(Author’s note – Sorry for the delay.)
Reggie was playing PS4 when Jackson opened the garage door. He looked ridiculous in his full black sweat suit and face paint, and Reggie couldn’t avoid making a jab at him.
“Did you pull off the heist, hamburglar?”
“Uh-huh. We got a plan now man, we are going to help Ethan and find out what happened to Maggie. Ms. Halverson might know something, and giant Todd too.”
“Pretty sure my mom’s new boyfriend and his pig friends will do that, but I suppose you guys have an equal chance of solving the case. That dumb motherfucker wants to vote for Trump. At least, I think. He seems like a republican, right?”
“Yea, yea, how was dinner man? That had to be awkward.”
“Let’s not sugarcoat it, I had to eat dinner with the guy who put me in the back of squad car this morning. Now he’s probably disgracing a Marvin Gaye track and having trouble getting it up in the other room. You should have heard him talk about community safety and needing strong male role models and shit. He even tried to relate to me by talking about parties Big Mac’s brother used to have.”
“The army one?”
“That is his only brother.”
“Yea. well, fuck man. Wanna play some Destiny and I can tell you what we are going to do?”
“I never agreed to help. It seems like the case against Ethan is pretty strong, plus the results from Maggie’s rape kit thing came back. Positive for semen, both vaginal and anal. That was another dinner conversation I got to have.”
“Whoever did this beat the shit out of her, cut her up, according to Nick it was, and I quote, animalistic.”
For a while the only sound was the soundtrack to a two year old FIFA game’s main menu. Jackson stared at the floor, wiping his mouth a lot and playing with his fingernails. Reggie studied him, feeling for the first time a real disconnect from his best friend. He didn’t know why he wasn’t as shook up about the events of the past two days, but for some reason he just felt a total lack of empathy. Then again, he had never really felt all that connected to any of the people here in Deercliff, or in LA when he visited his dad, or anywhere he went. For Reggie, people were objects of study, walking bundles of meat that responded to stimuli with a various array of responses, and while he had learn how to fit in, he never felt like them.
Perhaps he got it from his dad, his mom had said he always felt distant when they were together. His parents met at a business function, dated for a few months, and went their separate ways. When his mom found she was pregnant, she had informed his dad, they made child support arrangements and a month long visit each year, and that had been it. During those visits, his dad had made sure Reggie was fully aware of his African heritage, or at least what that would mean in a place like Deercliff. At the age of six, he had watched a slew of VCR tapes of footage on the Rodney King beatings, the OJ trial, and numerous other examples of brutality against blacks in America. He could still remember the smell of cigars that clung to the shag rug of his dads Santa Monica house, and how when he started to cry while watching these acts his dad had berated him for being weak. According to his father, he was already too white to save, but too black to be anything but a target in the suburban mountain village he called home. From that day, Reggie had never felt at home anywhere, or comfortable with anyone. Except, of course, Jackson.
Yet here his friend sat, determined to do what exactly? Interfere with a police investigation? Put friendship and loyalty over hard factual evidence? This wasn’t the same Jackson he had grown up with, this wasn’t the kid who could explain major social and cultural shifts through 80’s television. Reggie felt like they had bounded over a love of logic and escapism, but Jackson wasn’t being logical anymore.
Eventually, Reggie walked over and turned on the other TV, handing Jackson the controller for the other PS4. Both logged into Destiny, and began playing with new characters, since a third replay seemed like a fruitless endeavor. Jackson began explaining the events that had taken place at Ethan’s, and Reggie said he would think about helping.
Big Mac had been grounded by his parents. Both had returned home the minute news of the events hit them, and the morning of the second they had a long conversation with their son. The blame had never really fallen on him, and each took advantage of this tragedy to blame the other for the poor parenting they displayed. Jimmy sat there, staring hard at the oak dining room table, which was still sticky from the beer pong game that had been played on it a few nights prior. He had been grounded before, and this sentence seemed light given the events that had occurred because of his party. What other recourse did they have though? After all, Amelia had been caught with acid laced punch, and Trent had broken a priceless grandfather clock during his partying days. Both of them had suffered the same punishment, hand over the keys to their car and weed the flowerbeds.
So after his chewing out, Big Mac turned off his phone, passed over his keys, and went out to begin weeding in the cool November air. There wasn’t much to actually do, mother nature had already killed most plant life in the large bed out front. Yet Jimmy could feel the judgmental eyes of his mother on him, so he pretended to pull up dandelions while thinking back to the summer prior. All three Halvert siblings were back in town, and when a camping trip had been brought up as bonding time, Jimmy had become irrationally excited for the party he was sure would ensue. He still had trouble processing what had actually happened.
Trent had been in the Army rangers for about eight years, and had just returned from a tour in Afghanistan. His skin bore deep wrinkles from being exposed to the arid climate, and he wore a thick long beard. Every time Jimmy looked at him he couldn’t help but feel a disconnect with his brother. It was hard to see this burly, dark skinned man as the same kid who had taught him how to throw a baseball and given him his first hit off a joint when he was in middle school. Trent’s eyes, even when sitting down for family dinner, were in constant motion, scanning and assessing the situation that surrounded him. He even slipped into speaking Pashtun when he asked Amelia to pass the butter. All these changes aside, Trent was a loving person, and the camping trip had been his idea. The morning they went to take off up the mountains, Trent had gotten up early and packed the car by himself, brining an unnecessary amount of tactical equipment and a very necessary amount of liquor.
Amelia was still the wild child of the bunch. She was in her sixth year of college, her dreadlocks had numerous beads and ornaments woven into them, and was really only back in town because she wanted money to help get a few of her environmentalist friends out of jail. Big Mac and her had never really gotten along, primarily due to her using him as the outlet for a lot of anger issues. For example, the parental Halvert’s had been out for one of their little vacations one winter, and Amelia, then 12, had locked her little brother out of the house for two days. Trent, who was supposed to be in charge, had been off with his then girlfriend for a concert in the city. Now, Jimmy had broken the head off her favorite Orca whale toy, but locking a six year old outside in the snow isn’t exactly kosher. He had managed to use the doggy door to crawl into the garage, which was better than the snowy outdoors, but it still wasn’t heated. These days she was the picture of a dotting sister, but that all felt a like too little too late.
Differences aside, the Halvert siblings all shared a basic set of traits. Popular, successful, good looking and damn good partiers. Their sort of shared good luck had always held them together, and this camping trip held all the promise of a classic story. Which is why when everyone the siblings invited cancelled on them, Jimmy had tried to find a way to cancel the whole trip. After all, if there wasn’t going to be a real party there wasn’t really a point. Trent however insisted, and one does not just say no to an army ranger.
They drove up around midday to the Pilgrim Falls campgrounds and found a spot about a mile back from the falls themselves. Upon parking, Trent got out, took a long pull off the bottle of Jack, and began setting up the camp. Both Amelia and Jimmy offered to help, but Trent just laughed and claimed it wasn’t a problem, and suggested they both go take a quick dip up at the falls. Both agreed to this idea. Jimmy changed behind a tree, and when he got to the water found Amelia already in, butt naked and splashing around.
“What the fuck are you doing?”
“Oh please little brother, they are tits, you’ve seen them before.”
“I don’t need to see my sister’s! Or have someone else find us together like… this.”
“Don’t be such a fucking puritan James. This is the Devil’s Hole after all. Plus I used your computer last night, I know exactly what you use it for.” The pool at the bottom of the falls had gotten the nickname Devil’s Hole due to the amount of lonely, drunk bachelors that had decided to off themselves from the cliffs. Some in Deercliff even believed the campgrounds to be haunted, a breed of mumbo jumbo Jimmy didn’t care for. “Now come on, enjoy what mother Gaia offers and get in this shit, it’s like the perfect temperature.”
Jimmy did get in, careful to constantly avoid eye contact with his sister. She began telling some story about a sweat lodge she had been in a few months back and the life changing experience that had been. Jimmy paid half attention, preferring to study one of the large boulders at the base of the cascading water. Trent showed up some twenty minutes later, walking barefoot and carry three towels.
“So it’s that kind of party!” He exclaimed, also pulling off all his clothes.
“Are you fucking kidding me?”
“It’s just a penis Jimmy, every man has one.” He chortled as he got in the water, splashing water Big Mac’s direction. “It’s just like all those pictures mom has of us as kids, hell she has it on the fucking mantle.”
“Yea, and it’s disturbing, you were like seven when that was taken.”
“Have it your way then. No fish blow jobs for you,” Trent said, which was followed by a heavy gigging from both older Halverts.
Jimmy stood up and yelled at them at that point, “Fucking freaks!” And stormed off to the camp, his flip flops collecting mud and pine needles as he walked. The site looked exquisite, Trent had even laid out and organized the picnic table with a full set of drinks and snacks. Half the whiskey bottle had already been drained. Big Mac set to work drinking the remainder, grimacing after each shot. After four drags he plopped into one of the fold out chairs and sat in silence. The occasional chirp was the only thing that interrupted him, and before long the whiskey and silence had lulled him to sleep.
When he woke up, Trent and Amelia were back, a roaring fire was going, and several hot dogs sizzled on the grill. Soft bluegrass music came from Amelia’s phone and portable speakers. Amelia was dancing slowly with the music, a flowing skirt twirling in the twilight. Trent sat in the opposite chair, smoke obscuring him fully from view. His flannel shirt was unbuttoned, revealing a hairy chest with a large sword tattooed above the left breast, and he wielded a bottle of wine in each hand.
“Welcome back to the living, baby brother.”
“Whatever. I need a drink.”
“Yes you do. Amelia, give him some of the punch. He’s old enough, and clearly needs it.”
“It’s the last of the mushrooms Trent, how will we keep going if we give it to him? He might not even like it.”
“He will be fine. We are sorry about the swimming thing Jimmy, really. It’s easy to forget what it was like to be your age. Shame is something your sister and me let go of a long time ago.”
Amelia drifted over to him and handed him a “Hello Kitty” mug of a dark, bad smelling brew. “You ever tripped before?”
“Well Ranger Rick says you can handle it, and he always has been good about making sure you follow in family traditions so drink up.”
“This is mushrooms? Like seeing unicorns mushrooms?”
“Oh for fuck sake, do I really have to give them to him?”
“You won’t see unicorns James. It’s a mellow high, very introspective and fun, you will love it. Come on, drink up and tell us about our old stomping grounds. Does that old bitch Stahlbrook still teach math?”
Jimmy looked cautiously at the mug his sister had forced in front of him. The fire cackled quietly, the only thing breaking the tension for several seconds, before Big Mac took the offering. Sipping the warm liquid slowly, Jimmy found it tasted like dirt and struggled to swallow it, but put the first swig down nonetheless. Trent flashed a Viking smile across the firelight, and Amelia chuckled at the sour face Jimmy made. “We got this new teacher actually, Ms. Halverson, huge guns on her.”
Amelia ruffled his hair at that and Trent let out a deep laugh. For the most part, the night turned around after that. Jimmy polished off the mushroom tea, and an hour in felt his whole body tingle with energy he had never felt before. The fire grew in size and warmth, and he couldn’t help but notice the soft light that glowed from each of his siblings. Amelia pulled a guitar out of the car, and strummed a wild, meandering tune that varied in intensity and speeds with no set reasoning. Trent talked in a boisterous voice, weaving tales of high school football fields and deserts into the starry night sky. Big Mac occasionally jumped into his older brother’s narrative, but for the most part had felt content to enjoy the yawping of his family members and watch as the fir trees pulsed and swayed.
Having polished off his third bottle of wine, Trent suddenly stood up and leapt over the fire in a smooth motion. He stood over his brother and yelled into his face, “WHO ARE YOU!” the action startled Jimmy so much he tipped right over and found himself staring directly up at the moon. Amelia had burst out into hysterical laughter, and soon all three were rolling on the hard ground, laughing. Trent got up eventually, walked around and picked up his brother, the way one would a child. “Please Jimmy, tell us who you are. I can’t go back without knowing my brother is a man.” His pleading face looked so old in the dancing lights.
Amelia, still on the ground, said, “He’s a drifter, like us. We don’t have identities; it’s our family curse. No real parents, no real boundaries, we just do whatever draws the most people to us.”
“He can tell me himself.”
“I… I guess… here, put me down, I need to stand for this.” Jimmy found his feet after several stumbles both directions. “I feel like everyone sees me as this, I don’t know, I feel like no one takes me seriously. Like, my voice is just a sound I make for myself. I… I’m cheating on my girlfriend, you know Ann Marie, with her best friend, Maggie. I don’t really like Maggie, and I know she doesn’t like me. The sex is so good though. But I think I Love Annie. Jesus, I’ve never actually said that out loud. I constantly feel like I’m just doing stuff other people think I should be doing. Do, do you guys ever get scared when you’re alone? I… I can’t stand being by myself, because I feel like I don’t know what I’m supposed to be doing then. Like, I just feel like I’m pretending to do everything, just cause people think I’m supposed to.” Jimmy had no idea where any of these words were coming from, he found himself even questioning some of the things falling out of his mouth seconds after he said them. Amelia had propped herself up on her elbows, and several tears flowed down her thin cheeks. Trent, for his part, simply nodded when Jimmy stopped talking, and laid a hand on his shoulder.
“You’re definitely one of us then, baby brother.”
As he ripped already dead weeds up from the beauty bark, it wasn’t his momentary honesty that Big Mac fixated on however. The most interesting part of the night had been when the Halvert’s were winding down their revelries. Trent and Jimmy had both began peeing on the fire, and Amelia had already crawled into the tent when the hard light of a car’s headlights cut through the thin forest. Two black Land Rovers drove past, the one in back coming to a full stop right next to the campsite. Big Mac felt his brother’s thick arm quickly come up across his chest while his other absentmindedly reached for a side arm he didn’t have. A flashlight beam shot out from the drivers seat, fully illuminating the camp and momentarily blinding Jimmy. The light clicked off quickly, and the car began its trek deeper into the woods.
“What the fuck was that about,” Big Mac asked.
Trent’s eye’s followed the car. “I don’t fucking know, but I’m pretty sure that was that rich cunt, Griffen. Never took him for the woodsy type.”
“Whatever that was, it was fucking weird.”