22.1 Fever

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Boom. Boom. Boom.

Drumbeats filled the dark loft. A shadow stood by the window, holding the electric guitar. A second shadow leaned over the mic stand. Both were completely still. Both were waiting for the moment. The send off.

Boom. Boom. Boom.

The sticks were heavy, warm, and the pound of them was heavier, warmer. I brought them down one by one, slowly, building the tempo.

Boom.

It was coming.

Boom.

It was close.

Boom.

It was here.

BOOM.

I crashed both sticks down together, and as sound exploded from the drums, the red sun opened its eye outside the window and drenched the loft in scarlet light. But there came no riff of guitar, no howl of vocals. Ash clutched the mic stand, her jaws unhinged and her tongue torn out. Nip stood in place, the Gibson slung over his shoulder. The stumps of his elbows dripped. I realized then, why my sticks were so heavy, so warm. But I could not stop playing. I could not drop the beat. Again I lifted Nip's severed forearms and again I brought them down, pounding on the drums with his bloodless fists.

Boom.

Boom.

Boom.

Billy stomped the foot pedal against the bass one last time. "Oh. I'm sorry, sweetheart. Did I wake you?"

A thin layer of red had collected on the window, but I could still see outside, which meant it was still night.

"I couldn't sleep," said Billy. "I tried, but the wind kept waking me up and then I kept wondering what else was out there, in the fog, yowling with the wind. It's spooky being alone." He scratched the coarse blond stubble underneath his chin. "Okay, okay. You're here, sort of, so I guess I'm only half alone. But still. Spooky."

I let my eyes close.

Boom.

"Whoops. Foot slipped." Billy cracked his neck. He rose from the drum set, picked up the stool, and dragged it over to my head the way Ash had done earlier. "Boy, you're really shaking. Too bad Ash's parents didn't leave any vodka around. You could mix me a mean martini, I bet. Dirty, of course. Speaking of dirty, how's your chest doing?" He leaned over me, lifted my arm, and whistled. "Still pussier than Momma's pussy. That's crude. I'm sorry. I shouldn't talk that way about my old lady. It's just, who's that? Who is that? I don't know her. Do you?"

Billy waited patiently for an answer.

"No?" He shrugged. "I guess my dad must have. Much as anybody knows anybody. Her legs never met a prick they wouldn't welcome in, he said. First time he told me that, I was five. Didn't know what a prick was, except that he was always calling his dad a prick, so I asked if her legs had welcomed in Grandpa. Which they might have. They might really have, for all I know. Well, Flippy didn't appreciate that question. Flippy was Dad's right hand when it got in a mood." Billy made a chomping mouth of his fingers and thumbs. "Flippy gave me a good hard bite right on the ass and didn't let go for about a year, just kept shaking and shaking its head, like a dog at a chew toy."

Sweat dripped from my hairline. I could feel the fracture above my right eyebrow, an etching in ice.

"You'd better not remember any of this, Joel. I'm serious. If you're brain doesn't melt out of your ears, you be sure to forget all about Flippy. He's a real twat, but he's family. Do you get what I'm saying? He's family. And so what if I don't miss him. So what? So what?" Billy grabbed my hair and lifted my head off the carpet. His eyes were wet. They caught the glow from Colossus and held onto it. "He was my family, he was mine. Mine."

Billy let go of me. He wiped his hand off on his pants. Then he stood.

On his way to the trapdoor, he picked up the permanent marker and made a fourteenth tally on the wall.

The mind is a room full of windows. During a fever, most of those windows are fogged. Things that should be clear become hard to make out. Flippy, for example. I didn't get Flippy at all (later I would realize Billy had been using Flippy to talk about the conflicting emotions he felt surrounding his father: relief at having him gone, anger at me for having made that choice for them, and underneath all that, I'm sure, grief). But there are a few windows, normally dark, through which fever shines a light.

Lying in my puddle in the loft, I saw Honaw as a soaring bird does, from high above.

I saw the craggy brow line of Widow's Peak.

I saw the mountain range branch off around the town and then taper like a jaw line, forming a knotted chin in the southern foothills.

And I saw the cavity where my brief academic career had taken place.

It was vast and jagged with teeth. When it exhaled the sky darkened, and when it inhaled the sky was dark. All day it breathed out, and all night it breathed in. The mouth below Honaw. The mouth of the Beast.

The window wore a thick red coat.

I lifted my head to the rumble of an engine. Gravel crunched in the driveway. The engine quieted. I heard Billy's footsteps move down the hall from the master bedroom, which he had claimed for himself. He reached the front of the house and opened the door. Then his footsteps turned around and came back faster. Much faster. The loft trembled as his body hit the ladder. He popped up out of the floor, a Billy-in-the-Box. His face was tight with panic.

More than eight hours had passed since Ash and Nip left to look for medicine.

They had not come home.

But someone had.


____ ____

Author's Note:

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Coming up on Friday, two unexpected guests welcome themselves into the house . . .

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