We are high as fuck on Mike’s deck the moment the powers that be turned on the new billboard. It’s nighttime and it hurts our eyes at first. It’s so bright, like a spotlight on the immediate three homes around us. It towers higher than any tree in the backyard. Higher than the already towering freeway. The cars dart behind tall concrete blocks. When the semi’s barrel by, you can feel the rumble and see the headlights. You wonder if they can see you, sitting on a porch smoking weed. It sounds like a weird windstorm, like some waterlogged Halloween decoration.
“The hell does it say?” I say, squinting.
“Something…accident lawyers? Oh, wait. It just changed to something else,” Mike says.
I laugh. “Erotic massage.”
“No fucking way. You can’t display that shit.”
“With enough money, you can.”
Mike looks at me with scarlet eyes. “Guess you’re right.”
I keep looking at the billboard. My vision must be hazy because it looks like there’s heat is radiating. I blink a bit when I hear a jingling. Mike plays with a necklace around his neck.
“Whatcha got there, princess? When did you start wearing a necklace?”
Mike hands me the bowl. “Not long ago.” He doesn’t elaborate, just keeps cranes his head up and exhaling smoke. “Wonder how much that all cost?”
I light the bowl, exhale a white plume. The breeze overtakes it in seconds. “Probably an inexplicable amount. It’s gargantuan.”
“Whoa, Mr. $20 words. Looks like you’re buying the eighth next time.”
I try to laugh, cough, and gag all at once. The holy grail of asphyxiation.
“But seriously,” Mike continues. “Our parents paid, what, like $500k for these houses? And the fucking DOT wants to put this giant billboard here? Bad enough we have the freeway up there.”
I pass him the bowl. “Guess being in an HOA with a bunch of other liberals doesn’t mean shit these days.”
“You remember all the jackhammering?”
I nod. “Yeah, sucked when I would come home from school. They’d be all about it when I was trying to jack off.”
Mike hits the bowl and blows some smoke at me. I lean backward to watch it whirl over my head, feeling my back tense against the lawn chair. The billboard flicks again to something with ice chests.
“Why the hell would anyone pay money for ice?” I say.
“What was it?” Mike says.
“Something about ice? It moves too fa—oh wait, now it’s about watches.”
“Yo let’s go down and tag it,” Mike says, rising. “Like shove it back to the state.”
“I’m not climbing the billboard, bro,” I say, adjusting my ass in the chair. “Wait, you got spray paint?”
Mike slides open the patio door and disappears behind the louvers. After a minute, he returns with two spray cans. One is purple and the other is lime green. The logos on the cans covered in their respective paint colors.
“You get purple since you liked Barney,” he says, handing me the purple can.
I roll my eyes. “Bro, we all liked that motherfucker.”
I take the can anyway. He motions to the deck stairs with his head.
“Wait are you serious?”
“Not the billboard, dumbass. The pillars or whatever.”
Mike takes some bumbling steps down and I plod onward with my beat-ass Nike trainers. We plod down the deck stairs into the yard. I pull out my phone and use the light to navigate into the woods. We used to go in these woods all the time as kids. Before the highway diverted up and around. When it was quieter and less bright. I stumble over a raised tree root.
“Damn, for the guy holding the light—” Mike says.
“Says the guy who couldn’t make track qualifiers,” I say.
“Shit, yeah, you’re right. Maybe I can try baseball next year. Be blazed up in the outfield.”
He leaps over a low tree stump. I know we are getting close. They cut the trees low enough to drive cement trucks through. The gravel begins yards before the tree line. We look up and see the stark, gray mass of the overpass. Some wooshes of cars flutter into our eardrums. The bases have a wide circumference, wide enough to lay fully extended if it wasn’t for the pillars. I turn a complete 180 degrees around and note the faded lights of the development. Mostly obscured by tree cover, but they’re there. Mike notes some graffiti tagging on one of them.
“Dan, check it out, it’s a whopping cock!” Mike says.
I pivot on my heels toward the artwork. A large dick indeed, veins and all. It wraps around well. Some water—at least I hope it is—droplets hit my forehead and run down my cheek. I wince, go ewewew, and wipe it off.
“The hell was that for?” Mike says.
“Got some water on my face. From the overpass.”
“As you say that in front of our lord and savior.”
Mike slaps the shaft area. A firm whack on the concrete. We giggle and shake our cans. Mike goes first, coloring in some of the shaft. I hold the light up for him. He uses a nozzle that leaves a crisp, straight line of green. He colors in about half of it nods at his work.
“Starting to look like the Hulk’s,” Mike says, popping the nozzle off. “Batter up.”
He tosses it over and I fumble the catch. I scoop it up as Mike goes ooof. I snap it in. I give him my phone and he illuminates the area where his green paint stops. I start spraying and end up going outside the existing, black outline. Mike groans, noting my horrible tagging skills.
“Man, you must’ve got held back in Kindergarten,” he says.
“Shut up, asshat. I’ve never done this shit before,” I say, agitated.
I put my hand onto the base to get a better angle. I feel the low vibrations of an incoming large vehicle above us. My finger slips off the nozzle and I spray a bit of my shorts.
“About to take your privileges away,” Mike says.
I get to the dick’s head when we hear tires squealing. Then the sound of an engine downshifting. The sounds are shrill, despite looming above us. I drop my can when the impact collides. The sound of crunched metal, glass, and fluid sounds like a discordant band camp accident. Then, a whistling. Something lands in the grass. Mike sidesteps away from me.
“Fuck, what was that?” he says.
White smoke sizzles in a rogue patch of grass. A few embers burn out on their own. Silence engulfs us and the road above. He shines my phone towards a mass of black, brown, and burgundy. He crouches down and waddles closer with the light.
“What is it?” I say.
He looks at me with his stoned, yet awestruck, eyes, making a psychic pact. As the light gets closer and focuses on the object, we see the hunk of steel. Gripped to the throttle of a motorcycle are a severed hand and part of a forearm. On the wrist, is a golden watch.
I shriek. “Dude! What the fuck!”
Mike kicks the forearm, and the fingers let go of their death-grip. Blood spurts out of the severed muscle and tissue. Mike waits for the blood to leak out onto the grass. He crouches down, tilting his head like an owl. I can smell burnt oil and flesh a couple of yards away. I don’t know how he’s not gagging anymore
“Dude it’s a fucking Rolex. Talk about luck,” Mike says. The golden, miraculously in-tact glass and diamonds flicker light around the bezel. “I’m going to take it,” Mike says.
“No, you’re not taking that watch. Shit’s cursed,” I say, at least one octave higher than my normal speaking voice.
Mike ignores my warning. He puts my phone screen-down into unstained grass. The fingers of this person’s hands are a fucking mess. The middle finger bends toward the wrist. it keeps the watch from slipping off. I feel like puking when I see the pinky holding on by a thin tendon and skin. The already pale-white hand looked translucent now. The veins turn to purple roots.
“And what the hell are you going to do with that?” I say, finally breaking my stare.
“I’m gonna wear it till we leave school. Little flex,” he says, walking back to our shitty art. He’s carrying the fucking hand.
“Wow,” I say, grabbing my phone and turning off the light. “This is too much.”
Mike puts the hand on the concrete and finishes coloring in the dick. He’s cool about it. It’s freaking me out. He keeps talking.
“Then, I’m gonna sell it. Use the money for a billboard. One that will juxtapose the calm, idyllic life we live.”
When he finishes, he tries to make out what’s on the billboard, but the angle prevents a clear look. But it is some dude in a suit, probably an accident lawyer. Probably some old white guy with bleached white teeth and taught, tan skin that makes him look like a ventriloquist dummy. A ventriloquist dummy-god looming over all of us. We hear multiple sirens coming toward the accident scene above.
“Something, something, bright billboards kill,” Mike concludes his edgy rant. He leaves the cans and picks up the hand again. He starts walking back to his house in the dark.
“Yo do not take that hand back,” I say, scrambling to pick up the waste. Mike laughs. He’s already thirty yards or so back into the woods.
“Why? It’s not good for anything except for me now. Don’t be a bitch, c’mon.”
I feel a lingering dread creep into my brain. The high is making this moment morph into some fever dream. I jog through the woods to catch up. Behind me, I hear shouts of firefighters and cops at the accident. I wondered if they were yelling at us. Probably amongst themselves. No one can spot us now. God knows if this person’s hand was the only casualty. Maybe more. I feel my stomach flip around inside me. I can’t fathom the iron bowels those people have. Driving to ground zero of accidents that you find on Reddit and shit. Handling dead bodies and spraying away all the blood and gore.
I start seeing the lights of the homes and the aura of the billboard. I see the shifting form of Mike breaking out of the trees and into his yard. He waits for me at the foot of the steps. I exit, panting— and I’m the baseball guy here. I can’t even see his eyes. His nose is bright by the light but nothing else. His eyes are like two pits of blackness. I imagined mine were just as bad. Two burnout, demon-looking motherfuckers, committing several felonies.
“Yo, go inside and down to the garage and open it,” Mike commanded. “I’m not trying to get blood on the carpet. Parents got this Martha Stewart shit lately.”
“Funny how you care more about the carpet than a person’s hand,” I say, ascending a couple of steps.
Mike doesn’t say a word, but I can feel him hurling daggers and bullets at me. Like some psy-op conspiracy shit. It’s like we aren’t even bros anymore. I didn’t think about it once I reached the top. I want to get the hell out of there and hop in the shower. Maybe I should watch Barney so I can forget about all this. Maybe I am truly asleep in the most lucid nightmare ever. My heart racing the same in my bed, limbs all over the place. Probably talking in my sleep. Just a few more steps and I’ll wake up and it’ll be time for school. Yeah, happy thoughts, that’s better.
I slide the patio door open and go into his house. You know, as much as we’ve been friends, I never really went into his garage. Mostly it’s been one of a few routes: the kitchen, upstairs to his room. But never to the garage. I pass by multiple pictures on the wall. I see Mrs. Boniface as a second mother. She always had some snacks for me when I came over. Like that mac & bacon sandwich, she would make. His dad is cool as hell, too. Always used to stop mowing to throw a baseball around with me for a few. I wasn’t sure if I could ever look them in the face after tonight. I come across a plaque dangling on a steel door that just says, ‘Garage,’ with a little silver wrench taped to it.
I open the door and flip the lights. Three doors all closed. Bright fluorescent bulbs on the ceiling. Remnants of car parts piled in one corner. Oil stains on the floor from his parents’ cars. A small workbench for his dad, some sports gear for Mike. Crazy he still has that old hockey net with the tear in the bottom right corner. But next to that, sitting by the third door is an ice chest. It’s on and humming with a lock on the clasp. I hit that third door button. Mike crouches low under the door. He whispers, “Shut it again, quick.” I do, and the gears protest. But it goes back down. There’s an frrph as the weather seal hits the concrete.
“Shit. Took you long enough,” he barks.
“Mike, you’re acting like an asshole,” I say, letting it all out. “You got some dead dude’s hand like a goddamn purse. What if a neighbor saw you?”
No one saw me. We made it this far. Get the saw hanging there.”
I groan audibly but comply. “I ain’t doing the sawing,” I say. “I’ll be haunted for life.”
Mike pushes his necklace up and over his shirt. There is a key attached to it. He unlocks the chest and drops the lock on the concrete. I give Mike the saw and he plops the hand onto the lid. He holds the severed forearm and angles the blade. I hear bones splinter. It’s over in under a minute. Some leftover blood drips onto the lid. Mike slides the watch off, using the tip of the saw as a platform. The links clink as it parts ways with its former owner.
“Good as gold,” he says. His eyes twinkle as he goes to wash his hands. “Ok, Dan, grab a plastic bag and put it in the freezer.”
“Just do it,” he yells.
On the floor is a few plastic bags, so I grab the hand like dog shit. I feel my lip curling up in the corner like a snarling dog. I was angry now, angry that I just now become complacent in whatever the fuck this was. But my mind quickly changes when I open the chest. I feel bile coming up like a failed chemistry experiment. Inside are multiple dead animals. Mice, rabbits, opossum babies. They look vacuum-sealed and done with care. There is a beheaded cat even, packed into a special corner. ‘For Mr. Tegan,” is on the plastic bag in red Sharpie. I drop the hand in there and hyperventilate. I feel the acrid puke in my mouth and spit a chunk out onto the floor.
“Dude, is that our history teacher’s cat? The one that went missing a couple of weeks ago?”
“None of your concern,” Mike says, ripping an excess of paper towels off the roll.
“Who…who,” I stammer. I feel my body get warm. I’m, like, simmering like the billboard. “Who even are you? You’re a sick fuck. How can I be friends with you anymore?”
I hear a car slowing down outside, then the clinking of gears as one of the doors begins to open.
“Shit get up to my room. I gotta clean the weed up,” he yells at me.
I’m full of adrenaline now. I scurry inside behind him and shut the door just in time. I pant and stomp upstairs to the bathroom. “As if the weed is what will send your parents over the edge,” I say aloud. I take some toilet paper, wet it, and wipe my face. I watch the leftover chunks plummet down the drain, along with dirt and sweat. I stand there, looking at myself. Thinking if I was going to end up on that billboard. Like how the FBI does it for most wanted. I inhale deep until the jittering in my arms dissipates. Everything will be alright. Just wait it out in his room, play Xbox for an hour, and go home. Maybe I can change school and never see Mike again. Let him deal with his fucking problems, yeah. Happy thoughts. I dry my hands and walk down the hall to his room. I hear his parents chit-chatting, calling for Mike. That’s when I remember that I didn’t relock the chest.