The cab was long gone but they were still standing in the same spot where they got out. Mario had handed the driver a twenty, didn’t even bother asking for change even though it was an eight-dollar fare at best. They weren’t supposed to stop where they had, a green belt across from the beach that was home to a small children’s water park, a dog run, and a community pool. But as they passed, Keith popped up from his place against the window and slurred, “Stop the car here. I wanna go to the beach.”
“We’re not stopping,” Mario said, because he knew it was bullshit, but Keith kicked up a fuss. They were going to the beach. So the driver stopped and Keith stormed out and there they were. Mario dove into his pocket for a smoke. There was one left, rumpled and flaccid, and he wasn’t in the mood to share it. He brought the lighter to his lips. Keith camped out on the broken pavement, sitting next to a weedy patch.
“I wish Hanson and Ray were here.” The four of them had fallen into an easy unit that summer, the summer of the heat wave in Copper Mine City. The hotter it got, the tighter they became. It was an effortless fit. Keith and Ray were dating. Mario and Keith were best friends. So were Hanson and Ray. Mario liked Hanson and Ray as a pair of friends because their energies were different but complementary. Ray was cool and aloof, tall and lanky and silent until he had a couple of drinks, and then a barbed wit emerged. Hanson was small and energetic, a Jack Russell terrier, deep V-necks and tight jeans and fake tan. The two pre-existing friendships had meshed, become a larger group, a shared text thread on a phone, an automatic set of weekend plans. Hanson had been missing for six days.
Hanson’s roommate called in the missing person report. It wasn’t uncommon for him to be away from home for a few days, only to turn up after the weekend because he was staying at some random’s place and ran out of underwear. It was different that summer. Three young gay men had gone missing in as many weeks. The first was a twenty-three-year-old from Shaker Bluff. Keith knew him distantly, a friend of a friend of a friend. It was an anomaly but enough for Mario’s mother to leave him a voicemail message warning him to be careful, the same way she did when a tainted batch of coke made the rounds at the gay clubs two towns over (Mario didn’t do coke) and the same way she did when Mario’s cousin whom he’d never met came up HIV+. She was just concerned, she said, like a mother should be. The second to go missing was an international student at the local university. They started making announcements at the gay clubs. Be safe. Watch your drinks. Don’t leave with anyone you don’t know. These were suggestions and were loosely enforced. The third was Hanson. It didn’t seem serious because everyone expected him to turn up like always, and then he didn’t.
They spent the day together, Mario and Keith and Ray, papering the city with missing posters. They focused on Thomson Street, the gay part of town, home to clubs like Prism, the last place Mario saw Hanson two days before he disappeared. He left at 10 p.m., said it would be an early night. “I have to open tomorrow.” He worked the counter at this boutiquey kind of shop down by the waterfront. “Blinged out Swarovski bullshit for the rich and gullible” was how he described it. So he left the club and the next time Mario saw him was on his computer screen as he prepared the photo for the poster. It was a photo of the two of them originally, smiling big, rum and cokes in hand. He cropped himself out of the photo and drank himself to sleep.
As they attached the posters to telephone poles with the stapler Ray had stolen from work, they earned pitying looks from the passing swarms. Buff thirtysomethings in tank tops and cargo shorts and flip-flops shaking their heads. Every now and then, Mario would catch snippets. “That’s the third one.” “God, this shit is making me nervous.” “Oh, man, I’ve seen him around. I forget his name.” “Couldn’t they find a picture where he didn’t have a drink in his hand?” Coarse laughter.
The photo was taken at the apex of the heat wave, a night when the sidewalks felt like glue. At Keith’s behest, they went to a dubstep concert on the outskirts of town. “This dude is great. I saw him before when I was in London,” Keith swore as they sat on the floor of his apartment, waiting for the cabs to arrive and the MDMA to kick in. “The Brits do two things right: colonization and electronic music.” When they arrived at the arena, it was packed and the heat magnified tenfold. Bodies on bodies on bodies writhing against each other. It was an all-ages concert, something Keith had neglected to mention. The bleachers on either side of the concrete floor were dotted with topless thirteen-year-olds in Cookie Monster hats sucking on fluorescent pacifiers, hand-me-down relics from an era they weren’t alive to experience.
Somehow they ended up at the front of the crowd, right next to the speakers. The vibrations pooled into homogenous noise, indecipherable and jarring, totally incompatible with the mellow high settling over Mario. Keith and Ray were making out in front of the DJ, oblivious and sloppy. At some point in the set (it might have all just been one big long song), Mario turned to Hanson. He was grinning dopily and his teeth glowed an unnatural blue in the black light. Hanson leaned over and screamed into Mario’s ear, still barely audible. “What the fuck are we watching?”
Mario chucked a thumb over his shoulder at the happy couple. “True love.”
“I fucking hate dubstep! Let’s get out of here.” Mario was amenable to the idea so he tried to tap Keith on the shoulder, but Keith didn’t notice. “We’ll send them a text. Let’s go!” So they got in a taxi bound for Mario’s apartment and sent Keith and Ray a message telling them where they were and to join them after the concert, which they predictably did not. The cab ride was a tangle of stroked hair and felt arms and a silent driver maintaining a professional silence and a forward gaze. “You smell so good,” Hanson mumbled into Mario’s neck, which was a lie because they both smelled like sweat and chemicals. The windows of the cab fogged up.
When they got into the apartment, they showered together. The usually dynamic Hanson was acquiescent and pliable and Mario ran his fingertips over every inch of his exposed skin, over and around the soft and hairy insides of his thighs. “Fuck,” Hanson said, his low breaths and the patter of the shower making a round, “it might be the drugs, but that’s like magic.” And he started to laugh and pitched forward into Mario, cold drips from his bangs running down Mario’s back. They turned off the water and went to bed.
The next morning, the low drain of the drug hangover gripped them over instant oatmeal. Hanson frowned and looked into the tan mush, swirling it around with the tip of a too-small spoon. “That … was a night,” Mario said. He mustered the best smile he could, weak and wilted but utterly sincere. “It was a good night. I had fun.”
Hanson approximated a laugh. “I did, too.” He left around noon to go home and sleep. They never fucked again, but the night had engendered some special warmth between them, a private look and cheeky smile every now again at the thing they had shared that Keith and Ray never knew about. A silent bond.
Keith and Ray flagged early, handed out the remaining missing posters with a scowl and a murmured thank you. It was still scorching and everyone was exhausted. Mario maintained a veneer of cheerfulness. “Hi, can you help—” “This is our friend Hanson; he—” “If you happen to see him—” “Thanks, you have a great day, too.” He briefly had the stupid thought that Hanson would be proud of him, because he worked in retail, too. He understood the value of being nice to strangers because they might have something you want.
At 7 p.m., Ray got a message on his phone. “They found the first kid, from Shaker Bluff.” In that moment, follow-up questions became unnecessary. They didn’t ask if he was alive, because he wasn’t. They didn’t ask who or how, because it didn’t matter. They just stood, mired in something unspoken, until Ray offered the pointless addendum, “By the public pool. The one by Sentry Beach.” Probably to break the silence. Mario didn’t notice until he looked down that the stack of missing posters had fallen from his hand. He leaned down to gather them in no real hurry. It was like dropping a handful of losing lottery tickets. The only reason to pick them up was to avoid littering. “Let’s just tack up the rest of these and get a drink. I need the strongest thing they can make.”
They had drinks at one of the gay watering holes, on the patio because it was cooler. It was a place they all avoided because it was too expensive but it now somehow seemed disrespectful and tacky to prioritize economical spending. Keith had five Long Island iced teas, doubles. Mario lit a joint. It should have gotten them kicked out immediately but every face on the patio was one that had passed them by earlier in the day, had seen them engaged in a quest that they all recognized as futile and felt bad. Mario offered the joint to Ray, who pushed it away with an eye roll. He had been the one to suggest the bar but so far he’d only angrily sipped on ice water and hadn’t spoken. He broke his silence exactly once: “I guess I was fucking naive to think this could still turn around. People don’t just disappear.”
Keith drank and Mario smoked and Ray brooded until about 10, when a cop walked by and Keith made oinking noises in his wake. The cop turned around. “You got a problem, buddy?”
“He’s drunk,” Mario said, his tone apologetic. “He’s had a hard day. Our friend is missing.”
“No fuckin’ thanks to you, Barney Fife,” said Keith.
“Keith, shut the fuck up.” Ray didn’t even look at him but the tone was enough and Keith sank back into his seat, eyes slit and watery, wounded.
“I think you better get your friend home,” the cop said.
“I’ll pay the bill. Let’s just get out of here.” Mario threw more cash than he could afford on the table and they navigated the crowded bar. Once they got out to the street, Ray was gone, the back of a man pushing past a sea of foot traffic going the other way. Keith yelled for him to wait, but he didn’t. At the beginning of the year, Ray’s brother had died suddenly, a car accident, and he’d fallen into Keith’s chest like it was a pillow and stayed there for weeks, coming up only for sporadic gasps of air. Keith had cradled him until he took his first unsteady steps alone and in those quiet moments, they were the picture of support, a functional relationship done right in every way. Now Ray was somewhere alone and angry in the night and his absence seemed urgent. Hanson had taught them that someone you couldn’t see might be gone forever. “I’m taking you home,” Mario told Keith.
He didn’t. Unwittingly and unwillingly he took Keith to the pool by the beach and now they peered into the darkness, eyes adjusting and readjusting and focusing on something that wasn’t there. Mario didn’t know what Keith expected, whether he hoped to stumble on Hanson the same way some stranger had stumbled on the kid from Shaker Bluff. “Where do you think they found him?” Keith wondered aloud, and Mario ignored him. It was a stupid drunk question. There was no way to tell, no crime scene tape or splatters of garish red blood like paint. There was nothing but a grassy field, and the closed water park, and the pool casting a blue shimmer over the cracked asphalt around it.
“Let’s go, then.” Mario pitched his spent cigarette onto the sidewalk. The effects of the joint had worn off and now there was just a low whiny headache like a TV left on no particular channel. He walked into the green belt and heard a crunch under his feet. He looked down. Just gravel. Keith followed behind, eyes wandering all over. He looked bewildered and lost, like a grumpy, bearded child. His mousy hair stuck out at points behind his ears, badly in need of a trim.
The air smelled like chlorine and Mario had the idea that it smelled like everything had been scrubbed, like any evidence that might once have been here couldn’t possibly remain. That much was probably true: the investigators would have taken everything they found. There was no trace of a police presence. This somehow amplified the danger of the situation: there was no protection here in this place where something terrible had once happened. Happy families had played in the water park with no idea what lay feet away. He heard Keith lumbering behind him, his steps staggering, keeping uneven time. He had walked about ten yards in when he realized Keith was no longer following.
Mario walked back to find Keith sitting under a tree, still near enough the sidewalk that the light caught him curled into himself, sobbing and shuddering. A drunk mess, Mario thought. He remembered the many times since high school he’d carried his larger friend home and he clenched his fists. His fingernails dug into the meat of his palm and he was sure he was breaking the skin, but he’d look under the light later and find nothing but dull pink flesh.
“Well, we’re here,” Mario said. His voice teetered on the edge of breaking but never quite got there. “As per your request. Get up.” Keith didn’t look up, stayed crying in his own arms. “Get up, Keith. You wanted to go to the beach. We’re here. Let’s go to the fucking beach. It’s right there. Let’s go.”
He turned and strode ahead. The sounds grew more distant behind him, of Keith and the cars and the city. Sweat pooled under his arms and dotted his shoulders. The straps of his cheap tank top stuck to his skin. He remembered how eagerly, a couple of weeks ago, Hanson had predicted the end of the heat wave. He said he “felt it in his waters.” He was wrong. The heat wave could go on forever, never tiring.
Mario walked blindly. It didn’t matter where he was going, just that he kept moving forward. The last thing connecting Mario to Copper Mine City and the earth, the rippling surface of the pool, fell away from him. Now it was only darkness and the vague idea that somewhere ahead of him was a beach. Other than that, it was all guesswork. It was very easy to get lost in the night.
Taylor Basso is originally from Surrey, BC, and currently lives in Vancouver. He has staged plays around the city, and recently completed a collection of short stories. His fiction work can also be found online at Joyland.