” Miss Rochelle said, “that it’s no different from telling your best friend.”
“My best friend doesn’t take a dump when I bare my soul.” Cheyenne smirked.
Doling out derision, the young woman maintained her poise. Darren’s knew this was Cheyenne’s last day, but the item existed in some deep compartment of his mind, along with other cumbersome truths. She fussed with a striped silk scarf, her mother’s present, on her thirtieth birthday last month, that wrapped around what was left of her hair. In a rare moment of candor, she’d confessed after starting chemotherapy that she didn’t miss her breasts nearly as much as she did her hair.
Miss Rochelle glided toward the patients as Rumor finished defecating. “Your requirements for friendship, Cheyenne, are rather pitiful. Did only Stump and Darren make the cut?”
The group often tittered when a counselor crossed swords with Cheyenne. Nothing of therapeutic was to be taken from these exchanges; their mean-minded amusements sickened the patients in small ways.
The group surrounded a corral hardly large enough for a horse to trot. Rumor’s obvious anxiety inside rusted iron reminded Darren of guppies vainly pushing themselves around a fishbowl.
Most of the gnarled, diseased trees, offering shade to patients during the afternoon wait for the vans, were slated for the groundskeeper’s chain saw. No one wore open-toed shoes; the ants were relentless. One of the junk picnic tables, reserved for smokers, was missing an entire plank of seating. The pond, a frequent locale for frequent one-on-one therapy sessions, boasted fish unwise to eat and unpleasant to behold. The converted ranch-style residence that comprised the group rooms and dining hall was an obstacle course of splinters, wayward nail heads and stealthy leaks. The agency, however, gladly accepted Medicare. Only two others in the Houston area treating substance abuse and mental illness could make that claim.
Forgotten beneath Miss Rochelle and Cheyenne’s barbed exchange was Darren Bentley, his jittery hand still stroking Rumor’s blond mane. He did have a secret. Not even Cheyenne or Stump knew: he’d started crystal meth again, and his lack of remorse unnerved him. He hadn’t whispered the secret, Miss Rochelle suggested, in Rumor’s ear. His lips never parted. Still, he felt confident the animal understood; its defecation was surely proof.
“Let’s get lunch and see who Simone puts out for.”
“I don’t need a damn quarter to get a Coke out of her.”
Often a therapy session descended into silliness, and the group cracked a litany of jokes about soda machine that Cheyenne weeks ago christened Simone.
Stump motioned for the group to hush. Rumbling down the black-tar driveway threading the grounds, the one man who could unlock Simone’s secrets approached. As he neared, cases of festively-colored soda cans clattered in crates. The Coca-Cola logo upon the driver’s door appeared bereft beneath months of dust and grime.
Stump flicked a half-finished cigarette to the ground. “Who’s gonna handle this headache?”
He looked like a bouncer until you noticed his peg leg. He sometimes lost balance for a moment, crutch tucked beneath his armpit. The stubble on his face was thicker that the hair on his buzzed head. When overjoyed, he sneered.
The dozen group members busied themselves glancing elsewhere, hoping to elude radar. Winnie rocked back and forth in her folding metal chair, indicating that she felt overwhelmed. The fake-weed devotee unleashed an impressive string of obscenities under his breath. Above the din, Cheyenne caught Darren’s gaze; they admitted Stump into their dynamic.
“Simone will be fine,” Stump said.
“She’s too cheap a whore to give up without a fight,” Darren added. He’d hoped for a laugh from the collected patients, but humor was largely Cheyenne’s domain.
She adjusted her silk scarf. “Bitch better have my money.”
And the trio led the group away from the corral, past the derelict picnic tables, over the driveway and below that awning that spared delicate Simone from the Texas sun. The other groups, dismissed for lunch, joined the equine bunch gathered, like a sentry, around Simone. The attendant was a stout man with a porn-star mustache obscuring his mouth. He shoved a key into Simone’s glowing front panel. Before swinging open that panel, he grunted at the patients, a widescreen expanse of inexplicable guilt. Simone’s red plastic panel glowed, the wattage seeming to intensify as he penetrated the lock.
“Anything you need?” he huffed, eyes hard and bright.
Winnie, of course, told the truth, perhaps feeling excluded by this running gag that didn’t run by her. “It just spits the quarters back out,” she said. “It gives us the Coke but won’t keep the money. I swear we’re not bad people.”
The group murmured a bashful mea culpa. Simone had been sold out.
Cheyenne glared at her. “Do you sit up at night inventing new ways to suck?”
Winnie wore nothing by nylon tracksuits, a different color for each day of the week. She didn’t wear makeup and never did anything more complicated with her lank hair than to pull it into a ponytail. In her backpack she carried a month’s supply of Xanax and roughly ten dollars in quarters. If no one needs it, no harm done, she liked to remind the group. But if someone has a crisis, I’m ready. The staff, of course, knew nothing of Winnie’s benevolence. The last quarter typically deployed several days before the last Xanax.
The attendant pried open the small but intricate structure designated to hold quarters deposited. Simone, sadly, had been reckless in her charity; he knew instantly that the number of cans dispensed didn’t correspond correctly with the money collected.
“Who’s gonna pay for these Cokes?” he cried. “I’m not leaving without my money.” Darren watched the man’s accusing glare travel the vista of anxious patients. Cheyenne and Stump, of course, looked mildly irritated. “Coke isn’t free!” the attendant shouted. Making a noisy production of collecting what few coins Simone had kept, he followed with more commotion, by slamming new cans into their respective slots for distribution. Grunting, he hurled a can against a sickly tree, its insistent logo and lettering cart-wheeling through the air, and fizz spewed in multiple jets. Near the impact, patients scattered. “They could fire me for this,” he bellowed. “I got kids and my kids got problems.” He sniffled. Stump smirked behind his open hand.
All the patients watched the attendant as his first tear fell. The ranch commonly offered stage for the infinite chain of meager melodramas, but still no one dared intervene. His shoulders shook as he blew his nose between sobs. Cheyenne and Stump stared at their threesome’s newest member, both likely believing he, and no one else, could drop the curtain on this ugly scene.
“Just explain things to your boss like Winnie did.” Darren placed a long, bony arm over the attendant’s shoulders. His face betrayed his unease but his voice remained steady, the voice of reason. He knew, as always, that some patients found it impossible to regard his homosexuality as one and only one facet of his persona. Any time Darren touched a man, in kindness or camaraderie, the gesture sparked snickers. Stump slammed his crutch against a garbage can. Cheyenne adjusted her silk scarf, this gesture, she once told Darren, meant to remind the patients of her condition, a crude but effective emotional blackmail: no one dared defy her.
By the time he closed Simone’s front panel, her benevolent glow restored, the attendant’s bereavement had subsided to a sniffle. “This happens again,” he said firmly, “and I’ll pull the plug. You know, take her away.”
Panic leapt from patient to patient, the doomsday warning zipping from neuron to neuron in the ranch’s collective consciousness. The agency’s director, a surprisingly young woman whose toneless voice reminded Darren of a bored sorority pledge, had no time for such matters. A new soda machine ranked somewhere below “chop down diseased trees.” The patients, during lunch, would then choose between tap water and some concoction alleged to be fruit punch.
“I’m sure it won’t come to that,” Darren promised, gently herding the attendant back to his truck. They’d make sure Simone behaved. He knew, of course, that Simone’s fickle nature required a far more drastic intervention than the attendant, his shirt soaked at the armpits and his fuck-me-harder mustache and his oversized emotions, could even imagine, let alone execute. Darren, Cheyenne and Stump watched with the others as the man from Coca-Cola rumbled out of sight.
Cheyenne shook her head. “You shouldn’t make bullshit promises.”
Darren wouldn’t meet her gaze. Always assigned damage control, he felt the least his two friends could do was endorse how he handled a given situation. Their true feelings interested no one but themselves.
“He’s gone,” Darren said, “and we still have Simone.”
“What about next time?” several patients asked.
“What about it?”
“He said he’d take Simone.”
Darren sighed. “He was just upset.”
Smiling, Cheyenne beamed countless kilowatts, promising that the techs and counselors would make every effort to appease the pattients. Darren observed his friend as she worked the small crowd as if election day neared. Did she ever manage to forget that she was dying? He couldn’t. Now, with the patients, her insincerity adhered to the atmosphere. Cheyenne could make patients laugh, and little else. The patients’ stream of worries flowed swiftly.
“I need Mr. Pibb with my meds,” one insisted. “My stomach hurts if I take ‘em with water.”
Darren’s tone turned harsh. “If anyone gives a shit, raise your hand.” He marched off the patio, disappearing around the building. When he believed himself finally alone, he gasped violently as if emerging from deep, dense water. He recalled stroking Rumor and thinking this was stupid—it’s stupid but I’m doing it right now. Knees pulled to his chest, Darren rested his head.
“Just ‘cause it’s true don’t mean everyone needs to hear it.” Winnie, today wearing her turquoise tracksuit, leaned against the wall, peering down at Darren.
“I didn’t want to be followed,” he said.
“I saw what you did with the Coke man.”
“So did everyone.”
“You can be so kind when those two aren’t behind the wheel.”
His tone was flat. “Just because it’s true doesn’t mean I need to hear it.” Winnie gave no indication that she’d caught the rudeness of his copycat advice. Darren still seated in dirt, she bowed and kissed the top of his head. “I’m your friend whether you know it or not.” She trotted away, surprisingly graceful, turquoise nylon rustling as she left. He thought of Rumor freed from that cramped corral.
From where he sat, Darren listened to the patients slip coins into Simone. He heard each can of soda land with a thump. Would the coins clatter free right after? This time he, indeed, heard the plink of two coins. A free soda—Simone likes you. Today, at least. If she hated you, your quarters disappeared but no soda dropped. If, however, she kept your money and dispensed a can as expected, that meant Simone had tabled the matter.
“But be careful,” Cheyenne liked to tease the less stable patients. “If Simone becomes righteous pissed, you’ll get a live sewer rat!” Actually, this joke was Darren’s brainchild. But Cheyenne’s delivery was what sold it; to him, she confided this, before he could embarrass himself. Then, he’d felt a sharp pull in his gut that one might mistake for gratitude.
After lunch, group therapy resumed. The fake-weed aficionado tried to derail the first session with a diatribe about why his shrink should lose her license, but the others hewed to their tearful agenda: it was time to say goodbye to Cheyenne. Silly to stay in treatment if I die before my epiphany, she assured the room. Even Miss Rochelle nodded in agreement.
The group took turns issuing sappy farewells, and Darren struggled to imagine the group, or the ranch, itself, without Cheyenne. Without her wit, we’ll go to shit, he thought. The juvenile rhyme made him giggle. The others expressed, through narrowed eyes and drawn mouths, their dismay. Stump, however, too started laughing. Cheyenne seemed relieved to join.
“Assholes,” she muttered under her breath. They laughed harder.
The last group concluded, and patients migrated to the sad and broken picnic tables. They swapped gossip and cigarettes, waiting for the vans to take them home. That afternoon, the wind gusted with such velocity, Cheyenne had to keep a hand flat upon her silk scarf to keep it from taking flight.
“No more pony rides for me,” she declared.
Stump smirked. “Whenever I get a saddle sore, I’ll think of you.”
Another gust, out of nowhere, stripped the scarf from her head. It shocked Darren to see the sparse hair on her scalp, feathered like moss upon a seawall.
“Goddammit,” Cheyenne shouted. “My mother gave me that scarf!” She demanded that all the patients help her catch it. Only she, and Stump, would make such a request and expect compliance. The patients made perfunctory gestures, returning to their seats as Cheyenne darted away from the picnic tables and toward the looping driveway. The homebound vans would begin their one-by-one procession at any moment.
As she stumbled and scurried, changing direction almost every moment, Darren watched her. He wasn’t ready to say goodbye. Rumor the fucking therapy horse knew his secret but she never would. She’d be enraged about his relapse, he told himself. It would curdle the whole day. So he smiled and watched her chase the scarf. He didn’t notice that she scuttled back and forth over the driveway. Again and again. He didn’t realize the van would smash into her, or he would’ve cried a warning. Instead, he watched her frame, suddenly seeming so frail, get sucked beneath the front bumper.
As the patients and techs scrambled, Darren watched Cheyenne’s scarf ascend, finally losing sight of it among the dead leaves and diseased limbs. It was so pretty, he thought, and now it’s gone.
When Darren first appeared among the pitiable picnic tables, the patients performed the speculative medley that greeted every new arrival. He slowly stepped back from what seemed to be a listless, buzzing mob. Backing away, he felt her tapered fingers upon his shoulders, only after her jasmine fragrance raided his nostrils. He froze, and Cheyenne’s grip tightened.
“They’re talking about me like I’m not here,” he noted in a dazed tone.
Cheyenne tossed back her head, silk scarf shivering down her back. “Enjoy it while you can. By the end of the day, they’ll be begging you for smokes.”
Darren had naively expected his fellow patients to feel inert with trepidation and anxiety, much like himself. Instead, he discovered a vaguely amenable clump of misfits and rejects, no one member brave enough to venture beyond the others. How can I persuade assorted addicts and persons charitably labeled “unstable” to accept me, he fretted. And what will it say about me if they do?
“Follow me to safety,” Cheyenne beckoned, backing away from the tables.
“But how will I make friends?” Darren asked.
“The same way anyone does: accidentally.”
Stump perched atop a lawn chair beside the soda machine. Darren felt a pang of optimism; the rehab that yesterday banished him had forbidden caffeinated drinks. Cheyenne’s sudden embrace jolted Darren. He nearly missed her whisper in his ear: let’s see what Simone thinks.
“Who? I don’t see—”
“Simone’s not a lady,” Stump muttered. “She’s a whore.”
Darren wondered whether the mob might’ve offered a less cryptic welcome. Cheyenne petulantly offered Stump her outstretched palm. “Give the boy a quarter, lover. I’ll touch it for luck.” Stump dug for change. Darren suspected this was a familiar duet.
Darren finally laughed, just a bit, when Simone spit back the coin after his soda dropped. He believed the refused coins to be a good omen, still unaware of Simone’s slatternly ways. “I can buy a drink later, too!” He failed to observe how childish his joy sounded.
The young woman in the scarf grinned. “Stump likes you, I like you. Most importantly, however, Simone has spoken.” She fussed with her scarf. Darren noticed how little hair remained on her head. “We run this clusterfuck,” she continued. “These losers will grovel for damn near anyone, though, so don’t let it go to your head.” He already suspected this power had polluted her skull.
Stump smirked. “We’re all here to heal.”
Darren’s just-add-water friendship with the balding woman and her one-legged sidekick required little more than fawning over their wit on demand. It took a week or two before the duo realized the new arrival’s deep reserve of diplomacy would find good use those times their actions or witticisms stirred discord.
Darren knew it was impossible to survive rehab without a core of accomplices. This belief fueled a low but constant dread that the duo would one day discard him without warning and without sentiment. Desperate to avoid doom, he indulged whatever whims Cheyenne and Stump expressed. Afternoons, riding the van back to his group home, he crumpled into the far corner of the back seat, exhausted. I’m safe, he assured himself. Happiness can wait.
Not every group therapy patient met a happy end. For every deceased patient, a painted stone the size of a softball served as tribute. Strangely, it never occurred to Miss Rochelle or the staff to write the names of each dead patient on his or her given rock. One of the more guileless therapists insisted that the dozen nameless stones served as a potent reminder that the group is more powerful—and vital—than any of its individual members. If he happened upon them neatly piled, Stump enjoyed scattering the sacred rocks. Metaphors are bullshit, he’d explain.
Darren didn’t expect Cheyenne’s stone to catch his eye. She’d be enraged if he grew teary over a painted rock. As her planned exit drew closer, Cheyenne had insisted that no one assign her a rock after the cancer finally finished her. Of course, Cheyenne’s died in such a freakish, random manner, her request was forgotten. Had it not been for Stump absently handling her stone the day it appeared, Darren would’ve forgotten this rote gesture by the staff. The circumstances of her death stunned him still; Cheyenne had fallen victim to a horrible prank. God could be so rude, he thought. Stump’s eagerness to caress the new stone baffled Darren. Typically, the brusque man insisted that the only proper response to sentiment was a torrent of vulgarity.
Now, however, Darren sadly wondered which staff member had quietly added Cheyenne’s stone, its limp magic bewitching only the less cynical patients. Stump didn’t relinquish her rock even after Darren expressed alarm. It’s just a rock, he assured his friend.
“I wanna write her name on it,” Stump said.
“Okay, we’ll ask Miss Rochelle and—”
“Fuck that bitch.”
Darren paused. Did Stump wish for comfort or solitude? “Whenever you start missing her bad enough,” he ventured, “find me. It’s wrong to grieve by yourself.” He wasn’t sure if that offer was sincere.
For a week, the group focused on Cheyenne nearly every session. Darren rarely listened. Few people were capable of true insight when faced with a loss this sudden. He cared not how the group wished to celebrate her memory. What truly unnerved Darren was that Cheyenne died before he could confess his relapse. She didn’t really know me, he told himself, and now she never would. That night, he snorted three rails and imagined conversing for hours with his dead friend.
While the patients navigated their grief and shock, Simone stopped spitting out quarters. The patients whined, ignoring Winnie when she pointed out that expecting free soda forever was damn unreasonable. She’d been Darren’s source of quarters for almost a week, and with each incidental gift, it became more apparent that Winnie’s benevolence might never reach a ceiling. His debt climbed slowly amid her assurances that she wasn’t keeping track. Still, he loathed showing the tracksuit diva any vulnerability; she’d probably interpret it as intended solely for her alone.
That moment, however, Winnie was pounding Simone’s front panel, punching the button that had failed to produce an ice-cold soda. She cleared her throat. “He’ll pull the plug. Guarantee it. There’s no other choice.” She’d grown bolder with her admonishments since Cheyenne wasn’t there to silence them.
The techs instructed the patients to return to the therapy rooms. Darren paused to make sure all had left and then gazed into Simone’s glowing front panel as if the machine might match the intensity of his gaze. The immediate vicinity felt warm, humid. Darren placed his palm against the panel. He was glad no one watched. Simone hummed, as always, contentedly plugged into an outlet, but Darren sensed a more organic energy coiled inside the machine. The vibration was hypnotic, and when a soda dropped into sight, the clunk jolted him. He felt obligated to offer Winnie his drink when he joined their group. The cream-colored slip of parchment tied around the can didn’t register, to him, as odd. He simply grabbed the can and freed the parchment.
The message bore no name. The perfectly-inked calligraphy seemed too fancy for the statement, but he still felt flattered, knowing someone had put such effort into reaching him.
I HAVE HAIR. I HAVE BOOBS. MISS YOU FOREVER.
Humanity’s chief failing is that man so rarely questions his perceptions. If we approve of the view, we don’t say a word. The surreal moments, greeted by Darren like snowstorms in June, seemed as mundane—and wonderful—as any other bouquet of moments. Cheyenne isn’t truly dead, he decided, not if she can contrive a way, defying explanation, to reach old friends.
Darren spoke, his voice leaping, certain there’d be a response. “Everything’s okay. I love you, honey.” He forgot to take the soda inside. He crammed the message in his pocket but later caressed its grain while a group member rambled on. No one noticed this careless indiscretion.
The next morning, Darren stalled until Winnie, Stump and the others filed in for the first session. Sweating and shaking, he fished for a quarter but Simone dropped another soda wrapped in parchment before he found one. She knows I’m here, he told himself. He didn’t bother to grab the drink. He wasn’t thirsty.
I’M NOT SURE IT’S HEAVEN BUT I’M HAPPY
For the rest of the week, Darren snatched whatever moments alone with Simone presented themselves. She told him to be brave. She told him he was a great kid. Frankly, it didn’t matter what Simone dispensed as long as it came from Cheyenne. Stump had yet to cast off his slow, joyless enchantment, and Darren knew all he needed was to learn about the miracle.
“Don’t flip out on me, princess,” Stump said. “I got enough crazy of my own without yours knocking at my door.”
Darren shoved a fistful of parchment his direction, but his fervor faded when no life sparked in Stump’s eyes.
“Someone wrote these. Wasn’t me!”
“You know, I asked her out the day she started here.”
Darren stammered, “Cheyenne isn’t gone.”
“She promised my leg had nothing to do with it.”
The fistful of parchments fluttered to the ground.
“She laughs and you have to laugh with her, you know?” Stump fumbled in his jacket pocket, and Darren heard the rattle of pills inside a bottle. Stump made sure the techs weren’t around and swallowed three pills dry. He held out the bottle to Darren. “We’re all here to heal, my brother.”
Quickly, Stump started slurring his words during sessions. He drooled. He never lost that look of a vagrant rudely awakened. Quickly, the day came minus Stump perched on his lawn chair beside Simone. Darren heard a rumor that he’d been busted with pills. The chatty patient couldn’t stop cackling as he reached the best part.
“He said Simone gave him the pills!”
When he approached Winnie for change the next morning, she offered to have lunch with him. Darren lacked the fortitude to refuse. With Winnie, he didn’t have to contribute much. Winnie described in exhausting detail her husband’s cyst. She chided the techs daily for their lapses in professionalism. After a week had passed, Stump’s absence mourned but not discussed, Darren kept reminding himself that rehab is impossible without friends. Once, Winnie actually slipped him a second Xanax when he’d only asked for one. He knew she’d never discard him. He told himself that Winnie offered safe harbor. He admonished himself not to fuck this up.
Cheyenne’s communication with him, however, remained his domain and his alone. He never for an instant considered telling Winnie, and he’d started hoping that Stump had paid his revelation little mind, those otherworldly parchments fading amid a sedative haze. Now that Winnie had laid claim to his social life, it became increasingly difficult to find a moment alone with Simone. But he found them.
YOU DON’T NEED STUMP. YOU JUST NEED YOU.
He still hadn’t intuited a way of making sure what he said before the lighted panel was actually heard. His words not once directly influenced Cheyenne’s missives.
YOU ARE LOVED AND YOU ARE WORTH LOVING.
It occurred one night to Darren, while he was spun on speed, that Cheyenne’s soda-machine incarnation exuded sincerity and warmth, the prickly barbs wholly absent. He wanted to know whether the afterlife would alter (or, enhance?) his personality as well. His late friend’s campaign of hugs and kisses never faltered.
I’M GLAD YOU HAVE A NEW FRIEND BUT I’M STILL THE BEST!
Finally, the day came and Simone faced the inquisition once again. The attendant from Coca-Cola returned, looking sheepish and refusing to meet anyone’s gaze. Winnie, however, demanded his attention, ponytail swishing as she approached, her tangerine tracksuit demanding witness.
“Now it’s stealing our money!”
“What do you mean?” The front panel creaked open, the attendant’s keys jangling in the lock.
“After you’re done, I’ll show you.” Winnie smiled, pleased with herself. “That machine has to go. It’s a distraction, if you wanna know the truth.”
The attendant cowered as the woman delivered her verdict, barking like a trained seal. A few other patients had assembled to watch Winnie’s verdict, but a one-on-one session with Miss Rochelle by the pond had waylaid Darren. She urged him to stop stonewalling his therapists and peers. We’re here to help one another, she reminded him. Nearing the porch, having seen the Coca-Cola truck parked in the driveway, he felt a surge of terror watching Winnie browbeat the attendant to unplug Simone and rid the ranch of her at once. At least, he assumed that was her mission, not close enough to make out their words. He did see, however, Winnie plunk three quarters into the machine after the attendant closed the front panel. She gesticulated as if trying to signal from across a crowded ballroom, but the attendant stood only inches from her.
He could’ve made it to Simone in time, but an unexpected peace fell upon him before he reached her. Was the front panel glowing more brightly than usual? Maybe Cheyenne had honed her communicative prowess so that Simone was no longer necessary. Let Winnie pound those buttons. She was a buffoon, tolerated only because she supplied loose change and sedatives to all who asked. She gestured wildly, seemingly unaware that soda machines don’t respond to anger and exasperation. She’d started to turn away when the army of sewer rats exploded from the slot designated for dropped soda.
The attendant stood agape as the rodents latched onto Winnie. One rat clenched her ponytail between its sharp teeth. Winnie spun furiously, likely hoping the rats couldn’t hold on. She wasn’t fast enough. After an agonizing minute, she dropped to the ground, curling into a fetal position.
Darren finally snapped from his reverie and remembered that the proper response would be to rush to his friend’s side and offer help and comfort. What drew him to his new friend, however, was base curiosity; he wanted to witness more closely Simone’s final, and nastiest, trick. By the time he reached Winnie, the rats had scurried into the tall, brittle grass. Numerous bites bloodied her skin and the tracksuit was torn in too many places to count. Darren’s feigned compassion, however, vaporized when he spied the attendant yanking the Simone’s plug. Winnie weakly reached for what she must’ve assumed would be Darren’s hand, offered to help her to her feet, but she grasped only fetid air as Darren marched toward the attendant.
“You can’t do that, sir! You don’t understand!”
“This machine is out of order. In more ways than one.”
The tears filled his eyes. “Please, sir, you have to believe—”
“I’m not putting the machine on my truck after that nightmare. We’ll haul it away tomorrow morning.” The next day was Saturday. Darren realized that this would perhaps be his last encounter with Simone, and Cheyenne. But he made no attempt to communicate with her and she made no attempt with him; they weren’t alone.
In the aftermath of the rat attack, a muscled tech was assigned to guard Simone, leaving Darren with no opportunity to plug her back in. Crushed, he climbed aboard his van when afternoon came and brainstormed ideas for how he could reunite with Simone and be with her…before the bastards took her away. Fortunately, his willingness to indulge whatever sexual desire from whatever man won him a ride to the ranch.
After eluding his trick, he dashed toward Simone as if she were an ailing lover. Crossing the grounds, his foot kicked the careful arrangement of painted stones commemorating the ranch’s dead. He hadn’t time to notice that fourteen identically decorated stones scattered from his recklessness. Cheyenne’s had been the thirteenth.
Simone’s front panel eased open as if Darren were expected. He beamed with joy as the brilliant white light generated by Simone blinded him. Vision, though, was of no consequence in the world he’d penetrated. There, people felt entirely safe. He needn’t know the structure sustaining him—simply trust that it will endure.
It’s been fifteen damn minutes. If there’s a night watchman on the prowl, the last thing I need to have in my possession is a half-gram of meth and a deranged trick. I hesitate when I reach the patch of grass that my headlights cannot reach. I don’t know where I’m going. I suppose as long as I don’t run into barbed wire or step in horseshit, I shouldn’t complain.
The brilliant burst of white light suddenly flooding the grounds stuns me. It’s like a firecracker detonating an inch before your nose. The light had been so immense, I couldn’t pinpoint its source; it came from everywhere.
The smart money says I should get the fuck out of here and let the group home manager handle the missing person’s report. I don’t owe this kid a damn thing. He did my dope but hadn’t offered any return on my investment. Besides, why in God’s name would you start a PNP date with a trip to rehab?
My eyes finish adjusting to the dark, and I notice a ranch-style structure a few dozen yards beyond me. By the time I discern a patio, I also identify a soda machine. A Coke sounds very damn necessary.
I plunk in three quarters, and the soda lands with a thud. I crack open the can. Damn, that tastes crisp and clean. Don’t ask me why I’m suddenly so impressed by soda pop, but I am. I lean against the machine and drink. It doesn’t register at first, but after a few moments I see something I wish I hadn’t.
Wherever this kid went, I’m not following…
The machine’s plug sits on the cement, nowhere near an outlet. It doesn’t make sense and I wonder whether we’ve done some bad dope. I calm down and vow to enjoy my soda pop regardless of which fundamentals of science are being mocked.
A collection of painted rocks, arranged in no obvious pattern, appears beside me. Actually, it was always there, but I only now noticed it. Someone spent a lot of time making those stones look pretty. After my last sip, I ease to my knees and try to arrange them in some way. I count fourteen of them. I have no idea why this task seems so vital.
The machine, my back to it, dispenses another soda. I hear the thunk of the can.
Thomas Kearnes holds an MA in Screenwriting from the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas at Austin. His fiction has appeared or will appear in Berkeley Fiction Review, SmokeLong Quarterly, Gulf Stream Magazine, wigleaf, Per Contra, Spork, Underground Voices, PANK, Word Riot, Sundog Lit, 3 AM Magazine, Adroit Journal and elsewhere. His work has also appeared in several LGBT venues. He has been nominated three times for the Pushcart Prize. He is studying to become a drug dependency counselor but he now works as a cashier. He just turned 40. Watching Raimi’s “Spiderman” trilogy, he kept waiting for Franco and Tobey Maguire to put aside their differences and make out. Selected by Ryka Aoki.
Image copyright Tom Brown via Flickr Creative Commons.