Estimated reading time — 18 minutes
I told Gage not to take it. For weeks now stories had been coming in about these goddamn ‘chill pills’. That you could go to this awesome psychedelic place, you know, a real ‘trip’. And normally, yeah, that’d be my jam. That night we were at our usual place, a club called Spun, one where the music blasts so hard it goes right through you. And when everyone’s out on the dance floor it’s like we’re just one big mass of seething waves of colors and flashing lights. But that was in the old days…
“Man, don’t listen to the hype,” I tried to tell my friend. My favorite people and I were all smushed into a random green sofa in the loft, and Gage’s pupils were already wide- he was rolling on ecstasy as it was. The pill was right there in his hand. But I’d seen too much to know otherwise. The pills made you a real deadhead… I mean, they CHANGED people. Not like a bad acid trip or something. It was more than that. You came back all different, quiet and not fun the way you were before- and that’s if you were lucky.
The unlucky ones? They went out the hard way. Overdose. Jesus, in all the years we’d been doing this I’ve never seen so many ODs, and it frightened me. I’d lost friends over this, and I wasn’t about to lose another. Usually I’m the cool guy, down with whatever, but I tried to snatch the pill out of Gage’s hand. He was too fast- he clenched it tight in a fist.
“Lay off, Reymer,” he said, laughing. “Since when are you my MOM? Jeez, it’s just a trip. Take it easy, man.”
I sighed and looked around. Next to me, snuggled in tight, was my girl Brit- she always had a camera in her hand and a bajillion ideas in her head, and I was sulking from Gage and kissing her on her creamy-coffee skin, as she giggled and her Kandi bracelets went all a-jingling. Brit, man, she could put up with anything. That’s probably why she had gotten cornered on the other side by Busby’s squeeze, our friend Sammi.
We loved Sammi, in a kind of tolerating way. She was a real space case with a thing for rave costumes and hopped around at a million miles an hour, letting everyone know ten times (twenty if she was high) that it was Sammi with an I, like, OK? The girl was all zippers and cords, her hair a bleach-blonde pixie cut that flew around wildly as she gabbed at Brit, who just smiled patiently. At one point I’d looked over and Sammi was even applying this blacklight face paint shit onto her, but she let her. Brit’s a go-along girl. I love her for that.
Lastly there was Busby, my main man. We’d been pals since school. To most people he’s just that drug hook-up, that shady guy who sells you weed or party pills, but who you’re a little too afraid of. Funny thing is, he was just a normal dude when you got to know him, just a stoner in an oversized hoodie and the same old rasta beanie hat every day. But he was a guy you could depend on, in the end. Busby was the coolest.
I wanted to stay with my friends, but next thing I knew Gage was down the stairs going to the main dance platform, and I was worried. Our little group seemed to grow smaller every day, these fucking pills. So even when Brit looked up at me with begging brown eyes, I went after him.
“Man oh man,” he told me with wide eyes, glancing around the room. “Trip of a lifetime, dude.” He was shivering, and I touched his arm. God, it was cold.
“You got fuckin’ ice water in your veins, Gage!” I shouted to him over the beat.
He just flashed a dopey grin. “I know. But it’s the best kinda cold, man. See the walls?” They were just plain club walls, still that dull grey from the warehouse it used to be. But Gage looked fascinated by them. He started dancing up on some girls, and they greeted him with various looks of confusion and annoyance. I dragged him away.
“You’re being too handsy, dude. Why don’t we-“ Suddenly he turned to face me, breathless, and pulled me into a bear hug. “The fuck, man?!” It was like his touch was electric, and I swear when I pushed him off and he exhaled I could see it in the air, like on a winter’s day, a thousand tiny particles making icy mist. He just kept on staring at everything. “I’m sorry, man, you can’t take this shit, Gage!” But he just laughed it off and waved his arms around, ‘one’ with the crowd.
I made my way back upstairs, only to find Busby standing over our little sofa group trying to make a pitch. And boy, was he a salesman if I ever saw one. “Listen up guys, it’s like this.” He had attracted a few other clubbers, some college co-eds in kitty hoods and a dude playing with glow toys. “I can hook you up with one of the sweetest and, I happen to know-“ He lowered his voice like he held the secrets of the universe in one of those little baggies. “-most POTENT new highs.”
I started to say something, to stop him, but he was way into his song and dance now. Even Brit, who was finally free of Sammi the neon pink-and-green fairy, was looking a bit interested. “When you take it, you feel like MORE than yourself.”
“Like LSD?” asked one of the school chicks, entranced.
He chuckled. “Even crazier. It’s like another piece of you, that you never knew you were missing. Just picture that. People go WILD on this stuff.”
“They fucking die on this stuff,” I finally piped up. I didn’t wanna harsh out my pal, I really didn’t, but if he was talking about what I thought he was, I wasn’t about to watch my friends fall prey.
“Are you talking about… those COLD pills?” asked Brit, her brown hair swaying loose around her shoulders as she turned to him, incredulous.
“CHILL pills. And ain’t nobody dyin’, alright? Don’t believe everything you hear.” He shot me an irritated look. But some of the others seemed kind of skeptical, so Busby finished up. “Anyway, maybe you should check it out for yourSELF. So if you’re lookin’ for that kind of flavor, just hit me up, you know? Not gonna lie- it’s one trip you WON’T forget.”
To my dismay, Sammi was shimmying her little leg-warmers over the sofa to Busby, giving him a glittery kiss on the cheek. My eyes met hers with a solid, no kind of look, but she brushed it off. “D’ya think you could… hook me up, babe?” It was like I was in the fucking Twilight Zone or something. Was NOBODY else a little wary of this shit? I tried one more time.
“Busby, I don’t think she should,” I told him. “That guy Chip from senior year? I heard he ended up in a fucking BODY BAG from these tabs. And what about Sprite?” We all glanced down at our feet with renewed sorrow. Sarah or “Sprite” had been our friend, sharing the love at every dance party and sporting these crazy rainbow wigs. She was smart, going to med school soon, even. They found her dead a week ago in a club bathroom. Chill pills.
“Not to mention all the zombies walking around.” I gestured to a group of guys we saw every now and then, those dudes that hand out flyers for new parties, shit like that. Or that’s what they USED to do. Now they just sat around, quiet. I felt so fucking alone as I watched Busby reach into his pocket. That was it. Brit and I were out of there.
Sure enough, when the couple stopped by our apartment the next week to drive us to this summer jam, Sammi the fairy had become a calm, dreads-free girl in jeans and a t-shirt, complimenting our ‘nice place’. I couldn’t believe just one pill and BAM, a friend was now a stranger. But we had a party to go to, and next thing I knew we were at this sweet indoor-outdoor joint that’s always crowded and smells weird, but gets the best DJs.
I was dancing with Brit and taking in the warm evening on the porch, but I couldn’t help feeling like I didn’t know anyone else there. Gage had been parked in the corner for an hour now, shooting me a frosty smile when I waved to him. “Don’t worry, Reymer,” Brit told me as if sensing my thoughts. “I mean, look at Sammi, she’s doing okay!”
“Yeah, if you call a total change in behavior okay,” I said glumly. She took my hand and we sat on some old beanbags. “I dunno, Brit…” I loved her, but trying to put it all into words was too much. I put my head in my hands and she rubbed my back.
“Look, babe, it’ll work out in the end. Maybe it’s just… temporary.” I pulled her close to me, desperate for someone to cling to, and took in the smell of this berry shampoo she always used. “Hey! I’ll tell you something.”
She was suddenly on about one of her numerous ideas. “See, it’s gonna be this ZOMBIE film, but like, in a club. Kinda like this one, right?” I couldn’t help but crack a smile. “We can call it… Rave-N-Ous. Get it?” We both fell back laughing, as she told me, “OK, this is the best bit. It’s like, the tagline, alright?”
“Okay, okay, go for it.”
“P. L. U. Z.” She punctuated each letter with a jab of her finger, making invisible dots in the air. “Peace- love- unity- and zombies!” I leaned in for a kiss, her lips glossy and warm.
“It’s a good idea, babe. I love it.” With a squeeze of my hand, she stood and gestured to the grass, where a number of dancers had gathered and a pleasant breeze was blowing in the smell of the city. But as I went to follow her, Sammi ran up to me, and I first I hoped she was back to her old self- but then I saw her panicked face. “It’s Busby, Reymer. He took too much- oh God, oh jeez!” She shifted from foot to foot. “Please… he was in the back rooms with some guys hashing out business. Come on!”
“Alright, it’s OK, we got this.” We hurried to a private room, where people go to make deals or screw sometimes, behind a wooden panel to keep it all hush-hush. Busby was shaking uncontrollably, his face soaked in sweat, under a layer of sheets on a dirty old mattress. He kept piling on more; a ratty blanket, and even jackets. I went down to him right away, but he was delirious as Hell.
“I’ve had it, man,” he told me. “Reymer, I’ve had ENOUGH. You get me? Enough of being… somebody else…” He was on the verge of tears, and I tried to gauge if this was just some bad trip, or medical shit we really needed help for. “I just wanna be me again, but I, I don’t know who that is…”
“You’re fine, dude, you’re fine.” We were always the last to seek outside help- or God forbid, call the cops- but he was pale and wouldn’t stop trembling, so I turned to Sammi. “Alright, this is bad. Find the party guy, the main one. His name’s Tyler. Tell him to start getting people out.” I took Busby’s hand, his fingertips mottled. I wasn’t about to watch my best friend OD.
“Jeez… Okay, I’m going!” As she ran from the room I called after her, “Tell everyone to BAIL NOW!” That meant get rid of everything- if you were carrying, dump it or run. Leave before the cops get here. Hide your shit. Busby started to laugh, his red-tinted goggles now over his eyes.
“Know what’s funny, Reymer? They’re just for decoration,” he told me. “They don’t do SHIT in the real world. They don’t keep out a bit of cold- or sunlight-“
I was sweating myself with fear, and grasped his hand tighter. “There’s no sunlight here, Busby. You gotta keep breathing and stay awake with me, OK man? Come on!” His breathing had become shallow, slow. I felt so fucking helpless. Outside the room I could hear the kids running, and the music shut off. At last, the sound of sirens caught my attention, and I turned back to my friend.
“See? They’re here, Busby. They’re gonna take care of you, man.” Just as I reached into his cargo pocket to hide his pills, he suddenly grabbed me with a white, icy hand. “I just wanted to be in the good world, Reymer,” he said to me, his voice weak between hard breaths. “It’s finally… my chance…”
I had to swallow back my tears, quietly tucking his baggies down my pants and trying to reassure him, but his eyes were unblinking, staring at the ceiling. The EMTs ran over and I ushered them in, thinking to myself it was too late. My own best friend, and he was… gone. I stumbled back out onto the deck and to my surprise, one of the only people still there was Brit, now donning neon sunglasses and sitting against the railing.
I ran to her. “Brittany, it’s Busby. He took too fucking much… Christ, I think he’s dead.” I ran my hands over my gelled hair, feeling so goddamn stupid and miserable. To make matters worse, her eyes were glassy. “Oh God, you didn’t, Brit- what are you tripping on? What the FUCK did you take?”
She waved a hand at me and moaned, “Reymer, it’s too bright out here.” I was baffled. It was dark out, crickets chirping as I heard them loading the ambulance. But I had his stuff still on me- there was no time to stay behind, so I hoisted her against my shoulder.
“Come on, we have to hurry.” We didn’t even get the chance to find a ride. “Man, please don’t tell me you took that shit. I can’t fucking lose you, baby. We’re going home.”
“I like it better out here,” she mumbled as we raced down the street. By the time we’d reached the apartment, it was late and my feet were aching. I put Brit into bed and laid down beside her, wiping away my tears. She had a strange air of calm about her, arms and legs open wide like a snow angel. I swear just as I passed out, exhausted in my gloom, she looked almost- relieved.
Busby wasn’t a guy that ‘did’ funerals. So when it came time, I contacted all of our pals to throw a ‘life celebration’ at his place. I figure it’s what he would have wanted. Brit would go around weeping, but I had this nagging feeling that something had changed, and not just because he was gone. I suggested she do a video memorial, but she just kind of shrugged and told me, “Okay… yeah.” I gathered up all his paraphernalia in his bedroom, ready to pass it out to everyone, when Brit found me hungover on the edge of his bed.
“Oh Reymer.” She wrapped her little tan arms around me. “As long as you still have his stash… maybe you should use. It would make you feel better.”
I brushed her off in disgust. “What, seriously? Right now as people are arriving to fucking, REMEMBER our dead friend? You think I should get high?” I didn’t know this girl anymore. I didn’t know any of them. Sammi in the downstairs hall- looking at pictures of them in frames as if he were a stranger, when they’d been high school fucking sweethearts. Gage off in his own little world now, not the jolly guy I used to party with. And now Brit…
“It isn’t like that,” she protested in a sweet voice. “The chill pills are amazing… they’ll change the way you see everything. He’d WANT you to party at his place one last time.”
My stomach twisted into knots. “Jesus, what happened to you, Brit? What about all your little- plans? Remember? Rave-N-Ous? THAT’S the you I’m looking for right now, not this… this other fucking you!”
“Rave-N-Ous… right.” Her eyes darted uncertainly for a moment, and then she smiled. “The movie! Of course. Peace… love… unity…” I waited. My voice was low and hard.
“AND zombies. …get out of his room. Now.” She just sat there blankly. “OUT!” At once she was running down the stairs, screaming, “Jeez Reymer, I was just trying to make you feel better! What’s your deal with this stupid movie thing anyway… Busby’s fucking DEAD!”
The door slammed and she joined the others by the poolside, her words echoing in my head as I looked around despondently. My reality had gone from a fun adventure to a cold, hard slap in the face, and I was alone now more than ever. I didn’t want this reality anymore. There was one thing I could still use to escape… and even against my better judgment, I wanted it. So I got the small, white pills out and took two of them.
Onset was almost immediate- I was still in Busby’s room, but now it was decked out in a plush carpet and the most realistic images I’d ever seen projected on the walls, showing exotic fish swimming as rays of sunshine beamed down from the ceiling. “Reymer.” I stood and turned, gasping when I saw him… Busby, alive again, and yet different. His clothes much nicer; no hat, but plenty of bling; and though he smiled at first, that soon faded. I wondered if I hadn’t gone into a bad trip as his face went pale and angry.
Approaching him, I reached through one of the walls, or rather, its hologram, and found my hand at a window and looked outside, past the imaginary clownfish. Snow was falling, and yet there were hordes of partiers all of a sudden, decked out in heavy gear and going nuts. I saw people fucking in the pool, shivering as they did so, four and five at a time. Bottles and joints lay everywhere as music blared, and those who didn’t dance just stumbled around, drinking and swallowing what they could find. Busby reached out his arm to steady me as I cowered in terror, but I ran.
The stairs had become a polished marble as I descended them, in what was evidently a much fancier version of Busby’s place. Once I opened the doors I stood shaking in the icy air, wandering around the chaos. The sky was dark and inhospitable, full of clouds. I stumbled toward the kids, who all greeted me in various states of intoxication, some already passed on on the lawn as snowflakes continued to fall. Then, there they were- Gage and Sammi, sitting in a couple lawn chairs and clutching each other for warmth. Sammi was downing a bottle of whiskey, and I ran to them in confusion and horror.
“What the fuck is happening, guys? The FUCK is going on?” Sammi just kept drinking, a single angel wing strapped over her shoulder missing most of its glittery feathers, the tears practically frozen upon her red cheeks.
“Reymer, man- just got here?” asked Gage. I nodded, rubbing my own arms in the frigid day air. “I don’t know much more than you, dude. I tripped a couple weeks ago… I just came here because everyone’s partying, and I figured, hey, get warm. Take some pills. Fucking pills…” He laughed sadly at the notion. “Sit down, man.” I pulled a chair beside them.
“We went… somewhere else when we tripped,” Gage slurred. “THIS fucking place. They say there was an event here…. a month ago, maybe more, I dunno. Except after this eclipse thing in the sky, it didn’t end when it was supposed to, and the darkness… it didn’t fucking go AWAY, man.” My heart pounded, but I just kept nodding for him to go on. He took a swig of the bottle. “The sunshine is gone now. All gone. This place is fuckin’ dying, Reymer. It’s falling away from the sun, the TV says.”
I slowly rose to my feet. “No, this is a trip, Gage. This is a goddamn drug, and I am not FUCKING here! I’m going back to my own damn world!”
Gage just laughed. The sound of gunfire rang out in the crowd, and Sammi screamed and began to run off, her wing flapping loosely. Some people freaked out, but most of them just kept on… dancing. Partying. Screwing. Holy fuck, this place was Hell. I dashed back into Busby’s house and locked the door behind me, backing away as the sound of hands pounding began to come from outside, voices begging and screaming.
I nearly jumped a mile as a blonde in a bikini came from the hall, a rainforest scene projected behind her. “Hey baby… while you’re here, wanna stay a while with me?” She suddenly pulled herself to me and began grinding against my leg, her hand reaching down my pants, and I brushed her off. I didn’t know this chick, and just wanted to get back. Her sweet face soured and she grabbed a vase off a stand, smashing it to the floor. “Damnit, don’t leave me like this!” she screeched as I tried to fend her off, going up the steps. “You hear me?!? I don’t want to die a virgin! COME BACK!”
I headed back into Busby’s room where all at once he shoved me to the ground, adjusting his oriental robe and saying through gritted teeth, “Figure it OUT yet, Reymer, ol’ buddy of mine?” I struggled back on my hands, sinking into the rug.
“Just tell me how we can leave, Busby. If you’re alive I can…” Before I could say another word, he gave me a hard kick to the gut and I curled up on my side, groaning.
“That’s right, YOU can! YOU can go back to YOUR world- the better world.” He bent down but I scooted away, straightening against the wall, an illusion of coral reef dancing in my face. “Busby, man, we’re friends. I didn’t know you were stuck in this shithole… We can help each other.”
Busby was infuriated. “Oh, CAN WE?” He leaped at me but I dodged and punched him hard in the jaw, sending him back onto the bed with his robe splaying open over thick silver pajamas. “Because all of this?” He unsteadily rose and indicated the resplendent room. “All the money I made with those pills? All the shit I own? Doesn’t mean FUCK ALL now!” I ran for the door, but he charged at me, flinging us both out into the hall. As I lay beneath him, bleeding from the forehead, he elbowed me repeatedly with a primal scream.
“I don’t- understand! Just- please, Busby, stop!” Finally I threw him off and he slid across the marble. His whole body was alive, seething as he spat on the floor and shouted down to me, “I couldn’t TRANSITION properly, get it? I tried with the pills and then… there was just…” He sank down to the landing in despair. “No other Busby to go into.”
Slowly it dawned on me. “You mean…” I faltered. “You can’t go into the real Busby.”
Sadness turned to lunacy as this, this Alter-Busby, began to laugh. “The REAL Busby? I’ve been Busby all my fucking life, Reymer.” He drew himself up. “The “real” Busby, heh, that’s a JOKE.” His eyes glared at me. “Who’s to say you were the one who was ‘Reymer’ first. You’re not the one I knew. The Reymer that was MY friend wouldn’t have let me die with no fucking TICKET out of here!”
I started to feel breathless, the chill rolling into my lungs. Regardless, as he came at me I stood and knocked him back to the railing with a punch, and then another, and another, refusing to believe it. That my friend was dead and gone, and all because some bastard wanted to take his place. Even as I struck him, Alter-Busby just laughed as blood streamed down from his nose and mouth.
“I didn’t mean to let Busby overdose. You can’t tell me there isn’t SOMEthing I can do.”
“Oh, there’s EVERYthing you can do! Just look outside!” He gestured to the chaos, the carnage, the desperation outside, even the people beating at his doors. “No wonder it seemed like such a trip. People are doing anything because NOTHING can save them now, PAL. Well…” He pulled a little bottle, full of chill pills, quietly out of his robe pocket. “Except for these. I call it a ‘shift’.” He put the pills back and grunted violently at me. “Too bad I can’t do it myself.”
I hoped to God that the Busby I knew was in there somewhere… “Th-then there has to be a way back for me. Look, I’m, I’m so so sorry man, OK? Please help me.”
He gave me a brutal grin and said, “If I can’t go, neither can you.”
The people outside got in one way or another and now we had an audience, cheering and watching as he grabbed me by the throat and choked me right there on the hard floor, my hands scrabbling. I brought them up and scratched his face, and he let me go, wincing in pain. The crowd was half-insane, some of them fighting one another too, others naked and dancing and some just holding one another as the frosty air blew in.
I pulled myself up by his door handle. “Listen to me,” I said between labored breaths. “None of this will bring the- the OTHER Busby back.” He just lay there, moaning. “But you shouldn’t be so fucking selfish as to keep one of your only REAL friends here to die, huh?”
Slowly he rolled over and lifted his head to look at me, the blood trickling freely now, and grinned like a maniac. “But Reymer. I DID let my ‘real’ friend escape. It’s a one-way trip, PAL.” As my face revealed the true sense of horror inside me, he shrieked with laughter. No, it couldn’t be. Shift back, I thought to myself, concentrating hard. Brit said she could do it. I can do it. Shift back, shift back, shift FUCKING back! “That means that MY buddy, the Reymer from my world, just made it safely back to the other side… I figured you’d be dumb enough to give him the chance.”
I exploded with fury. I tried so hard to conjure up images of the real Busby’s home, or the club, or even just the sun, but all I could feel was that pervasive chill in the air, and I punched until my knuckles were bloody and raw. Weakly, barely conscious, Alter-Busby chuckled. “At least there’ll be someone… on the other side… to take care of your girl, Reymer.” Just as I started to walk away, my head snapped back to look at him sharply. “If she IS your girl anymore.” Finally he sank down into a pool of crimson and closed his eyes, twitching occasionally.
Completely numb inside, I quietly descended the steps as the bottle of pills rolled out from his robe, and suddenly the partygoers swarmed his body like wild animals. I can’t say that I even blame them. No one would want to die here. I walked out onto the snowy front lawn and sat down in a La-Z-Boy someone had managed to drag out there, looking down the street. I watched two grown women beating down a third one with their handbags, God knows why. A pack of dogs ran by, sniffing out whatever trash they could find. I just sat a while, wondering if it mattered or not who got the “chill pills” they were so frantic to take. Maybe they deserved their place in the sun, too. Then, like a miracle, I heard my name, and saw a figure walking down the road.
“Reymer! Reymer, is that you? God, you’re bleeding!” We ran to meet each other- my sweet Brit, clasping a wool blanket around her like a cape.
I bit my lip and choked up. “Is it really you, Brittany? Jesus.” She nodded, but I had to know for sure. “Peace… love…”
“Unity, and zombies. Rave-N-Ous.” I held her tighter than I ever had as she wept. “It feels like it’s been… forever. We need to get inside, c’mon.” A block down, a man with a bat was dragging a businessman from his car. We dashed to the running vehicle and tore off into the darkness for our apartment.
The world is a giant party now, and yet we both stay inside talking and huddling for warmth- ironic, I know. We build fires and eat when we can. When Brit was still lucid, she told me she felt hot already, even sweaty, and that it was some paradox thing… that when people freeze, they’ll even take off their clothes. She’d seen it in a movie once. But that was a couple of days ago.
I stoked what little was left of the dry newspaper, waiting to see how long the fire would last, the boiler having given out. Brit was on the floor in a t-shirt and underwear, giggling, long since having refused the blankets I now kept around myself. “Do you wanna go out, Reymer? It’s such a nice day.” She smiled vacantly and rambled on, pulling off her top. I had found at least one nice thing in this crappy little place- one of the image projectors. It was second-rate compared to what I’d seen, but it would do. I set it to “Bondi Beach.”
“Ohhh, Reymer, look!” She stood up and waved her arms, laughing and showing off her ‘bikini’. “The sand is wonderful… it’s stuck between my toes…” She walked right up to the hazy picture displayed on the wall and moaned with longing as artificial blue waves crashed against the shore. “It actually feels- warm- come on in!” She waved eagerly. “Reymer, come on! The water’s fine!”
I closed my eyes and sighed as the last few embers died out, and my sweaty palms let the stick I’d been using drop. “I’m coming, baby. I’ll be right in.”