People never pay attention to how their body works, until suddenly it doesn’t. Then they really feel conscious of how bizarre and miraculous and utterly strange that thing is. That thing that imprisons their soul, that throbs and pulses and sweats, that breathes and itches and gurgles and snots and shits. Then they know-when something’s wrong. Then maybe they pay attention and, if they’re not too consumed with fear, they try to do something about it. Of course, sick people are in touch with this reality every minute of every day. Illness connects them to their malfunctioning bodies’ skewed rhythms in ways that health nuts and appearance fetishists will never ever know. The reality of fragile impermanence. The irrefutable truth that this blip of existence is absolutely transient.
Soundtrack (mp3): ‘Leave the Rest in Ruins’ by Low Tide
I’m acutely in tune with this very concept as soon as I surface into consciousness, slouching sideways in the Civic’s driver seat. It’s not a particularly original thought process, but I’m not lucid enough to think up anything new, so I guess my brain decides to run the first accessible, relevant old file. I’ve only been awake for a few minutes, but scrambled migraine is the only breakfast item on the menu; my headache is still going strong, unharmed by sleep, omnisciently reverberating through my skull like an infinite echo chamber.
The car’s stereo clock is blinking as if it’s been reset, and its flickering digital lights are hard to ignore in the feeble light of the hotel parking garage. The clock says 12:15, but it feels later than that. The intricate, easily destructible components inside the tape deck are a little too easy to identify with right now, but at least I’m grasping the essentials of their (and therefore my) corporeal reality. I have no idea how long I’ve been out; for all I know, the birthday party is still raging upstairs, and dangerously violent predators are still in charge.
That thought is enough to kick the self-preservation reflex into gear, and I consider fleeing the scene immediately. Yeah, why not go home? Driving will be tough, but I think I can do it. I could leave right now. I should leave right now, or at the very least, try to get up and find a phone to call the cops, or-I can’t believe I’m thinking this-maybe an ambulance; every time I close my eyes for longer than three seconds, I can see blood vessels slamming against my eyelids, syncopated opposite the steady beating of my skull. One hideously bad jolt adds more stars to a place they didn’t used to be, and I have to go back over it all again. Call who? Phone. Cops. 911. Kelley. Ambulance. Something like that?
Horrible predicaments like this makes clarity an expensive luxury. I have to plan out every move so as to endure the least discomfort from more treacherous locomotion. Getting out of the car and standing upright becomes a ninety-nine step process, with some of them repeated due to pathetic initial failure. Eventually it happens, though, and the door gets locked, so I slooooowly turn around and focus on a target across the garage: an elevator. I stagger over like a lesser primate, push the little “up” arrow, and am greeted by a melodramatically ditzy WHOOSH-ding!
When I walk inside I’m stopped short by a major problem: the panel has about fifteen lights pretending to be buttons, but I can’t remember if “1” is the lobby or the garage level. There’s only one way to find out, but as I reach for the button another cerebral tsunami hits and I crumble in pain. Then the doors close and everything begins to hum, transubstantiating my internal organs away from their usual coordinates. I finally glance back up at the panel and notice the “4” button is lit, but before I can remember what floor the party’s on another cheery WHOOSH-ding! sounds and I’m no longer alone.
“Derek?” Olivia’s voice is shaking a little as she and R.J. drag a wet sack of carbon that looks like Roy into the elevator. He seems to be hovering between mental levels, in a similar manner to myself. He’s also semi-conscious and smelling a little like puke, but that’s all I can take in before R.J. breaks through my constant cranial sub-woofer soundtrack.
“Fucking hell, Derek, give me a hand and close the door!” I move to help, glancing at Liv for confirmation.
“Hold his head up,” she says, “or else he’ll get even dizzier.”
R.J. shakes his head. “No no, we have to make sure he’s pointing at the ground in case he barfs again.” Liv shrugs, pushes a button and we all move through space.
“Wait,” I say, “I need to find a phone. I need to…to call 911 or…or something.”
“What? Why?” Liv’s voice gets even sharper. As we descend I explain everything, unfiltered: the headaches, the soccer-game collision with Roy, and then-because, well, fuck it-I spill about the detective who was supposed to back me up tonight, and how “he’s actually trying to bust your cousins about…oh, fuck it, I can’t remember…like, extortion or drugs…or something-” but then I stop and double over when another massive wave of pain crashes down, “-and this goddamn headache, Roy! It’s your fucking fault!”
Liv is suddenly very pale. “What cop? Where? When?” Well, he’s not coming and I just don’t give a shit, so I tell her “the guy that hired your brother, the guy from the OC Sheriff’s office, you know?” She thinks for a second, says “I know” with a little too much calm certainty, and both R.J. and I stare at her for different discombobulated reasons.
“Of course I do. Listen, Derek, there’s no time to do any of that-phonecalls or whatever. Seriously, my cousins are still upstairs-I hope-keeping my birthday guests under control, and they’re, well, they’re waiting for you, okay? They’re still angry about that…um…thing, with my sister.” The elevator doors open and Liv grimaces as we drag Roy toward my car. “In fact,” she continues, “they could be down any minute. They were awfully curious about how el Borrachito here would be getting home.”
R.J. does a double take, but says nothing, and my head hurts a little more; if Justin or Christian Addison has figured out that Roy came into town without Amtrak’s help, they’ll know who his round-trip chauffeur is. Liv jerks her head at Roy’s dead weight. “They did a number on him. Didn’t mean to. They don’t really even know him, but he was going nuts up there. You saw that.”
I open the Civic’s back door and R.J. fails to fully hoist his older brother in, so I try to help, with little success. Olivia is digging in her jeans pocket for something. “You seem pretty out of it, Derek. Can you drive?”
“I was..hoping to-maybe to a hospital? But…”
“Are you sober?” She opens her palm, in which reside two tiny blue pills. “Here,” she says, “take these, and you’ll be together enough to drive. You’ll stay awake enough to get yourselves home.”
“Home is, like, three hours away, Liv.”
“What? No no, I meant ‘to your parents’ place,’ I guess. You weren’t gonna drive back to school tonight, were you?”
I begin to say no, I wasn’t really gonna drive anywhere, but then I think that a little on PCH, and then up Golden Lantern a few blocks to Mom’s, seems infinitely easier than blundering around for the hospital-never mind to Santa Barbara. Before I can finish, she puts the pills in my palm and closes it on them.
“What is that? Like, speed?”
“Dexedrine. It’ll keep you awake, Derek. Just long enough, okay? I’d drive you myself, but I can’t-I’m not sober.”
She could have fooled me. Dexedrine? Shit. I look at R.J. inquiringly. “Dude, aren’t you, um, sixteen?”
He smirks. “My friend Alan drove me. He took Roy’s girlfriend home just now, and I’m waiting for him to come back. Believe me, man, I’m not thrilled with the idea of dumping my brother in the car of a speed-addled headcase.”
WHOOSH-ding! goes the elevator off in the distance, but by the time I look over there, way across the parking garage, the doors have closed again. Visions of sandy-blonde surfer-thugs dance in my head and I swallow both pills in a quick and graceless motion. Liv isn’t looking but she seems to know I’d do it. R.J. is looking, though, and he’s getting angrier.
“Are you fucking crazy? What did I just say? You driving wasn’t exactly part of my plan, Derek.” R.J. snatches my keys off my belt loop, unlocks the Civic, and all three of us haul Roy’s semi-conscious form into the back seat.
Then R.J. tries to stuff my keys in his pocket but they just fall onto the floor near Roy’s hand, behind the passenger seat. R.J.’s so angry now that he doesn’t even notice. “Don’t go anywhere without me,” he commands. “I’m gonna drive you two home-here in town- cause I haven’t had a drop since my brother went berserk two hours ago.” He closes the door on Roy and starts walking back toward the elevator.
“Wait-where are you going now?” I ask, as Liv turns to follow. R.J. looks back at me sternly. “Roy’s bag is still up there, plus two bottles of unopened wine that we liberated from my stepdad’s pantry. Once we realized he’d miss them, it was too late to go home, but I can’t just leave them up there, can I? Andrew will be angry enough about Roy as it is.”
“They’re probably gone already,” says Liv from the elevator. “If you want to rescue them, you’d better hurry.” R.J. runs to meet her and the doors close on them both with another WHOOSH, one that’s echoed by a similar sound coursing though my nervous system, and I’m suddenly, maniacally alert. Oh God. She gave me speed. I mean, I took it. Oh God Oh God OhMyGod OhMyGod. I’m leaning against the car with a fucking riot beginning in my skull and stock cars revving up in my veins. Or nerves. Or somewhere-wherever the hell speed goes.
Snap out of it, motherfucker. Get your goddamn shit together. It’s a stupid pep talk but-miraculously-I manage to breathe easier. It is just enough, although the fear’s spiraling upward now and I can almost hear their footsteps running from across the gloomy garage. They don’t say anything-maybe they’ve evolved to the point where vocalized rage is inessential, so my mind’s eye is still pretty fucking surprised when two bleached male heads weave expertly through the parked cars toward me. The two older Addison brothers are moving with electric speed, and instinct is all I’m running on when I jam myself into the Civic without thinking and snatch up the keys.
Now they’re yelling, the bastards, the sound of their voices muffled and devolved as it bounces around the around the car. I picture Christian closing fast, though, so I try not to panic as I start the car and reverse quickly, almost right into his path. He swerves slightly but the Civic still clips him, and now he’s flailing wildly but there’s nothing for him to hang on to as I gun it and snake through the garage at a speed that would scare me shitless if I were…normal?
Fuck that-I don’t have any time to think about what’s wrong with this picture-and as I lurch onto PCH Roy’s muffled snores float up from the back seat. My heart is fucking flying now, but I just drive, trying to chill and cruise effortlessly up the road to the Golden Lantern light. Signal. Wait. Turn right. Change lanes. Up another hill. La Cresta stoplight. It’s easier than I expected. Selva stoplight. Up and up. Stonehill’s green, and so is Acapulco…
…and maybe I can handle the big drive tonight after all. Slash and burn all the way up Golden Lantern, Moulton, and Irvine Center to the 5 and 101, then to school. Just keep going. Ignore the headache. Ignore the racing heart. Stay cool and keep going, past one, then another and another point of no return. I can do this-I’ve done it before a million times. I can just bail, and leave the rest in ruins. I can do this.