Play Dead

It had been years since I’d seen Cal; probably not since he married Miranda two years ago. I gave a toast at the wedding and we danced, but after that, life got busy and now it was the occasional text or email, a card at Christmas. Probably for the best. Cal and I were fire and gasoline, like putting a bottle of whiskey in front of a drunk. We were never a good idea.

But here he was, standing in my doorway with a leather weekend bag and no smile. “Everything all right?” I asked. “Are things okay with you and Miranda?”

Things are fine,” he said, coming inside “It’s Rex I’m worried about.”

***

Back in college, Rex, Cal and I were inseparable. I missed those nights; late-night diner runs and movie marathons, lazy afternoons on the couch with a bottle of wine where nothing was said because nothing needed to be said. Rex would smoke, me and Cal would swap stares blurred with aching desire. But college was a long way gone. Cal was a middle-school math teacher and although Rex was my date to Cal’s wedding, I’d lost track of him since, except for the occasional Facebook rant about the Boston Red Sox or the GOP or whatever hyperbole-laden tantrum was on his mind. Still, it was more interesting than reading the results of the “What Condiment Are You” quizzes other college friends posted.

He wants to see us,” said Cal, accepting the beer I offered him. “Tomorrow. Said it was important.”

So let’s go see him,” I said, sitting in the chair across from Cal. I didn’t want to get to close. There were boundaries now, invisible walls between us, and I wasn’t ready to even attempt to scale one. He might cut my rope, and I wasn’t in the mood for rejection. Not when Dashiell was no longer returning my calls.

Cal took a drink and set the bottle on the table and clasped his hands between his knees. “He deleted his Facebook page,” he said. “The message arrived in an email I never check anymore. He sent it weeks ago, but I just got it. I tried to call him, but the line was disconnected. He said if we didn’t show tonight, the next time we saw him would be on TV, and I don’t think he’s a contestant on The Price is Right.”

I pulled up my phone and logged into my own old email. Sure enough, there was the same ominous message. “Shit,” I muttered. “You don’t think.…”

Cal nodded. “He’s planning something and it’s not a surprise party. Whatever it is, we might be able to talk him out of it.”

Shouldn’t we just call the police?” I asked. “Send them over for a wellness check?”

Cal took another drink. “I don’t think so,” he said. “Not until we know what’s going on. Besides.” He stared at me with a firm smile in the corner of his lips. “Despite the fact that he’s an idiot, Rex is our friend. He needs us.”

***

After college, Cal moved to Richmond, Virginia and I went back to Upstate New York, but Rex stayed in our college town, working for a local newspaper. He was quite successful for awhile; working his way up from obituaries to the editor of the metro section. But print is dead, and he lost his job. He got by on freelance gigs, but even those, according to his rants, were drying up.

It was a four hour drive and we took Cal’s car. “What did you tell Miranda?” I asked.

Told her it was a my old roommate’s bachelor party,” he said. “Not a full lie. It is Rex’s ‘Last night as a free man’, as he put it.”

A classic Cal half-truth,” I mused.

You should know,” he said. “You were the subject and the recipient of many.”

I had no one but my boss to lie to about my whereabouts. “What happened to that theater director?” asked Cal. “You liked him.”

Dashiell? His wife got wise.” Dashiell had been charming, with a needle-sharp smile and the wild wantonness men get when they marry boring women, but I knew it wasn’t going to last. They never do. That’s why I sought them out.

You always did have a type,” Cal said.

You fit that category now too,” I replied.

I suppose so,” he said, putting his hand on my knee. “But I’d hate to think of myself as just another one of your affairs. We have something special, you and I. We always have.”

There was a charge between us, an electricity amplified by red wine and late nights and young angst. We’d try to resist it, made pacts and promises that it was always the last time, but we always wound up back in bed, limbs tangled, mouths wet with wanting. Even six years apart couldn’t dull that hunger.

At the halfway point we stopped to gas up. I went in for coffee and when I got back in the car Cal grabbed my jacket collar and pulled me in to kiss me. His mouth tasted exactly as I remembered it. “God I’ve missed you,” he whispered.

I didn’t want to quit kissing him long enough to speak. “I’ve missed you too,” I said against his mouth.

I sat back in my seat. He gunned the engine and we pulled down the first dirt road we saw. I straddled him in the front seat, not even wanting to waste time getting into the back. We had years to make up for, a hundred night to live again. It felt like the end of the world. For all we knew, it could have been.

***

I don’t think Rex had cleaned since the last time we were here. Piles of books, an overflowing ashtray, empty cans of energy drinks crushed under the couch. Even the light filtering through the half-busted blinds looked dirty. Everything had the sour air of decay, as though we’d stepped into an alternate universe, a decrepit flipside of the life we all once shared. Were we looking at a cautionary tale, a reminder that what we had was all borne out of good fortune.

But despite the mess, his apartment still had that same perfect scent; Axe body spray and old tobacco and Diet Coke and mint gum, notes layered and blended to smell like happiness. The sting brought tears to my eyes. Nostalgia was a killer.

Rex looked the same except for the weight gain. Where Cal had sculpted himself and I had traded punk for some semblance of sophistication, Rex had frozen himself in a time when life had promise. His dark puff of hair, his agate eyes, that pretty snarl of a mouth. Only his teeth aged, yellow from a decade of heavy smoking.

But he was happy to see us, his face lighting up as he opened the door. “Just like old times,” he said, hugging us both. “It’s good to see you again. Come in. You want something to drink? I stocked up.”

A beer would be great,” said Cal.

Molly? You want a beer?” he offered.

I’ll take a bottle of water, if you have it.” No way I was drinking anything that came out of that tap. I didn’t trust the cleanliness of his dishes or that the pipes of his ancient apartment building were anything but lead and asbestos.

Only what comes out of the tap,” he said. “I’ve got a couple sodas. I remembered that you liked Jones Cream Soda.”

I had given up drinking soda after college, but I was touched he had recalled such an insignificant detail. “Sure,” I said. “One for old time’s sake.”

Cal took a sip of his beer and leaned against one of the few clean spots on the counter. “Let me just tell Miranda I got here safely,” he said, pulling out his phone. He massaged the screen, but didn’t look happy. “Jesus, Rex, are you living in the Forbidden Zone? No reception.”

Oh, I should have mentioned that. I set up a signal blocker. Your cell phones won’t work.” A slow smile spread across his face. “I wanted us to have a night all to ourselves. Just like back in college.”

Are you holding us hostage?” I joked.

You could say that,” he said. “But we’ve got a lot to talk about and not a lot of time. Wouldn’t want you getting distracted. So get comfortable. I ordered us some Chinese food, should be here any minute.”

***

The food arrived, but I wasn’t hungry enough to eat it. Cal and I sat on the couch, Rex facing us from a busted easy chair. I wanted to hold Cal’s hand, but I couldn’t bring myself to reach for it. Rex didn’t know about our extra-curriculars; I suspected he had harbored a crush on me and finding out that I had been banging Cal on the side the whole time might piss him off. There was a black bag in the corner by the door that kept drawing my eye, as though I could use X-ray vision to see what was inside. We made small talk like diffusing a bomb.

Rex dug into his food. “Last supper,” he joked. “Come on, aren’t you hungry? Eat up, there’s plenty.”

Cal and I both made plates. “You write anything lately?” I asked. “Last time we chatted, you were working on a novel.”

He grinned like that was the question he was waiting for. “Funny you should ask,” he said. He set down his plate and retrieved his laptop, opening it and setting it on the coffee table before us.

We both leaned forward and read. I remembered Rex’s prose being unwieldy, with the loft and heft of every twenty-something Foster-Wallace wannabe, but these sentences were clear and sharp. And there were a lot of them. I looked at the black bag again. I knew what was inside.

Rex,” Cal said, looking up. “This is a manifesto.”

***

Rex lit a cigarette and blew smoke past the chapped corner of his mouth. “I’ve watched it all burn,” he said. “All the promises we were given, the lies we were entitled to. All of it. We were promised jobs, happy lives, all if we just followed our dreams. That’s bullshit. All of us, a whole generation, just scraping by while some Startup asshole drives by in a Porsche because he’s got daddy’s money to spend on it.”

So how does killing a bunch of people solve that?” I asked.

It sends a message,” he said. “I should not have been able to stockpile an arsenal. I shouldn’t have the ability to walk onto campus and start shooting. The Republicans and those Tea Party nazis will have to defend me. They’ll talk about mental health, but the docs will give me a clean bill of health. It’s a statement against the establishment.”

Cal rolled his eyes, his mouth taking on a nasty curl. “That is the dumbest fucking thing I have ever heard,” he said. “This isn’t Fight Club, you are not Tyler Durden.”

If you want to make a statement, why not attack a Tea Party fundraiser?” I said. “These are just students going about their day. They aren’t harming you.”

Rex seemed to be reveling in this. He always loved an argument; would waste hours on message boards explaining why his baseball team was better than yours before ending with and your mother should have aborted you. Cal and I learned long ago how to tune him out, but it was a skill we were rusty on. We never thought it would have life or death consequences.

But something else landed, some piece of information I’d stored in the back of my mind like bar trivia. “Isn’t that where Kelly teaches?” I asked.

His eyes got dark and mean. “Yes,” he said. “9:30 Physics class, Lecture Hall J.”

This much Cal understood. “Rex,” he said. “Let her go. This isn’t worth doing over a girl.”

It’s not about Kelly,” Rex said, although I was pretty sure Cal didn’t believe him either.

***

It was crawling on towards midnight. I excused myself to the bathroom and checked my phone, hoping that maybe I could get a signal out his skylight. No such luck.

I allowed myself a few minutes to panic. I tried not to throw up, tried to calm my heart rate, tried to figure out how the hell we were going to stop this. If we tried to walk out, would he shoot us too?

I leaned my head against the hollow door, listening to him and Cal. “I saw her a few weeks ago,” Rex was saying. “Getting into some jackoff’s sports car. I wasn’t good enough for her. Gold-digging bitch.”

You don’t know that,” said Cal.

Yeah, I do,” he insisted. “That’s what she said when she left. I had no ambition. I spent more time playing video games than with her. Girls just don’t get it.”

Rex,” Cal said sourly. “You’re a grown-ass man. Enough with the video games. You don’t get to act like a dickweed and then blame her for not putting up with your shit.”

Ambition!” Rex said. “She equated ambition with money, and I didn’t have enough money for her. But now I have a goal. Now I have a plan.”

***

The first question anyone ever asks domestic violence victims is why didn’t you leave. It’s a stupid question, but sitting there in Rex’s living room, I suddenly understood what that terror felt like. I couldn’t go. He needed me. He might try to kill me. No one in the world got him the way Cal and I did, and we might be able to talk him out of this.

We talked in circles for an hour. Cal brought more beers to the table, but soon he was the only one drinking them. When Rex went to the bathroom, I checked the cabinets for something to slip in his drink. Nothing that wouldn’t kill him. Cal checked the bag. Guns. Lots of guns.

***

Don’t worry, I’ll spare you,” Rex said. “I’ll need someone to talk to the cameras after I’m done.”

How fucking generous of you,” Cal spat.

I won’t say a goddamn word,” I added. “I’m not going to help spread your bullshit.”

Rex held up a USB drive shaped like a chibi Darth Vader. “That’s a shame. I was going to exchange your testimony for what’s on here, but if you’d rather the cops take it off me…”

What’s on the drive, Rex?” Cal demanded.

Memorabilia,” he said. “Photos, good times, plus some boring medical records.…”

Medical records?” I asked. “What kind of—” Then it hit me like a kick to the throat. “Rex, you asshole. How did you…?”

My dad’s a doctor,” he said. “I pretended to be him, got these sent right over.”

So everyone knows we had mono, who cares?” said Cal. “How does that advance your case?”

Not mono,” Rex said, swinging the USB drive by the keyring. “You don’t go to the women’s clinic on Southside for mono. February 2006, Cal. Do the math.”

It took him a minute. It was late, after all, and then he turned to look at me, slack-jawed. “You were…”

I didn’t want him to say it, as though that would make it true. For all these years I’d compartmentalized and rationalized so that I didn’t have to face the lies I’d told him. “Yes,” I whispered. “Eleven weeks.”

Cal sank back in his chair like someone had stuck a knife between his ribs. I waited with my guts in my throat and Rex smiled like he’d just finished banging a roomful of supermodels. “I’m sorry,” I said, reaching for his hand, limp and cold like a wet dishrag.

His fingers curled into mine and he wrapped his other arm around my shoulders, pulling me in close. “Don’t be,” he said. “You made the right call. I’m just sorry I didn’t know to go with you. It must have been scary going all alone.”

I glared art Rex. “I wasn’t alone,” I said. “I had an escort.”

Isn’t this great!” Rex said, clapping his hands together. “Honesty! This is what we’re all lacking. Why couldn’t you have had this conversation nine years ago? We’re all better for it.”

Says the guy who’s blackmailing us before he commits mass murder,” I said.

He shrugged. “At least I’m being honest.”

You son of a bitch,” Cal spat. “You don’t get to make these decisions for us.”

I did you a favor, going with her,” Rex said. “What would you have told Miranda? She wouldn’t have married you, that’s for sure. Not in that big Catholic church of hers. And Molly, if this gets out, everyone will wonder if I was the father. You’ll get to explain that to Fox News when they’re banging down your door, asking what you knew about me. They’ll crucify you. Of course, this is after they tear apart your lives trying to figure out of you had anything to do with this brutal massacre.” He held up the USB drive again. “And there’s plenty more on here. Police reports, for example. But it can all go in the river if you two will just play along.”

Police reports,” I scoffed. “You’re the only one who’s going to have one of those.” But Cal was pale next to me.

Police reports,” Rex began. “Are public information. A few bucks for photocopies, a FOIL request—God Bless America—and I have the rape claim that Nancy Leonard filed against you.”

Nancy,” Cal through said clenched teeth. “You know that’s bullshit. The cops cleared me. She dropped the charges.”

I know it’s bullshit, but does Miranda? Or will she wonder, every time you get a little rough, if you’re thinking about sweet little Nancy, passed out underneath you from all those Long Island Ice Teas you poured into her. Is that a strain your perfect marriage can handle, Cal?”

Ha,” I said, puffing up my bravado. “Nancy was a penis fly-trap. She’d dump a couple drinks down her throat and spread her legs for anyone. Hardly a credible witness—and anyways, Cal was with me that night. I told the cops that when they asked me.”

Nice try,” said Rex. “But you and I both know you were at the movies with me. What did we see again? The 300? You know I saved all my ticket stubs, it wasn’t difficult to go back and find one for that night. So what’ll it be? Does this go to the cops or into the river?”

I looked at Cal. He looked at me. I held out my hand. “We’ll talk,” I said. “And we’ll tell them what an asshole you were.”

He handed me the USB drive. “That’s fine,” he said. “I just want them all to know I wasn’t a desperate loner. That I had friends, real friends, right up to the end.”

***

It was 2 a.m. My eyes were getting heavy, but I knew I couldn’t sleep. I wasn’t sure I’d ever sleep again. I leaned my head against Cal’s shoulder and he put his arm around me.

I got you each something,” he said, getting up and rifling through a shopping bag. “To remember the good times by.”

Good times?” I snorted. “Like the time you held us hostage before launching a full-scale attack on a campus full of innocent people?”

He smiled at me in a way I hadn’t seen since college—lonesome and wistful and genuine. “The good times,” he repeated. “Before the world got ugly.”

He handed me a record. The Garden State soundtrack, special edition. And despite myself, I actually smiled. “Our first time hanging out,” I said. “After the movie, you bought the soundtrack at Coconuts and we played it in the car on our way home.” I was touched and confused. How could it be that someone once so sweet, so generous be so ready to commit an act driven solely by bitterness? What had the world done to him to destroy the funny, charming Rex I once knew?

To Cal, he gave the deluxe edition of Cards Against Humanity. I rolled my eyes, but Cal seemed genuinely touched. “Thanks man,” he said.

Sorry we can’t play together,” he said. “I bet you’d be pretty badass at the table.”

Cal cracked open the box. “We’ve got a few hours,” he said. “Let’s play.”

So we played. And for a moment, everything felt like old times. Maybe this was just what Rex needed, some friends to remind him that life was pretty great in these quiet, simple moments. We had neglected him as our lives got busy, but we were all together again, playing cards and laughing as though no time had passed at all. I felt an old familiar happiness creep up inside me. I smiled at Rex. “I’ve missed you,” I said. “I’ve missed this,”

Me too,” he said, laying down his card. “I’ll think about this night for the rest of my life. Maybe you can come visit me in prison.”

***

Dawn began filtering in dirty through the broken blinds, lighting the room like a 70s home movie. “I’ll make some coffee,” I volunteered.

None for me, thanks,” said Rex. “I’m pretty amped as it is. Don’t need jittery hands. Someone could get hurt.” He grinned.

I measured enough for a full pot anyways. Each scoop weighed a hundred pounds in my hand. This single act, repetitive, almost automatic, became deliberate and precious. I would make coffee every day for the rest of my life, using these same motions as I had since I graduated college, but the process would carry with it the weight of today. I would probably never enjoy a cup of coffee again.

Cal glanced at me with only the slightest movement of his eyes. The black bag by the door, then to Rex, who was making one final post to whatever trolls den he frequented. We had always joked about our ability to communicate without words; even Miranda had remarked about our seeming ability to read each other’s minds.

Rex finished his post and shut his laptop. “I’m going to grab a shower,” he said. “Want to look clean when those cameras catch my smiling face. You two can wash up after I leave. You’ll have about an hour before things get fun.”

When I heard the shower turn on I got up and retrieved a pistol from the bag. It was loaded. “I’ll do it, if you want,” Cal murmured.

I ignored him. I crept up the hallway, my heart pounding in my chest. I swore Rex could hear it over the running water. For all I knew, he had a gun in there with him, but that was a risk I was going to have to take.

I threw open the door. Rex slid back the shower curtain and said part of my name before I fired two rounds into his chest. His eyes went wide as he slammed against the wall, the water running blood in thin streams down his chest. His lips kept forming words, but his throat didn’t cooperate.

I hated seeing him suffer. Always had. Poor lug never stood a chance, never developed the tactics to survive and thrive in this world, just inflated his ego higher and higher like a life raft. But I wasn’t about to let him take other people out with him. There were tears in my eyes. I turned and left the room, passing the gun to Cal. “Finish the job,” I said. “Make it quick.”

Cal took the pistol and retrieved a stack of paper from the printer. He took the USB drive off the coffee table. I heard the second shot, to the head, I presume. The misery shot, like a rabid dog. The water turned off and then there was the flutter of papers.

Cal came back, wiping the fingerprints off the gun with a dirty towel. “What was that?” I asked. “The papers?”

His manifesto,” he said. “Figured the cops deserved to see what we stopped him from doing.” He looked out the window down into the parking lot. “The coast looks clear,” he said. “Let’s go before someone sees us.”

***

We drove halfway home before we stopped at a motel. Cal paid for the room in cash. But we didn’t fuck. We didn’t even get undressed to shower. We lay on the bed, curled into each other, not saying a word.

I thought about the night before graduation. We’d come from one last night at Rex’s and lay just like this, streetlights filtering through the cheap curtains of my basement apartment. I struggled against sleep because I knew it would be the last time we would hold each other like that. And now, at 10 a.m., I did the same thing. This secret would bind us more than a marriage would, but it would be an unspoken union, one that might come with the price of never seeing each other again. We would slowly fall back into our old lives, burying this deeper and deeper until it seemed like an old nightmare.

We slept for three hours. I was home by dinner. I said my goodbyes to Cal, knowing they were probably permanent. He said his goodbyes in a way that I knew he understood. Fire and gasoline. A bad cocktail.

I wondered if anyone had found Rex’s body yet. Who was there to realize he was gone? Was there a neighbor to call the cops at the sound of gunshots, or would someone investigate only when the stench of his rotting body got too much to bear? I hated the thought of him being alone even one more hour.

I found the number for the police in Rex’s neighborhood. I called and gave his address, said I needed a welfare check and hung up.

On my desk was a picture of Rex and Cal and I on graduation day. We’ve got our arms around each other’s waists and we’re smiling because we’ve our whole lives ahead of us, because we believe that we’re going to be friends just like this through every minute of it. That was the promise we had broken. That was the biggest lie we had told.

About the Author

Libby Cudmore

Libby Cudmore’s stories and essays have appeared in Big Lucks, Chamber Four, The Vestal Review, PANK, The Citron Review, Kneejerk, Connotation Press, Postcard Press, Umbrella Factory, Independent Ink, The MacGuffin, The Yalobusha Review, The Chaffey Review, and The Southern Womens Review, as well as The Writer, Mixitini Matrix and ARCANE II (with Matthew Quinn Martin). She is currently spending a year living by vintage beauty and dating guides at www.geekgirlgoesglam.com.

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