by Rich Larson
When Jasper skypes me at midnight suggesting we break into his parents’ not-yet-insured reefhouse to drink with some girls, I can tell he is past tipsy, getting to turvy. I sit up in bed and dim my phone to a dull red, squinting at the screen. Jasper runs one hand over his shaved-down head, grinning way too wide. You can practically smell the booze off him.
“Bru,” I say. “It’s a Wednesday.”
“Which basically is the weekend,” Jasper says. “Round up, motherfucker. Math is our friend.”
I look around my dark room. I wasn’t sleeping yet. There’s this thick heat, now it’s nearly summer, that slinks in at night. I got a little fan set up beside my head and the window open, but the fan dries out my eyeballs and I can always hear some autocleaner wandering through the block all whirring and scraping.
“Math won’t be if I keep missing first period,” I say. “And I’m tired. Still sore from sprints, bru.” My soccer gear is in a sweaty heap by the door, throwing fumes. Jasper should be sore, too, but that’s probably where the beers came in.
“I know you’re just sitting around tugging off,” he says, miming it with a blurry hand. “How about you put that practice to use? Couple girls, I said.”
“I’m sleeping,” I say, but that does needle me a little because I have Skinspin open on the next tab over. Jasper, he’s good at knowing what needles. “What girls?” I ask.
Jasper does his cheshire-cat smile again. “Cassie’s down,” he says. “Just chatted her. She wants you to come with. And she’s bringing one of her friends. Chela, you know her?”
I don’t really hear the part after Cassie. There’s only one girl I’d break-and-enter for in the middle of the night on a Wednesday, and that is Cassie Rexroat.
I’ve had this big thing for her ever since we met, which was last summer back when she and Jasper were still dating. It was this party out at Aline’s place, and I was drinking for maybe the second or third time. I remember she was sitting on the porch railing, one leg hooked casual through the bars, pulling a slice of dark hair off her face so she could hit a gravity bong.
There was one of those Glowtrees rich people like so much transplanted in the yard, and with the orange light diffusing onto her she looked like a skinny drowsy angel and I wanted to freeze everything right how it was, because it was so fucking beautiful. Things didn’t freeze, though, and then Jasper stuck his arm around her and introduced us, and she was a rich private school girl anyways.
But now they’ve been split for months and months, and she hasn’t docked up with anyone else yet.
“You down?” Jasper says, for what I think might be the second time because I was still kind of picturing Cassie tilting her jet-black eyelashes and blowing smoke off the porch in a trembly ribbon. “She said she wants you there, bru. You know you got my benediction already. Chela’s a gymnast.”
Maybe Cassie actually did say that, about wanting me to come. Maybe not. But either way, we’ll both be there, and shit happens, right?
“Yeah, aright,” I say. “Let me get dressed. You got a ride for me?”
“I got it all, bru,” Jasper says. “See you in a minute.”
My mom is working security on the strip tonight, so all I have to do is chat my sister in the next room and tell her I’m out. She chats me back a be safe dear brother with a long string of the goopy emotes she uses when she’s high. I can picture her in there, chin tucked to her chest and her curly hair all over the place, headphones thrown on and just totally absorbed in the Nature Channel, or else that show where it’s human chefs versus a cookbot.
For a minute I really want to knock on the door and see about splitting a bowl with her, just shoot the shit and not shout at each other for a while. We get along good when we smoke up, and we don’t do it so much lately.
But, you know, Cassie.
Instead I throw my clothes on, going with the second-best shirt because first is a rumpled-up ball in the laundry hamper. Me and Jasper buzzed our heads just a couple days ago so that’s all sharp. I cake up my toothbrush and rake it around my mouth until I am sure my breath has no trace of microwaved garlic rice, thinking up chill things to say to Cassie in a chill way and knowing I’ll probably blank when I see her for real.
I’m just pulling a half-full two-six of rum from my bottom drawer, where it is cleverly wrapped in gym shorts, when Jasper skypes again. He’s one of those. Never just chats if he can yammer at you facewise instead.
“Intercrural in the club, we just gonna rub,” he sings, with the actual song, which is the latest from this shitty AI-generated pop star, crackling in the background. “We’re outside, Shad, lad, hustle up.” Also in the background I can hear Cassie’s throaty kind of laugh that I recognize right away, and it makes my heart beat hard.
“Aright,” I say, grabbing my Seattle Satellites cap, the lime green and possibly lucky one.
I chat my sister goodbye and head out, letting the door click locked behind me. On the apartment steps, the flickery florescent light has some big old moths fluttering around it. No Glowtrees over here. I see Jasper’s slightly dented-up SUV idling on the street, with the blinking blue status light meaning it’s on autodrive, thank fuck. He had something nicer, but it got totalled at a slippery intersection back in December. Also he was high as a kite, but only a couple people know that.
I check myself in the apartment glass one last time, tilt the hat a bit, then dart over the brown lawn. The door swings open as I get close, leaking blip-hop and Jasper’s drunk voice. But it’s Cassie who sticks her ungodly beautiful head out, pointing what looks like a Bacardi Slush in my direction.
“Hey, Shad,” she says, sliding over to make room. “You alkies really do this every Wednesday now?”
“I never miss it,” I say, which is chiller than I could have hoped. She’s wearing these tights that look like skinned anatomy, with the bone and muscle and all that, which is oddly sexy but probably only because it’s her wearing them. Her lips are slicked red.
“What’s doing, bru?” Jasper demands with his drunk kind of urgency, reaching across her for a dap.
“What’s doing, Jasp,” I say, trying to act like I don’t notice my knee touching Cassie’s. “We grabbing Chela still?”
“She bailed,” Cassie says. “But it’s whatever. Should still be funtime, right?”
“Oh, yeah,” Jasper beams, reaching under the seat. “Wait till you two see the reefhouse. Hey, Shad, get a drink in you. You like lime, yeah?” He cracks me a bottle—I was right, Bacardi Slush—and pushes it into my hand. I can’t even picture how big a shitstorm this would be if we get pulled over, but the car’s on responsible, speed-limit-abiding autodrive, and the windows are tinted, and it is a weekday.
“Cheers,” I say, raising the bottle.
Cassie clacks her plastic against mine, with this flirty smile that makes me think those big fluttery moths are in my stomach, and we drink. At this point I’m kind of skeptical we get to the reefhouse, much less bust in. But I feel like it might be a good night anyway.
Even with the SUV crawling along on autodrive, we make good time out to the lake thanks to rapture-empty roads. Or at least it seems that way with the drinking. I’m not caught up to Jasper, but I’m buzzed when we get there, and so is Cassie, laughing loud in my ear. She shows me how to do this thing where she spins an airpen around her thumb in a little circle. She can do it with both hands, because she is apparently ambidextrous, and me and Jasper say she should prove it by thumb-wrestling herself to a draw.
We all shush each other when the SUV stops at the gate, and Cassie covers my mouth with her ambidextrous hand, and I try really hard not to breathe on it too warmly, or whatever. Any security guard would have busted us right there, but the gate is automated, and once it reads the pass Jasper nicked from his dad’s car it lets us right in.
Everyone spills out of the SUV, Cassie swinging the last Bacardi from one hand, using the other to tug at her skirt, which keeps riding up. I have one eye on her riding-up skirt, and the other on the woods, which are darker than I thought they would be but seem friendly enough with a buzz on. Jasper’s squinting at his phone from three different angles.
“Shad, bru, I appoint you navigator,” he says, tossing it over. I catch it, and see he’s trying to map us around some lake in Hungary.
We set off, the three of us, and it feels real electric, everyone vibing. I’m glad Jasper and Cassie don’t have any bad blood about the split, at least not when they’re drinking. I don’t know why it happened; Jasper doesn’t either, but he didn’t seem to mind too much. I think that when you have enough money the bad things just slide off you. It seems that way, with both of them so blissy.
While we’re walking I’m simultaneously mapping us to the reefhouse and searching up the words to “Intercrural in the Club,” which we are trying to sing again but blanking on. All of us are big laughing, big amped up, but when the reefhouse finally comes into view through the trees everyone quiets down. Of course, maybe it is just one of those coincident silences.
It looks sort of like a big misshapen head, all twisty coral in slick reds and purples, grown from some designer geneprint through a skeleton of carbon struts and molds. And the whole thing is slightly shivering, slightly moving.
“Well,” I say, holding up the blinking map. “This is it, yeah?”
“Yeah,” Jasper says. “Shad the navigator. Good shit.” He makes a sloppy salute.
Cassie steps closer to it, flicking her dark hair out of her eyes in that way that puts hooks in my lungs. “So it’s really alive, then?”
The reefhouse notices us and biolights incend around what I think is the porch, putting out a pale sickly green light. Cassie jumps back with a choppy nervous giggle that is kind of fake-sounding.
“How yogurt is alive,” Jasper says. “But yeah. It’s alive. Chanky, right?”
“Chanky,” I say, wishing I’d taken the opp to sling an arm around Cassie’s shoulders, fake-protective-like. “Your parents are going to be flat fucking livid about this, aren’t they?”
“Like you wouldn’t believe,” Jasper says, grinning his bright white Crest-capped grin. His breath is all rum. “But I am so, so willing to make sacrifices for my friends. Especially in order to party.”
The door is an asymmetrical gash in the front of the reefhouse, and after it tastes Jasper’s thumb and recognizes his rich boy genes, it dilates to let us in. Inside is all shadows until more biolights slow-blink to life. Then we can see everything is the same porous coral as the outside, except for a gleaming metal counter, a gel fridge, and some enormous dimmed wallscreens.
I nearly piss myself when a bunch of tendril things snake off the wall and start touching my face.
“Stay chilly,” Jasper says, while the tendrils run up and down me, feeling like cold raw hamburger. “It’s because you haven’t been here before. Has to taste new guests.”
Cassie snags one of the tendrils with her left hand, which she could have done equal good with her right, and presses it against her neck. “It’s probably going to eat us later,” she says, making a spooked face.
I make a spooked face back. “Hansel and Gretel type shit,” I agree.
Jasper marches right in and throws his bag on a curved hump that might be a couch; it goes concave to cushion the landing. “Not bad, right?” he says. “Take your shoes off. It feels like, whoa. Like those fish tanks at the spa you stick your feet in.”
Cassie grabs my shoulder for balance while she peels her flats off. I watch the little blue veins at her ankle as she presses her foot to the floor. Her mouth and toes both curl.
“Oh my fuck,” she says. “Yeah, try this, Shad.”
I kick off my shoes and the floor feels like a million tiny hands on the bottoms of my feet. We squelch around in a little circle while Jasper plugs into the home system. Some sparkhead from St. Joseph’s did up a little virus for him, which is more planning than I anticipated for this rando jaunt, so theoretically his parents will not get alerted to us breaking into their reefhouse until it is way too late.
Cassie needs a piss, and Jasper points her at a tight conch-spiral of stairs. We both watch the flash of her legs on the way up. He gives me this lopsided smile, the drunk-conspirator kind.
“This is raw, right?” he says. “This is better than sleeping, or whatever you were going to do.”
“It’s raw,” I say, and I want to say something about Cassie, about how much I like her, but without sounding stupid. Before I do, he slides a clear baggy from his chinos pocket.
“Snagged this off a blackweb vendor last week,” he says, shaking a couple bright red capsules inside. “Cost me a flat fortune, too, bru. You recognize?”
“Advil cold and sinus buster,” I say, wishing it was. But I do recognize it, from back when my sister used to deal a little: cupid. She only held it for a day and was nervous the whole time. It’s way fucking illegal.
“High-grade cupe,” Jasper says. “Since it’s a party of three, I thought, why not a party of three, you know?” He jerks his head toward the stairs where Cassie disappeared. “Tell me you don’t want to dock that ass.”
“You said Cassie doesn’t even do moll,” I say. “No way is she doing cupe.”
Jasper gives his cheshire-cat grin. “Not if she knows about it,” he says.
I don’t think he’s serious, but I still get a flash imagining Cassie with her cheeks flushed, pupils huge, pouting her swollen lips and pulling her clothes off, up for anything and everything. I’ve seen a few of those pornos, where usually some uptight girl gets spiked with it and turns totally nympho. Most of them are fake, but on deep web you can find the ones that aren’t.
“Boo joke,” I say.
“No joke,” Jasper says, rummaging into his other pocket now. “You can get firsts, I don’t care. I been in there.”
Suddenly the raw funtime vision of the night is wobbly. “Put that shit away,” I say. “You aren’t going to spike her.”
“I get it,” Jasper says, pulling out the little plastiwrapped blunt he was trying to open earlier in the car. “You want just the two of you, right? Party of dos? That’s arctic, bru. But I know you’re big on her, so I’ll allow it.” He makes a face. “Can’t believe Chela bailed on us.”
“I don’t want to spike her,” I say, starting to get angry. “I don’t want to spike anybody. Fuck, Jasp, she’s your friend, isn’t she?”
“You’re my friend,” Jasper says, frowning. “She’s a girl I know you want to dock, so I’m helping you. She wants it, too. It’s just, you know, sometimes girls don’t like the responsibility. This way there’s no responsibility.”
I think about her pushed up on me, kissing me, begging me. Next morning would be hazy. She’d just think she was drunk. She’d just think she was really into me, and maybe she really is.
“Put it away, Jasp,” I say. “And we forget it, aright?”
But I don’t know if I’ll be able to forget it. The shine’s off the night and everything feels uglier now.
“Shad, bru, you disappoint me sometimes.” Jasper finally tears the blunt open and sniffs it, turning it over in his fingers like he rolled it himself. “But I have honed my thing,” he says. “My ability. To tell when you’re gonna bitch out.” He pushes the tip of the blunt to the spark patch. “That’s why I dosed her on the way here.”
I get that feeling like a trapdoor swinging open in the bottom of my stomach. For a second I freeze, wanting so bad for him to burst into laughter and slap me on the shoulder and say bru, your eyes got so big, I’m clowning. But I have known Jasper long enough to know he lies less and less the more he drinks. Now he takes a big puff, hollowing his cheeks with it, and looks up at me with squinty eyes.
“You’ll thank me later,” he gasps in a gush of smoke. He coughs a few times.
I feel a sweaty prickle on my hands, under my armpits, just knowing none of this can end well. I make for the stairs, not bothering to tell Jasper what a fucking idiot he is.
“Yeah, you two have fun,” he calls after me. “Maybe choke one out real quick first. For stamina.”
At first I think it’s in my head, but as I go up the stairs I realize that the mottled walls, and floors, and everything, is starting to pulse.
The lights didn’t come on upstairs for some reason, and I don’t see Cassie at first. The hall is narrow and sort of crooked, tilted so it almost feels like you’re off-balance. The twisty coral walls are still beating like a heart.
“Cassie?” I say, loud, but it gets kind of muted, like the reefhouse is swallowing it. The bathroom lights up when I walk past; it doesn’t have a real door, more of a translucent skin, and I can see she’s not in it. But with the pale yellow bathroom light leaking into the hall, I catch sight of her. She’s at the end of the hall, pressing her hands against a shell-crusted door, and the pulse around her is faster, frantic almost, and I get this sense that it started up here and then rippled out.
“Hey, Cassie,” I say again, and this time she spins. Her shoulders are hunched and for a weird millisecond she looks scared and furious, then she smiles.
“What do you think they’ve got in the bedroom?” she says. “It won’t let me in.” She sticks her hand on her hip, and the way her lips are sort of pouted, the way her chin is tilted, makes me wonder if the cupid’s hitting already, and if it would be so bad, so so bad, to let it happen.
“Jasper stuck cupe in your drink,” I say, and the smile drops off her face.
“I didn’t know about it,” I say. “Swear. It was when we were driving.”
“Fuck,” Cassie says, and she suddenly seems not turvy or even tipsy. More sober, more scared. “That fucking clown.”
“You should just leave,” I say, feeling fucking miserable. “Like, get an autocab. It’s high-grade, so when it kicks, you know, it’s going to be, ah, unavoidable.” Downstairs, I can hear Jasper throwing some MLS highlights on the wallscreens, like we’re all chilly, like the night is not utterly bombed now. I try not to wonder if he’s done this before with other girls.
“I can’t,” Cassie says, gritting her teeth. “I can’t leave. There’s something I need to do first. Something I have to get.” She rubs her arm and flicks a glance back at the bedroom door. Even through the alcohol insulation, I get a cold drop, remembering her fake-sounding fear outside the reefhouse, how she grabbed the tendril to make it taste her. How she said she was going to the bathroom but didn’t go to the bathroom.
“You been here before,” I say, almost sure of it. “With Jasper?”
Cassie looks down, then up, with her eyes defiant. “Not with Jasper.”
She brushes past me and I follow her to the bathroom, which slithers open for us. I’m still trying to process what she just said, who she must mean, when she kneels at the toilet and sticks two precise fingers down her throat. The first heave gets something thin and lime-tinted that is mostly drool. She’s trying to up the cupid. I look away for her second go, to be polite, and there’s a thicker splash and a bad smell.
“I took one of those enzyme tabs before we left,” Cassie says into the bowl, her voice sounding hollow. “To break down the alcohol. But I don’t know if it works with cupid. Don’t think it does.”
She gives it one last heave, then wipes her mouth backhand. This is not how I pictured tonight, not at all. If there was going to be back-patting and puking, it was supposed to be at the end, and probably Jasper.
“Was it your idea to come out here?” I say, while she rinses her mouth out.
“There’s something I have to get from the bedroom,” she says, ignoring the question. “But the door is gene locked.”
“Get what?” I say, with my buzz coming down definitely now. “What do you have to get?”
Cassie crosses her arms, staring at the wall across from her, which is no longer pulsing. “I can’t tell you.”
I’m already pissed with Jasper, and now I can feel it leaking over to her, too. She didn’t really want me here, and she was never really tipsy, just acting the whole night. Meaning she was probably acting when we were flirting in the car, too, while I was all lovesick like a dumbass. I can feel my ears getting hot.
Cassie goes back through the membrane, back to the locked door, and I follow along behind her again. Like a dumbass.
“You trying to ghost something?” I say.
“What?” she asks, manicured brows getting all knit. She tries the door handle again, but it twists out of her grip and another tremor goes through the walls.
“Steal something,” I say, clenching my jaw. “Are you. Trying. To steal something.”
“Who’s trying to steal something?” Jasper asks. I turn around and see him stumping up the stairs, clinging to the rail for balance. He snaps his fingers and the hallway biolights finally flutter on. His eyes are glassy red.
“Nobody’s stealing anything,” Cassie says, not trying to sound drunk anymore. “We want to see the bedroom, Jasp.”
“Is it kicking already?” Jasper grins, skipping up the last stair.
Cassie gets that scared furious look again, and for a second I think she’s going to take a swing at him. She shakes her head. “Open the door, Jasper,” she says. “You’re close enough to gene match, aren’t you?”
Jasper gives me a confused look. “Did you tell her about the cupe?” he asks.
“Yeah,” I say, wishing I’d stayed in, wishing I was watching a bunch of agitated chefs cuss out a cookbot. Then, turning to Cassie, I ask, “What the fuck’s going on?”
“Are you going to open it, Jasp?” Cassie says, ignoring me. There’s sweat shining under her eyes and above her lip, and I realize the cupid, however much of it got absorbed, really is starting to kick. “Please? We want to use the bed.”
“No, we don’t,” I say. “Cassie. Why are we really here?”
She looks at Jasper, who is sagging against the wall, still grinning. She takes a shuddering breath. Then she looks at me, with her eyes like hard plastic, and makes me wish I didn’t ask.
“Me and Jasper split three months ago.” She puts her nails against her wrist and pinches, twists. “His dad took me out here three months, one week ago. After a party. He was supposed to be driving me home, but he wanted to show me the reefhouse. Because it was brand new, just finished growing.”
I’ve met Jasper’s dad a few times. He comes to some tourneys, spends them stalking up and down the sideline with his phone. He’s tall and wears tailored suits and has almost the same grin as Jasper, all white and even, but also more like a shark somehow.
I don’t like this story. I shoot over at Jasper, who is no longer grinning.
“We went upstairs,” Cassie says, still kneading her skin, gouging at it. For some reason it’s hypnotic. “And I was plastered but I knew what was coming, right, so I pretended to pass out.” She swallows. “But he fucked me anyway.”
One time after a game where Jasper had two goals and I assisted both, one a slick little chip over the top and the other a slide-rule through ball, he told me we were dangerous, the pair of us. He said keep feeding, and Jasper will keep eating.
“I’m sorry,” I say, like that means anything. Jasper is dead silent.
“I saw him last week, on accident,” Cassie says, carefully lifting her hands and rubbing her eyes with the heels. “He told me that he watches the recording sometimes when he’s tugging off. He didn’t do it on his phone, so it has to be from a house cam.” She moves her hands away, and her eyes are still dry, still hard. “I need the recording.” Her nails go back to her wrist, and now there’s blood seeping out.
Jasper heaves off the wall, shaking his head. “That’s horseshit,” he says. “That’s fucking lies, man. You’re lying.” There’s tears tracking down his cheeks. I’ve never seen that before, no matter how plastered he is. “My dad didn’t do that. You would have told me if he did that.”
I think about Jasper’s dad smiling that shark smile, gripping my shoulder, asking me if I had any new girls on the go. To some people, everyone else is just feeding them. Everyone else is just feed.
“You don’t believe this shit, Shad.” Jasper grabs my shoulder in that same spot. “You don’t believe her, right?”
I look across at Cassie, who is flushed and shaking now, digging at her wrist, still trying to stave off the cupid. “Why would she lie?” I say.
“You picking her over me?” Jasper says, swaying on his feet. “Just so she’ll dock you? You could have had that, bru. I was giving you that, bru.” He puts his face near mine, acrid smoke and gutsick alcohol smell. “We could dose her again,” he whispers. “Enough so she’d forget tonight. Forget all this loco shit she came up with. We’re friends, Shad. Right?”
I grab his wrist and pull it over to the door, pushing his hand flat with both of mine. He doesn’t try to stop me. His arm is ragdoll limp while the tiny wriggling tendrils taste his palm. The genes are close enough, and the door shutters open.
Cassie goes in by herself while I skype an autocab and then wonder if I should have skyped an ambulance, so they can maybe pump her stomach and definitely patch up her wrist. Jasper is in the bathroom, slumped down against the wall, head in his hands, not saying anything. I sit there with him and don’t say anything, until I see Cassie silhouetted through the bathroom membrane. It looks like she’s got two unplugged cams dangling by a fistful of wires.
“Is it on there?” I say.
Her silhouette nods. Her breathing sounds ragged and her free hand keeps touching her throat, then her thigh, then between them. “Yeah,” she says. “I’m going to wait outside.” But she doesn’t move.
I know if I get up right now and go through the curtain, if I touch any part of her, the cupid will make it happen. The two of us tangled up, her scalding hot skin on mine and her legs jacked apart. There’s even this small part of me that thinks, you know, I would deserve it.
“Jasper said you wanted me to come,” I say. “That was horseshit, right?”
“No,” she says. “I did want you to come. I thought you seemed. Safe.”
“Just safe,” I say, and it must have come out bitter because her voice sharpens.
“Yeah,” she says. “Safe. Why’s that so fucking bad?”
I think of all my chill things I wanted to say to her, but none of them fit, and after one more swaying second she disappears. Then it’s only me and Jasper. He cries again for a while, but eventually we’re still and silent long enough that the reefhouse closes its biolights, and then both of us are just sitting there in the dark.
Rich Larson was born in West Africa, has studied in Rhode Island and worked in Spain, and now writes from Ottawa, Canada. His short work has been featured on io9, translated into Chinese, Vietnamese, Polish, French and Italian, and appears in numerous Year’s Best anthologies along with most pro-paying SF markets. He was the most prolific author of short science fiction in 2015 and 2016. Find him at richwlarson.tumblr.com and support his writing via patreon.com/richlarson.
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Wow. First-rate story. Published 2018? You’re really hitting your stride.