Every hair he sheds, every eyelash has a life of its own. I saw him spit once, a little blob on the sidewalk teeming with minuscule, shrimp-like creatures. Ben glanced down at it, brushed the hair out of his eyes. He has long, curling lashes.
I want Ben to take me to a party this weekend, even though Ben hates parties.
Everyone at school is in love with him.
Ben and I hang out in the finished basement at my house. There’s a moldy old couch down there that smells like bad memories, some lava lamps and out-of-tune guitars, a 50-gallon fish tank Ben likes to stare at when he’s stoned, old posters on the walls: Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Nirvana. We go down there when no one’s home, which is often. Mostly, though, we wander through the woods behind houses all nestled together, emanating TV sounds, their porch lights always on. I nibble candy bars I shouldn’t be eating as we circle the lonely stands of thin trees. Ben likes to study the insects that roam the trunks. He watches termites tunnel holes through the peeling birches. He examines fringes of fungus on rotting logs, sifts through layers of leaves and dirt and trash on the ground. Sometimes hours pass and we don’t say anything.
I remember swimming in the reservoir as kids, bringing our sleeping bags up into the tree house to spend the night among the owls, bats swooping by. One time, out of nowhere, I start to cry. I can’t explain it. Ben looks up at me, not with indifference exactly, so much as a kind of curiosity.
I wonder what might sprout from his tears if Ben cried. Something exotic that has to be kept moist all the time, like a miniscule orchid, maybe.
Ben and I play after school, dashing between his kitchen and mine, snatching cookies and juice boxes. I’m already pudgy and damaged in invisible ways that the others can somehow sense, like I give off a certain smell. Ben doesn’t care, or maybe he doesn’t notice. Over the summer, we roam the neighborhood on our bikes. One year, we build the tree house in the woods. He is just a skinny, freckly kid.
Then Ben’s family moves away just as sixth grade is starting. I get my period that year while I’m riding the school bus and stain the seat. The nicknames follow me through middle school. Ben comes back mid-semester in ninth grade. He doesn’t talk about where they moved away to, who his friends were there, or why he came back halfway through the school year.
During those in-between years, when I’m friendless and having nightmares about that stained seat on the bus and that mildewy couch in the basement, when I’m carving little x’s into my forearms with an xacto knife and eating lunch alone every day because I’m too weird for even the freakish kids—or maybe just the wrong kind of weird—Ben somehow turns into someone who glows like a nightlight. In the right lighting, you can see it. Even the jocks get quiet when he’s around. Their eyes go wide and follow him. They stand up straight, shoulders back. They whisper and fidget. One time he walks into the cafeteria and everything stops, the whole room goes silent. They all fix him with hungry stares. Now he never goes in there, avoids the auditorium entirely.
His locker looks like a shrine, covered in glittery stickers and lipstick kisses, love notes and shriveled flower petals and wreathes full of pine cones and berries. Sometimes he leaves things in there overnight—socks, tissues—and stuff sprouts out of them. Once, some birds hatch in his locker and Ben gives them to a group of freshmen girls who press them to their breasts like they are some kind of miracle, which I guess they are. Ecstatic tears rolling down their cheeks, they laugh and laugh, take their shoes off and dance in a circle in the hall, faster and faster. They squeeze the chicks too hard and they die. Then the freshmen lie on the floor in front of Ben’s locker, crying. When Ben sees the crushed birds, he doesn’t say anything. He looks pensive but unsurprised.
This week they’re trying to make him captain of the football team. There are posters lining the halls with frantic lettering and exclamation points, demanding Ben lead the team to victory. He doesn’t even play football, has no interest in sports of any kind. He’d rather be in my basement, strumming a guitar and crooning off-key. I took ten years of piano lessons and sometimes I try to help him read the charts, even though I don’t know the chords, either. But I have a good ear, or at least my teacher thinks so. Sometimes we sing together, harmonize a little, and we don’t sound that bad.
Once he gets a cold and walks through the halls coughing, nose running, trailing streams of flowers so tiny and light, they float in mid-air. Some girls make wreaths out of them, wear them like crowns as they dance madly around the football field.
Everywhere I go, I hear his name. “Ben Wittinger, Ben Wittinger, Ben Wittinger,” they whisper, an invocation, a prayer. They say it with such longing, such despair, their eyes seeking him out. In class, they hold their breath, wait for him to speak, but he just sits in the back, doodling and tapping his knee, while cruel notes on scraps of paper get dropped in my lap. It’s like he doesn’t even know they’re there.
The party is Saturday night, at Katie L’s house. She’s a cheerleader, naturally blond with big, round bubble tits and a pink mouth. When I see her and her friends in the hall, I usually head in the other direction, or I duck inside an empty classroom if I have the chance. It might’ve been those same girls who filled my locker with ketchup, all the empty bottles in a sticky pile on the floor. They couldn’t even be bothered to throw them away. They’ve written “slut” on it in red nail polish so many times, I don’t even try to chip it off anymore. Once I got cornered in the Girls’ room by some seniors and they branded “pig” on my forehead with permanent marker. Of course, they do these things because of Ben. If it weren’t for Ben, I’d still be a chubby loser with bad skin, but at least I’d be an unremarkable loser. I’d also be friendless, though.
Naturally, I am not invited to the party, though the whole school knows about it. Katie L’s parents are rich and always out of town and careless with their liquor cabinet. I can’t help it. I want to go, drink cranberry vodkas out of a plastic cup, watch the other kids fight and puke and make out, cheer them on at beer pong, be normal for once. I have this pathetic hope that maybe this one time they’ll forget about me, forget their hatred for me, and I’ll just fade into the background and become pleasantly invisible.
“C’mon,” I plead with Ben. We’re wandering the woods behind the 7-Eleven, six blocks from school. There are used condoms and beer bottles in the dirt. It’s warming up, the snow’s melting, revealing the things hidden beneath as the trees drip water on my head. I feel cold and sweaty at the same time, my sneakers soaked through.
Ben could walk barefoot through the snow and it wouldn’t matter. Half the time he doesn’t even wear a coat. He nudges the bottles with his shoe and frowns.
“Why would I want to go to that?”
“Because it would be fun to watch everyone make assholes of themselves?”
He shakes his head and his hair waves at me. “Fun for you, you mean.”
He’s right. I’ve played this all wrong. Ben doesn’t mock, he just squints, turns away, and gives a lopsided smile, like he’s doing to me right now as he keeps on walking. Little patches of green appear in his footsteps. Is there moss under the snow, or is it him? I look back at my own footprints. Just gray slush.
“Will you do it for me?”
He stops, turns. He looks at me, then up at the sky. Ben takes a deep breath, exhales in a cloud. There are snowflakes on his breath, or what look like snowflakes. Could be mold spores. He rubs his nose, picks at a pimple nestled between his nostril and his cheek. What could he create with pimple pus? But nothing comes out, not now.
“Ok.” He keeps walking.
His back is turned. He can’t see me smile.
And yet, I feel as if I got three wishes and just threw one away. Ben’s never said it, but I know there is a finite number of favors he’s willing to do for me.
Before the party, I raid my parents’ bar. I take a half-full bottle of vodka, a sticky bottle of Kahlua because Ben likes sweet things, and two coffee mugs down into the basement and pour shots of each into the cups. Ben studies his for a while before taking a drink. He frowns and some of the concoction dribbles down his chin onto his baby blue Pink Floyd t-shirt.
“How will I know when I’m drunk?” His eyes are already red.
“Why don’t we just drink something when we get there?” Ben’s draining his cup so I don’t answer. It’s not worth trying to explain to him that if we don’t get drunk first, I’ll never have the balls to show up at the party at all.
By the time we get to Katie L’s house, there are streams of toilet paper on the lawn, the street lined with cars and bikes left in metal heaps on the ground. The house is trembling with bass. Katie L herself opens the door. She stares at me in disbelief, like she has no idea who or what I am. She sways a little, reaches out for the doorframe to steady herself. Then her eyes narrow, and she gives me a look that makes the hairs on my arms stand up.
“What are you doing here?” She’s too close to me. I forget that Ben is there and take a step back, bumping into him, and it’s then that Katie L spots him.
She freezes. Then her face goes blank. She can no longer see me. Her eyes widen, her mouth opens a little, blood rushes to her cheeks. She breaks out in a huge, goofy smile, teeth shining with saliva. “Hi! Oh my God, I had no idea you were coming!” she half-screams. She’s drooling a little. Her pupils are dilated. She blinks back tears of joy. Katie L stretches her arms out towards Ben, fingers wriggling, eager to grasp. But he remains out of reach.
“Hey,” Ben says. He doesn’t say her name because by now, he’s forgotten it, even though I told him ten times on the way over here. “We came to your party,” he adds.
A Golden Retriever bursts past Katie L, nearly knocking her over. Whining, tail wagging violently, it rushes up to Ben and starts sniffing his crotch and licking his hands. Ben smiles, kneels down to pet it, and the dog bathes his face in saliva. Katie L watches, claws at her chest in delight.
“Oh. Oh my God.”
I wonder if she’s having an orgasm. I wonder what that feels like for her.
Katie L pulls Ben into the house, and immediately a crowd forms. They stare slack-jawed, eyes glistening, absent-mindedly spilling their drinks onto the floor. I’ve never been this close to so many people with Ben before. They all have that same blank look as Katie L. The music plays on, loud and insistent, and there are sounds of dancing and exaggerated talk coming from other rooms, but here in the kitchen, no one speaks, no one’s dancing. Ben just stands there in the middle of it all, petting the dog that’s perched on its hind legs, tongue out, panting happily.
“Guys, this is Ben Wittinger. Ben Wittinger is here,” Katie L announces, beaming, as if they don’t already know who he is.
The crowd nods. “Hi, Ben,” they say shyly. Some people reach out their hands for him to shake or fistbump. Ben obliges them half-heartedly. I notice one girl holding her hand out to the side after he touches it. She brings it slowly to her face, inhales deeply, then holds it out to her friend to take a whiff.
I consider heading upstairs to go through Katie L’s stuff, see what kind of underwear she wears, if she keeps a diary. I imagine her room will have pink, frilly things in it, stuffed animals on the bed.
A group of dudes comes rushing into the room, whooping and hollering, carrying a three-foot bong, spraying beer on all the girls. Katie L squeals. “Ty-ler!”
“Oh my God, Ben! Hey, man!”
I head back towards the front door and loop around through the den, where a couple is kissing on the leather couch beneath a buck’s head with a mournful expression, then exit towards the far end of the kitchen, past the mob. I open a sliding door and step outside. There’s a pool out back, and though it’s covered, a bunch of people are hanging out at the edge, drinking beers, lounging in the deck chairs. A senior in an apron is manning a smoky grill. A few people glance up at me, then look away. Some girls are dancing drunkenly on the lawn, their bodies moving out of time with the music. They’re laughing.
I don’t know why I wanted to come here now. I feel embarrassed for myself for having wanted so badly to get an invite. I don’t know what I thought it would be like, why I thought I was somehow missing something. It’s just kids hanging out getting drunk together. Someone’s puked on a bush. There are empty cups all over the ground. It’s a junk heap, this party, and the music is bad. I sit down at an empty table, fold my legs up to try to keep warm, start rubbing the eyeliner off my eyes.
A couple stumbles by, laughing, clinging to each other. They plunk a bottle of whiskey down on my table, then wander off. I quickly unscrew the cap, take a big swig. It tastes foul and burns, but I like it better than the vodka and too-sweet liqueur we had at my house. I think I’m already drunk, but not enough to make all of this amusing, not enough to make me stop caring about anything.
“Hey, pace yourself.”
I turn to see Katie L’s Tyler behind me, grinning, his hair sticking up. He’s holding a can of beer. When he sees my face, he says, “Aren’t you Bloody Mary?” Then he makes a snorting pig sound and takes off, laughing, jogging towards his friends who are lying in a pile on the patchy snow on the lawn.
From inside the house comes a deep booming, like house music overlaid with seismic chanting. I feel it in my bones. It makes my body vibrate, sets my teeth on edge. The booming gets louder and louder. I shut my eyes against it.
When I open them, a girl from my Spanish class is walking towards me, smiling. “Hey!” she says.
“Hey,” I call back and raise my hand, do a dorky little wave as the girl heads right past me on her way to talk to someone else. I hear their voices behind me, their laughter, and I know that even if it’s not me they’re laughing at, I’m still the butt of the joke. I take another big swig of whiskey.
Katie L comes out of the house, one of her friends following close behind. They teeter around, grab onto each other and laugh. I wonder for whose benefit they’re doing this, clutching at each other like this. The friend grabs Katie L’s boob and they both cackle. Everyone out here is watching them now. They sway back and forth, pretending to almost fall, then rush forward and suddenly they’re right there in front of me. I push myself as far back in my chair as I can, but it’s not far enough and Katie L stumbles into my lap, plops down on top of me, laughing and laughing, pressing down on me with her weight, like she just fell into a bean bag chair.
“Sorry,” she says and pats my head.
I mumble, “It’s ok,” and try to smile a little bit, like it really is ok, and she grins back at me. Her eyes are bloodshot.
As she leans forward to stand, Katie L whispers to me, her voice hot against my neck, “Bet you liked that, didn’t you?”
Before I can say anything, she’s gone, her arms around her friend’s shoulder as they walk towards the grill, their strides uneven. I grab the whiskey bottle with both hands.
I look around the yard and the view seems suddenly endless, the borders fuzzy and faded, like I’m looking through a lens smudged with Vasoline. There’s tinkling laughter. In my peripheral vision, I see a flash of hands, flowers. There are people dancing in circles, but when I turn my head there’s no one there, just clumps of snow, a red plastic cup lying on the ground, so red and slick, it can’t be real. It pulses. I reach for it, or at least I think I’m reaching for it, but I can’t feel myself move. I’ve crossed some kind of threshold and now I’m on the other side, looking in, peering down at the tiny house with all these teenagers inside. Ben is in there somewhere, too. My body is warm and limbless, as if draped in heavy layers of cloth. There’s no one and nothing here.
Then I think I might have gone to sleep for a while. But then I’m up, moving around, my body kind of lurching in different directions at once. It’s night now, and my clothes feel wet and warm. There’s something in my hair, something sticky. I can’t see my hand clearly enough to tell what it is. I realize I’m still outside when my knee smashes against the glass door I can’t see. The pain is distant, nebulous. Somewhere nearby, there’s a cackling. I turn but there’s no one there. I force the door open, rush headlong into the house. There are people in the kitchen sucking jello out of little cups. They look at me and laugh, pointing, their faces twice their normal size. I open my mouth to say something but only a little bubble of a burp comes out, which makes them laugh even harder.
“Ben,” I hiccup. “Have you seen Ben Wittinger?”
Their smiles evaporate. Their bodies go still. In unison, their arms rise and point.
I find Ben on the living room floor atop an Oriental rug that looks expensive, lying in a nest of bodies. He’s fully clothed. The rest mostly have their clothes on. The bodies are asleep, or else halfway so, fingers languidly rubbing arms and bellies, playing with strands of hair. Ben is wide awake, watching me.
“There you are,” he says. He seems ok.
I try to sit down Indian style but my knees buckle and I fall to the floor in a heap.
Ben frowns. His eyes look sad in the dim light. “What happened to you?” He sniffs the air, looks around. “You smell.”
I wipe at my face before remembering how dirty my hands are. I do smell, like things I don’t even want to name. I start to cry.
For once, Ben looks as if he might cry, as if a big tear might come rolling out one of those shiny little orbs in his skull. Is that what it is? Is it just his eyes? If I had his eyes, transplanted into my head, would it be like this for me?
“What?” Ben looks confused, his brow knit together. He tosses the hair out of his eyes. I guess I’m talking out loud.
“Nothing.” I shake my head. It moves very slowly. “C’mon, let’s go.”
He looks at me in a way that makes me cry some more. I bow my head to hide it. Then Ben rises carefully, slowly untangling himself. I watch him step on a few hands, an arm.
“Here,” I reach out for him, he grabs my wrist and we seesaw back and forth till we’re laughing, then we collapse onto the pile. We clutch at each other and giggle. I’ve never been this close to him before.
“I’m sorry I made you do this.” There are sobs caught in my throat.
“It’s ok.” Ben pats my shoulder and looks at me and smiles, his smile so full of goodness and love, not like all is forgiven, like nothing at all needs to be forgiven, and I realize that of course he knew exactly how this night would go, but he came here with me anyway, just because I asked him to and I suddenly remember some old story, about a woman who wanted to see her lover as he really was and how the sight of him burned her to ash.
A girl lying next to us in only her underwear suddenly sits up, rubbing at her eyes. “Hey,” she says. She smiles dreamily at Ben, tucks a hand into the cup of her bra and pulls out a handful of crushed flower petals. The girl beams, holding the petals out to Ben. He gently plucks them from her palm.
“Make me something!” she squeals.
I glance around the room, noting the stains on the furniture, the overturned pots of philodendrons and mother-in-law’s tongue. There’s an odd, musty smell in the room.
Some of the other bodies stir, emit low moans. Eyes still closed, they begin kissing and rubbing against each other, slowly at first, then harder, gripping each other with their legs till I’m ringed by dry-humpers. They writhe, breathing hard. In the corners of the room there are naked bodies dancing frantically, too fast for me to even see their faces. They’re dancing in time to a drum beat that’s coming from somewhere, or maybe it’s just the pounding of my head. I have a headache, I realize.
There are hands roaming Ben’s body, tugging at his fly, the collar of his shirt. His t-shirt rides up and I see the soft white of his belly. Ben lies there, neither resisting nor participating. He’s looking at me. He must still be drunk.
Do you wanna go? I mouth. A hand strokes my arm and I flinch.
I crawl towards him, then pull him to his feet. The drum beat is getting louder, faster. It’s not inside my head at all, though my whole body is vibrating. It’s like the house is inside the drum, and we’re all unsteady and half-deaf from the rhythm, our bones buzzing.
Arms wrap around Ben’s calves, pull him back down.
“Where are you going?” whines a tiny, disheveled girl from my History class in jeans and a bra. Her eyes are half-closed. She pulls Ben to her breast, begins rocking side-to-side. She throws her head back and starts to howl.
It’s then that I realize that the dry-humping is no longer so dry. There are bobbing, naked asses all around me, winking nipples, glistening teeth, heads thrown back; the lights have gone dim and the air is moist and pungent, like a terrarium. I see the flash of a long neck, knuckles where teeth should be, fingers dipped in a dark mouth, wide, wet eyes staring at me. I reach for Ben’s hand but I can’t find him.
Suddenly, Katie L comes running into the room, her makeup smeared, her hair a mess of frizz. She’s breathing hard, her chest heaving. She points at me. “She puked in my bed!”
For a moment, everything stops. Everything except the incessant pounding of the drum. All of them turn and look at me, mouths tight, bodies still, as if they’re seeing me for the first time. I’m breathing too fast, so fast it feels like I’m not getting any air.
I can’t remember if I actually saw Katie L’s room or if I only imagined it. There isn’t time to figure it out because suddenly there are hands on me, gripping me angrily, pulling at my arms so hard I think they’re going to pop out of their sockets. The drum beats, frantic, the wild heart of a giant animal. Someone is ululating. Someone else is laughing uncontrollably.
They drag me towards the door, I fall to one knee, the one I smashed against the glass door, and I scream with pain. I hear my shirt rip at the armpit. Now everything hurts, everything aches, everything raw, pulverized.
There’s a sound in the living room, a low, sustained moan. I think for a moment that I’m making that sound, but I’m too far away, I’m halfway outside. I feel the sting of the cold, then my body slamming against the concrete as they toss me down the steps.
I hear it again now. I hobble back up the steps, bang on the door. It’s locked. I kick and punch the wood but the door doesn’t budge. The whole house is throbbing, I can feel it through the wood. I hear it again, the voice, fainter but familiar. This time I can make out a word: Help. I throw my body against the door and scream. There are shrieks and squeals coming from inside the house. Someone is yelling “Yeah!” over and over while another voices moans, ohgodohgodohgod. I beat and kick the door till my hands are bloody and my toes feel broken, till my blood is all over the wood, but no one comes. I look around the yard, paw through the old snow, using my wounded hands as shovels, digging frantically for a rock, anything. It takes a long time to find one, too long before I realize there’s a good size stone right there on the curb, smooth, almost round, weighing at least five pounds, gleaming, waiting for me. I heave it at the front window and the glass shatters, then I pull myself up to the ledge and hoist myself through, the broken glass shredding my palms and my legs as I climb over the windowsill and fall to the floor inside.
It’s suddenly quiet. There is no one in the kitchen. I head to the living room. It’s only a few steps, but it feels like I’m moving in slow-motion.
They’re all standing there, naked, covered in blood. There’s blood on their hands, their breasts, their half-hard dicks. Their chins are stained with it, mushrooms growing on their skin. Tiny black frogs drop out of nowhere, hit the floor and hop away. There are angry scratches on their flesh, their hair is wild and crackling with fireflies. A cricket saws its violin legs. They’re just standing there, blinking, like they don’t know where they are. I look down at the state of the carpet: the wet, rusty stains, the uneven patches of lush grass, the dandelions growing out of the cracks in the wood. There’s dirt everywhere and shredded petals; a red flower blooming out of a hole in the wall. A tuft of pollen floats slowly across my field of vision, lands on my arm. I look down at it for a moment, uncomprehending, and then I know. I know before I even see it on the floor: that scrap of something familiar, a piece of Ben’s blue t-shirt.
I close my eyes to stop them from seeing. My teeth clack. I’m shaking. I step back. I can’t breathe. I take another step back and then I turn, run as fast as I can out of the house. Before they all come to.
I run all the way home with my smashed knee, puking and crying along the way, the cold numbing my wounds, my face, freezing my blood. The temperature’s dropped suddenly and snow is falling heavily, muffling the whole neighborhood, covering everything up.
“Ben,” I cry over and over, my mouth hanging open, snot streaming. Maybe he’s coming back, re-forming in a spot of blood and gristle. Maybe he’ll be a giant flower or a ram.
I arrive home and find the house empty, as usual. There’s never anyone there to scold me, to watch over me, no one to demand, hands on hips, “Where were you, young lady?” I go down to the basement and lie on the floor with the lights off, watch the fish coast around, oblivious, in the fish tank. Without Ben, I can hardly stand being down there. I feel the presence of something alive in the dark, watching me.
I wait days, a week. I don’t go to school. After what happened, it’s closed, anyway. I wait for him to come up to the house, tap on the front door, smile at me dreamily when I open it. But he doesn’t come back. I don’t know if it’s because he can’t, or he doesn’t want to. I stay in bed with the shades drawn and a pillow over my head, willing myself to disappear.
Lindsay Merbaum’s stories have appeared in PANK, Anomalous Press, Whiskey Paper, Epiphany, Day One, Harpur Palate, The Collagist, Hobart, Ghost Town, and The Brooklyn Review, among others. Nonfiction bylines include Electric Literature, Marie Claire, Bitch, Bustle, KQED Pop, and more. She received her MFA from Brooklyn College, where she was honored with the Himan Brown Award for Fiction. Her work has also been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and a Story South Million Writers Award. She is currently a fiction editor at Rivet, published by Red Bridge Press.