Booming bass punches loudly through two uninsulated ceilings before connecting directly with David’s eardrums. He rises slowly and checks the digital alarm clock next to his bed – late o’clock. Sleeping in is one of Dave’s specialties, especially so ever since his best friend dropped his ass off a cliff. They were bros for years, through all of high school in fact, but he wanted to go to college and David didn’t. Neither of them wanted to be broke, but David didn’t want to accrue debt to maybe get money at some point down the road. David’s old friend was of a different opinion, so off the cliff David was dropped, plummeting through the darkness he was suddenly alone in until he landed on the soft, warm comfort of his mattress. He’s been sleeping ever since.
Yes, they say the first day is the hardest, but that first day can’t begin until you decide to get out of bed and face the world, which David wasn’t planning on doing until at least tomorrow. That way, he could skip the first day and get right onto the second day, time travel at its finest. But time travel – real time travel – seems to be impossible unless you’re a Time Lord… ah, they always watched Doctor Who together. They were the only ones in the school who liked that show. It was their show, and now, it’s just a show… a damn good show, but a show nonetheless.
And David is now alone in the warm, comfortable darkness of his bed, his body fitting snugly in the depression it sunk into the memory foam as he slept dreamlessly through the night.
Yet the bass continues to boom, continues to kick and punch. That means Dave’s parents probably aren’t home, which is a good look. His parents will want to know how the hike went last night, because even though they were bros for almost four years – as in, every single year of high school, the only friendship in their grade to pull it off, and thank you for the superlative – his parents always asked how the night hikes went. Because they care about David, evidently unlike he did. David can’t even bear to think of dude’s name, it’s too much, it’s too painful.
‘Spencer,’ whispers his mind, the sound of a ghost creeping out of a closet.
“God fucking damnit,” David moans into his pillowcase. He comes up for a breath of air, then, “I don’t understand, God. I just don’t understand.” But he does. Spencer laid it out for him – David clearly has no aspirations for the future. David doesn’t want to go anywhere with his life, not like Spencer does. David’s okay with staying in his hometown, he’s okay with becoming a good ol’ boy and living with his parents well into his forties in their house with the dirt driveway – the unpaved dirt driveway – in that shithole of a house with no ceilings and no doors on half the hinges. David’s okay with being poor, but Spencer isn’t. Not anymore, not when he has a chance to go away to some college and get a magic piece of paper that’ll solve all of his problems. Not when he can make something of himself.
In truth, David isn’t okay with being poor either. He doesn’t want to be poor David all his life, and he doesn’t plan to be, just like he doesn’t plan to go to college to make something of himself. For all they know, some totally unexpected event – like, say, a global pandemic breaking out, some kind of flu-like thing, maybe – could happen, effectively shutting society down and making a college degree just a piece of paper, worthless unless you need to start a fire, and in that case, it’s only worth the paper it’s printed on if you have some kindling gathered up. But David was okay with being poor at the moment, because he wasn’t just poor David. He was part of a poor us, and that’s what made it okay. Now the only us he’s part of is that of his bed and his pillow, but as they say, three’s a crowd. And the bass keeps booming.
So he might as well get up and take the suck like a man, lest it take him instead.
The song ends and Cooper lets the weights rest for a moment. His muscles are burning like he’s been stuck with live wires, the sweat pours from his pores like a torrential rainstorm, and the rage, the permanent sheen of red constantly present behind the backs of his eyes, is about as scarlet as ever.
A rapper by the stage name of JL warns the listener to hit fast forward if they’re listening in the car with their kids, because this is not the fucking song. Little does JL know, this is just the fucking song, Cooper’s favorite fucking song, and as the beat starts, so too do the weight plates begin to rise.
“Fuck this/Fuck off of me/Fuck off/Don’t fucking talk to me!”
Cooper begins to sing along.
“Fuck you mean What the fuck wrong with me? Fuck that, quit fucking callin’ me! FUCK!”
The weights slam with a metallic clank at the CK of this last expletive. Cooper breathes hard and his left hand flies to his right arm. He went too hard again, he pulled his fucking muscle. Again. He always goes hard when Fuck Everything comes on, he hardly has a choice. It speaks to him, that song, that wonderful piece of poetry set to rhythm and shouted into a studio microphone – it’s Cooper’s song, and nobody will ever take it from him. Nobody in his grade listens to Strange Music, nobody fucks with artists who make music because they love to make music, artists who do it for the love of the craft and nothing else. Everybody else is fake as fuck, and so they only fuck with shitty mainstream musicians.
Nobody in his grade fucks with Cooper either, not even that weird Liam kid. They didn’t in eighth grade, they didn’t his whole freshman year, and they’re probably never going to. Maybe that’s why Cooper is so angry all the time: it’s all everyone else’s fault.
But it doesn’t matter. Nothing matters in this world to Cooper, this world is a shithole just like his house, except for the basement. Cooper found a bunch of cheap weightlifting equipment for sale online and stocked the basement full, he fixed the basement. It’s Cooper’s fucking basement, and fuck anybody who thinks they can come and fucking take it from him. He’ll fight them first, and he’ll fucking win.
Cooper grabs the handles of the machine with white knuckles and tries to push, tries to lift the seven plates he’s anchored to the cable, but they don’t budge. His bicep hurts too much, he’s fucked up. His whole fucking day is fucked up.
A thumping walks across the ceiling above him, great. This day is only getting worse and worse, just Cooper’s fucking luck. JL shouts, “Matter of fact, fuck EVERYTHING!” bringing an end to the tune. Cooper gets up and turns off his speaker, if only so his brother doesn’t do it for him when he gets down here.
Cooper’s brother David is the only one who doesn’t infuriate Cooper because David always looks out for Cooper. David was a senior this past year, and he always made sure Cooper had friends to sit with at lunch. David is a Stranger, too. David is cool, David fucks with Cooper, and now David has to see Cooper with a pulled muscle like the dumb little asshole he is. But maybe David won’t laugh at him, there’s always a chance that Cooper’s buried himself inside his head again, and that’s why Cooper greets David with a neutral, if not a bit haggard and out of breath, “Sup,” when David walks into Cooper’s weight room.
“Hey man, you pumping iron?”
Cooper lets his breathing and the sour smell of sweat on the air answer for him.
“Word. Hey uh, listen. You doing anything today?”
After the bead of sweat falls off the tip of his red nose, Cooper looks up. “Nah, just pulled my fuckin’ muscle. Can’t even fuckin’ work out right. I fuckin’ hate it here, man. I fuckin’ hate it here so much.”
“Yeah man, I know…” David says, rubbing the back of his head with his left hand. His right hand, which Cooper just notices now, is tucked behind his back. “So uh, you don’t have anything goin’ on?”
Hesitation. “What’s behind your back?”
David gives a little smile. He reveals a plastic box filled with old fishing tackle – bobbers, flies, free hooks, and hooks attached to lures. “You wanna take a walk down to the res’ and cast a line or two?”
His eyes narrow, Cooper barks, “Don’t you have plans with Spencer today? I don’t want to get in the way of anything.”
David’s little smile shrinks into a stale flatness. “No uh, we actually… broke up? Yeah, I guess you could say we broke up last night. That’s really weird, now that I think about it. But uh, I was gonna stay in bed all day, but I thought that’d just make it worse. So… wanna go?”
Cooper thinks about it. Then, “Sure, why not? Lemme just get changed first.”
The smile is back, as little as ever. “Word, I’ll start my car. We’ll drive up to the pond so we don’t have to walk up the road.”
Dave and Coop’
David throws the backpack into the back seat and shuts the door. He plops into the driver’s seat but leaves the door open – it’s not swelteringly hot out today but the sun is shining, and a shining sun always turns his car into an incubator. His parents warned him that black cars will get like that in the sun, but this one was just so cheap and so available. Besides, it wasn’t like he was going to get another chance to buy a car. At least the air conditioner works.
By the time Cooper comes outside – he changed into jeans and a shirt with sleeves, probably a good move – the car is no longer a hotbox and David’s closed himself and the A/C in. Cooper ducks into the passenger seat and throws a CD into the slot.
“We’re just going up the road, dude,” David says.
“I know,” Cooper says, back on the defensive. “We’ve gotta come back, though. What, do you not like DIBKIS anymore?”
“Nah, album’s great. Never mind.”
They’re off. About forty-five seconds of JL spitting Strange the World plays before the brothers get to the back end of the road where Fricker merges onto a long dirt path called Barnstatter, then they get another fifteen seconds as David swings the car around and pulls up next to the chain gate on the side of the road, the same spot him and Spencer always used to park for their night hikes and daytime powwows. Dave and Coop’ don’t come up here much – not nearly as much as Dave and Spence’ did – but they know the trails well enough. Some crazy dude who used to live on the road carved out the majority of them, but David never got a chance to meet him. His family moved away a while ago. There was a rumor that the guy went missing, but it was probably just a rumor – in small towns like Treeburg, rumors fly faster than the birds.
Cooper offers to carry the fishing backpack, but David doesn’t let him. “It’s not that heavy,” he says, but that only makes Cooper insist more. “Nah man, you’ve gotta save your strength for the casting. I want us to catch something today, something big.”
They take the old logging road – the long and wide trail the crazy dude didn’t carve, although he laid down logs on either side of it to make it look all nice – down to the four-way intersection at the bottom of an excruciatingly rocky hill, then keep right. The trail gets swampier the further they go, and they have to divert through the beech trees lining the trail a few times, but after they take a left at an especially muddy triangle of intersecting trails, the path rises up from the lowlands and plateaus out. They walk between two tall mountains, one named Board and one named Bear, then take a pause where the trail starts to descend again.
“You want any water?” David asks as he slings the pack off his shoulders.
They drink a full bottle each, crush the containers, and store ‘em back in the pack.
“You mind if I sprint it?” Cooper asks before the backpack is even back on David’s back.
David smiles. “Still got some energy left over, huh?”
“Always,” Cooper says confidently, then promptly takes off down the trail. This part of the trail resembles a dried out riverbed; the walls are about two or three feet high on each side, and when he’s motivated to do so (meaning whenever he comes out here), Cooper likes to run it like he’s skateboarding on a halfpipe: going up on one side, catching far more air than one should be catching whilst trail running, and then miraculously landing on his feet to do the other side the same. He doesn’t do any crazy tricks today, but he does run on the walls like Sonic the Hedgehog a few times, and David waits until his brother is out of sight to start walking. He taught Cooper how to run on the walls, how to trail run in general; it does his heart good to see the boy in action. He also tried to teach Spencer, but Spencer was never really into it.
It dawns on David that Spencer was probably never really into their friendship, either. ‘Why else would he just drop me like that? He never cared about money before. Hell, he was the one who’d always ask to borrow money for bud. I don’t think we ever even hung out sober, like, what the fuck?’
Then, after tightening the straps, David begins to run too. And he runs up the walls like he was skateboarding on a halfpipe. And he catches air. And, miraculously, he lands on his feet every time.
David arrives at the leafy flatlands by the water hardly a minute after Cooper gets there. Both of them are doubled over, breathing hard trying to catch their breaths, which proves to be a challenge after running their legs into a state of jellification. After more than a few minutes of inhales and exhales, they both look up at each other at the same time and laugh.
“Haven’t done that in a while,” David says, his hands still firmly on his knees.
“Yeah, I know dude. It’s a shame, too.” Cooper stands up and stretches his arms to the sky, ignoring the pained tingle in his right arm. “You taught me all I know.”
“Yeah,” two breaths, “just don’t tell Mom or Dad, they don’t love that I do it. They’d kick me in my ass if they knew I spread the plague to you.”
They laugh again. Then, Cooper asks, “Why’d you stop doin’ it?”
David stands, his breath caught. “Well, I tried to get Spencer into it, but he never really took. He wasn’t into a lot of stuff I used to like to do. Still like to do, probably.” A silence passes as gears click and churn within the neurological machinery. “Hey man, do yourself a favor.”
“What’s that?” Cooper asks, intrigued.
“Don’t make friends with randoms in high school.”
“I mean… no? I’m definitely gonna make at least one friend before I get out of that bum-ass high school, man. After all, I’m gonna need a plug.”
David raises an eyebrow. “And what could you possibly mean by that?”
Cooper rolls his eyes wildly as he starts off towards the water. “The walls in our house are barely insulated, dude, and they sure as hell ain’t smellproof.”
David flushes, his cheeks burning like rosebuds. “Yeah well, they aren’t soundproof either! You woke me up with your music this morning.” He approaches his brother and slings an arm over him. “Thanks for that, by the way. Seriously. I don’t know that I would have gotten up otherwise.”
Cooper shrugs his brother’s arm off and elbows him softly. “Yeah yeah yeah, just don’t go askin’ me for dime bags. I know you’re without a smoking buddy now, but come on.”
They laugh again; there’s nothing quite like the love between two brothers, two real brothers, period, end of statement. David loosens his backpack’s straps and lets the raggedy old thing fall to the ground. He opens the top and pulls out two extendable fishing rods, handing one off to Cooper, who pinches the handle between his legs and extends the pole with his left arm while David extends his like a normal human being.
“I don’t know how I’m gonna reel anything in bro, my fuckin’ arm is killing me.”
David smirks. “I wouldn’t worry about that, my dude – we’re going fishing, not catching.” He helps Cooper get one of the lures from the box set up on the end of his line, then sets himself up as Coop’ watches.
“You ready, brotha? Whatever we catch we’ll take home and cook.”
“Isn’t dad making dinner tonight?”
David shrugs. “Probably, but fresh caught is always delicious. You down with that, little bro?”
Cooper smiles – for the first time in literally weeks, he smiles – and nods his head.
And so they cast their lines.
And so they reel them back in with nothing on the hooks but soggy strands of coontail weeds.
And so they cast their lines again.
The brothers wind up staying down by the res’ until dusk. Cooper didn’t want to be caught walking back at night, but he didn’t say anything to his brother. He didn’t want to seem like a weenie, if he seemed like a weenie his brother might stop fucking with him. And if that happened, there wouldn’t be anyone left except his parents, and they’re the biggest weenies of them all… but still, it’s getting so dark out.
“Hey Dave?” Cooper asks, reeling his line in.
“Wassup man?” Dave has since changed from a surfboard lure to a bobber with a hooked worm.
“Can we uh, can we go back? It’s getting kind of late, I don’t think we’re going to catch anything.”
David shrugs. “Yeah, sure. I’m not gonna lie, I only haven’t said anything because I’ve been dreading walking back up that hill we ran. Here,” he says, handing Cooper his pole. “Wrap mine up and gimme yours, I wanna take one more cast.”
“Because I’m still dreading walking back up that hill we ran. Shit’s steep, dude.”
They share a laugh, the very last laugh they will ever share, quite possibly the very last laugh Cooper will ever experience, but we’re getting a little ahead of ourselves, aren’t we? After being loaded with a worm, the lure, a little greenback jobbie with black spots that almost resembles a fish, hits the water, and David counts to ten in his head to let it sink. Then, he begins to reel, slowly at first.
Cooper, with the handle of the pole in his left hand, angles the thin end perpendicular against a tree and then walks the pole into collapsed form. He caps it with the hard plastic thing that keeps it from… well, it doesn’t keep it from opening up by itself, because there are no springs in the pole. Cooper’s not really sure what the cap is for… maybe to keep it intact when it’s in the backpack?
“Hey dude,” he asks, turning back towards the water. “What’s the cap for?”
“Whah?” David says. “I dunno, probably just for the sake of being there. Kind of like I was to Spencer.”
“Oof,” says Cooper, and he smiles again.
Then, something almost rips the pole from David’s hands.
“Woah!” he shouts, falling back on his ass for leverage. “Yo, I think I got something, dude! It’s fuckin’ big!”
Cooper runs to the backpack, throws the pole inside, and pulls out the folding knife his Dad probably didn’t realize he left in the bag the last time he took it down here. He snaps it open and grips it so the blade extends outwards from his curled pinky finger, just like a knife fighter. “Reel it in, David! We’ll gut that fucker like a fish and eat its ass for dinner!”
“It is a fish, ya nut, and I’m trying!” David isn’t lying either – his hand is spinning like the tires of his car rolling up Fricker, the collapsible fishing pole is bent like the crescent moon under which Spencer unceremoniously ended their friendship last night– in the same spot they first smoked weed together, too! Heartless! – and the Wanaque’s waters are rumbling like their house when Cooper was working out this morning.
“It’s comin’… it’s comin’… I got ih–”
A moment of silence as his eyes grow wide and his bottom jaw droops low. “What the fuck is that?!”
Cooper isn’t totally sure, as it’s difficult to see under the light of the rising moon, but it almost looks like a fish. Not a lake fish, but some terrible deformed thing living at the bottom of a deep-sea trench. Its eyes are bulbous, empty, and a ghostly pale, its skin is orange in between the bones, and the bones – the everbleached bones of the thing! – are on the outside of its body. It has teeth longer than the blade of Cooper’s knife, and squirming out from beneath its gills like the worm on the hook of David’s fishing lure are a whole mess of writhing black tentacles. It stands tall over the water, its body legless and armless with trillions of tiny little fins arranged like the scales should be if this thing even had scales. The boys don’t know what to do, they’re paralyzed with fear – how fucking long has this thing (which will be referred to as The Serpent by Cooper when he finally sees a therapist about this grim fishing trip) been living in the Wanaque Reservoir?!
A thought dawns in David’s head, the last thought he’ll ever think: ‘Is this why trespassing in the Wanaque is so illegal? Is it because of this thing?’
As if it heard him, The Serpent opens its mouth and screams a terrible banshee’s wail. One of its tentacles, a particularly plump and juicy one, extends out like the fishing poles and wraps itself around David’s neck.
Then, David is gone, lurched into the water without time to even yelp.
Then, Cooper is alone in the darkness.
Then, Cooper is fucking angry, and the darkness assumes a reddish tint.
He sprints into the water, gripping the knife so hard that his knuckles are as white as The Serpent’s bones, and wades through the shallows until he can dive into the depths. It’s so dark, the water is so murky, but he opens his eyes anyway and through the sting of the sand and grit he sees what looks like the creature’s tail, and he stabs it. Cooper stabs it over and over and over again, putting more holes in the fucker than a slice of swiss cheese, all the while screaming, “Give me back my fucking brother you piece of fucking shit!” but the thing is not moving. It’s not flinching, not recoiling, it… it’s a piece of wood. Cooper is assaulting a fucking sunken log.
Cooper bursts through the water’s surface and gasps for air, his lungs burning like David’s cheeks when Cooper called him out for smoking in the house. He starts to flail, he punches and stabs the water, his pulled bicep tries to get him to stop but he doesn’t listen – not until he realizes that The Serpent is still in the water with him, and that all this commotion might just attract it back.
When Cooper hits dry land, he doesn’t stop running until he’s all the way up that hill David was dreading so much. He realizes he forgot the backpack, but it doesn’t matter, it’s too late. He has to get home, he has to tell his parents. He has to get out of these fucking woods.
Cooper rips down the trails just like his brother taught him to, praying David left the keys in the car so he can get his autographed DIBKIS CD that David got him as a birthday present, praying that his parents are home, praying against reality that his older brother doesn’t meet the same fate as the older Johnson brother who went missing in these woods, too.
Alone in the darkness Cooper prays and prays and prays, and is only answered by the heavy beating of his heart, the mad thumps punching loudly through his ribcage like booming bass through uninsulated ceilings.