By Chef Vital_Dual
It’s about thirty minutes to midnight when my phone vibrates and starts to blare its ringtone. I jump off the couch and nearly have a heart attack. It’s just another night, one that’s been wonderfully quiet so far. After a chaotic Friday evening that lasted until five in the morning, it’s nice to spend this Saturday alone at home, watching whatever crappy movies are on TV.
I recover and answer it. It’s Mike, though I can barely hear him over the pounding music in the background. “We’re leaving the club now!” he screams. “The girls ditched us and Trent wants to get home early so he can go to church with his family.”
“Sounds good,” I say. “Did you bring enough cash for a cab this time?” Mike’s stories of getting stranded downtown in the middle of the night have become legendary.
“Nah, Jason’s friend has a car. He’s driving us back.”
I frown. “Has he been drinking?”
“Like, one or two beers. He says he’s fine.” He says something to someone nearby, but I can’t make it out. “I’ll be home soon. Don’t worry about staying up for me.”
“Thanks, but I’m not tired. That, and mom and dad told us to always deadbolt the door, and if I do that you won’t be able to get in.”
He laughs. “I’m not sleeping in the front yard again! ‘kay, I’ll be home soon.”
He hangs up and I go back to my movie. There’s something about mindless violence and explosions that just seems so relaxing. Or maybe it’s the fact that school’s finally done for the winter holidays, and my parents wisely decided to go on a cruise with friends for a week before Christmas. Mike and I have the house to ourselves: for him, it means no stern looks when he staggers home reeking of alcohol; for me, it’s no constant reminders to start looking for a job in time for graduation.
The movie goes to its fifteenth commercial and I head to the kitchen for a snack. As I throw a bunch of eggs, cheese and vegetables into a skillet, I hear a loud cracking noise in the backyard. I press my face to the cold, frosty window and look out, but there’s nothing out there but a few bare trees and some fresh-fallen snow. Probably just an animal. It can’t be easy to survive the winter.
My cell phone rings again, so I wander back into the living room to grab it. It’s Mike. I can hear sirens in the background. “Uh, so Jason’s friend kinda, um, lost control of the car.” It sounds like he’s holding the phone half a foot away from his mouth.
“Oh God. What happened?”
“We hit a pole. Car’s totaled, but we’re all okay. I think. Cops are here. They’re talking to the driver.” He laughs. “He’s definitely drunk.”
“They’re ignoring the rest of us, and there’s a bus here so I’m gonna on and get home.”
“Sounds like a plan.” I pause and grimace. “Wait. Do you know what bus to get on?”
“I’ll figure it out. Will call you when I’m close.” He’s gone, and I go back to the movie.
There’s a lull in the action, when attractive male protagonist and attractive female protagonist engage in an awkward sexual conversation, which might have worked if they had any sort of chemistry, and my mind wanders to my job hunt. A few of my classmates say they know great companies to work for—apparently mechanical engineers are invulnerable to the bad unemployment rate—but I’m really not sure if I just want to jump into things. Travelling would be fun. There’d be something immensely rewarding about sending Mike a photo of me on the beach while he’d be studying for midterms in the middle of October. Totally worth passing up on an easy job for.
A sudden blaring noise comes from the kitchen. I jump up into the thick smell of smoke. The omelette. Damn it. There’s about a foot of black smoke hovering in the kitchen. I run in, pull my burnt snack off the stove and open every window, letting the chilling air in. My creation is little more than ash, so I open the backdoor and throw it out for whatever animals are trying to get through the night. So much for that.
There’s some leftover pasta in the fridge. I’m happy to eat it cold; at this point, I’m better off not heating anything up. I settle down and continue the movie, but my mind’s going back to travelling. I’ve always wanted to go across the pond, check out Europe, maybe backpack through Germany, see the sights in France, practice my fake accent in Britain. What’s it like there in the summer? Hot, I’d bet, but not any hotter than it is here. Hopefully less humid.
Again, my ringtone snaps me back to the real world. “Now you pick up!” Mike’s shouting, but I can barely hear him. Wherever he is, the reception is terrible. “I’ve been calling for hours!”
I look at the clock and roll my eyes. “You last called forty-five minutes ago. Where are you?”
“I have no idea. The bus is going in the middle of nowhere. I have no idea where any of these stops are. Hell, I don’t even think they’re in English.”
I sigh loudly. Not this again. “How much did you have to drink?”
“Drink? I can’t even…” He trails off, replaced with a loud, harsh static. I pull the phone from my ear. A few seconds later, it disconnects. Whatever. He’ll find a way home.
The movie eventually ends, but it’s just past midnight and I’m hardly tired. Now I’m regretting allowing my roommate to convince me to leave my gaming console at school. This is the perfect sort of boredom for grabbing a sniper rifle and telling twelve-year-olds how great their moms are in bed. And then Mike could have joined right in. He probably spends more time playing than I do, and he doesn’t even live with me. I think my parents are relieved that we’re going to the same school. He’s been trying his absolute best to get his life back on track, and I’m able to be there in case he needs a shoulder to lean on.
A loud scream comes from the backyard. I go back into the now-freezing kitchen and grab a flashlight from the cupboard. I shine it around, but there’s nothing out there. The remains of the omelet are gone, and there are a ton of paw prints around the area. Raccoons? Squirrels? Maybe coyotes? Whatever they were, they moved quickly.
The smoke in the kitchen’s gone. I close all the windows and lie back down in the living room. I guess I doze off, because when I wake up it’s one-thirty in the morning. There’s been no contact from Mike, so I give him a call.
“Hello?” Now it’s like he’s talking into a phone on the other side of the room. “Are you there? Please say something!”
“I’m here,” I say slowly. “Have you figured out the way home yet?”
“I can’t.” Despite the low volume, I can hear panic in his voice. “I’ve been riding for days. Maybe weeks, I can’t tell. Transferring from bus to bus. None of them are going anywhere.” I swear, I can hear him whimper. I can’t help but grin. I’m going to hold this against him for YEARS. “I don’t want to get off. There’s something wrong around here. Something dark. It’s waiting for me.”
“Yeah, it’s called the night, and it’s not very friendly to blackout drunks, now is it?”
“Stop it. Just stop…” He fades away.
“Hello? Mike?” I check my phone. It’s still connected. “If you can hear me, just get off and grab a cab, okay?”
He comes back, with a slightly clearer voice. “We just passed Wedmore. I recognize this place!”
“That’s good, seeing as we drove by it nearly every single day when we were kids.” I sit up, and suddenly I’m feeling groggy. Time for bed. “Anyway, I’m gonna go—“
“No!” he shouts forcefully. “Please stay. Don’t hang up.”
“Okay…” Now I’m wondering if he took any substances beyond alcohol. It’s like he’s combined the hallucinations of shrooms with the depressants of beer. I grimace. It’s what the old Mike would have done.
“Just… just talk to me. How are things at home?”
“They’re good,” I say. “There’s a bunch of animals outside, making lots of noise. I think they’re raccoons, but they could be bears. Might want to watch yourself.”
“Cool.” The connection’s even better. “Just went over the bridge. I’m a few stops away.”
“And there you go. Was there any reason to have been concerned?”
“Like you wouldn’t believe.” He pauses. “Man, I cannot wait to get home. I think I can hear my bed calling me.”
“Is it saying ‘Clean me?’”
He laughs, loudly and heartily. “I’m nearly there. Jesus, I’m glad the night is over. Thanks for not hanging up.”
“I’m always here. You know that.”
“It was weird,” he continues, “I couldn’t call or text anyone. I tried to get on Facebook, but it looked really strange. And as soon as you called, I realized where I was. It’s like it came out of nowhere.” His voice rises. “And there’s our street! I’ll call you when I’m near the house. Holy crap, that’s dark…” He hangs up. I go to the front window and look out. All the street lights are on, casting their pale-orange tint on the road. I gaze as far down as I can. No sign of him.
I’m about to go and clean up the kitchen, but my phone rings. “Where the hell is our house?”
I throw my free hand up incredulously. “The same place it’s always been, you idiot?”
“I can’t see it. The street is way too dark. I don’t even know if I’m on the sidewalk or the road.”
“What are you talking about? It’s bright as day out there.” I go over to the front door and flick the outside light a few times, showing off our snow-covered driveway, the one Mike was supposed to shovel before heading out. “There. Can you see—“
“I saw it!” he screams. “The light! Turn it back on!” I do so, even though it adds nothing to the overall brightness of our neighbourhood. “I see it. Okay, yeah, I’m close now.”
I look out the window, but still can’t see him. There’s just a pair of headlights coming down the street. “How close are you?”
“Nearly there. Oh, thank God, I’m nearly there.”
The headlights slow down at my driveway. “Are you in a car?”
“No. Do you know how easy a car would have made all of this?”
I scoff. “I think there’s a lot of things that could have made this easier.”
He’s silent for a moment, and then he sighs. “Look, I know what you’re thinking, but I swear, I only had a few drinks.” His voice lowers. “I’m done with that other stuff. I made that promise, and I’m going to keep it.”
“I know.” The car’s pulling into my driveway. It’s the police. What the hell is going on here?
“I’m steps away. The house has never looked so good,” Mike says. The car stops and two officers get out, both struggling on the slippery driveway. They take their caps off and hold them against their chests.
“What is it?” Mike asks. “I’m at the driveway. Can you see me?”
The world stops around me. This was supposed to be just another night. Everything I’d done—the movie, the omelet, those animals outside, what I’m going to do when I graduate—had been so inconsequential. That was the point. That was the goddamn point.
The officers are walking up the steps. My throat is suddenly very tight, but I manage to get the words out. “Yeah, bro. I can see you.”
“Awesome. I’ll be there in a minute. Thanks for guiding me home.”
“It’s what I’m here for.” I take a deep breath. “See you soon.”
“Can’t wait.” He hangs up. A few seconds later there’s a knock on the door.
I open it.