I really can't deal with the college-frat-party vibe, Ariel Collins thought dizzily. True, she was lying on her back with a rubber hose rammed into her mouth, gulping beer as fast as she could. But how could she be expected to maintain control with all this stupid yelling? For one thing, she was profoundly wasted. For another, she was about to start cracking up. And an attack of the giggles would not be in her best interest right now. No.
"Whatever you do, Ariel, don't laugh."
Oh, crap --
All at once her throat caught, and the expanding mass of fizzy warmth seemed to surge back through her gullet. The next thing she knew, she was shrieking with laughter and spewing beer all over herself.
"Loser!" the chorus of voices hooted at once.
All right. Enough was enough. She had to regain some semblance of dignity. She rolled over on the dingy red carpet and struggled to sit up straight. Her eyes were stinging -- but she didn't know if that was because of the beer or the morning sun. It was way too bright in this lobby. A tangle of stringy, beer-soaked, brownish blond hair flopped in front of her face.
"You can't do that, Caleb!" she cried. She coughed a few times between giggles. "There's beer coming out of my nose!"
Caleb Walker stood directly over her, clutching the hose with his right hand. He rubbed his left hand on the one ratty T-shirt he possessed: a black rag that drooped from his beanpole frame like a wilted leaf.
"Do what?" he asked. He flashed an innocent grin. "Beer's good for your nose. Good for your hair, too. We're out of shampoo, remember?"
She tried to scowl at him, but she ended up giggling again. It was crazy: Just looking at Caleb was enough to make her laugh. She could honestly stare at that goofy smile and those bright blue eyes for hours. And the amazing thing was that he seemed to get better looking with each passing day. He'd lost a lot of weight -- they all had -- but his sinewy slimness, was, well...kind of sexy. Especially with that wild mane of long brown hair. Not that she would ever tell him or anything, obviously.
Caleb cocked an eyebrow. "Anyway, since when do you make the rules?"
"In case you forgot, chump, I'm the one who constructed this magnificent funnel. Therefore I alone am responsible for any rules regarding its use."
She was pleased with it, actually -- in spite of the sarcasm. For the first time ever, she'd created something with her own hands. On a whim she'd found an old funnel and a six-foot length of hose and fastened them together all by herself. From scratch, no less.
Trevor (may he rot in hell) would have been proud. He was always so cocky about being the one family member with any talent for building and fixing things. As if reading military engineering textbooks instead of having friends was something to be proud of.
Of course, the main reason she'd made the funnel in the first place was to forget about her twisted brother. And to forget about her father's gruesome death and the past in general...and mostly to forget how her onetime boyfriend, Brian Landau, had split town and was probably never coming back. She figured the faster the alcohol entered her system, the quicker she'd be able to block out reality.
"Sure, you built it," Caleb stated smugly. "But face it, Ariel. Out of all of us, you're the only one who can't even use it."
"Oh, yeah?" She racked her brain for a witty comeback, but the fog of booze and sleep deprivation left her mouth hanging open like an idiot. it was pitiful. They all needed some sleep. Badly. She glanced around at the rest of the drunken posse, the same bedraggled group who'd been living in this abandoned lobby for almost two months -- Marianne, Jared, Cynthia, and John. The four of them were starting to look like clones: a quartet of haggard faces, dirty hair, bloodshot eyes, and shaky smiles that lingered for way too long...
"Want to give it another shot?" Caleb asked, eyeing the funnel seductively.
Ariel shook her head. "I think I'm gonna crash," she mumbled. She pushed herself to her feet and squinted toward the huge glass windows. Jesus. She had to find an area of carpet that was out of the light, away from the stink of all the empty beers.
"But you can't crash," John protested. He opened a fresh bottle. Then he grabbed the funnel from Caleb and began pouring beer into it -- spilling a froth of amber liquid onto the floor. Ariel rolled her eyes. Even when John hadn't been drinking for seventy two hours straight, his mind wasn't exactly razor sharp. Luckily Caleb snagged the hose and plugged the end of it with his thumb.
"Why can't I crash, John?" she asked dryly.
"It's my birthday," he said.
Ariel smirked. "Your birthday was two days ago."
A semideranged grin formed on his lips. "I know. But I haven't slept. The party's, still raging. And it's still the same party. So, technically, it's still my birthday, right?"
"Right." Ariel blinked a few times. "Yeah. Mm-hmm. You know, now I understand what Caleb was talking about."
John's eyes narrowed. "What's that?"
"I was explaining why you repeated the fourth grade three times," Caleb replied. "See, you think differently from the rest of us, John."
"Or you don't think at all," Ariel added with a grin.
John shrugged. He was smiling now, too. "Just in case you forgot, I am the only high-school graduate among you lowlifes. And being as school's out forever and none of you are ever gonna get a diploma, that means none of you are ever gonna achieve the level of wisdom that I..." He left the sentence hanging.
"What was that, wise man?" Caleb teased.
But John just shook his head.
Ariel stared at him, frowning. He really was plastered, wasn't he? He started swaying -- then abruptly dropped the funnel, spilling beer all over himself. The bottle slipped from his fingers and splashed to a puddle on the carpet at his feet.
"Whoa, there, buddy!" Caleb cried.
John lurched forward. He wasn't smiling anymore.
Wait a second. Ariel looked at him closely. Something was wrong with him. His face was turning red. His eyes were bulging. There was a gurgling noise in his throat....
Oh, my God. Ariel clamped her hands over her mouth. It's happening!
A black mark crept out from under John's T-shirt and up onto his Adam's apple.
"John?" Caleb asked.
There was no answer. In a matter of seconds the blackness spread from John's neck to the rest of his body, darkening his face and hands and arms.
His flesh started bubbling.
No, no, no. Ariel tried to step back, but her joints seemed to lock and freeze. She was unable to do anything but gape at him.
Blood spurted from his mouth.
"John!" Cynthia screamed. "John!"
It was too late. His body was already crumpling in on itself, melting away like snow in a fire, dripping nothingness....
And then he was gone.
Only his clothes remained, lying in a puddle of black slime that mixed with the beer and blood on the carpet.
Ariel's eyes flashed to Caleb.
Caleb was staring at the liquid remains, shaking his head, his face a mask of terror and disbelief. "This isn't right," he gasped tremulously. "He's not old enough. He's only nineteen. He -- he just turned nineteen...."
Nobody said a word. Ariel's head spun. She couldn't comprehend what had just happened; it had been too quick, too unreal. Caleb was right. John shouldn't have died. The melting plague only struck people over twenty and under sixteen. They'd all seen enough death to know that; they'd witnessed dozens of meltings right here in this very lobby. Was the plague getting stronger? After all, nobody had any idea how it worked. Maybe it was somehow closing in on --
"He lied," Jared breathed.
Ariel tore her gaze from the puddle. "What?"
Jared nodded. His face had turned a chalky white. The color stood out in stark contrast to his scruffy brown whiskers. "He lied. It was his twenty-first birthday."
"His twenty-first?" Caleb whispered.
Marianne suddenly burst into tears. "Why?" she wailed.
Jared lifted his shoulders slightly. "He...uh, I don't know. I didn't want to ask him about it. I guess I was the only one who knew."
"No, I thought he was older, too," Cynthia remarked in a toneless voice. "You know the joke around school. People were always ragging on him, saying they had to let him graduate before he hit retirement age."
"It makes sense," Ariel found herself saying.
"What does?" Jared demanded.
"I mean, just that..." She bit her lip, then turned her attention back to the carpet. "He must have known he was going to die. That's probably why he didn't want to go to sleep. That's probably why he didn't want to stop partying. It's like...you guys know him better than I did, but I bet he wanted to go out with a bang and not freak everyone out. And who knows? Maybe he told the lie enough times that he started to believe it himself." Nobody replied.
Once again the bottle-strewn lobby was perfectly silent.
Ariel's gaze flickered across each troubled face. She took a deep breath. Were they thinking the same thing she was? Were they wrestling with the same feelings? Were they mad at John for lying? And were they relieved at the same time? Ariel couldn't deny it; she was thankful that John wasn't nineteen. As harsh as that seemed, it meant that she had a few more years. The plague remained at a distance, somewhere off in the future.
"You know what it's time to do," she said.
The five of them glanced at one another.
Without a word they drew together in a circle around the remnants of John's body.
"John Currin was our friend," Ariel whispered.
"John Currin was our friend," the others repeated in unison.
She looked at Jared. "You start," she murmured.
Jared nodded, swallowing. He bent over and plucked one of John's socks from the muck.
"One of, uh...one of the things I liked best about John was the way he could talk his way out of anything," he said. "I'm going to keep this sock to remind me of John."
"John Currin was our friend," everyone chanted a second time.
There was a pause. Ariel nodded to Cynthia.
Cynthia sniffed. She hesitated, then reached over and carefully extracted his dripping watch, using just the tips of her thumb and forefinger. "I...well, I liked a lot of things about John. But, um, I guess the thing I liked the most was the way he was never on time." She forced a laugh, but her voice caught in her throat. "I -- I'm going to keep this watch to remind me of John," she finished.
"John Currin was our friend," the group chanted again.
A tear fell from Ariel's cheek. It was strange: In the past she'd always avoided events like this. She wasn't religious or anything. She'd always weaseled her way out of going to church. All the formalized prayers and songs and rituals made her feel weird, like she was putting on an act. But in the face of the plague she desperately needed something, some kind of ceremony -- some way to mark the passing of each new victim...so that none of the dead would ever truly be gone. Every single one would stay alive in the memories of those who remained, until the very last person on earth vaporized.
It had nothing to do with church or God or the devil. It had to do with people. With human beings. With kids. It had to do with taking just a minute to remember in the middle of trying so hard to forget...
"Caleb," Ariel whispered. "Your turn."
Caleb cleared his throat.
"I...I..." he stammered.
Ariel held her breath. Caleb wiped his eyes. His hands were trembling violently. He took a step forward, then froze.
"Go on," Ariel encouraged, as gently as she could.
But Caleb remained still.
"What is it?" she asked. "What did you like best about John?"
He simply shook his head. Then he turned and sprinted out the door, vanishing into the morning sunshine.
Copyright © 1999 by 17th Street Productions, a division of Daniel Weiss Associates, Inc. and Daniel Ehrenhaft