Fear and Loathing in The Homestead

by Zack Brown


          The college girl in the leg cast was telling me how, when she was a little kid, she had a puppy that strangled itself to death on its own leash. Her dad had to tie the puppy up to a kitchen chair at night or else it would roam the house chewing up everything, all their shoes, everything. Her leg cast was resting on my lap. I was almost old enough to drive. My parents were gone and this was my sister’s party. Things had changed, you could tell, and so I was going to, too. And this girl was my first step. “Where was I?” Rachel said, staring into her phone.
          “Your puppy strangling itself?”
          “Yeah okay so the little bastard pulled the chair across the kitchen before he actually died. I swear that night I heard the chair dragging across the floor. Thought it was just a ghost. You know how dogs smile when they pant? They look, like, happy? I still remember that smile. So don’t get a puppy. They’re cute, but cute things are more disturbing dead.” We’d broached the subject of strangled puppies when Rachel said I reminded her of a puppy, particularly of her choked puppy, with its eyes bulged out of its sockets, with its nose dry as an eraser, with a strained Alligator smile on its face. Of that puppy, I reminded her.
          My hand was resting consciously, bravely, on her cast. Her cast was hard and so was I. She blew a cloud of smoke at me, over me, thinking she looked cooler than she did. I had that effect on people: my inoffensiveness making them brazen, indulging inner illusions of movie stars playing street punks. “Amanda’s brother,” she said, looking me over. She’d said that a few times, considering the novelty of it. Me—Amanda’s brother. I didn’t know this girl Rachel well, but I knew she belonged to that group of my sister’s friends that The Parents weren’t allowed to meet. I knew one thing about her, actually: she was sitting alone on the couch, looking like she was waiting for someone; I thought he was me.
          I watched smoke seep into our house: the furniture, the carpet, the walls, the cross, our family pictures, and the family emergency plan I had hung up years ago. A kid was just rolling joints at the table where we never ate. He’d been there all night meticulously rolling joints with single-purpose tranquility, passing them out to the crowd of beggars, like my dad manning the grill on the Fourth of July, handing out hot dogs to all the cousins. Only smoke in the backyard, remember guys? After midnight, the rules went out the window. It was bugging me. But I was trying to chill. Last time I’d seen Amanda, I asked her if she had any idea how she was going to get the smell of weed out of the house before The Parents came home. She ruffled my hair, pretty drunk, and told me not to worry about it, and to get away from her.
          At least I had an alibi: I was at my friend’s. My sister didn’t, and there would be no saving her. I hoped she enjoyed her last night on this earth. I hoped this was worth it.
          “I won’t get in trouble if they’re not coming back,” Amanda had reasoned. Even though I was too old to believe that, I went cold at the thought that my parents might have abandoned me—like an unwanted puppy in a box on the street. Amanda was betting that it wouldn’t matter, because nothing did anymore. They would be too preoccupied with divorce to reprimand her for throwing a little party. “Little” ha ha ha. Because they weren’t coming back together, Amanda said. Something vital broke, and things were different now, haven’t I felt it? Or are you that thick Nick, really?
          Mom hadn’t come home from work on Thursday. She was staying with grandma. She needed some time. Dad, after a few long hours of staring at himself in a blank TV screen, was called away on an “emergency business trip.” He told us he had to go and left us some money and the door slammed shut.
          “What’re we going to do?” I asked helplessly.
          Amanda shrugged. But I saw: gears turning mischievously. Here we stood in an abandoned house. “What are we going to do,” she repeated. “Good question, buddy.”
The Parents surrendered the house; now it belonged to us. “Don’t you see? The whole thing’s in pieces. This is like East Berlin. The rules are kaput. And we need to take advantage of it. We deserve to, all the shit we’ve been putting up with,” Amanda said.
          Well, Amanda deserved to. She invited me to get out of dodge, go to my friend’s house. I got angry, and told her I was staying. She reminded me how I got when I was stoned, i.e. nervous and depressed. Amanda got me high once, in the bathroom we shared. “This is a really irresponsible and terrible thing to be doing to you,” she said as she handed me her pipe. “I’m ruining you!” as she lit the bowl. “Why am I doing this?” she asked. I thought it was going to be fun but it wasn’t. I became anxious, really started hating myself, and thought everyone must know we were high, even the neighbors, whom I thought I heard talking about it, the smell, and the cops were coming, and my feet were cold. All my socks felt wet. I took off one pair and put on new ones and those were wet too.
          Now I was a little stoned and felt okay. Acceptance: the levees were broken and the city abandoned, so what? I felt mellow and hollow. I was going to hook up with this college girl. I would tell everyone, all my nerdy friends, in places where girls my own age whom I actually liked would overhear.
          And I swear I was about to lean in and plant one on her when he showed up. A lanky kid wearing a Flaming Lips t-shirt. Red eyes under his glasses darted from me to her, and the casted foot resting on my crotch. “Cheddar!” Rachel said. If Cheddar wasn’t his birth name, he might have got the nickname because of his hair. Shoulder-length greasy blonde hair that looked stiff as a mop. Go away, I thought. You cockblock. Go.
          “Well, well, well,” he said.
          “Well!” Rachel sat up. “I’ve been waiting.”
          “And who’s this strapping young man?” Cheddar asked.
          “This… is Amanda’s Brother.”
          “Who’s Amanda?”
          “Whose party this is. You’ve met her before—she was at Halloween, remember? Made out with that black kid Tyler?” Rachel turned to me. “Are her and Tyler like?” She turned back to Cheddar before I could answer, “She’s got red hair…”
          “Oh. Oh! Hello! I love your house. I like homes like this. With a homely sort of feel to them? Not some loveless Mcmansion. But this place, you can feel it—there’s life here. People freaking live here, you know? Real people.”
          “Don’t be so sure,” I said quietly.
          “I think it’s tragic,” Rachel said. “The straightness. I feel like I’m in a sitcom.”
          “That’s because you’ve never had a home.” Cheddar said. “This home is real. You’ve confused the lie with the truth you’re so used to the lie.”
          “It’s true.” Rachel turned to me. “I wouldn’t know a home if I was sitting in the living room of one. I was born to a teenage mother with a heroin addiction. She tried to love me but only had room in her heart for the heroin. That’s what she named me. Heroin. She really loved heroin. Sang songs about it; I remember those songs—they were my nursery rhymes. But my foster parents changed my name to Rachel, which was also the name of their ferret.”
          “Which explains a lot,” Cheddar said. “That ferret keeps showing up in her dreams. Oh—
I’m her dream therapist, nice to meet you. I’m not licensed though; I’m obligated to say that.”
          “He’s helping me deal with the ferret. Also the one where I drop my car keys but can’t pick them up because my hands are giant cubes.”
          “The ferret is always popping up,” Cheddar said. “At the end of every dream, waits the ferret.”
          “Like right when I’m about to grab my keys, guess who jumps out of a dumpster and snatches them?”
          “I’m serious,” Rachel said, “Guess.”
          “The ferret?”
          “Wow, he’s good.” Rachel said. She smiled at Cheddar.
          “I’ve spent years of my life training as a dream therapist to do what you just did,” Cheddar said. “Amazing.”
          Just like that, I was the third wheel and I was flat. They were speaking their own language, exchanging lines of their own private play—and performing was what they were doing. I supposed the punch line might have been me—but it felt emptier than that. They played an esoteric, private game with no meaning, or target. I couldn’t tell whether they were lying or not—about the heroin thing, about the ferret thing. I could never really tell when someone was lying.
          Rachel stood up awkwardly, swinging her cast out of my lap. I felt naked and empty without the leg cast in my lap; I had come close to something great only for it to be snatched away. I felt like a silver medalist. I shifted, trying to hide my erection, which, in the absence of the weight of the college girl’s foot, was already whimpering, shrinking in defeat.
          I wasn’t willing to accept that she was getting away. If I could keep up with them—maybe she’s still interested? She hugged him, the one they called Cheddar, but I wasn’t getting a romantic vibe. They were sexless, blankly platonic; could have been brother and sister.
          Other kids crowded around Cheddar; ignored Rachel, but adored Cheddar. I realized later that this was because he was the man with the drugs. People like that man. He was a sort of celebrity. While Cheddar entertained them, Rachel whispered in my ear if there was a place private they could go? No no no—she assured me, seeing the disappointment on my face, she had her hand on my shoulder; she had green nail polish; her mouth was so big so close—not to fuck or anything. They had mushies and didn’t want to take them out in front of these vultures, for obvious reasons, they being vultures.
          Mushies? I thought. I realized that, in a careful way, she was inviting me to join them.
          Amanda and I had sealed off The Parents room, hanging crime scene tape across the door. That was the one major rule: no going in there. Everyone had been cool about it since it was the only rule. I had other rules but Amanda only had that one. Since my rules were being broken, I broke hers.
          It felt weird, bad, going in there: like I’d just cracked open an ancient tomb. I was violating something sacred. But I reminded myself that I didn’t give a fuck. I turned the light on to brush away the melancholic shadow that hung over the room like a noose, but the light was worse, somehow: in the absence of The Parents, their room was unbearably lifeless; haunted with the spirits of domestic failings, of a crumbled family—more a crumbled idea than an actual thing. We closed the door and the room took on an eerie sort of quiet, except for the muffled music (there were like 4 different songs playing from different parts of the house, combining into this dull omnipresent thumping) and hollering outside the door, and the air-conditioner blowing heavy above us. It was cold in there. It was like standing in a Raymond Carver story.
          “You have to,” Cheddar said, “everyone has to at least once. It’s a life changing experience. A lifesaving experience!” He was talking about hallucinogenic mushrooms. Shrooms, as he called them—or as the girls call them: mushies.
          “Cheddar really believes in the sanctity of psychedelics. He makes Timothy Leary look like a sceptic,” Rachel said.
          “What’s it like?” I asked. Was I really going to do this? Part of me knew it was a bad idea, but the idea of escaping myself—changing my inside, going to a world of rainbows and lights, and going there with Rachel… tripping together, maybe the mushrooms were like ecstasy? I imagined us lying in bed, whispering to each other. I wondered about my sister, what she would say. Definitely not a good idea Nick, I could hear her voice. Better let me confiscate these.
          “It’s not like in the movies,” Rachel said, “how people turn into lizards, or you hallucinate that a giant spider’s about to eat you.”
          “No,” Cheddar said. “The trip happens internally. That’s the misconception. People think psychedelics alter everything around you, but really they alter your inside. Remember you’re not hallucinating. You’re just finally seeing the real.”
          “The real?”
          “The truth, my man. That illusive thing. These—here—these are the key.”
          Rachel was already scarfing hers down, a disgusted cringe on her face. The mushrooms looked like shrunken little brains. I put one in my mouth. No going back now. “Gross, huh?” Rachel said.
          I shrugged, and ate another. “It doesn’t taste like anything, really.” It tasted like dirt, maybe. I ate the third one. “It tastes like old popcorn,” I said. “What if I have a bad trip?”
          “Don’t,” Rachel said. “Seriously, just don’t.”
          “Don’t fight it,” Cheddar said. “Whatever you do. Don’t fight. Give up control, just flow.”
          “A bad trip—you’re stuck in a nightmare,” Rachel just had to add. “It’s like your parents are slowly being skinned alive in front of you and there’s nothing you can do, but watch.”
          “Jeez,” I said, “thanks for that.”
          “Don’t freak him out,” Cheddar said. “No Bad Vibes. This is now a Bad Vibe-free zone.”
          The three of us waited, hung out in my parent’s room. We lay on the bed, elbow to elbow, my body against Rachel’s. I liked the feeling of her waist against mine. I bounced my shoe against her cast. It took about twenty minutes. “I’m starting to feel it,” Rachel said. “I feel like I’m glowing. Am I glowing, ha ha?” I was feeling it too. The nature of time was changing, distending—my first clue that eight hours of mushroom time was much, much longer. The clock ticked audibly, yet it was digital. I was melting. My body was expanding, like a puddle—my puddle mixing with hers. We were forming into one ticklish entity. I didn’t know what belonged to me and what was hers. I really liked this. Rachel was laughing in my ear, the laughter felt like a tongue licking me, and in my mind it was the laughter of a small child, a little girl, running around a sunny garden in a dream. The room had expanded—the distance between the bed and the TV was a great canyon, our feet hanging out over the edge, a steep drop. The ceiling would not stay put. Those little shapes became characters, cartoons. The stories began to unfold across the unfurling ceiling. Princess Peach smiled at me. I could hear the sound of men at work: hammers against stone. They were yelling to each other in Egyptian. They were digging under my pillowcase. The pyramids were being built inside my pillow! I realized Rachel was patting my chest. I was drooling. My heart grew wings and raged against my ribcage, its oppressor. It had to escape, my heart did. Cheddar was miles away on the other side of Rachel singing. Beautifully. Was he singing? Or chanting something, some ancient spell… Was Rachel glowing? I looked at her. Her face had tracers of previous faces—rapidly changing, shifting, morphing. She looked like a bull, like the bull on Wall Street. She huffed two big cartoon puffs of smoke from her nostrils. Rachel’s face rippled into a wide, lupine smile. A nightmarish pang went off like a clock at midnight, rang across the hollow room. And I knew that she was bad, bad and in my parent’s room. Oh no, I thought gravely. It was going bad already; I withered; I was losing control. Already. “Am I glowing?” she asked. Her eyes were demonic pupils the size of black moons. I had lost control.
          Here my memory gets blurry, convoluted. I remember Cheddar saying, “Whoa, relax.”
          I remember Rachel, a moon-sized face right next to mine, examining me, me in a state of stasis on the floor, saying, “I think he’s broken.”
          Somehow, I wound up in the bathroom, where I was lost for twenty years. I went in there to barf, and I did barf, and I looked at myself in the mirror and saw a dead me: skinny, pale, nothing but bones and a deflated mop of hair. I fell out of space-time. I saw twenty years into the future—the rest of my life. At age 35, I foresaw that I would die in a random, life-is-just-unlucky-sometimes car accident. Such an anticlimactic way to die; pointless, random—all those years spent hobbling around, searching for food and meaning, adding up to nothing. I saw everything for the hopeless terror it is. I bit into the truth. I’d lived my whole life thinking the world was ahead of me—that I’d wake up one morning, and be who I wanted to be. I was young and special, I thought, and good things were coming to me. But nothing was, really. I saw that in the mirror. The youthful illusion of tomorrow shattered, and I was really too young for that to shatter.
          I thought about my parents, who had abandoned me. And how our family was over, and how the world was.
          There was knocking on the door. Something malicious. Here to punish me. It was the cops and they were angry. I had to get out of there. No no it wasn’t the cops. The pigs were the least of my worries. Outside were demons who had attached themselves to the property after the family died. They were fire. The house was on fire. I stared up at the burning ceiling, saw the smoke rising in the black universe. It became very clear to me what I had to do; everything became clear, as I hid behind the toilet.
          “Whoa, Nick, what’re you doing?”
          I was pointing the fire extinguisher at the crowd. People were grabbing their coats, drugs, heading out the door. The house was on fire and I had to put it out. Kids stopped and looked at me, laughing, Alice in Wonderland cat grins on their faces. The fire extinguisher was big and red, its hose a trunk; it was a living thing, had a brain. Red—my smiling attack dog. “Get out!”
          Laughter, but they were leaving. I saw Rachel and Cheddar, they looked bewilderedly at me, and then at each other, and then they hurried out. My sister tiptoed toward me like a hostage negotiator. Whispering do not, do not, buddy. But Red and I knew what had to be done.
          “How do you use this thing?” I said. “Shoot,” I commanded. “Or do you not want to?” I asked Red. I didn’t know how to make him go.
          “Nick, get down from the fucking table before you fall.” Amanda grabbed the fire extinguisher—I tried to wrestle it from her, and tragically, in slow motion, I fell off the table and crashed down against the kitchen floor. It felt like I had fallen from an airplane holding a defunct parachute. It wasn’t that bad of a fall, in actuality—but I thought it had killed me: the clap of my shoulder against the floor: the creaky door of death opening.
          I hallucinated myself dead—floating up out of my body and toward a white light. There I saw my grandparents, and my goldfish Geronimo, and Jesus told me welcome to the party, and stuck his tongue into his nose and rolled his eyes up into his head and began to shuffle back and forth, a little dance. He made that face and did that dance for everyone who made it to Heaven. My parents were there, too. You guys are dead? ‘Fraid so, Dad said. But we’re happier now, Mom said. Much happier, Dad agreed.
          Now that we’re gone.
          Eventually we got the house cleared out, and it was only me and my sister left standing, hopeless survivors in a devastating mess. “This place is destroyed.”
          “I know,” Amanda said. I began to cry.
          The house was beyond repair—it looked like it had been the target of a drone strike. Cups and beer cans strewn everywhere, dirty dishes inhabited by nests of flies and maggots (there were no flies or maggots), the walls scribbled all over with anarchist and satanic graffiti (the walls hadn’t been touched), family heirlooms were stolen (nothing was stolen except for a stray twenty dollar bill from my Mom’s drawer, and I think I know who took it). Amanda held me and promised that we could fix it. “We can clean it,” she promised.
          “No we can’t,” I said. I was coming down from the nightmare trip, swollen with maudlin. So she got out the cleaning supplies. “Watch us,” she said. Together we started cleaning things up. This helped me. I was pouring my heart out to Amanda, telling her all the truths I had uncovered. She said later that she didn’t understand a word I was saying.
          “Mom and Dad are dead.”
          “Nick—what the fuck?”
          “I saw them. In heaven. So it’s good they’re there at least.”
          “No… They’re both fine, Nick. I’m the one who’s going to be dead when they get home. If you love me and want me to live out the remainder of my life in just a wheelchair or something, don’t tell them you took mushrooms? I seriously think they’d kick me out. I probably deserve to be. And I’m not blaming you for this, Nick. But I can’t believe you did that.”
          “I’m sorry.”
          “I don’t blame you and I’m not mad—well I am—but you’re in a safe place and I love you”—she’d been reading on the internet how to calm down someone who was having a bad trip—“but seriously? What were you thinking? You can’t do those kinds of drugs at your age. Your brain is still developing. It’s not healthy.”
          “You’re only three years older than me,” I reminded her.
          “Yeah but three years is a big difference. In the brain.” She pointed at her skull.
          “You’re an idiot,” I said.
          She hit me with the broom. That was nice. That was like something a brother and sister would do. “But I love you, though,” she said. “And you’re safe.” She hit me with the broom again.
          As I scrubbed not-there shoeprints from the floor, reality would fleetingly return. I remembered that my parents were getting a divorce: that was real and that was happening. It was almost relieving, to know that something was real and happening. “Will we keep the house?” I asked. “Do you think Dad will move into an apartment nearby or something? Or will Mom? Mom’s the one who always sleeps on the couch, so maybe she’ll be the one who moves out.”
          Amanda’s eyes were tired and morose. She only shrugged. I went outside and cleaned up an apple that had been debauched into a smoking device sitting on the back porch. When I came back in, Amanda said, “Do you remember when we stayed at Aunt Margaret’s house that summer. You were like seven, so maybe not?”
          “I do,” I said. “I do!” I was so happy to remember. I was once a child; I once existed.
          “We kept thinking they were going to send us home. But they never did,” Amanda said. We didn’t want to go home. Aunt Margaret had two kids that mirrored us: one was Amanda’s age, and one was mine. It was the world’s longest, greatest sleepover. “One night I overheard Aunt Marge talking on the phone with grandma. Turns out we were only there because things were pretty nasty between The Parents. Marge was talking about like a custody battle and… she said that she’d talked to Mom, and we were going to stay with her for the whole school year. That was plan. We’d go to school with Kyle and Sarah while The Parents got everything sorted out. I remember her talking about how Uncle Robby was going to beat up Dad, teach him a lesson. Don’t know what that was about, still don’t. That part really scared me, though.”
          I had stopped cleaning. I suddenly felt very sober. Amanda had stopped cleaning, too. “I tried to shrug it off,” Amanda said, “but a few minutes later I like broke down. I went downstairs and Aunt Margaret was watching TV. ‘Hi sweety,’ she said; she had no idea I’d overheard. She said, ‘I was going to talk to you and your brother about something—’ and I just burst out crying. I was a blubbering mess. Just pathetic. She kept asking me what was wrong, and I kept saying that I wanted to go home—I missed my mom and dad, my room, blah blah blah. I guess Margy relayed how homesick I was to Mom—probably told her she has to get her shit together, for our sake. And that, I guess, stalled the divorce. They missed us too, maybe. So the whole thing was swept under the rug.”
          “It’s easier to sweep things under the rug,” I said, uncovering another truth.
          “It is. And I would have stayed if I hadn’t overheard that phone call, you know? If I thought they were letting us stay because the schools were better in Washington or something? We’d have been a lot better off, I think. I mean look at us: I think we’re the worst case scenario.” She laughed, bitterly.
          “We would have come home eventually,” I said.
          My sister snores like my father. She also takes up the whole couch and so I moved to the floor, watching reruns of The Cosby Show. I was coming down from the drugs, but still couldn’t sleep. I knew that everything would be, at least, O.K., because of the building light behind the gray sick morning sky. The present had returned to me, mostly. I was still seeing things when I closed my eyes so I focused on the reruns. I realized that sitcoms were the best, most important thing ever. No one has truly understood the importance of sitcoms like I did in that moment. Because sitcoms, especially reruns, are always there. The sitcom family bravely confronts the American life head-on over the course of 22 minutes, taking breaks only for early-morning infomercials. At the end of the episode, the struggle will be resolved, and they, the sitcom family, will keep going, endlessly unbroken. Reset to their default state. How comforting.