They see you, the note said.
Three simple words, scribbled in blue ink on the back of a Polaroid picture we found in a shoe box buried under our house.
Three old words, written decades before I ever saw them, penned in a sloppy, drunken hand, the ink as faded as the picture they were printed on. The grime was so thick it wiped off on my fingertips.
Three little words that should have meant nothing, but as soon as I read them, I knew they were meant for me.
Jay’s headlights bounced over the lip of the driveway as he pulled in. The bottom of his rebuilt 1950s ice cream truck scraped on the gravel, drawing cheers from the people smoking and drinking on the sun deck above our garage.
It was our last year of college, and my roommates and I were throwing a New Year’s Eve party. Most of the other guests had already arrived, and the house had been fortified with all the handles of cheap liquor, cases of beer, and weed we could afford. Three of my friends from home, including my best childhood friend, Jay, were in the truck that had just pulled in. The night was young, and the open bottle of our youth was decanting.
The ice cream truck’s engine died a whimpering little death, wheezing and sputtering as Jay jumped from the driver’s side door, wearing that same infectious grin I’d known since we’d first met, two goofy kids bonding over our mutual love of X-men cards on the playground in the 4th grade.
“Drew Mayhem!” Jay said, dragging me in for a hug.
I pulled back to admire his outfit. “Looking dapper tonight, buddy.” He was wearing a newsboy hat, wrinkled corduroys, and a shiny new pair of leather shoes. His beard and hair had both gone the Jesus route, long and fashionably unkempt. His right front tooth was chipped from a brawl he’d gotten into at a party during high school. The gap whistled when he spoke.
At his heels bounded the most googly-eyed pug I’d ever seen.
“Who’s this?” I said, giving the puppy a scratch behind his ears.
“This is Popeye.”
Jay sighed. “We had to put her down. She was old, man.”
My heart sank. Princess had been Jay’s dog since we were kids, a big, shaggy golden retriever who used to lay her head on my lap when we played video games. But my sadness vanished to see Jay again. He was my oldest friend, and the only person I had ever been able to really trust.
“I knew this was going to be another one of your epic ragers. Yo, check out all these honeys!” Jay craned his neck to admire the girls chatting on the wrap-around deck, then raised his arms up over his head and howled, “You bastard! It’s good to be back at Sunny Hill. I missed this place.”
I didn’t want to gloat, but Jay was right. Our place was one of the best party houses in town. Jell-O wrestling, birthday bashes, masked Halloween balls, New Year’s Eve get-togethers for friends in town who hadn’t gone home for the holidays; if it could be celebrated with alcohol, it happened at Sunny Hill.
I put on my humblest smile. “Tonight’s gonna be insane.”
Jay put his hand on my shoulder. “Been too long, man. Haven’t seen you since the last time I was down here. What was that, a year ago?”
“A year and some change.”
Jay pulled a joint out of his hair and lit it with a zippo shaped like a Star Trek phaser. “What’s the plan? We gonna start with some shots? Reminisce about old times and whatnot?”
“And whatnot,” I said.
The other two guys who rode with Jay walked up to us. I knew Rob and Ry from high school, but not well. They were townies, Real Bad Dudes with invisible steel collars and tattooed sleeves; tall, corn-fed white boys, the kind you didn’t see too often in our liberal college surf town. After two hours crammed in the front cabin of Jay’s truck, they looked like they needed a drink.
“Whup whup!” Rob said, giving me a fist bump so hard it stung. I tried not to flinch. I didn’t want to look like a little bitch in front of tough guys like Rob and Ry.
“What up, Rob? Oh shit, is that Ryan Garcia? Welcome to my pad, brother! Wassup wassup?”
“Just chillin’, Drew,” Ry said, shaking my hand. He was smaller than Rob, but his grip was strong. “You look good. Lose some weight since the last time I saw you?”
Nope. I’m about forty pounds heavier, actually. Pushing 280 right now, I thought, glancing at the huge bulge of my gut protruding through my vintage horror movie t-shirt, the original 1980 teaser poster for The Shining, black block letters over a faded yellow background.
“It’s possible,” I said.
“Oh. Cool. Keep that shit up,” Ry said.
I adjusted my glasses. I’d gone with my dad’s old bifocals for the night, which were big, brown, and hipster, mainly because they made my face look less fat. “Anyway, the booze is down in the garage.” I pointed at the well-lit door at the bottom of the driveway underneath the sun deck, where the music was coming from. “We built a bar down there.”
“Damn! We gettin’ fancy tonight!” Jay said.
“You roll out a red carpet for us, too, Drew?” Ry chided.
“You know you always get the star treatment at my house, guys,” I said. “Now, go get shit-faced. And happy New Year! I’ll be down there in a minute.”
Popeye scampered after them.
I saw another car pulling in the driveway. It was the guys from the band.
I had a feeling they weren’t going to play for long, if they got the chance to set up at all. Black clouds had devoured most of the starlight, threatening rain. I knew Carl, the vocalist, from one of my film studies classes. He waved to me through the open window of the car and asked if I really thought they had time. I said “probably,” but he wasn’t convinced.
My feeling was right. After about ten minutes of standing around, the band said it wasn’t going to happen and drove off, leaving our New Year’s Eve bash without the live music I’d promised so many of our guests. A few didn’t take it so well and abruptly decided they were only “stopping by.”
But for the most part, we had a good turnout. I stuck with my three hometown friends and my roommates, Carter and Natalia, for most of the night. Our fourth roommate, Sam, was back home in L.A. for the holidays, and wasn’t due back until the second week of January. Jay had already called dibs on his bed.
We drank in the garage next to the makeshift bar Carter and I had built from three spare bedroom doors we’d found in the storage space under our house. I’d hung Christmas lights and cleaned all four couches. I lit incense over the bar to help cover the musty smell of damp earth that seeped in from the basement when the weather got bad.
By the time it started to rain, we were all too hammered to notice.
Sunny Hill was a local legend long before the four of us lived there. We called it Sunny Hill because it was at the top of Sunny Hill Drive, an upscale cul-de-sac in the Santa Cruz hills close to our university; the four of us, naturally, were the Sunny Hill Crew.
Sunny Hill was a huge, four-bedroom house, where we spent our final college years smoking and day-drinking ourselves into inebriated oblivion. It was the only student house on the block, run-down and peeling on the outside, smoke-stained and messy from the constant chaos and partying inside. Our neighbors were retirees or dot-commers with canyons in their backyards and gated, landscaped driveways, who we mostly never saw.
Sunny Hill had seen better days, most of them in the seventies. It was two stories, with a wrap-around deck that opened to a wide patio above the garage, and ocean views from every room. Your first impression walking in through the gaudy crystal glass front door, once you had shaken the image of the rotting shake roof and faded blue stucco exterior from your mind, was that it could have been a house used to film porn back in the age of big bush and young Ron Jeremy. Cracked yellow floor tiles clicked and whispered under your feet as you entered. Hanging domed lampshades bathed each room in a pleasant tawny light, but never the corners. The kitchen was all oiled, ornate wooden cabinets, and the patched-up hallways were a graveyard of stories and good times. The living room looked like an upturned boat, with its twenty-foot ceiling and huge wooden eaves. There were panoramic windows where you could watch the lights of the Boardwalk come on just after sunset from our giant, L-shaped brown velour couch.
Your car was guaranteed to bottom out if you drove down our suicide-steep driveway too fast, and there was enough room underneath the house to hold not only a full two car garage, but an earth-floor basement that ran back all the way under Sunny Hill which we, and many previous generations of tenants before us, had used as storage.
It was in that storage space – in the vast darkness underneath Sunny Hill – where I found the pictures, and the note.
It was our own private castle on the California Coast. Sometimes we’d sit on the roof and drink forties or smoke fat, nasty blunts, just watching the ocean, or the little lines of cars moving through town, world-renowned for its pristine beaches and perfect barrels, its century-old Boardwalk complete with an imposing turn-of-the-century wooden Ferris wheel, its ancient redwood groves, its eccentric hippies and student protests that grew violent over the most trivial of causes.
And you couldn’t find a better view of any of it than from atop our Sunny Hill.
God, I miss those days.
They see you, the note said.
We drank, played darts, drank, talked shit over beer pong, drank, stepped out for cigarettes or upstairs to the living room to take a rip of someone’s bong, drank and argued over the constant gangster rap and 70s funk blasting out of our roommate Sam’s vintage speakers, drank, drank, and drank some more, drank until the liquor was gone.
At some point, Jay and his buddies noticed the tiny door behind the bar, which led to the basement. We were taking shots of vodka when Jay asked me about it.
“You never told me you had a basement,” Jay said.
“That’s our storage space,” I said, grimacing as the cheap vodka scorched my throat. “Basement. Whatever. It’s huge. Goes all the way back under the hill.”
“Looks like a Hobbit door, man.”
“That’s what we call it,” I said.
“Lord of the Rings is for faggots,” Rob said.
Ry said, “I thought you loved Lord of the Rings.”
“I do, Frodo Faggins.”
“Whup,” Ry said.
They weren’t homophobes, as much as they were high school dropouts from a very white small town; homophobic and racist slurs were, unfortunately, just part of their everyday vocabulary. I don’t think either of them had ever met an actual gay person other than my roommate Sam.
Bea, my neighbor from the co-op down the street, overheard them and cut in, “What’s wrong with Lord of the Rings, huh?”
Bea was five-foot-five, half-Brazilian and half-Japanese. Her eyes held the light like diamonds when she smiled, and her skin was olive-tan and deeply freckled from the sun. She had a fresh pink streak dyed in her curly, strawberry blonde hair, and a silver stud in the Marilyn Monroe piercing on her upper lip. She was wearing a low cut black dress with lace frills that looked like it came from the early 90s. She probably found it at the Goodwill – Bea was the best-dressed girl I knew, but she only bought clothes from second-hand stores. The dress showed off her strong, slender legs, legs that had brought home countless medals for our university track team, legs that had every guy at the party trying to stare and not get caught.
Rob and Ry both stared at their shoes. “Nothin’,” they said in unison.
“Omigod, is that your dog?” Bea asked Jay, her hand already deep behind Popeye’s ears. “What’s his name?”
Popeye panted, casting an uncertain look at Jay.
Jay feigned offense. “What, you don’t want to know mine?”
Bea smirked. “Never mind. His collar says Popeye. Popeye, that’s so cute! How old is she?” Bea said.
Bea rubbed Popeye’s jowls vigorously. “You’re just the cutest, ugliest little thing I’ve ever seen! Aw. I want him.”
Popeye rolled his head and squirmed for Jay to put him down.
Bea threw me a shaded eyebrow and winked. “I overheard you guys talking about the basement door. That, gentlemen, leads to the Sunny Hill Thrift Emporium. You see, it’s like a magic hat: you ask the little door for what you want, and it gives it to you.”
“Is that where you got your dress?” Jay asked her.
Bea gave him her Kiss my ass face.
Jay stuck out his hand. “Sorry. That was rude. I’m the guy with the weed. What’s your name?”
“That’s Neighbor Bea,” I interrupted. “A.K.A. Bumble.”
My roommate Carter leaned over my shoulder, dribbling his vodka cran all over his black muscle shirt and my shoes. “The Humble Bumble, Queen Bee of the Pollination Nation,” Carter said.
Jay raised an eyebrow. “What?”
Bea put her fists on her hips. “Carter here is insinuating, and not very cleverly, that I am a raging whore. This is a running joke for him. Ha, ha. But everyone knows you’re the slut here, Carter. What was your Tinder notch count before you met Talia? Like, five thousand? And how many of them, statistically, do you think had herpes?”
Carter sipped his drink and replied, “No one said it was a race, bae. Why would I run a race I couldn’t win?”
“I don’t care if you do Jiu Jitsu, I’m gonna kick that grin off your stupid face,” Bea said. She cocked back to punch Carter in the arm, but Carter slid back and Bea’s playful strike glanced off his bicep.
“Why you tryna spill this drink, girl? Ain’t there enough sticky fluid on that dress already?”
“Oh, burn,” I said into my drink, pounding Carter’s fist behind her back.
“We the storm,” Carter said in my ear.
“We the mothafuckin’ storm.”
“Dark clouds be rollin’.” Carter wandered off.
Bea offered Jay her hand. “I’m Beatriz. Don’t listen to these assholes. They’re twenty-two going on thirteen.”
“Why do they call you Bumble?” Jay said. “Too lazy to roll their Rs?” Then it clicked. Jay palmed his forehead. “Oh, I get it. That’s bad.”
Bea raised her eyebrows. “You’re fast.”
“You have no idea,” Jay said.
He gave Bea’s glass a clink. “Well, Happy New Year, Miss Bumble Bea. So, about this weird looking door… you’ve been back there, huh?”
“A bunch of times. Where do you think Drew got those couches? And the ones upstairs. And the kitchen table. And the chairs.”
I added, “And Sam’s speakers. And the doors we made the bar with. And Carter’s laundry detergent.”
“Well, shit. Let’s take a look back there,” Jay said. “Maybe Drew can find a new shirt. He’s been wearing that one for as long as I’ve known him.”
Rob and Ry laughed. Bea smiled at me sympathetically. “Hey, The Shining’s his favorite movie,” she said.
“So nice to know you care.”
Jay slapped me on the back. “So? We goin’ in?”
I unlatched the knob and the basement door swung open.
“Wait one second. I want a picture,” Bea said.
She lifted her vintage film camera from where it was looped around her wrist on a hand-woven band made of brightly colored hemp. Everyone Bea knew got one. Girls gave the bracelets as a tradition in her mother’s village in Brazil. Bea made and sold them as a hobby.
She shooed us into frame with her hands. “Okay, everyone get in close. Smile!”
Captions: (Various Christmases)
I always hated having my picture taken. I’ve never been a photogenic guy.
When I was a kid, I hated pictures because they made me face the fact I was a fat fuck, my greasy cow-licked hair and glasses, the perpetual pimples on the corners of my mouth that never went away even if I picked until they bled.
No, it’s safe to say the only pictures that exist of me from when I was little, up until around the time of high school graduation, were the ones my mom took of me posing with the video game consoles my parents got me every year for Christmas.
Christmas 1998 – Me holding my PlayStation One, still in its original box, the first console I owned. I was four.
Christmas 1999 – My N64. I was five.
Christmas 2000 – My Sega Saturn. The big bad six.
Christmas 2001 – My PlayStation 2. Seven was heaven.
Christmas 2002 – My Nintendo GameCube. Eight was great.
Christmas 2003 – My Sega Dreamcast. Nine, there wasn’t enough time.
Christmas 2004 – My Xbox. Ten. What can be said about this gem?
Christmas 2005 – My Gameboy Advance. Eleven. No more rhymes. I got mad at my parents that year for getting me a shitty handheld, but it ended up being my second-favorite gaming system of all time, one of the few I took with me to college.
From here, the pictures catalog both my growing waistline and my growing appreciation for porn:
Christmas 2006 – My first PC. An important step in any young man’s masturbatory career. I was twelve.
Christmas 2007 – My Xbox 360. Thirteen years old, with my first round of braces. Fat.
Christmas 2008 – My PlayStation 3. Fourteen, with headgear. Fatter.
Christmas 2009 – My second PC. Fifteen years old. No more headgear, but my teeth were still crooked. Huge.
Christmas 2010 – My Nintendo Wii. Sixteen. I asked for an Acura RSX, but my dad thought that car was too sexy, so he gave me his twenty year-old BMW 5 Series instead, claiming it was safer. Another Christmas spent not talking to my parents. Also, my second round of braces. Also also, still fat.
Christmas 2011 – My third PC. Seventeen, and now capable of viewing porn in glorious 1080p. Second round of braces off. Teeth finally straight, but they were the only part of me that was attractive. Fat and growing fatter every day.
Christmas 2012 – My first iPad. Eighteen. Now capable of viewing porn on the go.
Christmas 2013 – My fourth PC, the one I took with me to college. This is when my weight really started to balloon.
Christmas 2014 – My second iPad. I was hooked. I could play games, read comics, watch Netflix, look at porn, and chat with Jay all on the same device.
Christmas 2015 – My Xbox One. Pretty much what I look like now, except my hair was longer.
Christmas 2016 – My PlayStation 4. Still what I look like now, but fatter than the year before.
(There may be an iPad or Sega Something I’m forgetting in there somewhere.)
I was an only child, and my parents were well off. I always got a sweet haul at Christmas.
Those pictures are all in a box somewhere in my parents’ house, back in Little Hills. I doubt anyone, even my mom, still looks at them. Why would they? Who wants to see the flipbook of how a happy, video game-loving kid grew up to be a fat, celibate shit?
A shoddy plaster wall was all that separated the basement from the garage. The door was so low you almost had to double over so you wouldn’t bump your head, as if it had been built for a child, or an abnormally small adult.
I flicked on the light, but it didn’t do much. Our voices went lost in the darkness as they left the tawny sanctuary of the storage area’s single, hanging bulb, dying in shadows that were both vast, and terribly claustrophobic. You could barely stand up straight without your head scraping the raw ceiling boards. It felt like descending into a cave. Or a tomb.
“You could grow a lot of weed down here,” Jay said, looking around. “Get some grow lights and an air filtration system, and as long as you pay the power bills, you’d have one of the best grow-rooms around.”
“How you gonna get a filter down here, Jay?” Ry said.
“If I can fit a system in an eight-by-ten bedroom, I can fit twenty of ‘em down here,” Jay said.
Rob swatted the hanging bulb and said, “You could, but your weed will still be shwag.”
Jay chuckled, but his eyes were fixed out beyond the moving pendulum of light, to the mountains of personal property that had been left behind by former tenants.
“What is all that stuff?” Jay said.
“That,” I told him, “is our magic hat. Like Bea said.”
We all fell silent for a moment, eyes searching through the sepulchers of furniture and abandoned property.
It was hard to tell where the basement ended and the trash dump began: couches, dressers, snowboards, hand-weights, broken laundry baskets… basically, anything the past generations of tenants didn’t want to take with them when they moved out. You never knew what you might find under Sunny Hill.
“You guys wanna see a trick?” Jay said.
Before we could answer, he held up a bag of weed and his Star Trek lighter, then walked into one of the piles and hid them. When he returned, he knelt down and opened his hands to show Popeye they weren’t there. Jay petted the pug, voice melting with excitement. “Hey Popeye! Hey boy! Guess what?”
Popeye did a jumping spin, panted, and sat.
“Weed, Popeye! Go get the weed!”
The pug raced into the piles, returning a few seconds later with the weed bag clamped in his teeth.
Jay took the weed out of the pug’s mouth, said, “Good boy!”
“Wow. That’s incredible.” Bea said.
“You trained him to do that?” I said, genuinely impressed.
“So I don’t have to get off the couch when I’m high,” Jay said.
Bea gave him a golf clap. “Congratulations. You trained your dog to work for the T.S.A.”
Jay knelt down again, lovingly rubbing Popeye under the chin. “That’s nothing. Wait ‘til you see this. Hey Popeye! Guess what? Fire, Popeye! Go get the fire!”
Again Popeye scampered off into the shadows. His search took longer this time, but when he reappeared, sure enough, Jay’s Star Trek lighter was clamped between his teeth.
Jay fished the lighter out of Popeye’s mouth and rubbed his head, chanting, “Good boy! Good boy.”
“You’re the man now, dog,” I said, but nobody caught the reference. Maybe I was too drunk to do a decent Sean Connery impression.
Popeye ran away again. He came back, carrying someone’s forgotten, dirty boxing glove in his mouth. The boxing glove was bigger than he was. Jay tried to take it away from him, but Popeye dodged Jay’s hand, eyes rolling ecstatically, and started running in evasive circles, until Jay stopped chasing him.
Jay swatted the air drunkenly. “Eh, whatever. Let him have it. It’s not the size of the dog in the dog, right? I mean… uh… shit.”
“You mean it’s not the size of the dog in the fight,” Bea corrected him.
Ry slapped Jay on the back. “So much for your grow-room, buddy. You’ll have to pay a team of guys a few thousand bucks just to clear the junk out of this place.”
“You could make a fat wad of cash if you had a garage sale, though,” Rob said, poking at a pile of empty moving boxes.
“As long as you cut the three of us in. Twenty-five percent. Even split,” Bea said.
“Hello? There are five of us. What about me?” I said.
“You still owe me for that sack last weekend,” Bea said.
“Oh. Sorry. I forgot.”
Jay wandered to the edge of the light. “Some of this stuff looks like it’s been here for twenty years.”
“It probably has,” I said. “It’s been a student house for decades. The landlord – this fat old Columbian named Alfonso-”
“He’s never done a full walkthrough.”
“Alfonso,” Bea shook her head. “That guy. He manages the co-op, too.”
Jay raised an eyebrow at me.
“It’s true,” I said. “The girls who lived here before us said when they moved out, he barely even looked around upstairs, just peeked his head in the living room and said, ‘Looks good.’”
“He could be hiding dead bodies down here! Are you scared?” Jay said to Bea. He put his arm around her shoulder and squeezed slightly, causing a cold thing to rise in my gut.
“No,” Bea said.
Ry snorted. “So… you guys wanna take another shot?”
After midnight, the rain really started coming down. The West Coast ball dropped, and we went upstairs to play board games. Most of our friends had gone home by then, and the ones who hadn’t were passed out on the couches and floor. There were maybe six or seven of us still awake when the games commenced. After ten minutes, they were all partially naked or wearing each other’s clothes (no one else’s clothes fit me, due to my weight).
I stumbled down to the garage to fix myself another drink. I wanted whiskey and a beer, but there were only empty plastic bottles behind the bar. I had to upend all of them just to find a few leftover ounces of vodka.
I poured myself a cup of pure vodka and turned to head back upstairs, when I noticed a black crescent out of the corner of my eye. It was the basement door, standing ajar.
I thought I heard someone crying on the other side of the wall, but the sound was muffled, far away, and I was drunk. I poked my head into the basement and listened. Nothing but silence, and that empty, ruddy darkness staring back at me. I shut the door and locked the latch.
I thought I heard one final sob just outside the garage. It cut short this time, as if someone were struggling to choke it back. I balled my fists and went outside to look, but there was only rain.
I went back in the garage and finished my drink. Bea’s face appeared from upstairs. Her cheeks were dry, and she was drunker than I’d ever seen her. She was wearing Jay’s shirt over her dress, and her curly mop of strawberry blonde hair was held back with a cord headband that I knew didn’t belong to her, either.
Bea descended the stairs, reeling as she missed the bottom step, first one way, then the other as she tried to find her footing. I rushed to steady her.
“Drew.” The word, almost indistinct.
“What’s up Bumble? You want a shot?”
“No. I am fugging drunk. Okay. Yeah. Less tagga shot.”
“We’ve got vodka, and vodka.”
She made a face and shook her head with comical exaggeration. “Vokka? Nodude. Okay fine. Drew. Everyone lef’. Omigod. Thaddog is sooo cute.”
“Where are your roommates?”
I took the shot. I played it cool and didn’t cringe at all.
Bea hesitated. “I’m so jealous of your… house,” Bea said. “You guys throw the fuggin’ bes’ parties.” She paused, swaying. The liquid in her hand sloshed perilously close to the rim of her glass. “How much do you pay feryer room, again?”
She sauntered over to the basement door and leaned down to get a closer look. Her skirt rode up in the back when she bent over, giving me a peek at the black nylons and thong underneath.
I blushed and looked away, but when she didn’t move, I stole a second look. I liked her, but I knew I didn’t stand a chance with Bea.
“Hey,” she said, straightening up. “You don’ think there’s anything relly weird back there, dooya?” She motioned to the basement door with her flip-flop.
“Probably not. Just junk.”
“But,” Bea pointed a finger at me, “but… I shouldennave teggen that las shot.”
“Wanna have a look?”
Bea’s eyes widened. “Les do it.”
“Let me get a flashlight.”
I took a heavy Maglite from the workbench in the garage, and we re-entered the basement.
I’ve heard it said in horror movie fandom, “The essence of fear is a door half open.” But that isn’t entirely true. Adults aren’t usually scared of empty darkness. Darkness conceals, but it has no intent. Contained in that darkness must be the implication that there is something hostile to us. A good horror movie doesn’t scare us because it harnesses the feeling of being alone in the dark; it scares us because it harnesses the feeling of being alone with hostility. I would know. I’ve seen hundreds of them.
As I walked in, a familiar sense of dread settled on me. I’d always felt uncomfortable down under Sunny Hill; it seemed that it was a little harder to breathe, and I was always aware of the thousands of pounds of earth pressing in around me. Passing through that tiny door into the impotent glow of that single hanging bulb gave a specific discomfort, like the regret after stuffing my face with a huge, unnecessary amount of junk food, which did not recede until I re-entered the light.
The darkness swam around us. Bea tagged a few nearby piles of old clothes with her flashlight beam, moving quickly to the deeper sections outside the cone of light radiating from the weak hanging bulb, since those inside it were more likely to be picked-over.
Bea’s intelligence was what I found most attractive about her. She was double majoring in math and chemistry, and was on the Dean’s List. She connected the dots faster than anyone else, and you often got the impression while hanging out with her that her brain was used to solving problems before most people had the chance to realize they were there.
She was my polar opposite in that regard. I was studying film, and not much good at problem solving unless it involved the work of Stanley Kubrick, or tearing apart some piece of shit movie with sarcastic burns.
A distant cacophony of voices echoed over our heads. Jay slurred loudly at someone that they were being a little bitch, his words almost clear through the cracks in the ceiling, between the muted notes of bass and the scattered quakes of footsteps.
Bea sifted through some old posters leaning against the wall, all of it typical college stuff: Bob Marley smoking a joint, Hunter S. Thompson in sunglasses, the melting clocks of Dali’s Persistence of Memory. “Could these be any more cliché?” she said. “Where’s the cool stuff? I wanna finnan old camera.”
“Look,” I said, pointing the beam of my flashlight further back into the darkness.
The music changed upstairs. The bass thumped down through the ceiling boards. Bea’s eyes tracked vacantly upwards.
“Ooh, I looove dis song.”
I don’t know how long we were down there that New Year’s Eve. It’s easy to lose track of time when you’re under Sunny Hill. You tell yourself it’s only been a few minutes, when in fact it’s been hours…
It was close to four in the morning when we found the box of pictures.
I felt the ground slip out from under me as I was walking towards the back of the basement. My ankle rolled over the edge of a deep hole I hadn’t seen, and I barely caught myself from falling in. I would’ve broken my leg. As it was, I only sprawled face-first in the dirt.
The hole was three feet deep by three wide. It had been hidden by a piece of plywood covered with a few thin shovelfuls of soil.
I got up with as much dignity as I could muster, dusted myself off, and probed the hole with my flashlight. There was an old, cardboard shoebox resting at the bottom.
Bea’s flashlight beam fell into the hole alongside mine. “Wazzat?” she said.
I slid into the hole and dug it out. The box came up easily. It felt heavy, and rattled as I pulled it from the soil. I handed it to Bea and climbed out of the hole.
The top of the shoebox said College Memories in blue permanent marker.
“Old pictures,” she said, looking inside.
“Let me see.”
Bea leaned over my shoulder, steadying the light as I sorted through them. I tried to focus on the pictures, and not the soft weight of her breasts on my arm.
Polaroids. The box was filled to the brim with dusty, yellow Polaroids. I picked up the one at the very top of the pile. It depicted a muscle-bound man in his early twenties, standing next to the same hole I’d almost just broken my ankle falling into.
The guy in the picture was wearing cut-off jean shorts, a tank top, and a backwards netback hat. He was soaked with sweat and leaning on a shovel, a vulpine grin thinly splitting his lips. He was tan, his hair bleached blonde by the sun. In the bottom margin of the picture, someone had scrawled a caption in blue ink:
Bea’s voice stirred next to me. “Drew… what the fuggin’ fug is this?”
She handed me another Polaroid from the pile, black film with no picture. A message scrawled on the back read: They see you.
Bea snatched the picture out of my hand. “Waddafug? Who sees you?”
“I dunno. This guy, maybe? He looks pretty bad ass.” I showed her the picture of Andy digging.
She snorted. “Awesome style.”
“This was taken exactly where we’re standing,” I said.
Bea seemed to read my thoughts. She poked through a few of the other pictures. “Why would someone bury these? Drew, this is freagging me out.”
“You’re just drunk.” But to be honest, I was freaked out, too. I’d seen scenarios like this play out countless times in horror movies.
Bea frowned, and blew out a Bea-sized cloud of pale breath. “Happy New Year to you too, dad.”
“There are way too many of these to look at down here. Let’s take this upstairs,” I said. I gave the shoebox a gentle shake. It was so heavy I thought the bottom might fall out. There was my escape, my way back to the light. I didn’t think, didn’t know it was even possible, that we weren’t escaping at all, but taking that darkness with us, opening the hole that would let it out, and set it free.
I wish we had left those pictures where we found them.
Somewhere between the basement and the kitchen stairs, we heard someone having sex upstairs. Bea’s mouth formed an O and her eyes went wide.
“…Oh yeah, baby. You like that…”
“… Oh yeah, baby. Back it up. Just like that. You know I like that…”
“Tha’s in your kitchen!” Bea said, stifling a laugh. “Drew! Drew! Omigod!”
“I know,” I said. “That’s disgusting.”
“Lissen – you can hear everything! I feel perverted.”
I shrugged. “Sound travels, I guess. I’m too tired to worry about it. I’ll disinfect the countertops in the morning.”
Carter and Natalia were the only people awake by the time we got upstairs, sitting on the floor taking bong loads and watching Game of Thrones.
I was always jealous of Carter’s looks. Carter was black, handsome, and fit. He had a bodybuilder’s physique from going to the gym five days a week, big arms, big legs, and a lean waist, like Arnold in his prime. You couldn’t help but notice his powerful charisma when he walked in a room like he owned the place, his pearl-white, slightly gap-toothed smile gleaming. Whenever we went to parties together, girls would inevitably ask me if he was single.
Carter’s girlfriend, Natalia, with whom he shared the master bedroom of our house, was just as attractive. Talia was born in Ukraine, but raised in the U.S. Her hair was obsidian black and her face delicately pretty, heart-shaped, and distinctly Slavic, with high cheekbones and secretive eyes. Her skin was pale and flawless, her figure, thin and feminine, the kind that made you remind yourself not to stare.
Despite the fact Natalia never liked me much, I considered her one of my best friends. She was needlessly cruel to me anytime I said something she didn’t like, and I never understood why, but she usually smoked me out, and when we got high together, at least, her wall came down, and she’d laugh at my jokes and stop acting like I was a walking waste of air. Part of me thought she was jealous of my and Carter’s friendship. I also got the impression she felt like I was beneath her, and Carter, too, and that Carter should know it. I think our friendship baffled her.
“Hey,” I said, giving Carter the shoebox. “Check this out. This was buried under our house.”
Carter stared at me, eyes crimson and watery. He paused his show. “What the hell are you doin’, diggin’ shit up under the house at four in the fuckin’ morning, Thunder? And why are you puttin’ said shit in my lap?”
Thunder was my nickname. Lightning was Carter’s. Together, we were The Storm. Stupid, and maybe a bit juvenile, but it had stuck, and I was glad.
“Just open it,” I said. “Careful. It’s old.”
Natalia leaned over his shoulder and kissed him on the neck. “Babe…?” she said.
Bea and I sat down on the carpet next to them. Carter opened the box. “I don’t know,” he muttered, fingers surfing over waves of ancient Polaroids. “This was under the house?”
“Buried inna hole,” Bea said.
Carter spread the pictures out on the floor. “How many you count, Miss Bumble Bea?”
“I would, but I’m higher than one of Khaleesi’s dragons right now.”
“Ugh. Fine. A hundred and thirteen,” Bea said. She must have been counting in her head while they were bantering, I thought.
Natalia’s eyes flickered. “Night, guys. I’m going to bed. Fill me in tomorrow morning.”
She got up, and gave Carter a long, tongue-sucking kiss. “Night, boo,” she said.
When she was gone, the three of us sat amid the snoring bodies to contemplate the box of pictures. Now that I could see them in the light, I realized the vast majority of the pictures had been taken inside the house, twenty or more years ago, and featured the same cast of people: two men and three women, all young and normal-looking, except for their early nineties clothes.
I assumed that the five good-looking young adults had been roommates who lived in our house at some point in the past. I quickly realized something else: that they had partied even harder than we did.
The déjà vu I got looking through those pictures, the similar scenes of college students taking shots in our same ugly kitchen, the wild parties, the lines of cocaine off the bathroom mirror, the days laying out in the sun on the huge deck on top of our garage, suddenly felt more like vertigo, and for a few seconds, despite that my fat butt was sitting firmly on the wilted shag carpet of our living room floor, I felt like I was falling, plummeting towards something dark, something cold, that wanted me to be cold, too, that wanted me to fall forever. It was the same feeling I always had when I went under the house, magnified a hundredfold.
I tried to shake it off and focus on what Bea was saying.
“Look: 1993,” Bea said, holding up a picture of a group of shirtless young men in scary Halloween masks. “Someone wrote it in the margin.”
I examined the picture. A note there in blue ink read: Monsters’ Ball ’93. Most of the photos featured similar margin notes, all in the same sloppy handwriting, the same blue ink:
– Gangsters and Mafia Queens Party. Fall ’93.
– Rock ‘n Roll New Year’s Eve. Winter ’93.
– Jell-O Shot Night. Spring ’94.
They could have been us, twenty years ago, I thought. The only differences were the clothes, the makeup, the poofy hair, the Reebok shoes, the stonewashed jeans and bright, gaudy colors. That, and the fact there were four of us, while there were five of them.
“Just a bunch of roomies partying,” Bea said. “So, why would they bury it like this? Why would you get rid of all your college pictures? Didn’t they want to remember the good times?”
Someone dug a three-foot hole beneath our house to bury a box of pictures, I thought. It’s like in Sinister, when Ethan Hawke finds the box of snuff movies in the attic of his new house only to discover they contain the spirit of an evil demon. My arms prickled with gooseflesh. For the first time in my life, I regretted loving horror movies so much. There’s something bad here that we’re not seeing.
“This was before Facebook and Instagram,” I offered. “There was no digital record back then of everyone’s drunken exploits, like there is today. Maybe they were buried for safekeeping.” That sounded weak, even to my own ears. But it was the only thing I could think of that didn’t involve theories about ghosts and modern-day surfer vampires.
My voice trailed off. Carter had put a picture in my hands. It was from the same sequence of the blonde guy, Andy, digging the hole in our basement, but much later. In the picture, the hole was halfway up his thigh.
The caption read: Grave Robbin’ the Hood.
Carter handed me another photo, an extreme close-up on Andy’s face, captioned: Andy digs deeper.
You still couldn’t see what he was digging for. He was a handsome guy, with a strong jaw and a good tan, but there was something wrong with his eyes.
Maybe he was on drugs, I thought. Maybe this was after they did all that cocaine in the bathroom.
“Oh, shit,” I heard Carter say, and the next picture fell into my hands.
“What is it?” Bea said.
I looked twice to be sure of what I was seeing.
No, they did not find that under our house. A guy named Andy did not dig that up under our house, in our basement. I did not want to believe it. Could not.
I sighed, and threw the picture on the carpet where Bea could see.
“Bones,” I said. “They look human.”
Everyone fell silent. Our eyes all converged on that picture. It was like a black hole, swallowing anything we might have said.
The picture was of Andy’s Air Jordans standing at the bottom of the hole, next to a porcelain-like dome still half-buried and caked with dirt, covered by a familiar network of spider web cracks, the crown of a human skull.
Some of the teeth and part of the eye socket were visible in the next picture. Most of the teeth were missing. Pieces of other bones poked out of the dirt as well: a clavicle, a femur, a few broken ribs. The caption read: ???
“Oh, hell no,” Bea said. “Hell no. Hellllll no.”
Carter took a bong rip. “Guys, this is weird. Don’t you think Alfonso should’ve told us if a dead body was found underneath our house?”
“That’s an unmarked grave,” I said. “They weren’t just buried here. They were murdered.”
“Not necessarily,” Bea said. “There could be a buncha different reasons someone was buried inna unmarked grave. Just like that one movie. Wazzit called, Drew? The one inna house, with the ghost, and the things.”
“I hate Poltergeist.”
“Carter, mind if I getta hitta that? The room’s spinning,” Bea said.
“I’m not sure weed is the best idea, Miss Bumble. This is some chronic-ass purple.”
“There was a dead guy unner your house.”
He shrugged and passed her the bong.
There were no more pictures of the excavation, but there were quite a few of Andy posing with the skull.
Andy and the black guy, Marty, partying with the skull, feeding it shots and holding joints up to its broken yellow teeth.
Andy contemplating the skull like a bad production of Hamlet.
A photo taken from the skull’s perspective (probably being held by Andy) of the two female roommates hiding in one of the bedrooms, their eyes wide where they peered out from behind a crack in the door.
Andy holding the skull to his crotch, pretending to fuck it.
The three girl roommates bowing to the skull.
Andy sitting on the living room floor with sunglasses and a bandanna on, smoking a joint and holding a pistol in each hand, the skull displayed in front of him with two more pistols, a sawed-off shotgun, a few hundred rounds of ammo, about a thousand dollars in cash, and a gallon zip-lock bag full of weed.
What was wrong with these people? I wondered.
“What. The. Fug,” Bea said.
“Can you guys seriously shut the fuck up? You’re being hella loud,” Rob said from behind the couch.
“Sorry. Didn’t realize this was the Hilton,” I said.
“Suck my dick,” Rob muttered.
Carter yawned. “Ah, maybe we should go to bed. You guys are hammered. And this weird ass shit will still be here tomorrow.”
“I’m not hammered,” Bea said.
Carter got up. “G’night gumshoes.”
“I’m not ready to go to bed yet,” Bea said when he was gone.
“Let’s go to my room,” I said. “Maybe there’s something about it online.” I asked Bea to wait in my room while I locked the garage.
The wind caterwauled through baleful gusts of rain as I descended the outside stairs. The storm was heavy enough that I could just barely make out the shapes of the fruit trees in the backyard.
I shivered under my hood and slid the garage key into the knob. There was no deadbolt, but the carport door was heavy steel and could only be opened by remote. Locking the doorknob had always seemed like enough to prevent someone from getting in. Besides, we never kept anything of value down there, except maybe Sam’s speakers.
But suddenly, I wondered.
“You have so many movie posters. I’ve never heard of half of these.”
“You’ve never seen The Shining?” I said.
Bea reached up to touch the posters on my bedroom wall. “Of course I’ve seen The Shining. And Jaws. And I guess I’ve heard of The Conjuring and Insidious, but what are these: Event Horizon, Zombieland, Evil Dead, Dawn of the Dead, Oculus, Slither, Suspiria, Dark Water, Audition, The Birds? Like, what’s Ringu? Is that the same as The Ring?”
I gently moved Bea’s hand away from the giant image of Sadako crawling out of her infamous T.V. screen. All of my posters were movie theater originals, and I didn’t want her smudging them with her fingers.
“Ringu is the original Japanese film. Way scarier than the American remake,” I said.
Bea nodded, already losing interest, but she gasped with excitement when she crouched down in front of my revolving CD rack, where I kept my classic survival horror video games.
“Jesus, Drew! I’ve never seen this many games in one place.”
Nostalgia flooded through me, as it always did when I looked at those ancient CDs and DVDs that had devoured my childhood.
Silent Hill 1 through 4, all the Resident Evils, Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem, Dino Crisis 1 and 2…
Bea gave the rack a spin with her finger. “Dude, you are a horror fiend.”
“Horror fanatic,” I corrected her. “You’ve never been in my bedroom before?”
“Nope.” Bea shook her head. “First time for everything. Whoa!” she said, moving from the CD rack to the diorama of Ghostbusters toys arrayed on my bookcase. She picked up my plush Slimer doll and moved his arms up and down a few times. “I didn’t know you were such a Ghostbusters fan.”
I carefully took down the replica stream gun I’d made for a convention when I was eighteen. “Who you gonna call?” I said, aiming the stream gun at Bea, as if to capture her in a ghost box.
She raised an eyebrow at me. “Did you make that?”
Quickly, I set the gun back in its place on the bookshelf, behind Slimer. “It was for a cosplay. See?” I showed Bea the photo of my friends and me in our costumes at Comic Con with a girl we’d met who was dressed like Chun-Li. It was one of the only pictures of me in existence that I actually liked.
Bea gave the picture a cursory glance and put it back on the shelf. “I can see you being a Ghostbuster, Drew. Why not? You do look a little bit like Dan Aykroyd.”
Her eyes wandered over the myriad other action figures, play sets, and collectible plush toys in my room. “If I knew you liked toys this much, I would’ve brought you my old Beanie Babies. They’re sitting in a box in our attic.”
I shook my head. “Why? Beanie Babies are lame.”
Bea ignored my comment. “Holy crap! Is that an original NES? Why is it still in the box?”
I all but leapt to snatch the ancient cardboard out of her hands. “Don’t open that. It’s mint condition. What’s wrong with you?”
She made a face. “Yeesh. Sorry. So, uh… how many video games do you own? I noticed you don’t have any books on that bookcase.”
“Over 500. It’s a modest haul, but I’ve got a few gems in there.”
“Do you have a favorite?”
I pulled out an ultra-obscure PlayStation One game called Clock Tower. “This one, for sure. Got it when I was five. The horror games on the PlayStation One were the best of all time.”
“Looks scary. What’s it about?”
“Clock Tower? It’s absolutely terrifying. It’s about a madman who chases you through a labyrinth trying to cut you in half with a giant pair of scissors. The graphics haven’t really stood the test of time, but they were revolutionary back in their day.”
“Wow,” Bea said, eyes wandering over the dusty relics of my boyhood. “I used to play Smash Brothers with my cousins. I dominated.”
I smirked. “Everyone claims to dominate at Smash Brothers.”
“Right. I’m just a girl. What do I know about video games?”
“The only way to prove your worthiness will be in a one-on-one match. Yes, this is a challenge.”
She cringed. “Maybe another time, Drew. I don’t think I’m as into it as you, to be honest. Sorry. It’s really cool you’ve got such an awesome collection, though. This stuff is so neat. I don’t remember half of these games. You ever think about selling them?”
“No way. Are you serious?”
“You could probably get a few hundred bucks.”
“Is that a lot of money to you?”
“Jeez. You don’t need to be a dick. It was just an idea.”
We sat on my bed and searched on my laptop for a story about the unmarked grave under our house. It didn’t take long for us to learn there was no trace on the Internet of a dead body ever being found at 1006 Sunny Hill Drive. Not a single headline, news article, obituary, or blog post.
“Y’know, newspapers weren’t online back in 1993,” I said. “Most people didn’t even have Internet. If these guys did call the cops when they found this buried down there, and if it actually did make it into the paper, we probably won’t find the article unless we go to the library.”
Bea didn’t reply. I looked over to see she was curled up beside me, snoring softly. I got up and turned the light off.
“What?” Bea mumbled at the dark. “Drew?”
“Bumble, you going to crash in here? I can sleep on the couch.”
“Fug you and your Bumbles,” she said, her voice thick with alcohol and sleep. “No, I’ll… go home. The room is like… spinning.”
I sat back down on my bed and smoothed her hair behind her ears. “Just stay here. I’ll sleep on top of the covers.”
“Drew… I think I’m gonna be sick.”
She was asleep before the words had fully passed her lips.
I laid back and pretended to close my eyes, listening to her breathing. The hall light someone neglected to turn off spilled through the crack in the door, outlining Bea’s vague shape beneath the sheets.
Maybe it was the alcohol, or the highs of the party and the strangeness of what we’d found, but the thought of Bea sleeping in my bed made me rock hard. My skin grew hot and my pulse felt like a strobe in my veins. I rolled onto my side and watched her small form gently rising and falling with each breath, and I started to wonder what she felt like underneath her clothes, those sweet, buried secrets. Was her smooth, olive skin as soft as it looked? How dark were her nipples? How would she taste if I kissed her?
I leaned over and smelled her hair. It smelled sweet, like cherries. Being careful not to wake her up, I gently raised her shirt a few inches and peeked at the exposed small of her back. I remember wanting to kiss her, but not being able to, because I knew it would be an unforgivable violation. This, what I was doing – gazing at a part of her that could’ve been revealed by her rolling over and her shirt riding up – was only childish exploration, or so I convinced myself.
But if I touched her, it would become something far worse, something disgusting and criminal.
My hand lingered there a moment. I held my breath and my heart pounded. Then I rolled over and fell asleep.
I dreamed I was wandering through a dark maze. I don’t remember the beginning of the dream, but at some point it became semi-lucid, and I realized the maze of stained carpeted halls and its endless, movie poster-covered walls were inside Sunny Hill.
I followed the serpentine halls to their natural endpoint: the Hobbit door in the garage that led under the house. Behind the door, there was music playing.
I entered the basement and made my way through the dust-covered mountains of abandoned property, suddenly towering so high they went lost in the shadows above my head, all perilous leaning angles bedecked in cobwebs, toward a natural pillar of light falling on something in the back of the storage area.
The beam illuminated the place where Bea and I had dug up the pictures. Only, there wasn’t a hole there anymore. Instead, a rickety table holding a turn-of-the-century gramophone stood in its place.
The music was zydeco, a man’s voice, all gravel and swallowed sorrows, accompanied by an accordion.
I opened a hole,
I opened a hole,
The broken pieces
Go in the soil!
Down they fall,
And never touch dirt,
There are many holes
Under the earth!
I approached the gramophone and touched it. As my fingertips slid across the polished copper, I noticed something strange about the back of the storage area. The beam of light had moved from the table holding the gramophone to the space between two derelict piles of abandoned stuff crammed up against the basement’s back wall.
Only, it wasn’t a wall. A flight of stairs ascended up to the house.
I made my way to the hidden stairwell, stopping before I placed my foot on the first step. The stairwell was steep, cramped, and narrow, like the kind servants would use in some old mansion.
The voice sang:
I opened a hole,
‘neath a sunny hill,
I took a stumble,
Then took a spill!
Now I’m the hole,
And the hole is me!
A-ho ho ho,
And a-ho he he he!
The record skipped, Ho he he he.
And skipped, Ho he he he.
And skipped, Ho he he he. Ho he he he. Ho he he he.
Hesitantly, I climbed.
The echo of that eerie, looping laugh followed me up the stairs. I climbed for what seemed like hours, but the sound of the skipping record didn’t diminish, staying constant the entire ascent.
The stairway ended at another Hobbit door. Unlike the door leading under the house, this one had a peephole.
I tried the knob, but the door was locked and didn’t budge. The peephole was open. I put my eye to it, and looked into the living room of Sunny Hill through a secret window behind our communal bookshelf.
Ho he he he.
Carter was there, and Talia, and Bea. They were sorting through the box of pictures exactly as they had when I was with them – only I wasn’t there.
Carter opened the box.
“This was under the house?”
“Buried in a hole,” Bea said.
Ho he he he.
Carter spread the pictures out on the floor. “How many you count, Miss Bumble Bea?”
“I would, but I’m higher than Khaleesi’s dragons right now.”
“Ugh. Fine. A hundred and thirteen,” Bea said.
Natalia’s eyes flickered. “Night, guys. I’m going to bed. Fill me in tomorrow morning.”
Could there really be a hidden stairway under our house? I wondered.
“Night, baby, Carter said. Natalia kissed him.
“Night, stony,” I muttered behind the secret door.
Ho he he he.
I turned to look back down the stairs in the direction of the noise, but the corkscrew stair stretched infinitely away into a well of darkness below me. When I put my eye to the peephole again, they were all looking at me.
Their eyes were strange. I knew their faces, but not those terrible, empty eyes. They looked like black holes cut into paper. Whatever was behind them was not the Carter and Bea and Talia that I knew.
I felt the paralyzing terror of the dream metastasize in my blood.
No way they could’ve heard me, I thought. They’re looking at the bookshelf.
They weren’t looking at the bookshelf.
Ho he he he.
Not-Carter started to get up. Not-Bea and Not-Talia followed. I tried to move, but couldn’t. The dream fear was stronger than my will to run.
They moved slowly, but wrong, twitching like a film run through a dysfunctional projector, closer and closer to my secret window with every skip of the music.
Ho he he he.
Carter leaning down to examine the bookshelf.
Ho he he he.
Talia and Bea huddling in with him.
Ho he he he.
Their faces crowded into my view, three sets of empty eyes peering into my own, inches away.
Ho he he he.
Carter, Talia, and Bea lying dead on the living room floor, their bodies shredded and ruined.
Ho he he he.
Blood trickling under the crack in the door and soaking my shoes.
Ho he he he.
Not-Carter reaching for the peephole. Not-Bea and Not-Talia looking on through holes for their eyes.
Ho he he he.
Me tripping and falling backwards down the stairs.
Caption: Boys Don’t Get Pregnant
Move-in day, my junior year: my first official day as a resident of Sunny Hill. If one were to arrange my college pictures in chronological order, this one would undoubtedly go first.
The picture shows Carter, my mom, and I drinking beers in the kitchen. The place was still empty. There was no graveyard of empty handles of cheap booze lining the top of the fridge and cabinets, no dirty dishes in the sink, no ancient grease baked onto the range.
Mom wasn’t supposed to be drinking – she’s a serious alcoholic, and has been trying to recover for as long as I can remember – but she got drunk, anyway.
In the picture, Carter and my mom are both standing in front of the fridge, where a single piece of paper is hanging from a Black Dog Brewery magnet a previous student had left behind. The words BOYS DON’T GET PREGNANT are written on the paper in thick black marker, above a poorly scribbled ejaculating penis.
It was something our landlord said the day we signed our lease, during a well-rehearsed story about how he didn’t let his teenaged daughters go to sleepovers. Alfonso had recited the story to us with such rote precision, that I couldn’t help but think that he’d told it to every group of students who moved into Sunny Hill.
When I asked the girls who lived there before us, this turned out to be the case. Alfonso was a man of one story, and everyone heard it, usually more than once.
Carter and I decided “Boys don’t get pregnant” should be the motto of our house.
That piece of paper was our very first decoration, despite Mom’s protests. Carter and I finally convinced her to pose with it in front of the fridge after her third beer. My dad did most of the actual moving-in.
I woke up, legs and feet lurching to find solid ground like I was falling through thin air. My brain realized I was lying safe in bed before my body did. I shuddered and lay still. My heart raced. My head hurt.
There were muddy footprints next to my bed. I had an awful hangover and Bea was gone. There were muddy footprints next to my bed. There were muddy footprints…
It had rained. The mid-morning sky was a steel gray canopy peeking through my broken blinds, but, like Bea, the rain was gone.
Who would walk in the house without taking off their shoes, after walking through mud? What kind of asshole walks in a stranger’s house with muddy shoes? We will never be remembered.
My head was clogged with pain and half-formed thoughts. I remembered the party. I remembered dancing in the garage with the disco lights, and the pretty girls, and the shots. So many shots. Shots with Jay and the hometown wrecking crew. Shots with Bea when everyone else was passed out or fighting for somewhere to sleep. The pictures we dug up beneath the house.
My head fucking hurts.
My mouth was dry and I wanted water. I stumbled to the kitchen, stepping over puddles of questionable, sticky substances and human shapes passed out on the floor, to drink some of Carter’s orange juice out of the carton. A pair of panties was hung over the top of the fridge doors.
Someone had sex in our kitchen after all.
Dirty bastards, I thought as I sipped the pain away.
After the orange juice, I ate a few carefully cut bites of Natalia’s leftovers, three of Sam’s frozen burritos, and a piece of leftover pizza from the party.
I went back to bed and slept another four hours, before being woken up again by Popeye stepping painfully on my gut. I opened my eyes as a gust of hot pug breath blasted my face.
“Drew Mayhem. Hey man. Wake up.”
Jay, Rob, and Ry were standing next to my bed.
“Oh. Sup, dudes. Hey, Popeye.”
“We’re gonna get some breakfast, then head out.”
“You don’t want to hang around for a bit? Blaze and play some video games?”
Jay pulled his dog off me. “Nah, we gotta bounce, man. Thanks for having us. It was hella fun.”
“Oh. All right.”
“Call me next time you come up north.”
When my hometown friends were gone, I rolled out of bed for more water. Now that I wasn’t on the verge of puking, the mess in the house seemed even worse than before. Beer bottles everywhere, on their sides, standing up, half-full. Empty handles of liquor. Discarded blankets and clothes and phone numbers written on cardboard. Hell-lakes of puke. Roaches of forsaken joints begging in their neglect.
This was how Sunny Hill was supposed to look, its natural default state. When it was clean, it looked wrong. That house was built for partying in, for being covered by the disgusting, body-fluid drenched humus of student life. It was never meant to look nice.
Carter and Natalia were in the kitchen, sitting at the table. Carter was drinking orange juice and reading the newspaper while Natalia sat next to him with her face in her palms. Carter always read the paper with a glass of O.J. in the morning.
“Morning, beautiful,” I said.
“Hmmm,” Carter said.
Natalia groaned inarticulately.
“I’m glad you’re all bright and sunny this fine Sunday morning.”
Carter took a sip of juice and cracked his newspaper.
“That was one hell of a party,” I said.
Carter nodded. “Baby, last night was a storm.”
“We were the storm.”
“We always the storm.”
“Ugh. Both of you, stop talking,” Natalia said.
I opened the freezer to fish out some taquitos. All the taquitos were gone, so I went for a frozen Pop-Tart instead.
“Hey, do you know who ate my leftovers?” Natalia said.
I shook my head. “Nope. Probably someone from the party.”
She fumed, shaking her head. “It was from the Cheesecake Factory. What the hell?”
From behind his newspaper and orange juice, Carter said, “My burger got had last week. This morning, it was pizza. Seems like we have a Muncher at Sunny Hill.”
“A Muncher?” I said, biting into the Pop-Tart.
“A goddamned, dirty, sleazing, can’t-get-enuff-of-other-people’s-tasty-stuff Muncher. They’re never satisfied.”
“There’s still some in here,” I said, showing Natalia the Styrofoam box.
“Ew. I don’t want that. Not after someone’s nasty mouth has been on it.”
“Munchers,” Carter whistled. He glanced up, saw me eating my Pop-Tart, and laid his newspaper flat on the table. “Drew, dawg.” Carter always called me dawg, in a way that was somehow both serious, and perpetually ironic. “I keep tellin’ you. You are never going to get fit if you don’t fix your diet. You’ll get hungry again in a few hours and binge on more junk food. You need to eat right. Small portions of good food. Lean meat. Veggies. Not a goddamned Pop-Tart. The fuck you think this is? Amateur hour?”
“Someone’s cranky this morning,” I said, taking another bite.
“You always complain about how you wanna lose weight. Listen to me when I tell you how you do it.”
“Okay, dawg. How do I do it?”
“Babe,” Natalia said, stroking his arm.
Carter pushed her hand away. “One, lift weights. Two, eat a chicken breast and some rice with broccoli. Three, lift more weights. Four, eat some more broccoli. Five, lift more weights. Six, drink a protein shake and admire your new ass in the mirror.”
“Just telling you what you need to hear,” Carter said, returning to his paper.
Natalia added, “Maybe you could stop playing so many video games.”
Carter cracked his knuckles. “Seven, stop playin’ so many video games. Eight hours a day. Who got time to play video games eight hours a day? Facebook, too – that’s another thing you should stop doing for eight hours a day. What’s that, sixteen hours? And another eight hours of Reddit. That’s twenty-four hours, Thunder. When do you sleep?”
I shrugged. “I don’t.”
“Eight hours of Facebook a day? I didn’t know Bea had that many pics,” Natalia said.
“Very funny.” I looked down at my arms and gut. I suddenly felt very small in that room.
Natalia must have noticed me being self-conscious, because she said, “Drew, we’re only saying this because we care about you. We want you to be healthy.”
“I’m sure that’s what it is.”
“Don’t,” Carter told her. Then he turned to me. “Not to be a jerk, but her telling you that when it ain’t true is not helpful. You need to want to want it. Nobody else can change you but you. How much you weigh right now?”
“Can we not talk about this?” I said.
“January first. Ain’t gonna be a better time than right now.”
“Fine. I’m about 280.”
“Pounds?” Natalia said.
“Don’t do that,” Carter told her. “It ain’t his fault he’s big. Probably runs in his family. But it will be your fault if you don’t do somethin’ about it, Thunder. Don’t let this conversation get you down. Let it motivate you.”
“Carter, stop. He looks sad,” Natalia said.
“Baby, this is man time,” Carter said. “Free personal trainer, Drew. Offer’s open. You didn’t do too bad the few times you’ve gone to the gym with me. You just need to stick to it.”
“It is a new year,” I said.
“You know I love you. We the storm.”
“Zzzzzzzzt!” I made pretend lightning bolts with my fingertips.
“God, you guys are adorable,” Natalia said.
Carter put a hand over her mouth. She slapped him playfully.
“Hey – did one of you guys come in my room last night?” I said.
“Why the hell would we go in your room?” Carter said. “I’ve got PornHub. I don’t need to see whatever you and Bea were doing.”
“Uh huh.” They exchanged a look.
“Seriously. She passed out. Are you kidding? You both saw her. You think I would straight up rape one of my best friends while she’s wasted and passed out in my room?”
Carter shook his head, and patted the air with his hands in a “calm down” gesture. “Whoa, whoa, man. We’re just messing with you. We both know you wouldn’t do that shit.”
“Are we sure?” Natalia said.
“Ouch,” I said.
Natalia folded her arms. “God, lighten up. We both know you’re a good guy. So does Bea. She told me this morning how glad she was to have such a nice guy for a friend, who she can trust enough to pass out next to. She was destroyed. She didn’t even remember finding those weird pictures you guys were looking at last night until I reminded her.”
A nice friend. She only sees me as a nice friend.
“She didn’t?” I said.
“Nope,” Natalia said. “I tried to find them so I could show her, but you took them into your room.”
I scratched my belly. “Oh. Well, anyway. Someone came in my room last night and got mud all over my carpet.”
“It was probably you or Bea. You guys were the ones digging around under the house at four o’clock in the morning.”
Carter pointed at me. “Yo, we need to clear all these randos out of our house. Your townie friends were chill, I liked those dudes, but who the hell are all these other people in our living room? And why the hell are they still asleep? It’s two o’clock in the afternoon.”
“You mean the hippies?” I said. “They’re from the co-op. Bea and Meg brought them over.”
“No wonder our house smells like an ass farm,” Carter said.
I stretched and caught a yawn. “I’m gonna have to steam clean my whole carpet to get that mud out.”
Carter folded his newspaper into an arrow and tossed it across the kitchen into the recycling bin. “We gonna have to steam clean this whole house. It’s nasty.”
“I thought you liked it nasty.”
“He does,” Natalia said.
Bea came over about an hour later, while we were blazing on the sun deck over the garage. I knew right away something was wrong.
“Hey!” we all shouted.
“Look who it is!”
“What’s cookin’, good lookin’?”
“Which one of you dumbasses put this on my car?” Bea called back from the driveway. She was wearing her hangover glasses and walking with a sluggish drag. “And where are Drew and his friends?”
“I’m here,” I called back. “My friends left. They went home.”
She threw something up at us. Carter caught it in mid-air. It was a plastic bag with something stuffed inside.
Bea mounted the stairs and walked up to the deck. “You wanna explain this?”
The plastic bag was sealed. Inside was a dirty sock. Carter didn’t open it; instead he held it up with two fingers to show Natalia and me.
“What’s that?” I said.
“That was on my windshield,” Bea said, folding her arms.
Carter stroked his cheek. He shrugged. “They gave you the old sock on the windshield, huh? Damn…”
“Did one of your friends leave this on my car?” Bea demanded.
It took me a second to realize she was talking to me. Blood rushed to my face. “No. Of course not. Look, they might seem a little rough around the edges…”
Bea cocked her eyebrows. “Seriously, Drew. What the fuck kind of people did you invite over?”
“Look. I don’t know what this is. But my friends aren’t freaks, okay? They wouldn’t do weird, creepy shit like leaving their dirty laundry on a girl’s car.”
“Thunder, that’s more than just dirty laundry,” Carter said.
Natalia coughed on a long drag of the joint.
“What do you mean?” I said.
“Bea… did you put this in the bag yourself?” Carter said.
The disgust that appeared on her face made me nervous. “Yeah. I used a pair of hookah tongs.”
“Mmm-hmm. Mmm-hmmm.” Carter nodded.
“Guys, what’s going on?” I said.
Carter took a deep breath, made a pyramid with his fingers, which he pointed at me. “Drew. Thunder. Buddy. No one throws a dirty gym sock on a girl’s car. That’s a fap sock.”
Carter pinched his chin, trying hard not to chuckle at my naivete. “A fap sock. Somebody jerked off in that.”
I wanted to vomit. I wasn’t sure if it was the hangover, or the weed, or the idea of someone jerking off into a sock and throwing it on Bea’s car – my Bea’s car – but suddenly, I had the overpowering urge to sit down.
“God. What sort of sick asshole would do this shit?” Bea growled, kicking an empty bottle off the side of the deck.
Could it have been Jay and his friends? Was he even capable of something that vile? I admitted to myself that I didn’t know Rob and Ry that well. But I knew Jay wasn’t.
“I’ll call Jay and sort this out,” I said. “But I’m telling you, there’s no way it was them.”
“Better hope it wasn’t, for your sake,” Bea said.
She pointed at the joint cindering in Carter’s hand. “Are you going to give me a hit of that, or what?”
I know she doesn’t love him. But she fucks him like she does. It hurts so much, watching them fuck. She kisses him passionately and tells him how much she wants him. But I know she doesn’t, not really. They do it just to do it, like everyone else. It doesn’t change the fact that it should have been me.
It should have been me.
“Jay, my man. How’s the drive home treating you?”
“Drew Mayhem!” Jay’s voice came crisply through my iPhone speaker. “How you feelin’? Like a million bucks?”
“Like a one dollar bill that just went through the wash.”
“You’re all fresh and clean for another big night.”
I did my best to laugh, but it didn’t sound very convincing. “No, not yet. How’s Popeye?”
Jay put the phone up to the pug’s mouth. I heard heavy panting. Jay came back on, and said, “He keeps farting. I think someone at the party gave him pizza.”
“Somethin’ wrong, man?”
“Eh…” my voice trailed. I was still on the deck. The others had gone inside to watch more Game of Thrones, but I wanted to stay outside and enjoy the cool winter sun. It was eerily quiet, even though it was the middle of the day. I could hear my own breathing, and the distant whipping of the leaves on the fruit trees down in the yard.
“Actually, yes,” I said.
“Bro, what’s going on?” Jay said.
“You remember my friend Bea?”
“Bumble! Of course I remember her. The cutie from the down the street. You two hook up?”
“No,” I said. “She… uh… she crashed in my room, but nothing happened.”
“That’s not what I want to talk about,” I said. “I know it wasn’t you, but she’s my neighbor, and I have to ask. Did you see anybody leave a sock on her windshield?”
“A sock?” Jay’s voice lingered on the word. “Uh… like, a sock, sock?”
“The kind that goes on your feet.”
“Uh, no. Can’t say I know anything about a sock.”
“You didn’t see anyone… y’know… messing with the cars in front of the co-op? The big Victorian down the street? Blue Honda Accord in the driveway?”
“I didn’t even notice a car like that, man. So no. I didn’t see anyone messing with it.”
“It wasn’t Ry or Rob?”
“Jesus Christ, man. No. If one of us were interested in your neighbor, we would have acted on it, not done some weirdo shit like leave a sock on her car. Besides, we’re all pretty hung over right now. We haven’t even left town yet. All our shit is accounted for.”
Accounted for. Jay wouldn’t put on his lawyer voice unless he meant it. I knew he wasn’t lying.
“Damn. All right. I knew you wouldn’t do something like that, but I was hoping maybe one of you might have seen something,” I said.
“Good. You said someone left it on her windshield?” Jay said.
“Was it dirty?”
“Oh, shit. Gross.” He leaned away from the phone, but I could still hear what he said. “Hey, you guys know anything about Drew’s neighbor getting sock-bombed??”
“C’mon. Someone put a jizz sock on his neighbor’s car this morning.”
“Jizz socks are for faggots,” Rob said.
“Which neighbor? The cute one?”
“Nope. Sorry, dude.”
“Damn. That’s gross.”
The side conversation ended, and Jay came back on the phone. “Sorry pal, I don’t know what to tell you. None of us saw anything. I feel bad for her, though. Y’know, sometimes guys get drunk, and they just do stupid shit to pretty girls. Maybe someone who was at the party had a crush on her, and he got pissed when he found out she stayed in your room.”
“Maybe,” I said. “But no one else was awake…”
Jay sighed. “Off-topic – you ever been to Chilled Out café? That place has amazing breakfast burritos.”
I laughed. “I go there all the time. So, you guys have only gone four miles in three hours. How hung over are you?”
“We blazed, like, six bowls to try to kill this hangover before we left your house, but ended up deciding to just stick around and chow on some breakfast until it passes. It hasn’t passed yet.”
“You wanna get drunk tonight?” I said.
“Do I want to get drunk tonight?” He said it like it was the punch line of a bad joke. I could hear Rob and Ry groan in the background. “Yes, Drew,” Jay said at last. “Yes, I want to get drunk tonight.”
“Come back over. We’ve got all this weed here, and no one’s smoking it,” I said.
“I’ll stop by the store and pick up a few handles. You need anything?”
A few handles. My stomach dove into the wave.
“Are you still at Chilled Out?”
“Get me a number eighteen. The Seandawg.”
Jay paused to read the menu. “With four eggs, hash browns, artichokes, bacon, and salsa?”
“Best breakfast burrito on Planet Earth.”
“You’re a beast.”
I decided to kill some time by sitting in the living room and going over the pictures again. I had been pretty drunk when we looked at them the night before.
I sat down on the brown L-shaped couch with an unused blue exam book and a pencil. I wanted to figure out who the people in the pictures were. From what I could tell sorting through the first five or ten Polaroids in the stack and reading the captions scrawled on their edges, the cast members of the house in 1993 were:
Andy – a tall, strong white guy with red cheeks and a mop of blonde surfer hair, who found the unmarked grave in our basement…
Martin, A.K.A. Marty – a curly-haired black guy who had arms even bigger than Andy’s, six-pack abs, and a penchant for wearing over-sized basketball jerseys…
Gloria – a pretty Mexican girl, who despite having huge, waterfall-style bangs, was the best dressed of the bunch…
Apple – a slender, redheaded tomboy hippie with bright blue eyes, who wore baggy t-shirts and a perpetual golden tan…
Rebecca – a pale, voluptuous brunette, whose wardrobe seemed to consist entirely of low-cut tops and short, pleated skirts…
It felt strange touching those Polaroids, like touching pieces of discarded time. I felt like I should’ve been handling them with plastic gloves. When I lined them up edge-to-edge the way Carter had done, I noticed something else.
I was wrong the night before, that there were only five housemates. There was a sixth, unnamed, who only appeared in one group picture, and one more by himself: a skinny, nerdy white kid with a Flock of Seagulls haircut, who the captions identified simply as “Piano Man.”
Indeed, Piano Man lived up to his nickname. The photo was of him playing a piano in a pair of huge Sebastian the Crab Disneyland sunglasses, his mouth hanging open, his fingers dancing on the keys, but all of it felt staged, like he’d waited in that pose for minutes to get the right take. Most of all, this Piano Man character struck me as a socially awkward outcast trying too hard to be cool.
Like me, I thought. I recognize it, because that’s what I do.
It took me a few seconds to realize the picture was taken in our garage, and that the piano was resting against the far-back wall, hiding the basement door.
I didn’t think much of it at the time. I wasn’t good at detective stuff the way Bea was. My mind started to wander, and I abandoned my project before making it to the eleventh picture.
I’ve always had a bad case of ADD. I was heavily medicated for it when I was a kid, all the way up until I moved away for college. I didn’t really see the pictures I was sifting through and placing in neat rows on the floor.
If I had, I would have been much more interested (or perhaps terrified is a better word), because I would have realized that some of them had already started to change.
Was Piano Man the photographer?
He had to be. He was only in one picture with the other roommates from 1993, but in it, Andy and Marty’s arms were around him and Rebecca was kneeling in front of him, pretending to fondle his junk, while Apple looked on from the distance, raising her beer to the camera.
Piano Man lived at Sunny Hill. He was there for all the important household events and parties, documenting them. But he wasn’t in the other 95% of the photos, because he took them.
If whoever buried that box under our house had been willing to leave their precious college pictures behind (and Piano Man was the leading candidate), had they left the Polaroid camera, too?
I had a powerful urge to return to the basement and look. I put the box of pictures aside with the lid off and went downstairs. The garage door stood ajar. I vaguely remembered locking it. There were muddy footprints leading inside. The basement door sat ajar. Hadn’t I latched it shut?
Probably just some drunk asshole looking for a place to sleep, I thought.
I turned on my Maglite and cautiously made my way under the house. It was silent, and the smell of damp earth filled the air. I limped across the dirt floor to the hole, surveying the nearest junk piles for anything that might be related to a Polaroid camera. My tiny halo of light spilled through motes of dust and antique cobwebs. But there was nothing, only a ratty sleeping bag, a Coleman lantern, and a few loose piles of moth-eaten clothes.
Wait. There it was. Right there in that pile, next to the old Coleman lantern. No wonder Bea and I had missed it the night before.
The brown-and-tan, 1970’s era Polaroid camera was almost completely buried by a large, dirty blue sleeping bag.
I dug it out and held it in my hands, examining the faded plastic and the dust-mottled lens. It was the same model of Polaroid camera I’d had when I was a little kid, a hand-me-down I got from my cousin, who got it from my aunt, who herself had it when she was in college. That would make this camera at least forty years old. It was already a throwback when the ’93 Crew had it. Now, it was bona fide retro.
“Hipsters,” I said aloud, jumping a little at the sound of my own voice.
There was a still a film pack with ten or so blank slides stuck in the camera’s front end.
As my flashlight continued to scour the abandoned piles next to the hole, I noticed something funny about the sleeping bag I’d seen earlier. My breath caught in my throat. My flashlight beam hovered on the torn blue nylon. I knelt down to get a closer look.
The sleeping bag wasn’t coated in dust.
Bile rose in my throat, and it wasn’t the hangover this time. I ran my fingers up and down the smooth surface of the sleeping bag. It was dirty, but recently slept in – same with the Coleman lantern, and the loose piles of men’s clothes. They were carefully arranged to appear like any other pile of basement junk, but they weren’t.
Somebody was still using them.
I flicked my flashlight beam over the nearby ground, stopping on a smooth patch of dirt not five feet from where I was standing, next to the edge of the hole. My hands started shaking. A cold vice tightened in my stomach. I cast my light over it from a different angle, hoping my mind was playing tricks on me. But it wasn’t.
There was a man-sized patch of dirt next to the hole where someone had been sleeping. Recently.
Someone has been sleeping in our basement.
Bea and I had been too drunk and distracted to see it the night before.
Someone. Has been sleeping. In. Our. Basement.
Camping out. Staying in. Sleeping over. Hunkering down. Shacking up.
Sleeping. In our Basement.
Beneath our house.
They see you.
I did puke then, into the gaping hole in the earth that had birthed those hideous pictures into our world, the void under our house where, two decades ago, human bones had been dug up by a group of college students too inebriated and ignorant to understand what they were, what that meant-
Splat. Hggggh. Splatter.
The sound of my vomit echoed through the darkness, awakening it. I held my eyes shut tight, but it didn’t help. I was falling. No, not falling – I was being pulled towards something at the bottom of the hole, something far beneath, and long forgotten.
I tucked the Polaroid camera under my arm and sprinted back upstairs.
The bike lock was a brick in my hands. Sam used it to lock his fixed gear bike when he rode to the beach. But Sam was still in Southern California, and there had been someone trespassing under our house.
Part of my brain screamed that none of it was real, that it was just my imagination; that I would return to find no hole, no recently used sleeping bag, no smoothed patch of dirt.
And yet, I knew what I’d seen. So I listened to my intuition and locked the basement door with Sam’s bike lock.
In slasher films, the killer is always someone the victim knows. Ghostface from Scream is a good example. But all of our friends at Sunny Hill knew our door was open to them any time, and that they’d have a place to crash inside the house if they asked. I ruled out anyone in our immediate social circle as being the basement sleeper.
I half-expected to hear a disembodied voice softly protesting from the other side of the Hobbit door as I slid the key out of the lock and back into my pocket, or… I don’t know, crying? Hadn’t I heard someone crying last night?
But I was alone in the silence with the smell of dust, piss, spilled booze, and wet earth.
There was no deadbolt on the outer garage door, only a flimsy knob that could easily be bypassed with a good kick. I carefully set a few empty glass beer bottles behind the door to act as an alarm. If anyone tried to force their way in, or just opened the door without knowing about the bottles, we would be able to hear it upstairs. Then, we could… what? Call the cops? Chase the guy off with a baseball bat? Lock him up with Carter and Talia’s fuzzy handcuffs?
I pictured the intruder as a scruffy, homeless man, prowling the streets of our rich, hilltop neighborhood after dark, searching for a place to sleep. Or maybe it was Piano Man, twenty years older but still scrawny and awkward, his motives and face unclear in my mind’s eye. Whoever he was, it looked as though he’d been sleeping down there for a long time.
I had a feeling that any answers I would find would be in the shoebox of pictures. The sleeping bag had been within arms’ reach of it. They had to be related.
I sat down again on the living room floor to scour every single Polaroid for a possible clue. That was when I realized the pictures had changed.
The pictures on the floor were different than the ones I’d laid out before going downstairs. And they weren’t other photos from inside the box. They were new.
The room suddenly grew colder, and I smelled wet soil. The taste of the vomit I’d launched in the basement resurfaced with a sour bite. I knelt down for a better look. My hands weren’t just shaking, now. They were numb.
These ten pictures, carefully laid edge-to-edge on the carpet, hadn’t existed in 1993. The photo’s borders were fresh, new, and white, rather than grimy and yellow. They didn’t look like they’d been buried underground for twenty years, but like someone had just snapped them. The photo chemicals still retained their colorful pop.
The subjects, too, were not the ’93 Crew with their big hair and bad style, but things distinctly more modern: people with current clothes and hairstyles, iPhones and laptops, cars that would have been science fiction back in 1993.
The pictures from the box were updating.
There were ten new Polaroids arranged on the carpet next to the shoebox, the same number I’d taken out of the box before going downstairs. Three of those pictures had people as their subjects. The other seven were of indoor or outdoor scenery.
The first picture showed a man, fit and balding, wearing an expensive-looking suit, and standing with his hand raised to hail a taxi on the sidewalk of a busy city street, in front of the unmistakable white marble columns of a courthouse. The view was from the rear oblique, so I couldn’t see his face, but I guessed he was about forty years old.
The caption, also updated, but still written in the same blue ink as the old photos, read, Mr. Hard Ass Catches a Cab.
I moved on to the next picture.
The woman in the second Polaroid was also about forty. She had short black hair and was a good fifty pounds overweight. You could tell she used to be beautiful, but the only things still attractive about her were her huge breasts, immodestly half-hidden under a black shawl. She was sitting on a plain metal chair smoking a cigarette, in the middle of a circle of other people who were also sitting on metal chairs smoking cigarettes. The caption read: Narcotics Anonymous, Relapse Nine.
The woman in the third photo was also middle-aged. She had dishwater gray hair and was bone-thin, her skin wrinkled like an old leather shoe. She was sitting in a tiny apartment, holding an ancient-looking cat. Her teeth were brown. Her apartment was a dump; there was an overflowing litter box, the floor was cluttered with empty beer bottles, and the sink and counter contained at least a week’s worth of dirty dishes. The caption read: Life of a Non-Profit Environmentalist.
The other updated pictures weren’t of people, but of places, and were captioned respectively: one of our kitchen, titled Kitchen; one of our living room, titled Living Room; one of my room, one of Sam’s room, and one of the master, titled Bedroom 1, 2, and 3. They showed what the house looked like now, with our stuff in it.
The last two pictures were of graveyards. In both, the sky was a coal-colored dome peeking through the broken headstones, still slick with morning rain. The captions read: Redwood Cemetery, US Hwy 1, and Mary Magdalene Cemetery, Orange, CA.
I ran my fingertips over the strange, new Polaroids. Who were these people? And how did these pictures come to replace the ones I’d put on the floor before I’d gone downstairs?
My eyes fell to one of the headstones in the picture I was holding of Redwood Cemetery. The inscription read: Martin Jones, 1973-2005. Beloved Father, Husband, and Son.
Martin Jones. Marty. One of the 1993 Sunny Hill Crew.
I already knew what I was going to see when I looked at the other picture, of the headstone in the graveyard in Orange County, but I desperately hoped I was wrong.
I wasn’t. The name on the grave was Gloria Marquez. 1974-1998. Beloved daughter, friend, and free spirit.
Gloria. Another member of the ’93 Sunny Hill Crew was dead.
I pulled out my iPhone and did a quick Internet search for obituaries. One came from our local newspaper, The Sentry, and the other from the Orange County Register. Marty had died in a car crash. According to the article, he had driven off a country road while speeding late at night. Gloria was killed in a murder-suicide by her long-time boyfriend, a Mexican gang member from L.A., after a loud argument that woke the neighbors.
Slowly, I re-examined the people in the other photographs, the ones who were still alive: Mr. Hard Ass, Narcotics Anonymous, and the Non-Profit Environmentalist.
I realized why they had looked so familiar. They were the rest of the ’93 Sunny Hill Crew.
“Mr. Hard Ass” was Andy. He had lost his shoulder-length blonde surfer’s locks, but was still huge and muscular, now working as some kind of lawyer or court official.
The short-haired woman at the Narcotics Anonymous meeting was Rebecca. She looked older and sadder, but there was no mistaking it was her.
The Non-Profit Environmentalist was Apple. Poverty and what looked to be a pretty bad alcohol addiction had turned her into a pale shade of the vivacious ginger tomboy with the toothy smile she had been in 1993. In the updated picture, she appeared to be living alone in a bad part of town. And from the look of her apartment, her cats seemed to run the place.
No one had come or gone from the living room while I was downstairs. No one had touched my carefully laid arrangement of pictures. These were the same physical photo slides as the ones I’d taken out of the box, but the images had somehow updated to show what their subjects were doing now. It was as if the act of me taking them out of the box and observing them had caused them to change.
I was about to yell for Carter to come out of his room, when there was a knock at the front door. I shoved the pictures back in the shoebox and went to the peephole.
It was our next-door neighbor, Mr. DeLucio. His face was red and he was tapping his hand impatiently on the glass.
I opened the door a crack. “Howdy, neighbor,” I said.
“Hi Drew. I’m gonna make this quick.” He looked angry.
“Okay,” I said.
I never liked Mr. DeLucio. He was pushing forty, doughy and out of shape, the kind of guy who wore socks with sandals. He had started some kind of Internet business during the dot-com boom, and was the richest guy in our cul-de-sac. His house was the next one up the hill from ours, but had twice the square-footage. His terrace overlooked our backyard.
Mr. DeLucio folded his arms. “I understand you’re in college, and that you wanna have fun. I have parties too, y’know. I get it. I was even a student once, believe it or not. Okay, so it was New Year’s Eve, you wanted to have a good time. I get it.”
“So, is there a problem?”
Mr. DeLucio frowned. “I’ll tell you the problem, Drew. The homeowners on this street have had enough of this crap. Space is at a premium here. One of your friends blocked my driveway. And the noise kept my cats awake until two in the morning.”
His cats? I wondered.
“The next time you guys throw a party like that, I’m calling the cops.”
Carter came out of his room and walked up behind me. “I thought I told you not to come around here,” Carter said.
Mr. DeLucio narrowed his eyes. “I was just telling Drew here, no more late-night parties. You want to have a little get-together, with one or two of your friends, that’s fine. But last night was out of control.”
Carter looked imposing with his shirt off. He folded his arms and cocked his chin. “No, it wasn’t.”
“Next time, you can explain that to the police.”
Carter rolled his eyes. “The protocol hasn’t changed from what I told you when we moved in: You have problems with the noise, just call us. Here’s our phone numbers. Now get the hell out of here and stop creepin’ on my girl when she lays out in the backyard.”
Mr. DeLucio curled his lips in a condescending smile. “I’ve lived in this neighborhood for twenty years, and your method doesn’t work. Keep the noise down. End of discussion. As for Natalia’s sunbathing, I have no idea what you’re talking about. I was watering my garden, like I do every morning. Your girlfriend’s paranoia isn’t my problem.”
“Keep her name out your mouth. And if I catch you starin’ at her again, I’mma give you a new look.”
Mr. DeLucio trembled. His upper lip straightened. “That sounds like a threat. You wanna go to jail for assault, tough guy?”
Carter retorted, “You wanna go to jail for bein’ a fuckin’ pedophile?”
Mr. DeLucio stared at Carter, then at me, then at Carter again, pursed his lips and said, “Consider this a warning.” He turned and left us standing at the door.
“I really hate that guy,” Carter said when he was gone.
“I can tell. What happened with Talia?” I said.
Carter sighed, massaging his eyebrows. “She caught him starin’ at her when she was layin’ out in the backyard. He wasn’t waterin’ no goddamned plants, either. She said he was in his room, and was lookin’ at her through his blinds.”
“Jesus,” I said. “What a creep.”
I decided not to tell Carter about the pictures. After the incident with Mr. DeLucio, I thought it would be better to let him cool off for a while.
I also thought it was possible I was insane, and had only imagined seeing them change. We’d all been hammered. I thought I saw Carter empty all the pictures out of the box, but suddenly, I wasn’t so sure.
When I looked at the photos again, they had reverted back to their original state.
I dropped the box on the ground and walked away from it. I clenched my teeth and balled my fists. I was crazy. No, I’m not. Yes, you are. It’s the same now as it was before.
I walked back over to the spilled pictures and gently put them back in the box.
No. No. Goddamn it, not here. Not now. I can’t slip back down that hole. I thought I could escape it by coming to college, but I should’ve known that was impossible.
I saw a therapist for depression when I was younger, at both the beginning of Junior High and High School. At one point, I was suicidal. I tried to cut my wrists open in my room. I was in a mental hospital for three days.
My parents thought it would be good if I talked to someone about the struggle I had adjusting to the transition between public school and being home-schooled. I saw Dr. Wolfe for about a year, but I didn’t like him. There was a lot I never told that guy. He treated me like he’d forget our conversation the second I got out of his ridiculous, albeit comfortable, polka dot armchair. My other therapists, too, all had comfy armchairs. I think the Psychologist’s leather couch thing is actually a myth.
I placed the photos back in the box and hid it in my room, while Carter went into the kitchen to eat the second of his six daily meals. I was about to move the Polaroid camera into my room too, when I heard the back door open.
Bea walked into the living room wearing a hesitant smile.
“Hey, Drew. Can we sit?”
Bea and I sat down together on the brown L-couch. She looked troubled. “Okay… this is getting weird,” Bea said.
“It’s been a weird weekend.”
Bea took a deep breath. “No, Drew. Someone was following me.”
I sat up straight. “What?”
“I walked to Safeway, and on the way home… there was this guy. He had a hood on. And…”
I put a hand on her shoulder. She recoiled a little, but I held her firm.
She sounded small. Alone. “He was walking behind me for a really long time. I thought it was a coincidence at first, because he didn’t speed up. But he had this look in his eyes. Like he wanted to… rape me or something, and…” Her breath caught in her throat, and she had to swallow before she continued. “And so I took a side street, and then another one, and when I got back to the main road, he was still there. Like he was waiting for me.”
“You think it’s the same guy? Sock man? The Ejaculator?” My attempt at humor sounded as stupid out loud as it did in my head.
Bea didn’t find it funny, either. “I don’t know, Drew,” she whispered.
“Did you call the cops?”
“No. I yelled at him.”
“What did you say?”
“I called him a loser and told him to fuck off.”
“What did he look like?”
“I couldn’t see his face. He looked, I dunno, older. Like, middle-aged? But like I said, he had a hood on, and sunglasses, and he was pretty far away.”
“Did he follow you all the way back here? Did he see where you live?”
“No.” Bea shook her head. “No, this was at the corner of Walnut and Pine.”
I nodded. “I tip my hat to your boldness in handling the situation. But I’m serious. I think you should call the cops. Weird shit like this doesn’t just happen. Especially twice in one day.”
She sighed. “Sometimes it does, if you’re a girl. But I don’t think it’s a coincidence this time.”
I handed her my cell phone.
Bea ended up waiting about twenty minutes. She didn’t call 9-1-1. She called the non-emergency line instead, so they put her on hold.
While she was waiting, she noticed the Polaroid camera sitting next to me on the couch. She mouthed the words, “Whose camera is that?”
“It’s from downstairs.” I said. I picked it up. “I think it’s the same camera that took those weird pictures we found last night. Remember?”
“I didn’t, until Natalia told me,” Bea said. “I was really drunk. I can’t believe there was a dead person buried under your house.”
“So that’s the camera?”
“Does it still work?”
“Let’s find out.”
Bea, who had always struck me as someone who had never been picture-shy in her life, grew nervous in an instant. “No way. What if it’s haunted?”
I laughed. “Seriously, Bumble?”
“No, Drew. I’m… not right now, okay? I’m ugly today.”
“You’re never ugly,” I said.
I didn’t think about what I was saying until I had already said it. Maybe she was extra defensive after being followed on the street, or maybe it truly had never occurred to her that I found her attractive. Either way, the awkwardness that hung between us grew thick enough to bite.
She told me this morning how glad she was to have such a nice guy for a friend.
She only sees me as a friend. A nice, friendly friend.
I did the only thing I could think of. I raised the camera to my face and waited. Bea hung the phone away from her mouth and glared at me.
I snapped the photo.
Police dispatch came on the line while the photo was still sliding out the front of the camera, the cacophonous splaying of the tri-colored chemicals forcing Bea to stand up and walk to the other side of the room so she could hear.
“Hello, yes, I’d like to make a report. I think someone might be stalking me…”
Bea relayed the details of the masturbation sock and the strange hooded man on the street to the dispatcher. The image of an angry-looking Bea with my cell phone resting against her right cheek took shape on the Polaroid in my hands. I waved it in the air, like I remembered doing as a kid, to make it develop faster.
When the picture was done, I showed it to her. Bea frowned. I stuffed the picture in the pocket of my jeans when she wasn’t looking.
“Yeah, I still have the sock,” Bea said into the phone. “Sure, that’s fine. Thanks. I’ll do that. Thanks. Bye.”
She blasted air through her lips and tossed my iPhone into my lap, then sat down, defeated. “They told me, Be careful, and good luck, but they can’t send anyone until tonight. The guy said the officer will take a look at the sock, but there probably isn’t enough evidence to make an arrest, to call them if anything else happens, and we’d probably be better off calling the landlord. I don’t know what I expected,” Bea said. “Ugh.”
“I’ll call Alfonso,” I said.
“Maybe you should,” Bea agreed.
We called Alfonso twice and got him the second time. His office was in his house, a few blocks up the hill. Our landlord told us he was having dinner with his family at the moment, so he couldn’t come over until tomorrow morning. He sounded very upset at the notion that someone was bothering Bea. We thanked him and hung up.
A few minutes later, Jay walked in carrying a bag of burritos.
The cop who showed up barely gave us ten minutes of his time. I answered the door, with Bea three steps behind me. Everyone else hid in the kitchen, quietly sipping their beers and finishing their Mexican food.
The officer was a head and a half taller than me. I’m only 5’5”, so I’m not the best judge, but I’d estimate the officer had to be at least 6’6” or 6’7” and solidly built, with arms like pier pilings, a cannonball belly, and a shiny, bullet-bald head. He was chewing tobacco and had a cup in his hand that he constantly spat in throughout our conversation.
I’d seen him around before, breaking up student parties and man-handling the hippy kids who resisted, or busting bums who hung out down by the boardwalk doing drugs, always with the sick glee hard-ass cops like him get from ruining someone’s day.
His nametag read Skoakland.
Officer Skoakland estimated Bea and me with a grimace. “Evening. Heard one of you has a secret admirer,” he said without a nod.
Officer Skoakland’s spat in his cup as his eyes grazed the spider-webbed corners of our front porch. “I remember this house,” he said with a long drawl. “I’ve definitely been here before. Lots of noise violations at old Sunny Hill. Even gave one to you guys once, didn’t I?”
Before I could tell him it was the girls who lived at the house before us, Officer Skoakland turned to Bea and said, “Are you Ms. Ferreira?” He had a distinctly white guy cop way of butchering the rolled Rs in her name. “Beatriz?”
“That’s right,” Bea said.
Officer Skoakland readied his notepad and pencil. “Let’s get to it. You think someone’s stalking you?”
“I don’t know,” Bea said.
Officer Skoakland smirked and lowered his notepad. “Either you do, or you don’t. I’ve got other calls to get to, so, do you want to try this again, or should I wish you guys a good night and be on my merry way?”
Bea frowned. “Somebody put a fap sock on my car last night, and then today, a guy followed me home from the grocery store.”
Officer Skoakland made some quick notes. “A fap sock – can you describe that to me?”
“Somebody masturbated in a sock, then put it on the windshield of my car.”
“You sure it wasn’t a prank?” the officer said.
“Um, yeah,” Bea said, irritation thickening in her voice. “None of my friends would do that.”
Officer Skoakland spat, licked his lips and hummed. “Hmm. Are you positive the sock was, uh, masturbated into?”
“I’m a woman. It didn’t fall off someone’s foot and just happen to land on the front of my car by accident. Some pervert put it there after shoving his dick in it.”
The officer cringed. “All good points. Now, uh – how about this guy you say was following you. Can you describe him? Age, size, race, physical appearance?”
“He was … average size? I couldn’t tell. He walked with this really awkward slouch. I’d guess middle-aged. Couldn’t see his face, because he was wearing a hood, and to be honest, I tried not to look at him until I was sure he was following me. But at that point, I was pretty far ahead of him. I walk fast.”
Officer Skoakland rolled his eyes. “Was he white? Black? Latino?”
“White,” Bea said.
“What color eyes? Hair? Did he have any facial hair or piercings? Any other identifying marks?”
Bea sighed. “He was wearing sunglasses, so I didn’t see his eyes, or his hair, because his hood was up. I don’t remember any piercings, but I think he had a beard.”
Officer Skoakland’s hand brushed his cheek. It was clean-shaven. He held out a few fingers in front of his cheek to demonstrate different beard lengths. “What kind of beard? Long? Short? Stubble?”
She bit her teeth, trying to remember. “It was short, I think… I didn’t get a good enough look at his face. Sorry.”
“Mmm hmm. Mmm hmmm,” Officer Skoakland spat. He nodded. “So: you think you were followed by an average-sized guy, who walked with a slouch. You know he was white, but you don’t remember what he looked like. Let’s try an easy one. What was he wearing?”
Bea got defensive. “Look. I was scared shitless, okay? Do you know what it’s like to be a girl, and have some creepy guy follow you home? He might know where I live!”
“I know, Ms. Ferreira, I know,” the officer said. The sympathy in his voice was so fried and obviously fake, I wanted to punch him in the throat.
“But I can’t arrest anyone based on the description you’ve given me. There are 50,000 people living in the city of Santa Cruz. Half of them are men, and probably half of those could be described as middle-aged and white. Maybe fifty percent further could be described as average height and bearded. You’re not giving me a whole lot to work with, if you want me to find the one guy in six thousand who might have been following you.”
“Six thousand, two hundred and fifty,” Bea said coldly.
Officer Skoakland chuckled. “Even better. One more question: what happened after you noticed Mr. Vague, Medium Build, White Suspect? Did you run? Say something to him?”
“I yelled at him,” Bea said.
“What did you say?”
“I told him he was a creep, and to fuck off.”
I expected Officer Skoakland to chuckle at that, too, but he placidly made a note. “Did he say anything back to you?”
“Nope,” Bea said. “Practically ran the other way.”
The officer nodded again and put his notepad in his pocket. “You’re a tough cookie. You most likely scared him off. Doesn’t sound like much of a threat to me, to be honest. But I’ll file a report and see what I can do. In the meantime, try not to walk around late at night, and if you see anyone suspicious, who might be following you or lurking around outside your house, pick up the phone and call me right away. Okay?”
“What?” Bea said, incredulous. “That’s it? You’re not gonna, like, do anything about this? Don’t you want the sock? I still have it.”
“Sure, I’ll take it right over to the lab. They’ll have it DNA-analyzed by morning. No, that’s a joke.” The officer shrugged and spat. “What do you want me to do? I can send a patrol out here tonight if you’re really worried, but judging by the smell of this place, it seems like you guys have already started partying, so you might be asking for another noise violation if I come back here. I think I may have interrupted the start of another Sunny Hill rager.” He winked at me, and paused to crinkle his nose.
He smells the weed, I realized. I couldn’t smell anything, but it occurred to me a straight-laced cop like this guy would be hypersensitive to the smell of marijuana. Our house probably reeked.
As if reading my mind, Officer Skoakland added, “You invite your friend Mary over for the party tonight? Smells like good stuff. Is that white widow?”
Bea cast me a furious look.
“Now, I need to be heading out, unless there’s something else you’d like to report,” Officer Skoakland said.
For a wild second, I seriously considered telling him about the photos. They did depict what could have been a murder, after all, and maybe I was being stupid trying to figure it all out by myself.
No. Not now. He’s not going to listen.
A cop like Skoakland wouldn’t do anything but write me off, like he’d written off Bea’s stalker. Not unless we caught the dirt bag unrolling his sleeping bag. Killjoy pigs like Skoakland didn’t care what happened to Bea, or me, or any of us; we were just entitled students for him to rough up when he and his buddies broke up our house parties.
I was too angry to remember whatever Officer Skoakland wished us before turning to head back to his squad car. What I do remember, though, is the short exchange he had with the neighbor when he reached the top of our driveway.
“How’s it going, Benny?” Officer Skoakland called up the street.
I craned my neck to see whom he was talking to.
It was Mr. DeLucio, standing out on his front porch, shivering in a pair of sweatpants and a stained t-shirt. His pale gut bulged over the elastic band of his pants like sludge spilling from a slowly tipped bucket.
“P-p-pretty good, officer,” Mr. DeLucio said.
“You still jerking off to these college kids, Benny? Or did you find yourself a new hobby, you fuckin’ prick?” Officer Skoakland said.
“I th-th-thought you did that, officer,” Mr. DeLucio replied. He sounded terrified.
Compared side-by-side, even across the great distance of our driveway and Mr. DeLucio’s front yard, the two men could not have been more opposite. Our weird little neighbor looked like an antsier, bespectacled version of Gollum next to the imposing Mount Doom of Officer Skoakland.
Skoakland spat and shook his head dismissively. “Go back inside and watch some kiddie porn, ya bonehead. Or, better idea, buy a new pair of binoculars.”
“I-I-I have every right to do as I please on my own property, so long as I’m not hurting anyone,” Mr. DeLucio said.
“Not really,” the cop said, climbing back into his squad car. “But I’ll let your lawyer explain that to you next time. Stay gold, Pony Boy. Ho he he he,” Officer Skoakland chuckled. He closed his car door and drove away, giving Bea and me a wave.
What’s wrong with his laugh? I wondered.
Bea put her hand on my shoulder and let out a sigh. We went inside.
Caption: Welcome to Sunny Hill
Ah, here’s a good one: our first kegger. Actually, it was the first party we ever threw at Sunny Hill, a small housewarming get-together that turned into a rager with over a hundred people all crammed under the low, creaking rafters of the garage.
In the picture, you can see Carter and me smiling in the foreground, next to the keg. Carter’s arms are crossed in front of his chest and mine are raised in the air. Carter is wearing a tight black Zara v-neck that shows off his muscles, his head shaved down to a bald sheen, grinning like he just banged a Victoria’s Secret model. That was the night he met Natalia. He was the Bro of the Ball.
I’m standing next to him, righteous drunk with my mouth hanging open, shouting something unremarkable, my big, fat gut spilling out of my XXL t-shirt, some cheesy piece of shit I got during freshman year. You know the one. It’s black with white lettering that simply says, COLLEGE. People always thought I was trying to be ironic by wearing that shirt, but I actually thought it made me look cool.
Bea’s face is creeping into the corner of the picture, tongue hanging out of her mouth, her eyes rolled back. She’s handing me the tap. I gave Bea a pretty hard time for the zombie face she’s making in that picture. She maintains the only reason she looks so ugly is because the photographer snapped the picture while she was mid-sentence. She made out with him, and he took her home when she got sick. She told me the next day it didn’t go anywhere, but I never fully believed her.
That was the night I fell in love with Bea, and the night I realized she would never be mine.
Want more? Lurk is out now from Lilydog Books.