The Most Important Night of Their Lives
by Zack Graham
We have a boy (Sam) and a girl (Alicia) who believe they are in love. She’s a pretty sophomore; he’s a popular senior with a baseball scholarship. They have no idea this is the most important night of their lives.
It begins outside of a New Jersey train station.
“We have to be back by six,” Alicia says. “My dad gets up at six thirty.”
Sam hears her loud and clear, whispers “of course” into her ear, kisses her, wraps the four corners of his body around her, tells her about how much fun they’re going to have at the rave in Brooklyn. Before long, she’s smiling.
His whispered assurances and hilarious stories of raves past take up the entire train ride to Brooklyn. It’s a warm summer night, but Alicia shivers as they exit the train station. The wide, trash-strewn streets feel forgotten, and our girl is used to the wending lanes and manicured lawns of suburban Jersey.
“You sure this is it?” she asks.
Sam snaps back into action, wrapping his hands around her hips and pressing himself into her from behind, assured whisperings, the whole act.
Sam leads Alicia down an alley toward a rusted door. He bangs on the door until it opens.
Sam’s brother Rick is more mannequin than man. His hair is tied into a samurai knot. He hugs Sam, then Alicia.
“It’s been too long!” Sam says.
“How you been?” Rick asks.
“Can’t complain. Excited to get out of mom and dad’s.”
“I still can’t believe you got into Vandy! Smart ass,” Rick turns to Alicia, “how’ve you been?”
“Good,” Rick runs his fingers through his hair, his eyes lingering on Alicia.
“When do you go on?” Sam asks.
“Soon,” Rick says, “follow me.”
Rick leads them down a series of narrow hallways that buzz and quake to the music coming from the center of the warehouse. They enter a room filled with skinny people clothed in black. Rick ushers Sam and Alicia around the room for a series of introductions no one will remember. Sam and Alicia stand against the wall near a blond girl holding a bag of white powder and a man wearing a choker. Sam and Alicia watch the girl dip a credit card into the bag and pull it out, balancing a massive mound of white powder on it. The chokered man sniffs violently at the mound, and it vanishes.
Alicia gives Sam an I’m-really-scared-let’s-get-out-of-here tug of the sleeve, and Sam picks up on the cue, embracing Rick, telling him that he and Alicia are going to explore the venue a bit. Rick gives Sam two wristbands so they’re allowed backstage when they return.
Sam leads Alicia into a warehouse full of people in jumpsuits and tutus and masks covered with paint and glitter and sweat rutting against each other to the music. The bass punches them in the bowels twice a second. Alicia says something about how loud the warehouse is, but the music drowns her voice out. Sam can’t look away from the menagerie of bodies.
A man with gauges in his ears approaches Sam and yell-whispers in his ear. Sam takes a twenty out of his pocket and slides it into the man’s hand, and the man presses a baggy containing a large yellow pill into Sam’s palm. The man walks away.
Alicia, screaming in Sam’s ear: What is it? You shouldn’t do it! I can’t believe you! But Sam hasn’t come to nuzzle and cuddle Alicia all night. He wants to try E. Sam remembers watching Rick skip across the lawn at seven in the morning, his eyes full of dark light. Alicia doesn’t do drugs because of what they did to her brother and her uncle. Sam’s been sensitive to Alicia’s intolerance for years. But it’s the end of the summer, and he’s leaving for college, and he wants one night, one wild, crazy night in Brooklyn. Is that too much to ask?
“I love you,” Alicia kisses Sam so delicately on his neck. Sam cups the back of Alicia’s skull with his hand, holds her close, grins. She has consented. He takes the pill out of the bag and pops it into his mouth. He turns his attention to the stage. His brother is about to go on.
“Thank you so much Brooklyn,” a voice rings out. “We got time for one more. Let’s blow this bitch up!”
Blue and red lights run over Sam’s arms and through Alicia’s hair. Green lasers slice at them. Synthetic smoke falls over them. The bass pounds. A synthesizer sears the airwaves, something between an ambulance and a kitty cat. It all builds — the synth, louder and louder, the bass, deeper and deeper, the people all around them, more and more ferocious. Silence.
The bassline smacks them squarely in their chests. Sam starts moving in all sorts of ways. It’s as though a little alien is wriggling under his skin. Alicia is shifting her weight from foot to foot, glancing around nervously.
Rick takes the stage and thrusts his fists into the air like a World Heavyweight Champion. Sam goes crazy. He jumps up and down. He screams. He looks like he barely has control over his body.
A thick, demonic bassline shakes the warehouse from its very foundation. Sam feels as though the sounds are snakes coiling inside of his brain. The song intensifies, builds, drop again. More bass, more synths, more drums, harder, faster.
Sam feels like his bones have fallen out of his body. All he can do is thrust and squirm to the music. His nerves are on fire. He feels like he’s going to vomit, shit, cry and laugh all at once. He stops dancing and bends over, his hands on his knees. The sensations sloshing through him are getting more and more intense. He can’t control them. But he doesn’t want to scare Alicia.
He signals that he’s going to get a bottle of water. He tells her to stay there. She protests, but he says he’ll be back, and she grudgingly lets him go.
He never should have left her. She was the only person who would have been able to help him. She knows it, too, as she watches him wend through the bodies away from her. Her gut tells her that he’s in danger, that he’s trying to act tough, but that he needs her or something bad is going to happen. But by the time she listens to her instincts, he’s already gone. And if she goes to find him, he won’t know where to find her. She continues her stationary shuffle, every passing minute driving her increasingly insane.
Sam sees a sign that says “BAR” with an arrow pointing down a stairwell. The stairs are slick with grimy water, so he grips the filthy handrail as he descends.
He enters a basement with a smaller crowd dancing to a different DJ. Groupings of couches and chairs are scattered here and there. The bar is in the corner. To Sam, it looks like a levitating island made of light. He tries not to look at the cashier during the transaction, but when he does, her face looks like a pot of boiling flesh. Whatever is inside of him, it definitely isn’t E.
Maybe if he sits down for a couple of minutes, he’ll feel better.
He walks over to one of the clusters of couches and sits between a few guys smoking a joint and a girl watching the multicolored lights on the tips of her gloved fingers swirl and twist. As soon as he sits down, the couch starts to feel like the wall, so he stands up again. But as soon as he stands, the floor’s center of gravity shifts ninety degrees as well.
“Holy shit,” says Sam. “I’m standing on the wall.”
The dance floor rotates until the ravers are dancing on the ceiling. Sam turns to the girl with the gloves.
“Why are so many people standing on the ceiling?”
“Because the floor is boring,” she says without looking at him.
Sam doesn’t want to start crying, but he’s close. What he sees confuses him so. He wants to go home. He wants Alicia. He needs Alicia.
He takes out his phone. Alicia has called him four times and sent him twelve text messages. It’s been an hour and a half since his brother went on, ninety minutes that, to Sam, have felt like ten.
But it’s been ninety minutes of agony for Alicia. She finally convinced herself to look for Sam thirty minutes after he left her. She’s been searching frantically, but can’t find any signs of Sam. She calls and calls and texts and texts, walking back and forth past the stairs descending into the basement, but she never sees the sign that says “BAR,” and doesn’t know why anyone would even consider going down there, seeing as the upstairs dance floor is scary enough. Maybe Sam found another girl? Maybe Sam is being strapped to a gurney and deposited into the back of an ambulance? Maybe he’s dead?
Sam isn’t dead, of course. He’s trying to call Alicia back, but every time he presses a fingertip to the screen of his phone, his fingers melt into the cold glass, and it takes him a while to pull them out. He can’t work his phone. He needs to find her in person.
He’s getting used to the room turning over and over on itself, and he can walk if he does so slowly, step by step, like an astronaut on the moon. So he’s moonwalking through the crowd en route to the stairs when he sees Alicia dancing. He approaches and taps her on the shoulder.
“Here I am,” he says. She turns around — she’s prettier than ever, her thin lips, her big eyes.
“Who are you?”
“Alicia — it’s me.”
“I don’t know you,” Alicia says.
“What are you talking about baby?” Sam reaches out to her. She pushes him away.
“I don’t know you. Please, back off.”
Sam turns to his right to see Alicia standing a few feet away. He looks back to the girl in front of him: she’s also Alicia. Sam whirls around to see that every girl standing in the near vicinity is Alicia. Thirty Alicias, all around him.
“But which one’s the right one…” Sam runs his fingers through his hair, “Alicia!”
They all turn to him and wave, then go back to dancing.
He needs to get out out out. He needs to find the real Alicia. She’s the only one who can help him.
She’s trying her hardest. She goes backstage when Rick finishes his set and falls into his arms, sobbing and hiccuping, embarrassing him in front of all of his cool, drugged-out friends. She tells him that Sam took a pill and started acting strange, that he left her in the middle of the dance floor, that he’s been unresponsive to her texts and calls for hours.
Rick brings her to a different room backstage and comforts her, tells her that she’ll find Sam, that Sam’s fine. Rick doesn’t tell her how pretty she looks when she cries. He doesn’t tell her that he’s fantasized about her before. The more Rick comforts her, the more he touches her skin and strokes her hair, the less safe Alicia feels. When she tries to leave the room, Rick blocks her path. She says they need to find Sam, that Sam is in trouble.
“Sam’ll be fine. Don’t worry about Sam.”
She can see it in Rick’s eyes, then, all of the things he hasn’t said to her. She pushes him and runs out of the room and back into the warehouse. Where could Sam be? Is he alright?
Sam’s alright. He’s moonwalking his way in the direction of the stairs. His progress is agonizingly slow.
When Sam finally arrives at the stairway, he finds that the stairs go sixteen different ways. Spirals, octagons, dodecahedrons. Some stairs lead into themselves. Some stairs even go straight down to hell.
A tall man, his face a froth of flesh, approaches the stairwell.
“What peculiar stairs, am I right?” Sam says.
The man gives Sam an uneasy look and walks past him.
“Be safe,” Sam says. “Let me know if you find a map!”
The song changes, and a bomb-blast of a kick drum consumes the room. Throom. Throom. Throom.
All… together… now:
The Alicias turn to stare at Sam (throom throom) they begin to cry (throom throom) they begin to scream (throom throom) they claw their wrists (throom throom) they claw their thighs (throom throom) they claw their cheeks (throom throom) they claw their eyes (throom throom) the more it hurts (throom throom) the less they feel (throom throom).
Sam looks back at his phone. A tiny Alicia hologram is standing on its surface.
“Where are you Sam?” the little Alicia hologram asks. “Why did you abandon me?”
“I’m so sorry…” Sam’s leaning against the wall, which becomes the floor, which becomes the wall, which becomes the ceiling, which becomes the wall. “Alicia, forgive me? I love you. I need you. Please…”
He pleads for the miniature Alicia’s forgiveness until she disappears, at which point Sam looks around and realizes the basement is almost empty. He sees a window across the room. He runs across to it. It’s old, mostly broken. It won’t hold. Sam backs up, takes a deep breath, and sprints straight ahead. He dives through the window — it shatters. He lands in the dirt outside. Filthy shards of glass are sticking out of his hands and wrists.
Sam looks up. A rocky slope leads down to the bank of the East River, and, somewhere over the East River, Sam’s reality turns upside down. The sea of skyscrapers coating Manhattan is inverted. The sun rises in reverse, illuminating the tips of the tallest buildings. The sky is a sea beneath the world.
Sam sits on the rocks and stares at the inverted skyline until the sun burns a hole in his vision. The image tears through Sam’s identity. He thinks of his brother and his parents and his favorite color and his favorite film. Names. All names. He has no passions, no goals, no real desires, no sense of purpose. He realizes that the best he can hope for in college is an extension of the importance Alicia gives him, the kind of satisfaction society has been telling him he wants since he was a little boy. He went to a spooky rave and took a pill, and all he wanted to do all night was hold Alicia. He’d give anything to be with her now, inside of her, throughout her.
Alicia wanders the warehouse for another hour. She’s completely despondent. It’s so late. She needs to leave in an hour, thirty minutes, ten minutes, five, but she can’t leave Sam here alone with these people. She calls and calls and calls and, finally, Sam answers. He tells her he’s watching the end of the world. He tells her the sun will explode if he turns away.
She finds him on the rocks watching the sunrise. He refuses to turn away from the sun. She sits in his lap, wraps herself around him, whispering in his ear, as he always does to her. He rejoins reality. He sees her in front of him. The horizon remains a reflection in a convex mirror, but she is real flesh and blood, her heart, her eyes.
He apologizes. They kiss. They make eye contact. They cry. They shake.
Sam watches Alicia’s head rotate on her neck until it’s upside down. Her tears float into the air, a steady stream of confused raindrops.
She looks at Sam’s red eyes and gigantic pupils, filled with the shock of the things he has seen, and she barely recognizes him.
She looks down to see the pieces of glass lodged in his wrists, pieces of glass, they will soon discover, that have caused severe tendon damage, which will end Sam’s baseball career and nullify his scholarship to Vanderbilt.
She looks at her watch. It’s too late to be home on time.
Alicia will get home in two hours, and her drunk father will punch her so hard in the chest that she won’t breathe for ten seconds. This blow will crack her, shatter her. She’ll let her father fall to his knees and beg for an apology, and then she’ll slip a paring knife neatly into his neck.
Who knows what will happen after that. Maybe Sam will start hanging out with Rick, get a bartending job, move to Brooklyn, start collecting records. Maybe after Alicia does three years in a juvenile penitentiary, she’ll move near Sam. Maybe Sam and Alicia will fall into a new kind of love then, a comforting love that rids their minds of their lack of trajectory and relative poverty, that difficult, painful, desperate love that spoils ambition and ruins potential. Maybe, after a while, their love will not be enough, and he will start shooting up when she isn’t around. Maybe then, convincing himself that it will somehow make their lives better, even though it’s just the dope talking, he will show her how to shoot up too. Maybe then addiction will supplant their love. Maybe they’ll descend deeper, deeper, until she will reach for the fire-breathing dragon flying high in the sky of her subconscious and pour so much poison into her veins that she’ll never be back again. Maybe, after he discovers her corpse, he’ll swallow twelve OxyContin and twenty Advil before slicing his wrists vertically for safe measure. Maybe, as he’s dying, he’ll see Alicia’s face on the most important night of their lives, the inverted sunrise lighting her body on fire, her head rotating upside down to align with the descending sun. Maybe. Maybe not.
Zack Graham is a writer living in New York. He’s at work on a collection of short stories and a novel.
Image source: A. Moreira via Creative Commons.