starphotographs: This field is just more space for me to ramble and will never be used correctly. I am okay with this! (Default)
starphotographs ([personal profile] starphotographs) wrote in [community profile] rainbowfic2017-06-27 01:57 pm

Silver Screen 6

Name: starphotographs
Story: Universe B
Supplies and Styles: Mural, Canvas, Graffiti
Characters: Scissors (POV), Frankie, Satchel
Colors: Silver Screen 6 (“I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendshit.”)
Word Count: 13,800ish
Rating: PG-13? Low R?
Warnings: Choose not to warn.
Summary: A story of loyalty, friendship, and the hazards of misinformation.
Note: This takes place chronologically earlier than anything else I’ve written containing both Frankie and Scissors. If you don’t know these characters, this is as good a place to start as any. If you do, a few things will be explained. Choose what to do with this information! (Also, I swear I’ll someday write about these characters without it bloating into a novelette. But today is not that day.)


Ugly Sweater Party


Sometimes, I regret ever giving my phone number to this fuck.

It isn’t that I don’t like talking to him, because I do. Really.

But, one of the first things I learned about Frankie is that he’s a very specific type of lonely, idle person: the kind who thinks everyone else is just as lonely and idle as they are, and thus not only constantly free, but constantly desperate, to do whatever, whenever, with no planning or preparation. I thought he’d be different with a job, even just part-time, but nope. There’s three days in the week when he won’t call until late afternoon, sure, but the basic situation remains unchanged.

“Scissors! Hey! Alright, listen, you know my one neighbor lady? Okay…”

I probably did, but that didn’t help much. Frankie had several Neighbor Ladies, all of whom he referred to as “Neighbor Lady.” And, because he never clarified which one he was talking about, ever, I couldn’t even differentiate them into separate Neighbor Ladies based on context cues. They might as well be the many vessels of a single Neighbor Lady Overmind. Like mushrooms, or bees.

“Uh huh.”

There was a small pause, and I heard the TV jabbering in the background. He spoke again before I could figure out if he was watching anything interesting.

“...The neighbor lady who sometimes smokes on the stoop and talks to me? Said she saw some kind of weird lights in the woods behind the park the other night.”

I still didn’t know who the fuck he was talking about, but that caught my attention.

Frankie sometimes called to get me to go do stupid garbage with him, it’s true, but there was always a chance he’d want to do something really cool. And I guess that’s why I always took his calls, even if whatever I was doing got completely derailed. And, fine. I admit to enjoying some stupid garbage now and then. Especially with Frankie, who has a strange way of making things far more interesting than they really ought to be.

“Oh yeah?”

...Well, compared to the things I usually end up doing by myself, at least. Tonight, for example, I’m making some new couch cushions out of old foam and neon duct tape. I don’t own a couch, but I might some day, and I could at least sit on them in the meantime. Still, I was acutely aware that I in no way needed to be doing this.

“Yeah, and it’s getting pretty dark. So I was wondering if you wanted to…”

I looked at my remaining foam pads and tape rolls. The pads had also been couch cushions in their prior life. I found them next to a dumpster, then unzipped and discarded the covers when I realized they smelled. They’d waited god knows how long in that dirty alley, and they could wait another night. Wait for what, exactly, I don’t know, but they could.

“...Go check it out? Sure, yeah! Why the hell not?”

Frankie was right. My life wasn’t really that much fuller than his, and he probably knew that better than I did. Honestly, we’re both completely useless bums on our own. But, together, we actually stand a chance at getting some real excitement in our lives. Or, hell, some fake excitement. Neither of us are all that picky.

“Great! Meet me by the park. I’ll have some sandwiches.”

Along with having a boring evening, I was also pretty hungry. It felt less like I was being inconvenienced, and more like I was being rescued. I grabbed my keys and went to find some clean pants.

*****


A little over a year and a half ago, someone set up a forum for UFO enthusiasts in my area.

I was super excited at first, but it never really came to much. Not in the “it fizzled” kind of way, but in the “there’s about fifteen people here, because how many of us can there possibly be” kind of way. There was me, whoever the fuck founder was, a few people I recognized from meetups, and a few strangers who didn’t seem to have much to contribute.

...And then there was that FourthKinda guy, who did. To the point why I wondered why he had time to be bumming around on a half-dead local forum. You’d think someone like him would be too busy with constantly getting interviewed for TV somewhere.

He was actually pretty inarticulate, but he was full of information I’d never heard before. He was the only one of us even claiming to have any kind of first-hand experience, and even mentioned having a microchip stuck somewhere in his organs. All of this made him seem pretty respectable, and somehow more authentic than the rest of us pretentious dabblers and looky-loos. Even his vague and hard-to-parse communications made him seem a little unearthly, a little bit apart from everyone else.

Meandering and chronically befuddled as he was, he always had something to say, or something everyone should read. And it turned out that, though he wasn’t exactly out there being an Expert, he was a regular contributor to several magazines, and seemed even more knowledgeable with an editor smoothing out his rambly personality. I started collecting back issues, just so I could catch up on everything he’d written. His actual name was Franklin S. Lennox, which sounded like a good name for that type of thing.

We were pretty much the only people who regularly used the off-topic section, so I managed to learn a few details about him.

He didn’t need to have a job, because he lifted a box incorrectly at the last one and was getting some money from the government and his old boss. He got additional money for selling articles, but probably would have to find a job eventually, because his back was getting better and the government was probably going to cut him off. Specifically, he was feeling better after finding a new doctor. Enough to ride around on a bicycle most days, at least. Which was a good thing, because he didn’t drive. He had a bunch of other vague medical problems, but I wasn’t really sure if they had names. It also seemed like he had some kind of personality issue that made him perpetually angry at his food, which was actually kind of funny. He lived in a shitty apartment building so old it had radiators, which he liked sitting next to while he worked or fucked around on his laptop on cold days.

As it turned out, the apartment building in question was right across town from me.

We’d spent countless hours having pointless back-and-forths, which was, honestly, probably part of why everyone else stayed clear of the off-topic forum. So, we decided it might be fun to have a pointless back-and-forth in person. I’d be driving to his porch. He said he’d have a sign.

Well, it wasn’t so much a “sign” as it was a piece of printer paper, on which he’d scribbled block letters in all four colors of the four-color pen rainbow. But, the letters themselves spelled out “RockPaperSigils,” and that was me, so I guess that was him.

He wasn’t exactly what I expected, but I honestly wasn’t really expecting anything in particular. And he wasn’t the kind of person anyone really expects, period. It was hard to make out his face behind his glasses and the mess of shaggy dark blonde hair hanging out of his ratty baseball cap, but I could tell he was one of those people who somehow looks perpetually exhausted for absolutely no reason. His sweatshirt made it look like he was trying a little too hard to hide that he was all made out of pipe cleaners underneath it, and featured a picture of some shark from some aquarium I’d never heard of.

When he finally spotted me, he spent about twenty seconds trying to figure out how to wave me over with his sign in one hand and a cigarette in another, and eventually just settled on holding both hands up in the air while gently wiggling the sign around.

It seemed like the natural thing to do, so I went and sat down next to him.

“So, what should I…”

He took the last drag off his cigarette and sat back against the cement wall of the stoop.

“Frankie’s fine. You?”

I sometimes forgot I had an actual name crumpled up and stuffed behind the one everyone called me, and that the name I went by wasn’t even a real name, and that this could be considered slightly sketchy.

“Scissors. Scissors Lower.”

“Frankie,” I guess, started laughing, but he didn’t seem to mean much by it.

“...Seriously?”

For the first time since he waved me down, I felt kind of embarrassed. Someone I really respected was about to realize that nothing about me was serious.

“Well, no. But nobody’s used Sebastian in like a decade. I forgot it was my actual name.”

Stupid, stupid, stupid. Frankie dropped the still-glowing butt on the steps and ground it out on his shoe, completely unphased.

“Hey, it’s alright. My brother’s name is Satchel. Like, for real, our actual parents gave it to him. So, you’re both school supplies. Nice!”

We both laughed about that for a while, until Franklin S. Lennox just seemed like a regular guy. Maybe a regular guy I could learn some things from, but a regular guy I could also see myself pointlessly farting around with. He folded up the sign and crammed it in his front pocket.

“So, Mr. Scissors… You wanna ditch this place for a while? Go for a walk or somethin’?”

I stood up and stretched my legs.

“...Alright. Sure.”

We got some coffee at a grimy corner store and spent the next hour wandering a disorganized winding path around the surrounding blocks, bullshitting about nothing in particular. He sounded more like his scatterbrained unedited forum self than his polished magazine self, which was probably to be expected, but he still wasn’t at all what I thought. He was actually a huge space cadet. But, then again, what the hell was I?

I guess I was exactly the same thing he turned out to be for me: someone new to hang out with.

*****


When I got to the park, Frankie was already there, loitering around under a streetlight, still visibly dust-streaked from work, sporting a loaded plastic bag and the ugliest sweater I had ever seen in my life. I parked by the curb.

“Hey! I didn’t know what you liked, so I ordered you the one that has everything.”

I grabbed my backpack off the passenger seat and slammed the door behind me.

“‘Everything’ is usually the one I like!”

Frankie passed me the bag so he could clean off his glasses.

“Well, hey, that works.”

At first, we looked around for a picnic table, but we somehow ended up eating hidden in the turret of a sprawling wooden playground, my phone’s flashlight turning my green plastic water bottle into a makeshift lantern. We ate in the sickly neon light like a pair of mad scientists. I thought this was just the coolest fucking thing, and spent a few minutes taking in all the perfection before I finally decided to strike up a conversation.

“So, where the hell did you get that thing?”

Frankie swallowed his bite of whatever-all-it-was.

“Get what?”

My bite wasn’t ready for swallowing yet, so I just kind of pushed it out of the way.

“...Your stupid face! I mean your sweater, ya dork.”

Even in the bright green light, I could tell that it had about fifteen colors visible to humans, and probably a few more only visible to those neat bug-eyed shrimp, all arranged in bands of lurid geometric patterns. It buttoned to about halfway up in the front, showing off part of a threadbare grey t-shirt advertising some AM radio station I’d never heard of. One of those buttons was a completely different size and color than all the rest, which somehow made everything just that much worse. The lighting somehow cast the scraggliness of the yarn into sharp relief.

“...Oh. I got it out of this box of stuff someone sat on the curb. Got a few other neat things outta there, too. I’ll have to show you later, the rest is just… Real weird shit.”

I laughed.

“What, the sweater isn’t weird at all?”

Frankie shrugged.

“It’s thick and it fits. And I, like, washed it.”

“Fits” was pushing it, but I guess it fit like everything else he owned. Limply melting off his body and making him look like a crappy scarecrow someone impulsively made out of wire hangers and the contents of a lost-and-found box.

“You sure? Because it looks like you got a fungus.”

I balled up my empty sandwich wrapper and tossed it at him. He threw it right back at me.

“Shut up, asshole.”

I waited for him to finish eating, then collected my things and stood.

“Alright, Horrible Sock Puppet Man. Let’s go check out them lights!”

He balled up all our trash and stuck it back in the bag, then paused to light a cigarette. I had the same thought I’d been having ever since I first met him in person: didn’t you say you quit?

“Right!”

I grinned.

“Well, then what are we waiting for!?”

That said, I vaulted right over the wall, dangled from the edge by my hands for a few seconds, then let myself drop onto the mulch below. Frankie isn’t sturdy enough to act quite that stupid, so he just walked back down the way we came. He shook his head.

“You’re nuts.”

Honestly, he was probably right.

“Hey, I’m not the one wearing a Garbage Sweater!”

He swatted me with the bag of trash, then chucked it in the can.

“Yeah, well, I’m a Garbage Person!”

Laughing as usual, we headed for the woods.

*****


It didn’t take long for me to realize that Frankie only seemed like he knew a lot of things I didn’t, an illusion that he managed to pull off because he was mostly full of shit.

But, by then, we were already friends, and I didn’t much care if he was full of shit. After all, I was pretty full of shit, too.

Frankie showed me that. Before he came along, I believed anything anyone told me, unless I could disprove it myself. And, honestly, there wasn’t all that much I could disprove, so I lived in a fantastical world, bumbling from one idea to the next, always departing with a hushed “wow, maybe” and an eye toward the next unfalsifiable wonder.

And then Frankie, the damn fool, managed to contradict himself so many times that he accidentally broke the spell. The world I saw then was still strange, but it was no longer infinite. I realized that there was just too much of everything out there for it to all be true at once.

So, I guess, in a way, he really did teach me something important: how to doubt.

The only problem was, I couldn’t tell him.

For one thing, after a brief crisis, I basically decided I liked myself better now that I was less like him, and that’s a shitty thing to say to someone, even implicitly. For another thing, I didn’t want him to know I thought about a third of what he said made him sound like a big joke. Even just keeping it to myself, I felt absolutely terrible. He was obviously kind of confused and lost in the world, and he needed a friend, not a critic. And something about a secret critic seemed even worse.

The abduction was the only thing I decided I’d never question. Partly because he still seemed a little fucked-up about it, but I didn’t even pretend it wasn’t mostly for myself, and my own need to believe.

That, too, made me a total asshole.

*****


So it was that was shuffled around in the woods for about three hours and had a real good time, but we didn’t see jack shit.

There was a second when we thought we might have, but that was just headlights from the freeway.

I didn’t know exactly where the freeway was in relation to the park. And, as such, I had no fucking idea how far we’d wandered into the woods.

...So it was that we were lost in a narrow strip of mangy suburban forest, like a pair of complete morons.

That was actually perfectly within the parameters of shit that happened to us, so I wasn’t all that bothered about it. Actually, this is half the fun of being friends with each other.

For the most part, we’re free to be complete dipshits in peace. The kind of incidents that make everyone else turn blank for a second or snicker nervously take on the comfortably bland quality of a grade-school grammar lesson. He gets lost in a parking lot, I get lost in a swamp, we get lost in the woods. One time, we got lost in a huge hardware store with two sets of sliding doors.

...But that’s a whole other story, and I guess we eventually got out, because we were able to go and get lost in the woods.

We eventually got out of there, too, by the light of flashlights covered with sheets of red plastic, and the crispy sounds of snapping sticks and old beer cans collapsing under our feet. Eventually, the trees spat us back out in the park, and we made our way to the van. Frankie decided he was too sore and tired to ride back home, and that it was too dark to boot. So I hauled him and his crappy bike over to my building to crash for the night. I let him have the bed, and I spread a blanket out on my taped-up foam and collapsed.

The next day, Frankie got up at the crack of dawn, microwaved a frozen burrito, and dragged me outside so he could get his bike out of my van and ride back home to go do whatever the fuck he does there. I shuffled back upstairs and crawled into my own bed, which stank of cigarettes, dead leaves, and ugly garbage sweaters. It was a friendly sort of stink, at least.

The day after that, Frankie called to cheerfully announce that he’d wiped out in a concrete drainage ditch that morning, while on the way to a dented-can store located in an outlying industrial section of town that most people tried to avoid. (I, being me, knew exactly the place he was talking about, and had just been there the previous week.)

“So, was there, like, nasty water in it?”

There was a soft clanking sound in the background. I tried to guess what he was doing.

“That, there was not! There was only cement.”

Clank.

“Jesus, are you okay? You didn’t hit your head or nothin’, right?”

There was a second of silence, like he was trying to verify this with himself.

“Nah, I broke the fall okay. Kinda fucked up my back and bled all over the place for a while, though.”

I wasn’t exactly sure what about that qualified as “okay,” but I guess that was his call to make.

“...So, I take it you didn’t get to the store?”

I heard him drop something and swear under his breath.

“Eh, I got there. Figured I’d just have to drag myself home either way.”

Whatever he was doing, he got it sorted out, and there was another small clank.

“Get anything good?”

Inaudible shrug.

“Few things, yeah. Got this whole case of noodles I had to bungee down. Wanna come over and help me eat them?”

Frankie did this sometimes. He’d get a good run on some kind of sketchy food and suggest I go eat it with him. It was usually a pretty fun time, or at least interesting. I got to see strange permutations of familiar foods that I somehow never saw before or since, which is a bit of a mild thrill.

“Like, right now?”

I tried to figure out if I had anything to do today. As usual, I was pretty sure I didn’t.

“Yeah, now! You should also help me with my couch.”

For the past few weeks, Frankie had a big project going on where he was building a couch out of an incredible number of metal coffee cans. Some of them used to hold his own personal coffee, but more of them came from the dumpster behind his building, or a few neighbors that he’d managed to make feel sorry for him.

Admittedly, that probably wasn’t very hard. I felt sorry for him right now, all alone and injured and fussing with this five hundred cans.

“What the hell. I’ll be over in a few minutes, okay?”

The Couch Project, like Eating Strange Food, is just the kind of dumb thing that always got me excited. In fact, it’s what inspired me to start making part of a couch out of trash foam and duct tape. About halfway to the building, I realized Frankie would probably have more of a use for the cushions than I would, and regretted not bringing them with me.

But, when I got there, he’d somehow materialized a canvas pad that probably originally went to a porch swing or something, so he probably didn’t need mine any more than I did. He was sitting on it and sticking cans to other cans with a messy tube of epoxy, still wearing that horrible sweater.

“Jesus, that thing is gonna fuse to your body!”

He handed me my own tube of glue, then made a slightly threatening gesture with the one he’d been using.

“Shut up and start gluing, or I’m gonna fuse it to yours.”

He laughed a little at his own joke, which ruined the effect. Frankie was never that good at the “I’m-an-asshole-just-kidding” schtick, but I brought something out in him that made him try anyway. Even though he sucked at it, I was glad, because I razzed him about things all the time, and it always kind of teetered on the edge of being uncomfortably one-sided. Two friends fucking with each other was one thing. But with Frankie, there was sometimes a horrible moment or two where it started feeling like I was intentionally trying to hurt him, even though I knew that I really, really wasn’t. I didn’t know if it felt that way for him, but I kind of hoped I’d never find out.

So, when he tried to fuck with me, I always did my best to play along.

“Dude, that’s a fate worse than death.”

I took my glue and stuck a pair of cans together, ass to lid. Frankie stuck our two stacks together side-to-side.

“...You have a genuinely weird grudge against this sweater.”

I made another stack of cans. We were working on the sitting-portion of the couch. Later, we’d epoxy all the stacks down to a pair of splintery shipping pallets.

You have gone totally blind.”

While I wasn’t paying attention, I glued a can lid to my hand, and was trying to peel it off.

“Well, what if I have? Blind guys can wear whatever they want! What I don’t know can’t hurt me, right?”

Frankie leaned back and stretched out on the porch swing pad, a little preview of the finished product.

“Well, I’m not blind, and I’m the one that has to look at you!”

All this talk of going blind must have reminded him that he actually couldn’t see for shit, because he pulled his glasses out of his pants pocket, cleaned them off on his horrible sweater, and stuck them on his face. I thought it would be funny if he suddenly realized what he was wearing and flipped a shit over it, but this is real life, and he’s Frankie. He’d probably been wearing his glasses when he bought it.

“What say we take a noodle break?”

I’d managed to get the lid off my hand, placed it back on its mate, and stuck the end of the next can smartly on top.

“Already?”

Frankie seemed like he’d partially melted and gotten somehow stuck in the floor.

“I just gotta loosen up a little. Go make the noodles while I get myself sorted out, okay?”

This happened once in awhile. Frankie would decide he needed to fix his spine, and start by lying down on the floor, from which he could not be moved until he was good and ready.

“Sure. You do what you gotta.”

By way of answer, Frankie loudly popped a few bones, then lay still again. I went to the kitchen side of the room to start the kettle, read the instructions, and fuck around on my phone for a few minutes.

By the time I sat back down, plastic forks and cardboard bowls in my sticky mitts, Frankie seemed to have revived. He was sitting up and dousing his forearms with peroxide from an unwieldy brown bottle.

“Damn, that looks pretty rough.”

He started slightly, then got to work patting himself dry with a handful of paper towels.

“Yeah, well, I did fall in a ditch today.”

Lost in a parking lot. Lost in a swamp. Lost in a store. Lost in the woods. Fell in a ditch. Everything that happens to us sounds made-up, the kind of fictional stock blunders everyone assumes real people are smart enough to avoid. Not I! And not him either! It’s kind of nice, knowing you’re not the only one living in a terrible sitcom.

“God, who the hell falls in a ditch?”

I laughed. Frankie took his fork and bowl. I’d been careful to give him the less gluey set.

“Me! I fall in a ditch.”

My bowl was loosely affixed to my hand, but I decided I’d sort that out later, and figured that, for now, it would help keep me from dumping noodles in my lap.

“...Yes, of course, you. Now eat your goddamn noodles. You risked your life for them.”

I stopped laughing, took a bite, and what do you know? They really weren’t bad. Almost worth the danger.

*****


When I first met Satchel, I thought Frankie was fibbing about them being related. Nothing about their appearance, mannerisms, or personality suggested they were even from the same planet, let alone the same parents.

Satchel was towering and dark and scruffy, with a ready but vaguely predatory smile, and the same kind of volume control problem people always said I had. He was naturally jovial and easygoing, but slightly explosive. He’s one of those people who brings fun wherever he goes, and mysteriously easy to feel comfortable around, yet I was still vaguely scared of him.

Again, he was the polar opposite of Frankie, who always seemed constitutionally harmless, but still had this aura of discomfort and bad news hanging off him like a filthy raincoat.

Of course, the first time I heard them really getting into a conversation, I wondered if they weren’t actually fraternal twins, and consigned myself to being ignored.

Satchel must have decided he liked me, because he became both increasingly protective and increasingly antagonistic as we got to know each other. He was funny, and he had a ton of good stories, and he knew how to do a lot of things. It was pretty awesome, meeting Frankie and getting this entire bonus friend out of the deal.

Still, he added a touch of unpredictability to the whole situation. He made me feel like I was doing some secret job that I needed to take seriously, or there’d be hell to pay.

One night, we were all hanging around at Satchel’s place in the woods. Frankie got tired and went to bed early, leaving just the two of us sitting around the dying fire pit. Satchel leaned in and lit a cigarette on a stray glowing coal, inhaled, exhaled, and cleared his throat.

“Be good to my brother, okay?”

It seemed like there was some kind of specific response I was supposed to give, but fuck if I knew what it was. We’d been sipping from a case of beer all night, and were both buzzed in that raw-nerved kind of way. Relaxed and cheerful, but with the whole brain flattened out and spread just under the surface, in that space where a person could say just about anything. Could be a long winding sentence about how much they love beer with too many audible commas, could be a scathing accusation, could be a childhood trauma bombshell, could be a full movie synopsis, could be a pun that doesn’t work at all. You just never know, and that’s awesome and terrible.

“I will. I mean, I’ll try.”

Nothing indicated if I’d responded correctly or not.

“I’m serious. He needs a friend. He’s had a really hard couple of years.”

That I knew, or at least had the basic gist, just based on things he’d brought up in the forums and in conversation. The never ending health problems, the loss of his job, the shitty new part-time job he had to get a few weeks after we met, the fucking alien abduction. He had two different organs decide back up like a toilet and have to be snipped out of him, just two years apart. An incompetent doctor got him hooked on these weird opiate lollipops for the better part of a year. The next incompetent doctor took this into account, and just fed him over-the-counter painkillers until he came down with a bleeding ulcer. He was trying to quit smoking because of some problem he had with one of his kidneys, and I didn’t really understand that, but I knew he wasn’t really doing a great job.

(His older brother moved out into the middle of the woods, leaving him adrift.)

“He’s said as much.”

For the first time in his life, Satchel lowered his voice.

“I’m serious.”

I nodded.

“I can tell.”

Something in the situation had changed, but I wasn’t really sure what it was. It felt like I was being given a secret mission, or a bad diagnosis.

“Frankie… I mean, he’s a great guy. I love him. But he doesn’t just have real shit luck, he’s just… There’s things he isn’t good with, you know? Things he can’t do.”

By then, I’d already figured that out, so I wasn’t sure what he was trying to say.

“Yeah. He’s… Well… A little bit confused, isn’t he?”

Satchel flicked his butt into the sputtering flames.

“He is. And he doesn’t have a lot of people, so he’s counting on us, alright?”

I nodded.

But, in truth, I was scared.

I was a manchild and a flake. No one had ever counted on me before, and I’d hoped nobody would ever have to.

And yet, here I was.

Fuck.

*****


After we finished our noodles, glued a few more cans, and sent me on my way home, I didn’t hear from Frankie for several days.

...Which wasn’t all that unusual. He had projects (articles, orgonite, the couch, god only knows what else) that he’d sometimes zero in on for a while, especially when he was trying to finish something.

Even besides that, he was a ditz. I was pretty sure he occasionally fell off the face of the Earth just because he forgot it existed. He’d turn up eventually, cheerful and disheveled and dangling some kind of stupid little adventure in front of my face.

So, I decided to stop worrying about it, and, by the time he finally contacted me, I’d forgotten I’d ever questioned it. One minute I wasn’t on the phone with him, and the next I was, simple as that. (I guess I’m not really the guy to accuse someone else of being a ditz.)

“Hey, um… I don’t have anything in particular planned, but could you just come over for a while?”

I was a little uneasy. Something in his voice seemed off, but I couldn’t pinpoint it. He sounded tired, or maybe slightly afraid. Like he didn’t really want to be talking, but needed to. I felt like saying I had plans, but also felt like doing that wasn’t an option.

“To just, like, hang out?”

There was a silence, like he was trying to figure out what I’d just said.

“Sure. Yeah.”

He sounded a little more cheerful there, and I figured he was probably still sleepy. Frankie does this thing where he doesn’t follow any kind of regular sleep schedule, and the odds of catching him in a “just woke up” state were above average, to say the least. He’d probably been working hard on something for a while, got overtaken with a need to rest, fell into a deep sleep, and woke up bored and lonely. We’d probably just shoot the shit and watch television until he fell asleep again, and then I’d sneak out the door. (Repeat if needed.)

“Cool. I’ll be right over.”

When I got to Frankie’s apartment, I knocked, heard “door’s open” in a soft voice, and stepped inside. I found him reclining on his porch swing cushion, wearing his gross old bathrobe, smoking, and starting at the TV. He didn’t usually like smoking inside, at least not since he started claiming he’d “quit,” but then again, I wasn’t with him every minute of every day, and didn’t know everything about how he lived. I pulled up the beanbag and took a seat next to him.

“Hey!”

Frankie didn’t take his eyes off the TV.

“Hi.”

Well, alright, then.

“What, no ugly sweater today?”

Hell, maybe I could hold out hope for that whole thing being a phase. Frankie shrugged.

“I’m not feeling well. Didn’t really get dressed today.”

Something was definitely wrong, but I figured that was why he wanted me here, and didn’t really feel like questioning him about it. His problems were usually confusing, or, admittedly, stupid. And he was kind of a whiner, at that. “Be there for him, but try not to get too involved” was my motto.

So I just gave him what I thought was probably a sympathetic look, and found us a movie to watch on television. Some hyperbolic grade-z deal, where people shot neon green acid at giant mutant ants threatening to destroy a shitty town’s beloved candy factory. In other words, it was the type of film I couldn’t get enough of.

The Ant Movie was pretty entertaining, but then it was over, and Frankie still didn’t seem to be feeling better.

“You okay, my guy?”

Frankie shrugged again.

“I don’t know.”

The same tired voice from the phone. Fuck. I could already tell this was one of the things I was going to actually have to try to fix. I hated those, because I usually failed miserably.

“Are you sick?”

With a surprising amount of effort, he sat up cross-legged on the cushion.

“I might be, but I’m not sure yet. If I am, it’s something real weird, so just hear me out, okay?”

Yeah, this was probably something I didn’t want to be involved with. But, what choice did I have? He’s counting on us. I pictured standing up and walking away, but I also pictured Frankie looking hurt and Satchel putting me on his endless shitlist, so I sat frozen in place. I nodded mechanically.

“Go for it.”

Frankie pushed up his bathrobe sleeve. His arms were still a little bit scabbed-over from his Ditch Accident.

“I’ve, like… Read about people getting this before. Nobody really knows what it is. Lot of them say it’s either a fungus or nanomachines, something, but it always gets real nasty.”

That was a pretty dramatic description, but I wasn’t really sure what I was looking at.

“Dude, that’s just from fallin’ off your bike.”

He shoved his flaky arm closer to my face. I jerked back, but it was less the appearance of his skin, and more a split-second fear of getting accidentally elbowed in the teeth by someone who was an unfortunate combination of clumsy and skeletal.

“I don’t mean that, I mean the filaments. Look closer. I think the fall, like, knocked loose some spores I had in my skin or something.”

I squinted. Sure enough, there were a few almost-microscopic dark squiggles embedded in the hardened plasma. But it didn’t look that unusual, and I wasn’t really sure what that was even supposed to mean.

“Oh. Yeah, I guess I see what you’re talking about. Kinda.”

Honestly, it meant nothing to me, but that obviously wasn’t the case for him. He pulled his sleeve back down and drew his legs up to his chest.

“I don’t know what to do. I’m honestly scared.”

I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do or say, or, for that matter, what exactly he was scared of. So I put a hand on his tense shoulder for a few seconds, and didn’t say anything at all.

Be there for him, but try not to get too involved.

*****


Frankie is one of those people with seemingly endless, constant health problems. But for every legitimate issue, he has about five imaginary ones that seem to rotate monthly, or even weekly.

A little while after I met him, he became convinced he was allergic to electricity, and spent a week and a half with all the lights in his apartment flipped off and the TV unplugged, the computer still glowing cheerfully on his desk so he could browse a forum for other people with the same mysterious problem. I did the smart thing, and decided not to point out that there was about five million things wrong with that picture.

About a month or two after he decided he’d been wrong about that, he decided that his actual problem was some kind of food intolerance, and whittled his diet down to about four overpriced prepackaged foods, which were only sold at this one sketchy grocery store with six whole aisles devoted to vitamins and weird pills made out of what appeared to be, going by the package art, garden weeds. That lasted about a month, until he started losing weight and realized he felt even shittier than before.

Those are just two examples out of many. Frankie is always trying to fix something or other. Buying weird products, doing weird experiments on himself, going to both legitimate and suspicious doctors for both legitimate and suspicious testing, the whole nine yards.

I never really thought much of it. Like I said, he has a bunch of real issues, and kind of a nonspecifically shitty constitution. He’s also neurotic and, I admit it, not particularly bright. It isn’t a great combination for figuring out what the fuck is actually wrong with you, and how/if it might be fixed. So I generally just leave him to sort it out.

Still, I worry that a day will come when something either, finally, goes horribly wrong inside him, or he’ll go horribly wrong trying to fix it.

And that he’ll find himself, at long last, really, truly, terribly sick.

*****


In the following days, Frankie did what he always did when he thought he was dying: provided me with constant, incredibly boring updates.

He sent me rambling text messages and blurry phone camera photos. He started rambling on and on about what he’d pulled out of himself that morning before I even got a chance to sit my ass down and say hello. He carried around one of those tiny magnifying boxes people use to examine vibrantly fetid pond water, and he kept making me look in it. I tried to keep my answers noncommittal.

Honestly, I had no idea what I was supposed to be seeing, so I couldn’t answer any other way.

I also didn’t want to hurt his feelings. Even when I thought it looked like hair, or lint, or nondescript shreds of dried flesh, I’d squint and nod. I read all the melodramatic articles he sent me about alien parasites and planes farting fiberglass into the sky. He’d send me links to disorganized forum threads, and I’d dutifully read through everything. When he asked me to confirm something, I’d hem and haw and mumble that he probably knew better than me.

About two weeks in, it hit me that he really wasn’t much fun to be around anymore. But, I figured he’d get over it, the way he’d gotten over a million stupid phases before. Even if this one seemed more intense and single-minded, and a hell of a lot grosser and less sanitary, it was probably just like the others. All I had to do was scrunch my face and nod and be a little sympathetic, even when I thought he was nuts.

So I looked at whatever the hell he wanted me to look at, whether he got it from somewhere on the internet or down in his skin. When he complained about being tired and achy and confused, I resisted the urge to say “Franks, you’re always like that.” I tried to take his complaints about blurry vision seriously, and hoped he would figure out for himself that he just kept forgetting his glasses. When he did figure it out, he decided forgetting things was yet another symptom, and I didn’t correct him.

I turned away when he frantically scratched under his sweater sleeves and started leaving bloody smears everywhere. I watched him line his samples up in color order, and thought, this isn’t crazy at all, it’s only stupid, he’s only ever been stupid, just be okay about it.

Even when it really seemed like I should confront him, before things got seriously out of hand, I kept my big trap shut. I didn’t want to get involved. I didn’t want to seem unsympathetic. I didn’t want to feel horrible if and when it turned out that he was sick, after all. That there really were microscopic things crawling in and out of him all day and night, and I’d been a big jerk about it, because I’m a big jerk.

And so, predictably, things got seriously out of hand.

At least, I was starting to think so. First, he started taking horse dewormer from the farm store, which seriously upset his stomach. He sometimes texted me from the toilet for upwards of an hour when I was three feet away in his living room with a video on pause. I had to spend two whole nonconsecutive afternoons cleaning vomit out of my van and trying to think good, forgiving thoughts about my mixed-up, unhinged, wretched little puke-sack of a friend.

While he waited for the horse pills to do their job, he tried everything he thought might help.

There was a brief cheerful interlude with some weird machine he bought on the internet, little more than two pieces of copper pipe, and two thin wires connecting them to a thing that looked like an old thermostat.

Apparently, it was supposed to electrocute him a little.

“Kills morgons” was the grand claim, but I didn’t really know anything about that, or care. I just thought it looked like a good time. He humored me, and I sat on the floor, a copper rod in each hand, giggling maniacally as my hands tingled and buzzed. Frankie laughed at all my stupid hair standing on end, then somberly asked me to give it back before I broke it.

A few days later, he decided it wasn’t doing anything, and stuffed it in a closet. I wanted to gripe, “well, you could have at least given it to me!” But, something about that seemed insensitive, so I let it go.

When the Zapper was an alleged giant failure, he decided to find ways to wash the fibers out. It started out innocently enough. He doubled down on the alcohol and peroxide he’d already been using to keep the wounds from getting infected.

Then he started cycling through bleach, borax, harsh old-fashioned soap, and window cleaner. Then a few things in unfriendly, text-heavy packaging, which I couldn’t identify. His skin looked like the fake burnt zombie skin in my old favorite movies. Raw, hardened, uneven. Painfully dry, but somehow constantly sticky.

Before long, he smelled like an emergency room: a hot, metallic stench of blood, but also incredibly clean, to the point where actually became unpleasant. His smell made me nervous. I was always trying to figure out which way was upwind, and how to stay there without Frankie catching on.

I saw Satchel a few times during this period. We never talked about it at length, because there wasn’t much to say that wasn’t obvious, but he kept looking at me like there was something I should have been doing. Something that could stop this, if I only tried.

...But, he wouldn’t tell me what it was, because he, like me, had no fucking idea.

I looked at him, like, shit, he’s your brother, you deal with him.

He looked at me, like, you decided to be his friend, this is what you signed up for.

Each of us thinking, I’m completely unqualified to deal with this, and you’re just being a lazy fuckup. For god’s sake, fix this shit!

Eventually, we decided Frankie would deal with it. Because how could that ever go wrong?

*****


How and why he’s like this is a whole other story, and I don’t know enough about these kinds of things to say, but Frankie’s main problem is that he believes pretty much everything you tell him. Either that, or he latches onto an idea so hard that he can’t be convinced otherwise, until he either loses interest or somehow runs himself aground.

Lifting that box might have been what fucked him up in the first place, but he probably wouldn’t be quite as badly and permanently fucked-up if someone hadn’t suggested a chiropractor.

One time, he heard some sort of bullshit about a staple in your ear stopping migraines, and he took the bus to a neighboring town to get one installed by a random doddering quack with staple gun qualifications. He eventually admitted it didn’t really do anything, but he never bothered to take it out.

The ideas about electricity and food, he also got from someone else. Or multiple someones, several concepts thrown together into a semi-cohesive whole that somehow still makes absolutely zero sense.

Sometimes, I’m mad at how I used to trust everything he said, on the assumption that he had some special understanding of things. But, he was just a proxy for hundreds of people even stupider than him. And I, listening raptly, was the stupidest asshole of all. The way he parrots people disgusts me. The way I used to take him at his word disgusts me. How he made complete fools of us both, and still hasn’t even realized.

Most other times, I’m scared of what someone is going to tell him next. What he could be convinced to do.

*****


After a few days of silence, Frankie called me to talk about some stupid show he was watching. I took all of this as a good sign. I’ll be damned, it’s finally starting to blow over! He’d managed to leave me alone for a while, and now we were having a perfectly normal conversation.

Or, at least, we were. Right after telling me about some ancient toilet seat and what the guy on TV sold it for, he abruptly changed the subject, and we were back in Crazy Town again.

“...So, anyway, I’ve started using diatomaceous earth, and I think it’s really working.”

I’d half forgotten his whole situation, and I had no idea what that thing he mentioned even was, so it took me a while to figure out what he was talking about. Fuck. Here we go again.

“...Wait, what in the what now?”

I heard wheels squeaking. He must have been sitting on his computer chair, rolling back and forth smugly.

“It’s this stuff I got at this pool supply store down by the strip mall and the truck stop. I’m not, like, healing, but it’s itching a lot less. Might be killing some of the things off.”

I swallowed the same reply I’d been swallowing for weeks: “you’re not healing because you keep scratching yourself open and dousing your arms in chemicals.”

“Well, hey, that’s good. Things are gonna start looking up, I guess.”

Fuck. Why didn’t I just say what I was thinking? Over the past few weeks, I’d seen what started as a light road rash grow into huge, angry, glistening skinned patches. I’d seen dried-out flesh and chemical burns. Who knew what the hell this new remedy was going to do to him.

Squeak squeak.

“Yeah, I’m actually pretty optimistic!”

I tried to be optimistic, too, but when I actually saw him using the whatever-it-was on himself, it confirmed my fears: this was way, way worse than the other stuff.

It was a bunch of dirty white powder in a big bucket, the tall kind with that creepy two-tone picture of a little kid drowning in an inch of water. He slapped it onto both arms in huge white clouds, then rubbed it in hard, wincing and making a bloody paste. I always had to look away, because I was seriously afraid he was going to grind all the way down to the bone. Actually, I preferred to outright leave the room, because the drifting powder clung to my shirt, and I thought I could feel it scraping the inside of my nose.

Something about it seemed dangerous. Unwholesomely industrial.

...Probably just that gigantic hardware-store bucket. And the crude drawing of a dead kid flailing upside-down, annotated in five languages of exclamation points.

Despite all this, Frankie really did seem to be getting back to his old doofy self. He laughed more, and talked about his condition less. He came along with me on investigations, and was actually helpful. I even started seeing him around on his bike again. After a while, the stabbing chlorine-and-disinfectants reek started to lift, making the remaining blood smells a lot easier to stomach.

Sure, he was scraping himself raw on the daily, but at least he was leaving his apartment again. One stupid day at a time, small shitty blessings, inch by crappy inch, all that bullshit. Pretty much anything was better than what I was used to by now, so I was happy enough.

And Frankie even went along with me to the big UFO gathering, which I’d been assuming he would skip that year, on either real or bogus medical grounds. I girded myself so I wouldn’t snap at him when he insisted on powdering up in our tent, and tried to have a fun long weekend.

Back home, Satchel was still glaring at me like there was something I was supposed to be doing, but I could ignore him, and Frankie could distract him. When those two were lost in some banal conversation, with me sitting off to the side and quietly rubbernecking at them, it was like we all had our regular lives back, and none of us wanted to upset the balance.

After almost a month, Frankie started developing a persistent cough, but he insisted it was just from his job. He was fine, really, it’s just a gross dusty place, I’ll start looking for another job, etc.

I thought this all sounded pretty plausible, but what the hell did I know?

*****


Frankie was mostly jobless when I met him, writing his articles and getting additional money from his old boss, the crooked chiropractor, and the government. Sometimes, he did odd jobs on the internet, like filling out forms to help prove some grad student’s point about something or other, writing one-sentence reviews of restaurants he’d never been to, and deciding whether hinky stock photos of food looked appetizing. It didn’t seem like a bad life, but he only got to live it because he was in constant pain, so that took some of the freedom and appeal out of the whole thing.

I was healthy enough to make most of my money hunting ghosts and mowing lawns, so I counted my blessings.

It was a moot point, anyway. A few weeks after we met up in person for the first time, the government decided Frankie was probably just fine by now, and cut him off. And I guess he was mostly fine, but we both agreed that he probably wasn’t working-fine. Working, we assumed, required a lot of standing. It also required taking time out of his life to go to work, which sounded like a huge drag. He had a routine, or a lack of one, and he was pretty well settled in it. Adding a job into the mix sounded like a recipe for disaster.

But, well, if he really needed a job, I decided that I’d be the one to give it to him. I took him with me when I went snooping around for spooks in stranger’s basements, and split the cash, making up the difference by mowing extra lawns and slapping some ads on the videos I made.

Even though it started as kind of a pity job, I genuinely liked having Frankie along. He knew a lot about dowsing, and could fit into narrower spaces than I ever could, slithering in and then popping back out like a mole with a palmcorder. He’s a little bit nuts, so he came up with ideas I never would have come up with myself.

We were a team. Life was sweet.

But, apparently, it wasn’t enough to sustain him on its own, so he started looking around for part-time temp work. Eventually, he found a job in, no joke, a headstone factory.

I missed him on the days he had to be there, but the stories more than made up for it. For one thing, it was less like a “factory,” and more like a “barn.” Daylight creeping in around the big double doors and falling through the boards in strips. One room for everything, people milling around on a concrete floor and buzzing away at big granite slabs with power tools, and Frankie watching them from his desk in the corner.

He did basic clerical work and got to sit down all day, unless somebody wanted him to fetch them something. He got to hear about everyone who died, and kept lists of funny names and epitaphs on pieces of scrap paper so he could read them to me later, the two of us cackling our way down the road in my van. Talking about how it would really be something if we ever met a ghost who just had their headstone carved that afternoon.

When we were doing voice recordings, that was always the first thing he asked, rattling off every name he’d read that day into the aether.

At the end of the workday, he’d come home covered in dust, shaking impressive amounts out of his hair and clothing, murky pale clouds drifting around him. “...And dude, check this out!” He blew an impressive grey snot rocket into a crumpled tissue he fished out of his pocket. I marvelled for a moment. And then I thought, wow, this doesn’t really seem like it should be legal.

Something about power tools, computer desks, and great clouds of stony filth all mixed together in a barn seemed wrong, like there were rules about this sort of thing buried in a stack of fine print in some lawyer’s file cabinet. But, I didn’t really know enough about headstone factories to say for sure. Maybe they were all like this.

Either way, Frankie seemed happy there. Dead people sometimes have funny names. He got to sit down.

And, in the words of my favorite t-shirt when I was ten, “dirt don’t hurt.”

*****


Frankie’s cough kept getting worse, but there wasn’t really much to do about it outside of commiserating benignly for about twenty minutes every time we saw each other. “Man, this sucks, I need to quit that job,” “yeah, you really need to quit that job,” “I should really find another job,” “yeah, dude, you need another job,” on and on, and round and round. Typical folksy, work-a-day bitching.

I could tell his arms weren’t healing, and saw that he bought a whole new bucket of powder at the pool store. But we didn’t really talk about that anymore, aside from him occasionally mentioning that he thought it was really, really working now, and me nodding back at him.

Frankie had never really been a fan of short sleeves, even before all this, so it was easy enough to put out of my mind.

Meanwhile, he was getting so short of breath when we were out working that he’d sometimes have to go lie down in the van. Or he’d throw up in the client’s toilet because he was still taking those fucking horse pills, which also made him need to lie down in the van. Despite this constant “gonna lie down in the van now” business, I split the pay with him like I always did, even on the days when he did absolutely diddly-crap before calling it quits.

Then he started having trouble getting around on his bike, and even his feet, so he’d ask me to drive him places, and, when I was free, I’d oblige. The two of us chattering away as usual: “man, I need to quit my job soon,” “yeah, you really need to quit that job,” “A guy named Sherwood Franklin is getting buried tomorrow, that’s two of my names in the wrong order,” “holy shit, what’s his middle name,” “no idea.”

We were both hanging in that particular place, where you’re not scared yet, but have knowledge that a) you’ll be pretty damn scared in the future, and b) there’s still an almost indulgent amount of time before that actually happens. Fully aware of this, we kept it to ourselves and laughed it up while we could.

At one point, I brought up the dust from the bucket and how it stung my nose, gently suggesting that it might be part of the problem. Frankie shook his head and said that a lot of people used it this way, and that it seemed pretty safe. Fair enough. I didn’t mention it again. I did mention that he was smoking more, and that it couldn’t be helping, but he just said the same thing he’d been saying about his job. Mumble, mumble, need to quit. Just like with the at-home dust issue, I brought it up once and left it at that.

Then I realized he started smoking regularly again because he was scared, and that realization made me scared, too.

The hangtime had ended, and shit was about to hit the fan.

A little while later, Frankie started looking through job listings.

...He also started running fevers and spitting blood, but he didn’t want to quit the infernal headstone barn without something lined up. That seemed unusually sensible for him, but it really wasn’t the fucking time, so I guess he wasn’t acting too out of character. Stupid is relative, but he still manages to make the stupidest possible choice in every single situation.

Somehow, he did actually manage to land a few interviews. But nobody wanted to hire him, because he couldn’t make it through a sentence without coughing and looked like warmed-over shit. That, and he sometimes turned up wearing that godawful sweater, which was starting to reek of dried blood and smoke.

I begged him to go see a doctor. He went to the occupational medicine place downtown and came out with an inhaler and a suggestion to find other work. Neither did him much good, but I guess it was better than nothing. He kept looking through the classifieds and scrubbing his arms raw. I kept saying nothing.

My friend was probably about to lose his mind or die, and there wasn’t a damn thing I could really do about it.

*****


When this whole mess started, back before Frankie even graduated beyond hydrogen peroxide, I tagged along with Satchel on a beer run. We mostly tried to avoid the subject, but he finally said something on the way home.

“He’s okay, right?”

I was riding shotgun in Satchel’s filthy pickup, rotten leaves at my feet and a case of beer balanced on my lap.

“Yeah, he seems alright.”

Back then, I really thought he was. Or at least that he would be.

“I hope so. He…”

I shifted the heavy box, then let it slide down onto the ever-thickening layer of Floor Compost, keeping it upright with my knees.

“...He what?”

Satchel shook his head.

“Just gets these crazy ideas and takes them too far. Sometimes… Well, he ends up doing things to himself. Watch out for that, okay?”

Okay, that was just vague enough to be absolutely horrible.

“What kind of things?”

Between the rounds of head-shaking and “I don’t know, just things,” and the “just keep an eye on him, alright?” followed by a long silence, I got Satchel to tell me two stories.

When Frankie was about thirteen, he taught himself how to vomit on command, so he could be sent to the school nurse and get out of things he didn’t want to do. But, after a while, it became an automatic response to any kind of distress, like those desert lizards who shoot blood out their eyeballs. He had it mostly under control after a year or two, but it didn’t completely go away until he dropped out of school entirely.

A decade later, after he started claiming he’d been abducted and refusing to leave his apartment or open the blinds, Satchel dropped in for a visit and found him in the bathroom, with a pair of scissors sitting on the edge of sink. He’d mistaken the tip of one of his ribs for a tracking device. He didn’t mention the scissors, and Satchel didn’t ask, but it was pretty obvious what he might have tried to do if he hadn’t been interrupted.

As usual, I wasn’t sure what to do with that information, but was pretty sure there was something expected of me, and that I sure as hell wasn’t doing it. Because I didn’t know what the fuck it was.

I honestly didn’t take it all that seriously. He was young in the first story, and traumatized in the second. No way he’d do anything like that now.

*****


“...You have to come over here. There’s something really wrong.”

I hadn’t heard from Frankie in a few days, and was starting to worry something had happened. His voice on the phone wasn’t exactly giving me confidence.

“Frankie…”

I could usually hear him doing things, or the TV jabbering in the background, but the room seemed completely silent this time. This, too, wasn’t making me feel all that great about the whole situation.

“There’s something you need to look at. Please tell me I’m not going crazy.”

I thought, shit, I can do one of those things for you, I guess.

Then I snatched my keys and rushed out the door, still in my pajamas. There were blue and grey sharks on my fuzzy pants. I thought about the first time I saw Frankie. Sitting on the porch in his dippy shark sweatshirt, waiting for me in the sun. Holding my sign.

For the thousandth time, I called up my old motto: “be there for him, but don’t get too involved.”

...Yeah, well, that really wasn’t working out so great for us anymore. To say the fucking least.

And I didn’t have a series of other, better mottos queued up in the back. I was going to have to wing this, whatever it was, and that scared me shitless.

When I got there, his apartment was completely dark, except for a desk lamp with a harsh, white bulb. Frankie was hunched in front of it, peering through a standing magnifier, chewing on the inside of his mouth. I wanted to scream at him to stop, that he already looked like he’d been sent through a shredder, and didn’t need to get his goddamn teeth in on the whole thing.

“Franks-”

He cut me off, not wanting to be interrupted right in the middle of panicking.

“...Just get over here and look at this!”

That was a little loud for him to handle, and he had to cough and spend a few moments recovering. I went over to see what the fuck was so important. Suffice to say, I wasn’t really prepared.

Jesus…”

Under the magnifier was his own bloody arm. He had a pair of tweezers in his left hand, pulling up something white from the mangled skin.

“I thought the DE killed most it off, you know? But it only got the small ones. These are bigger… And just different, and…”

Flinching hard, Frankie pulled up the branched white filament, so thin it was almost invisible. He placed it at the end of a small row of similar objects. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I didn’t even know what I was seeing.

“Doesn’t that… Shit… Doesn’t that hurt?”

Moron. Of course it hurts. And it must have, because he nodded. That means yes. Yes means pain. Pain is bad news.

I was trying to absorb everything in little bits, as if a little cognitive stalling could slow this insanity to a stop and let us get off. Or at least let me digest it all without exploding.

“When I try to pull them up, they… I don’t know. They give me an electric shock or something. Like they’re trying to get me to stop.”

He ripped out another one, a little more roughly this time. Then he laid it next to the others and put his head down on his sticky desk, panting harshly.

“Crap… Frankie… I have no idea what the fuck this is, or what the fuck you’re even doing here. We need to get you to a doctor.”

He lifted his head. His hair was slightly streaked with blood, translucent in the awful blank light.

“They wouldn’t believe me.”

I placed my hands on his shoulders, partly to calm him down, but also because I thought I could gently lift him from his chair, like one of those big swingy scrapyard magnets.

“I know one that will. Come on.”

*****


When I was a teenager, I set off on my own to see and document all the mysteries of the world. My mothers and uncle thought this was a terrible idea, but when it became clear I was hell-bent on doing it, they sent me off with their blessing. I was fifteen and curious and free. This whole wondrous world laid out before me and waiting.

A few months into my journey, I needed more money. I started working and living in a hotel, and somehow settled there. Something about the hotel made it a lightning rod for strange people. I guess I was one of them, and this suited me fine. I hung out with hitmen and fugitives and runaways. The chronically suspicious, and plain old poor folks. Other Weirdness Tourists like me, just passing by.

Through living with them, I met Calvin.

Calvin is a doctor, a real one. Not having his papers doesn’t make him some kind of uncanny not-doctor.

He started practicing before he left med school because he saw a need, and never finished school because he was too busy practicing. Truth be told, he might not have done very well as a legitimate doctor. He tends to get a little emotional. And a little jokey. And he likes being the first to test-drive something new, even with spotty research and his own relatively limited equipment. If he likes you, he might forget to charge you. He’d get torn apart and eaten alive by bureaucrats, probably.

But, he’ll keep your secrets, and he never places blame.

...At least not seriously, and not even un-seriously if you didn’t really fuck up, possibly on purpose. Basically, I’ve had him call me an idiot to my face while suturing my thumb after I cut it open trying to fish a gummy bear out of a beer can, but I’ve literally never seen him bat an eye at anyone else. If it’s clear you injured yourself because you were egged on or genuinely misinformed, the worst he’ll do is tell you not to do it again.

In the crowds I run with, he’s pretty much the hero we deserve.

*****


The part about believing him was a bald-faced lie, but I didn’t know how else to convince him to come with me, and I figured Calvin would at least be sympathetic. Maybe not to any given person who did something similar, but Frankie’s non-bullshit health issues and tragic, apparently dangerous gullibility would probably win him over. Frankie is small and tired and confused, and looks the part. He’s pathos in bad glasses and a hideous sweater, not a stupid lummox who tried to break a metal can with his bare hands.

Hell, I felt incredibly bad for him, and I was about at the end of my rope with this crap.

Even after I promised he’d be taken seriously, it took some negotiation. He can tell you what’s going on, he’ll be able to make you feel better, he’s really nice, damn it, you’re fucking bleeding, just go get it over with. I pulled out every argument I could think of, and I’m not sure which one eventually worked, but Frankie eventually agreed to let me take him.

Maybe he just got sick of hearing about it. I mean, that’s how he usually gets me to go do what he wants.

On the way there, I called Satchel and told him the good news: praise Sandaled-Lich-Jesus, your dumbass brother is letting me drive him to the doctor.

...Okay, so those weren’t the exact words, but I told him, and crossed my fingers. Maybe he’d finally be satisfied with me. I was doing the right thing, or what might be one of the right things, anyway.

At least, I hoped so.

Frankie pulled his sweater sleeves down over his hands, curled up in the front seat, and didn’t say much of anything. I leaned over and nudged him with my arm.

“Hey. It’s gonna be alright.”

He didn’t say anything. He didn’t believe me. I didn’t believe me.

Fuck.

Calvin lived and worked in a tall, narrow, almost featureless house in a dense and confusingly structured part of town, hiding in plain sight. We finally got there, and it was actually a little anticlimactic.

His tall, angular, zippy assistant was sitting at the front desk, where she always sat when she wasn’t in the OR, and told us Calvin was with a patient, and that it would be about fifteen more minutes.

Frankie kicked off his shoes, pulled his sock feet up on the chair beside him, and started fiddling with his phone, the way he always did when he was waiting for anything in any sort of sit-down waiting establishment. I stayed perched on the edge of my seat, just in case he changed his mind and tried to run out the door and bolt under a bush like an escaped zoo animal.

After what felt like an eternity of trying to figure out how to put someone like Frankie in a good, firm headlock without snapping him in half, Calvin finally showed himself.

“Alright, I’m gonna call it a night here, anyone el-” He poked his curious head out from behind the door and into the waiting room. “...Oh, hi Scissors! What you do to yourself this time?”

He smiled at me. I smiled back, trying to telepathically communicate that I wasn’t as much of a walking disaster as he thought, and that he should just let the whole Gummy Beer Incident go, already. Even if I could, it would be no use. Once Calvin decides something is funny, all hope is lost.

“Hey! I’m alright, thanks… This is Frankie. He’s got some, uh… Things that probably should get looked at.”

Calvin looked around the room for a few seconds. Every time you introduce him to someone, he does this, like he might find them hovering somewhere near the ceiling. Eventually, his eyes landed on the chair next to mine.

“Frankie! Come on back!”

Once we were both seated in the exam room, him on the metal table and me on the floor, Frankie yanked up his sleeves as fast as he could, probably just trying to get the worst over with. Calvin took one of his wrists in both hands, inspected his arm, and then looked back and forth at both of us, baffled. I guess we had some explaining to do.

It took a while, and we were both talking over each other the whole time, but Calvin eventually got with the program. Which was a small miracle, because we told him everything, and I mean everything.

About the alien parasites, and the genetically engineered fungus, and how I couldn’t actually see shit whenever he showed me. All about the fibers, and the peroxide, and the electricity machine, and the horse pills, and the pool filter chemicals, and even the whole tedious side-plot about the headstone factory. Frankie offered the prescription bottle holding the soft, white fibers from earlier, and a piece of clear tape covered in the thin colored fibers, which he’d collected pretty soon after the whole mess got started.

Calvin spent a while trying to take it all in, and gave the samples a cursory glance under the microscope, flinching exactly once. Then, lord knows why, he sighed in relief.

“...Good news! I’ve seen exactly one other person like you in here, but I’ve read about a couple of others, and they’re all just fine. You’re just fine, too. I mean, when it comes to this, anyway.”

Frankie looked like someone just pushed him off a bridge.

“...Wait, what?”

Calvin nodded.

“There isn’t really anything wrong with you. The whole thing about parasites you told me is actually some stupid urban legend that won’t die.”

Diagnosis: hypochondriacal and easily-lead, in a overdramatic but relatively banal sort of way.

Fuck, I could have told both of them that much.

Frankie sat a little straighter.

“But you saw what I-”

Calvin shook his head.

“The multicolored things were just fuzz off your clothes.”

Something snapped together in my mind, almost audibly, like a cartoon lightbulb materializing above my head, then immediately overloading and blowing out in a spray of cartoon glass.

I rolled my eyeballs around, from Calvin’s expressionless face, to Frankie’s baffled one, to that fucking sweater. Then I smacked the back of my head against the wall, and slumped forward with my head in my hands.

“Oh, Jesus Christ! God damn it, Frankie!”

And yeah, I probably shouldn’t have, but I started laughing. Half-nervously, but also half-genuinely. Because, horrible as it is, there really was something funny in all this. Especially when Calvin looked at Frankie to see what the fuck I was laughing at, and visibly started, like he hadn’t even realized what he was wearing until now.

“...Yeah, that would do it, wouldn’t it?”

Calvin’s earnest poker face and his mild, impassive voice somehow topped the whole thing off perfectly. I laughed a little harder for a while, then came to an abrupt stop, suddenly serious.

It was the Evil Sweater I was laughing at, but I didn’t want Frankie to get the idea I was having a good time with his ordeal. He had to know I cared about what he went through. Because, even though I thought it was dumb as hell, I really did.

So, I asked one of his questions for him.

“Then what were the fleshy white ones?”

Was that a question Frankie would bother to ask? I really had no idea. But, it was one he should probably have answered before we finally got the hell out of here. Calvin flinched again, in the exact same way as he had when he glanced through the microscope.

“Frankie… You excoriated your skin down to the nerve endings.”

Just like that, nothing was funny anymore. I felt suddenly, violently nauseated. Frankie looked stunned, like his brain had receded light-years away somewhere.

With everything explained away at last, Calvin got to work cleaning and dressing the wounds, and informing poor, stunned Frankie that he should probably get his lungs diagnosed by someone more legitimate, so he could take his boss to court if he needed to.

...Because, apparently, sometimes? Dirt do hurt.

And, what do you know, I was right about the setup Frankie described not being legal. If he was working in an unventilated barn with a bunch of people grinding on granite all day, he might be developing acute silicosis, which could kill him. So, yeah, he should probably get looked at as soon as he possibly could, and then decide what he wanted to do.

Frankie nodded, still looking dazed.

I looked at him and thought, dying.

All in all, it had been kind of a fucked-up night, and, just going on myself, I decided we were probably hungry. On the way home, I drove us through a fast food place, and we ate in the parking lot, half-lit by the the reddish, twenty-four-hour glow. Frankie dunked a curly fry in his coffee milkshake, in the same gross way Satchel apparently always did. Jesus, those two are nuts…

“I really did myself some damage, didn’t I?”

I had a burger in one hand and my phone in the other, trying to learn a few things about silicosis. Like what the heck it actually was.

...Apparently, it actually was well-known in headstone grinders, which surprised me a little. That seemed like too specific a group to have a well-known occupational hazard. But, then again, so are pigeon keepers, and there’s that whole bird-lung thing everyone wants to scare you with.

I clicked out of that page, clicked another link, and was eventually smacked with the words “crystalline diatomaceous earth.”

The kind they use in pool filters. Not the kind they sprinkle on wormy tomato plants. Fuck.

“He gets these crazy ideas and takes them too far. Sometimes, he does things to himself.”

I guess I finally knew what that really meant.

“Yeah. You did.”

I agreed, but didn’t want to tell him why just yet. Wait until he’s done eating. Wait until he gets home. Wait until he’s had some rest. Wait until he’s left the courthouse.

“I didn’t know what nerves looked like. If I did…”

Buddy, that’s the least of your problems.

“Well, Calvin says you’ll probably get most of your sensation back when the skin’s been healed for a while. Like, the other nerve endings will compensate a little or something.”

Frankie pulled the sleeves of that awful sweater all the way down over his bandaged forearms, trying to build a thicker barrier between the wounds and everything else.

Raw nerves. But not at all like being drunk.

“I already have sensation. It really fucking hurts. I didn’t even entirely notice before now.”

There wasn’t a single thing I could say that would make him feel better. He was stripped and bleeding, and he’d just have to wait it out. I shrugged, figuring I could at least be calm enough to set a good example.

“Well, hey. Now you know not to do it again.”

Frankie shrugged.

“Yeah. I guess.”

He was agreeing with what I said, but he wasn’t agreeing with me, because I was fucking lying.

I didn’t want him to do it again, but he would, because he’d done it before.

...Not this same thing literally, but still the same thing. It’s all the same. He runs too far with some stupid idea, and he does things to himself. And I was going to have to be around to watch him. Over and over again.

Except, I guess I don’t really have to.

I just want to.

*****


Whatever it ends up entailing down the line, I want him to be my friend.

Just like I always had, since before we’d ever even stood in the same room. It isn’t because I’m still impressed with him, like I was at first. I actually stopped being impressed with him a long time ago, at least in that sense. He’s just another weirdass person, like every other weirdass person.

Like me.

These days, I’m more impressed by what my world is like with him in it: inexplicable and fucked-up and wonderful and terrifying and hilarious. There’s a lot of bad with the good, to be sure.

But, it was never the bad in life I couldn’t handle. It was the mundane. Things that, for better or worse, can be taken for granted without question. Things I ran screaming from when I was still just a kid. Things I haven’t really seen in a good while.

And, I guess that’s the second thing I owe him for. Frankie can’t take anything for granted, and, when we’re together, neither can I.

The heady birth of doubt. The immediate resurrection of a the fantastic, a new fantastic that had been there under the bullshit all along. Somehow both catalysed by the same sorry, confused, weirdass guy.

Without him having to do a single thing, except, somehow, managing to exist.

In return, all I had to do was be there. To protect him from the ordinary and the strange alike. Or, failing that, just wait around and have a few laughs.

That’s not such a bad deal. At least, I don’t think so.

(And hell, would it really matter if it was?)

Franklin S. Lennox, there’s no one else like you.

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