by: Tristan Kneschke1
An elixir named Felicia that isn’t for the fainthearted. A roller coaster ride in the middle of an earthquake…
Anselm wakes to the bustling sounds of commotion downstairs, recognizing the unruly racket of his brother and several of his friends. The winter weeks can be grueling in the Upper Depths, and tonight it’s Friday, time for them to kick back and enjoy themselves.
Anselm makes his way down the stairs to his brother’s room. A golden square of light from the open door illuminates the slate floor. Guffawing rebounds off his brother’s narrow bedroom walls. Anselm’s brother slouches on his bed with his head drooping off the side, a bottle in his hand. One of his friends is toppled over a chair, a third’s spread on the floor. His brother’s speech is slurred. “Why’re you….up….” A grin splits across his face.
Bottles are scattered across the desk and floor. Anselm takes his brother’s bottle from him, his brother too weak to resist. Anselm takes a sip. The strange rush is immediate.
A pair of soft hands gently caress your face. (Hello and welcome.)
As quickly as the sensation comes, it’s gone. Anselm shakes his head in disbelief. A toilet flushes out in the hall. A pimply teenager emerges from the bathroom and sizes up the boy, scratching at patches of uneven facial hair. “Shit. You had some?”
“What the hell is this stuff?”
The pimply teenager takes the bottle from him. “It’s for grownups.”
“Yeah, but you guys aren’t legal.”
“I made fakes. Side business.”
“I want one.”
“I’m not going to steal my brother’s supply.”
“You got money? Four hundred. Each,” he says, lifting the bottle. “You’re on your own for these.”
The pimply teenager eyes him, assessing whether Anselm’s serious or not. “Alright. I’m in the Third Depths,” he says, passing Anselm a piece of paper with his number and name, Splints, before leaving out the back.
Anselm and his friends Roscoe and Chase ride the elevator down to the Third Depths. It shudders to a stop and the steel doors open.
“I think we hook a left around here,” Anselm says.
“Guys,” Chase says, lingering in the lift. “I don’t know.”
The other two look back in disbelief. “Dude. We decided earlier,” Anselm says. “So come on.”
“I wasn’t there.”
“Well, we’re here now,” Roscoe says. “Don’t be such a pussy.”
Chase steps off the elevator. “Shut up. I came, didn’t I?”
“Yeah, but you obviously don’t want to be here.”
This is how their dynamic usually works, with Anselm as the leader getting them into trouble, Roscoe as the follower, and Chase as the timid questioner overruled two to one.
They reach Splints’ place after a few wrong turns. It’s just like he said on the phone, down to the crooked door.
“Four hundred each.”
The boys count up what they’ve collected from allowances, sibling piggy banks, sidewalk gambling winnings, siphoned lunch money funds, swear jars, and parent’s wallets. Splints counts his fees and, satisfied, pockets it.
“Okay. Who’s first?” Splints unfurls a white screen hanging from the ceiling. Anselm stands with his back to it. Splints points an antique camera at him. “Smile if you want.”
Anselm is all stare. Roscoe grins. Chase’s comes out with eyes half-closed.
Splints hands each of them a small metal card with their picture, fake birthdates, and the requisite psychoanalysis on the back: no history of schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress disorder, history of violence or incarcerations. The boys ogle the realistic holograph shimmering across their photographs. The beveled edge detail, the stain-resistant tin cardstock, and the professional-looking photos make the faces look just like the real thing. Splints is good.
“I don’t get it. Why don’t you just buy us a six pack?” Roscoe asks.
“No way. I’d get in big trouble. These are untraceable.”
The boys take the elevator down to the Fifth Depths toward Mandala’s. Here, the streets are lined with dim, hazy lights.
They’ve always been denied at Mandala’s. Their impractical tactics hadn’t worked: going there on slow nights, manning up with Roscoe’s peach fuzz beard, trying to break the back padlock.
They still have to deal with the bouncer. He swipes the IDs across an electronic scanner that chirps a pleasant affirmative.
The bouncer stares them down. “Shoes.”
The boys stand there, not comprehending. The bouncer points at their feet. “Shoes.”
The black gunk on their shoes has caked up on their way over. The boys wipe their sneakers against the curb and enter the bar.
Mandala’s plays no music, calling attention to the cavernous space. It’s hard to tell where the obsidian walls end and the shadows begin in the dim lighting. Approaching the winding bar triggers motion-sensor spotlights that cast a meter-wide oval light. The vast gaps between stools maximize solitude. Private rooms are off at one end.
The extensive drink menu is organized according to gender and sexual orientation. Even just based on the names, Ivanka is sure to vibe different than Marie-Claire.
Anselm articulates his order to the slouching bartender. “I’ll get a Beverly.”
“Same,” Roscoe says. “Make it three. One for him,” pointing at Chase.
“Hang on.” Chase studies the menu. “I’m seeing what they have.”
“Okay, uh, just two then.”
The bartender goes to fetch the rounds.
“Just order man,” Anselm says.
“Leave me alone.”
The bartender brings Roscoe and Anselm their drinks. “We’re not waiting,” Anselm says, venturing toward the private rooms.
The three of them talked about going through this ad-hoc male rite of passage together. Now they’re sticking it to Chase for protesting in the elevator. The guys have been questioning his conviction for a while. They used to be equals, little more than kids finding trouble in mud puddles after school. Was there a moment when it turned? Or had their respect for him been in steady decline?
Chase’s voice shakes. “Recommend anything?”
The bartender looks him over. “Girls, right?” Chase nods. “Right, okay. Your friends had the Beverly. No drama. Good intro. Limina…bit harsh but got a real nice finish. Teranus is mild, good after a shit day.”
“What’s Felicia like?”
“Wow. Felicia. Got to know what you’re doing. Not a lot of people get it. It’s intense. Not for the faint of heart.”
“I’ll get one of those.” Chase places several creased bills on the bar.
The bartender rifles through the bottles and finds one in the back. Dust falls off the bottle and he wipes it off in his shirt. Popping the cap makes the liquid fizzle inside.
The bartender hands him his change. “See you on the other side.”
Chase sits on a cushion under a motion sensor. His bottle steams like an extinguished candle. The first sip is a bitter, subtle taste. Then it socks him in the stomach: bile and gasoline, fermented cabbage and clogged drain. Nausea squeezes him and he struggles to finish the rest. What would his friends think if he was bested by a small sip? He holds his nose to help, guzzling the liquid as it hardens and curdles down his esophagus. It’s done.
Anselm & Beverly onset….
Pleasant. Dozens of thick black lines. Hundreds, like crisscrossing city streets.
Beverly comes out of the black lines. (Hello and welcome.)
She holds his hand. (So glad we’re getting away for the long weekend.).
Never been abroad. Furthest I’ve been is Fifth Depths. The trees are different here. Should I open my mouth to talk? Or just think? (I like traveling.)
A small village overlooks a mountain vista.
Wow, it’s beautiful….so many colors. Never seen this before.
Three suns dance rays of sunlight against violet summits. Wildebeests prance about.
(Is this right? We’ve been walking a while.)
Play along. (Yeah? Should we be up here?)
Cobblestone streets wind around tiny crammed cottages. Almost fighting. Buildings like a maze, what’s the word? Labyrinth. Further and further into town but no map. The grounds still there, felt like went out for a second. We’re going….to the right. Right?
All the homes and the shops look the same. A small square ahead, a fountain in the middle all dried out.
(Where are we?) Beverley no longer holds my hand. Her arms are folded.
Look behind, in front. There are possible ways of returning, now twelve, now twenty more. Where’d they come from?
(It’s up here. No? Wait.) All the places look the same, try heading back in one direction, same, back, same. All the directions have turned uniform.
(Are we lost? Did you get us lost?)
No, no, I swear. Let’s just go back this way. That’s the way back at least. I think.
Beverly’s hand is nowhere. Where’d she go now? I need to get back, by any way possible.
Roscoe & Beverly onset….
Pleasant. Vision cloudy. Warm rays of smeared colors. Placid, like watercolors.
Beverly comes from these colors: smiling, waving, hazy. (Hello and welcome.)
The colors subsiding. She takes my hand. There’s walls. A store? No….looks like an art gallery.
Nearly the entirety of my periphery is blotted out. The only thing is a massive painting. Violent streaks of color. The canvas slashed in places, adding odd depth. Intense, powerful, but threatening.
In my nose: lavender, peppermint, fresh laundry, cookies. A woman. Her enveloping smell. Her closed eyes.
(Don’t fall asleep.) Light’s scolding, but the rest feels great.
(So what do you think?)
Think? What is the nature of think? (Of what?)
A fluttering laugh at my simplistic evaluation. (The paintings of course.)
There are more now, all around me, squeezing in ever so tight. That was fast. All around me. (I, I like it. Them. I don’t know too much about art.)
(Say what you mean.)
(Well….I don’t know. I feel like anyone could make these.)
(What? You know this is my gallery opening. I made these.)
(Your….no, I didn’t mean it like that.)
Morphing smells in nostrils. Harsher, smokier, acrid. Faint but there.
(Really, I like them.)
(You said anyone could do it.)
A burning tire, something chemical, like ether.
(No, no. I do. It’s good, really.)
Abrupt and intense, surrounded again, but now by people. It must be her group of friends: guys, girls, older. Older than me. Where to look first? I’m focusing on Beverly. Her expression’s sour, like smelling expired milk.
A new voice. (Beverly tells me you’re into art.)
Another. (Tell us about it.)
A third, then more. (She’s told us so much about you.)
(So tell us. How’d you meet her?)
(Maybe at an art gallery?)
(Come on. Tell us.)
(Beverly says you’re quite knowledgeable.)
My heart’s on a treadmill and my arms feel like tree limbs.
Chase & Felicia onset….
Tremors. A roller coaster ride in the middle of an earthquake. Bodies conduct electricity. It’s like tunnel vision at night.
I’m scared but coping. I ride it, endure it. I come through the other side. Be strong, not chickenshit.
A cackling voice. Scanning, hands in front. Hands choppy, not fluid. A blinding black light beam. Black light? Sunspots. My eyes heavy. Is blinking possible? There she is with slits for eyes.
(What’re you waiting for?)
Her voice is all around, even behind. My hands, my feet are somewhere, shivering. Her hot mouth on mine, assured hands tear my shirt. My buttons fly into the ether. She’s plunging my face into her breasts, suffocating me. She envelops me in the chair. Something hardens in my pants.
(What’s that? Pathetic.)
She pushes me back, and my head hits ground. My vision multiplies. I’m somewhere else.
It’s a room with a distinct, sick smell: mold, week-old groceries in the sun. Her fist approaching choppy, me powerless, dumbfounded. I slap the floor like dead body hitting pavement.
Now I’m somewhere else. She’s screaming right at me.
(Where’s my fucking money? Where the fuck did you put it?!)
I close my eyes, think for a second over that voice.
I’ve got this. Wait. Do I? Wait. Yes.
Closet in the corner. Then a mirror next to it. A table with chairs.
A dresser next to that. Go, move to it. Go now. Okay, okay. My choppy hands go through drawers, one by one, my face a cold sweat sheet. Found it! A stack of soiled bills, crinkled, ripped, the stench of old currency.
Give it to her. My intensity is diminished. My hands become fluid. Felicia’s faint as she smiles.
Now I’m strapped down on a bed. Felicia’s naked, straddling me. Holding….what? A huge syringe. Some thick liquid. It’s coming closer, closer, towards my neck.
Anselm and Roscoe shiver in a Third Depths precinct cell. Their faces are bruised, with Anselm developing a black eye and Roscoe sporting a ruptured lip.
“How long were you out?” Roscoe asks.
“Half hour? Hour?”
“I’ll never do that again.”
A cop slams his nightstick against the iron bars. “Shut up in there.”
Chase is crumpled and unconscious in an interrogation room chair surrounded by cops and his father in a room with puke-colored walls and low ceilings. The boy stirs and rights himself. He has the frightened eyes of a child returning to reality.
A guttural male voice speaks from above. “Okay, he’s back. Drink this, kid.” A thick, hairy arm presents a cup of odorless liquid. “It’s water.”
Another cop jokes. “Yeah. Not what you’ve been drinking.”
Chase hears his father. “How is he?”
“He’ll snap out of it.”
“I’ll take it from here.”
“You sure?” Another joke. Chase’s father lets it go. He puts a hand on his son’s shoulder. “Come on.”
Handcuffs bind Chase to the chair. Cold metal cuts into his soft boyish wrists. The joker cop takes his time unchaining the boy. Chase rubs his wrists where the skin is raw.
“Who gave you the fake ID?” a cop asks.
Chase’s father is quick. “You don’t have to answer that.”
They make their way out of the station. The joker cop calls after them. “We know we won’t see you again, right mister Harmon?”
Chase and his father step into an enormous elevator along with several dozen inebriated citizens. It’s still the weekend, after all. His father squeezes Chase’s shoulder, a gesture that could be protection, stress, or anger.
They disembark at the Upper Depths. One of the twin suns has set in the horizon, leaving a murky twilight remaining by the weaker second sun. In his haste, his father parked slanted in a space. A ticket is tucked in a windshield wiper. Chase’s father swears and flings the ticket.
They ride, the dirt road illuminated by the headlights snaking in front of them. Chase asks, “What happened to Roscoe and Anselm?”
“They’re in a cell. Their parents are coming. I came right away.” His father takes his eyes from the road. “I was scared shitless when I got the call.”
Chase’s mouth is dry. He swallows with difficulty but can’t look at his father. “Sorry.”
“They almost pumped your stomach. What the fuck were you doing with that stuff?”
Chase has no simple answer. He could’ve had a milder drink. But what if he’d managed it? He’d might’ve shown his friends off at least.
“And the fake ID? You’re grounded.” The rest of the drive passes by in silence.
Chase’s mother stands behind the house’s screen door watching the driveway, drinking tepid herbal tea. Yellow headlights cut through the ebony black. Father and son get out of the car. Chase makes no eye contact, brushing past his worried mother. He trudges upstairs, shoes thudding the wooden steps.
“We’ll talk more in the morning,” his father calls.
His mother puts the empty tea cup in the sink. “How was he?”
His father slumps into a kitchen chair, his head in his hands. “Messed up. But he’ll be fine.”
“He’s not hanging out with those friends anymore.”
“I grounded him. Plus the hangover he’ll have tomorrow, that’s punishment enough.”
His mother nods. She looks beat. “Come to bed.” She kisses her husband and heads upstairs.
Chase’s father opens the fridge, grabs a beverage and steps outside. The screen door slaps shut behind him.
He cracks open the bottle and sits on the front steps. Steam from the bottle snakes around his head. He brings the liquid to his lips and downs the whole bottle.
“Well. Hello to you too,” he says, his head slumping forward. “I know. He drives me crazy. But don’t worry. He’ll be fine,” Chase’s father closes his eyes. “Just fine,” he sighs, letting a bottle of Beverley take him into her warm embrace.
- Header image by Maud Chalmel. [↩]