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The room was dim, save for a lone dirty window filtering the daylight in clumps. Smoking incense twisted lazily upwards to cloak the posters of half-naked women taped across his ceiling, leaving behind dreamy impressions of deformed figures in the air. I took a hesitant step forward, the rain that had pooled in my heels squelching about with the movement. Not wanting any more unnecessary noise, the boy before me gestured I sit across from him upon the floor. I did as instructed, my vision straining to make out his expression through the darkness and the drifts of ashen smoke emanating from the tray between us.
There was always something between us, it seemed.
“How was it?” he drawled, voice slurred through the joint he held up to his lips. If there was anything about his habits that got to me, it was that incessant smell of drugs ever present when he was in the room. My fingers trailed his matted carpet, paying little heed to the dirt and dust they kicked up.
He was, of course, referring to the funeral. Andy’s funeral. Some people found it odd that I referred to my uncle by his first name, but he was only eight years older than me. And he had insisted on it being no other way.
The image of him existing within the Earth brought with it a serrated pain. His pills had been precious friends to him; he had chosen them over college, over a future. But they had betrayed him, sedated him to an almost unbreakable state of sub consciousness, and held him under until the bubbles stopped.
Michael exhaled finally, the pent up air in his lungs swirling about, clotting together with that of the incense, to rise and fan out across the ceiling.
“The usual,” I replied, voice tight. I didn’t want to breathe in any more of that foul smoke than I had to. The smell was repulsive, a strange mixture of earth and something else, that something else being something I could never quite put a finger on. Nevertheless, I was sure it wasn't anything good.
The boy before me made a noise of acknowledgment, and for a moment, the light from the window illuminated the pale nameplate still remaining from church yesterday morning. Michael. The end of his joint glowed a neon red, the embers slowly fading to black. The dark smile was evident upon his face as he admonished a dry sort of "What's that supposed to mean?"
It wasn't an easy question to answer. My whole family, conglomerated into clusters of sobbing, hysterical sirens, wailing their songs of sorrow that pulled everyone else in, until not a soul was present without liquid loss falling from their eyes. I hated it, hated being the only person not able to cry no matter the hurt. Of course Andy's loss left a yawning abyss in my heart, of course I was distraught. I couldn't force myself to cry over the man who had selfishly ruined his life, paying no attention to the chaos that was to follow. Unlike them, I didn’t want to wallow in my self-pity. It was one thing to lose him, and entirely another to lose myself in the aftershock of his loss.
"Funerals aren't discernable from one another," I answered plainly. The boy paused, and it was quite evident that he had no idea what 'discernable' meant. More incense pooled about his wrinkled blue button down, the once ironed khakis he wore more fitting of a homeless man than the middle-class boy who wore them.
It was queer, seeing such a drastic change in a boy I had known so well. We had spent whole summers together, spent whole days playing The Sims in my grandmother’s basement, or egging the alleged pedophile who lived down the street (a stupid thing to do, we would realize later on). I had loved him as a brother, as the elder brother I had never had. The fact that he was almost eleven and I was almost nine never made any difference to us; they were merely numbers, and those were for math, a part of school we were happy to abandon at the last bell.
But this boy who sucked his joint dry, whose arms had rough, dangerous intercourse with heroin needles, was not my older brother. It wasn’t Michael. I barely knew the boy in front of me.
"Reckon so," he managed, eyes heavily lidded as he stood. In his baggy clothes, he looked the king of all the chaos around him, the Red Tide baseball cap so crumpled on the floor his forsaken crown. "You sad to leave Bama?"
"No," I said without placing much cognizant thought into his words. The smoke around me was disorienting, and my eyes were beginning to water. The boy before me took a step forward, his shoe kicking up more dust and smoke as he did. Did his mother simply not bother vacuuming his room anymore? Or had Shari chosen to ignore the smoke that cloaked every surface of the room, the smoke that embedded itself in the mossy carpet? Unfortunately, the latter seemed more probable than any other option.
The boy dropped his joint to the carpet, grinding it out with the heel of his loafers. A smell of human sweat and day-old deodorant flooded my senses, poignant and stale. The taste of smoke in my mouth was almost unbearable, but I couldn't gather up the courage to move. Michael's frame was between my body and the door, and in this state, I couldn't trust him.
Why had I come here? I could have Facebook messaged him goodbye, not that he ever got on. I could have sent him a text, though his phone was locked in Shari's safe box, for he had been grounded ever since April for a DWI charge he refused to tell me about.
"I see what's going on," he purred, a strange tone overtaking his voice. He sounded almost smug. "You think 'cause you went to Arkansas, you're better than we are down here."
I shook my head lamely, and I felt my fingers begin to tremble. Shari wasn't even home. No matter what happened, I was on my own with this baked lunatic who was lumbering closer with each step.
"What's wrong with us, Claire?" That name. He refused to call me by my first name, deigning any name he didn't know how to spell futile. Almost everyone who knew me in Alabama called me Claire, too, just because of one boy's ignorance. I loathed it. "Is it the way we talk?" He stood before me, and my eyes fixated on the tears in his old Levis. They were inches away from my face. Suddenly, rough and calloused fingers ran their way through my hair. His hands gripped at stray tendrils, no doubt causing my hair to stick up in horrible disarray. "You used to talk like this too, Claire."
This had been foolish, this entire endeavor. I shouldn't have come to see him; I had seen how he was now all summer. Even my grandparents had noticed his behavior change. He wasn't the straight A-student from elementary school. His girlfriend had more piercings than she had hairs on her head (which were blonde, pink, and spiked). His friends jeered at girls who walked down the road, laughing and pointing out the imperfections of girls they had known since grade school. I wondered what they would have said about me, were I not a friend of Michael's.
"It isn't that," I managed finally, rolling to the side to shy away from his unwanted touch. When had it become unwanted? I stood up, back erect as I took in his form. His arms were scarred and pocked with love bites from the fights he so frequently indulged in, from the needles his biceps made love to. Life for Michael had become one unyielding masochistic tango. It was amazing how one year could change a person so drastically.
"What happened to you?"
The words were out before my brain could filter them, and in that moment, all that was heard was the slight fizzle of the incense, and at last, I noticed that The Doobie Brothers had been playing in the background the entirety of my stay. His coal black irises dilated, bittersweet ruins of what had once been a pale blue. All the time he had spent buried in his room was finally catching up with his physical features.
And in the darkness, the sunken face was no longer Michael’s. I saw my uncle in his eyes, in the way he held himself. It was as if their lives had become one in the same, intertwining together until they themselves were indiscernible. Andy in the smoke filled room, Michael wasting away beneath the ground. An animalistic wail bubbled in the pit of my stomach, but I refused to give him the satisfaction that I still cared.
Instead of responding immediately, he sank onto his worn grey futon, accidentally knocking an old bottle of A&W to the ground, to lay crumpled next to an ancient Milo's bag and several mix CDs. His eyes glazed over.
"You should head home. Your folks are probably wondering where you been."
The air was saturated with unspoken truths, things once said could never be taken back. I still loved Michael. He was the older brother I had never had. But he had taken the remainder of my childhood that summer, chewed it up, and spat, as easily as he would the Snuff he carried around in his back pocket.
My heels made the familiar squelching noise as I left his bedroom, and for the briefest of moments, I thought I heard a familiar sort of laugh emanate from the proximity of his futon.
But looking back, I realize it was probably just the smoke of the incense finally getting to me.