The bugs in Castor’s head writhed beneath his skull. He threw his burner at the rock-covered ground and screamed, his strained voice reverberating across the lake, chasing a flock of song sparrows up into the evening sky. The horizon was a fiery blaze that matched the late-summer heat. His brother Paul’s voice continued to echo throughout the jagged, hollowed landscape of Castor’s mind. “You’re out of your damn mind if you think I’m lending you any more money.” With his thirtieth birthday seven months away and four failed attempts of sobriety under his belt, Castor needed to get out of his god-forsaken town and promised himself on his twenty-third birthday he’d do so by the time he was thirty—if he didn’t, he wasn’t sure he’d ever make it out of Dundalk. There had to be some way he could get the money for his leave, and fast. No matter how many times he promised his brother over the phone that he’d stay off it this time, he meant it, no more drinking, he was through with it all, Paul didn’t take this latest attempt at sobriety seriously. But Castor had been sober in the hours since this latest attempt began, and that’s real progress, right?
Anyway, the last time he told his brother he was back on the wagon, his sobriety lasted eighteen hours. Castor tracked it from the time he called Paul to the time Paul called him after their mom called Paul in search of Castor, who didn’t make it home that night and awoke in the makeshift fort he and his brother had built in the woods out of discarded plywood and fallen branches from the surrounding trees when they were teenagers in the nearby woods they frequented to avoid the boredom back home. With the boxes piled high in the basement and their mom adjusting to their dad’s new work as a captain at the port, the unpacking dragged on.
For stretches of time, their dad was offshore, piloting his ship to Egypt or France. That’s when Castor and Paul took to exploring Dundalk, the new town they’d come to call home. As the days faded into dusk, Castor would chase Paul in from outside, their bare feet dusty with dirt, leaving a trail of earth from the back door, across the white tile of the kitchen floor, and down into the basement, where most of their toys were still packed away. Mom would holler at them to wipe their feet before coming inside. “We don’t live in a goddamn barn,” she’d say, and the boys would tell her yes, ma’am, only to do it again, trapping her existence that summer in a revolving state of cleaning, cooking, unpacking, and sleeping.
The evenings when he was home, their dad would click the Denon CD player on soon as he walked through the door. David Bowie would play softly in the background. He’d walk up behind mom, reach his arms around her waist, his broad shoulders eclipsing her the way the moon does the sun, and sway as she tried to finish with the dishes, all the while humming, “And the stars look very different today” in her ear.
Castor admired that kind of tenderness shared between his parents.
Paul mocked it. He’d interrupt the moment by yelling at them to get a room, only to be shooed away by their dad.
Six days after Castor’s phone call with Paul, much of which was a blur of Castor laying in his childhood bed, the sheets slicked with sweat as his world shook the alcohol from his body, wrung him dry, and his mom, bringing Canadian Dry and water and crackers and placing warm washcloths across his forehead and running her fingers through his wispy hair, the same way she did when he was a boy and sick with strep throat, he took his brother’s advice and dragged himself back to his old job. He promised Sid, his old manager from Taco Bell, that this time would be different, and Sid offered Castor his job back—on the grounds that he covered most of the late-night shifts. In truth, he just got lucky with his timing. Summer was soon to end, taking with it quite a few of Sid’s employees as they left for college.
“Last chance,” Sid told him. “Don’t fuck it up.”
For a few weeks, Castor didn’t. The thought of it didn’t cross his mind more than a handful of times, but he never acted on those thoughts, and that, for him, was a victory in itself. And sure, while he thought about that bearded fuck he tells to pull around at least twice a week, the same one who said to him at a party two—maybe three—years ago that Dundalk is a black hole that sucks you in until you’re nothing, he never really let that get to him. And, of course, Castor refused to be nothing, despite his past and his circumstances, and the number of burns he earned while sleep-deprived and operating the tortilla press. But what had he done with his life except collect a paycheck only to piss it away at the Seahorse or blow his brains to fuck all with Duck, popping psychedelic after psychedelic because he’d been told that micro-dosing psilocybin and lysergic acid diethylamide was a way to help his depression that worsened after his dad disappeared? And let’s face it, at this point in his life, he’d do anything to feel light like he did when his dad would prop him up, his calloused feet rough against Castor’s bare belly, and Castor, suspended in air, would laugh as his dad radioed in from ground control to confirm the pilot—that was Castor—was ready for take-off, which didn’t make sense thinking back on it since he was already suspended in the air. But maybe that’s just the thing about life. It happens out of sorts, and we’re left to make sense of it.
One late-night shift, Eliza Tillman and Jackie Cupertino, former classmates from Castor and Paul’s high school, pulled up to the window. High out of their minds, the two ordered one of everything off the menu.
Castor didn’t know either of them all that well. He didn’t interact much with others back then, and that only worsened his senior year—the year his world tore itself open. Paul, on the other hand, had thrown himself headfirst into any and all activities. He even joined the Prom Committee, which is how he managed to land Jackie as his prom date. Castor almost didn’t go. If it wasn’t for Duck, with his cooler of Coors Light and his bottle of Captain Morgan, he wouldn’t have. Instead of pictures with dates, the two of them tailgated the event in the bowling alley parking lot and hitched a ride on the shuttle. Then again, if he hadn’t gone, he wouldn’t have had to lie to Mr. Richter about why he threw up, and wouldn’t have had to deal with Mr. Richter lecturing him about how he’s better than this, that he’s a smart, talented young man, that he knows things have been difficult for him and Paul, but he needs to clean up his act and get his shit together, before handing him two pieces of mint Orbit and telling him a little soap and water will get the stains out of his white button-down shirt.
“That’ll be $218.72.”
Jackie’s eyes widened.
Eliza snorted. “We’re not playing that much for Taco Bell.”
“I’m not sure what else to tell you. That’s what happens when you order one of everything off the menu.”
“Isn’t there some way you could cut us a deal?”
Castor, tired and irritable, the bugs in his head writhing, itching beneath the surface, rubbed his eyes and said the first thing that came to mind. “If you flash me, you get it for free.”
“Show me your tits,” Castor said, “And I’ll give it to you for free—all of it. No charge.”
Eliza looked over at Jackie.
Jackie looked over at Eliza.
Castor looked down at the two of them.
“Fine,” Eliza said.
Jackie went first. She angled herself toward the drive-thru window and lifted her black, oversized Nirvana t-shirt with little hesitation, and Castor swallowed hard, distracted by Kurt Cobain’s eyes peering over the folded cloth. Jackie glanced over at Eliza as she lowered her shirt. Eliza looked back at her and shook her head. Her hands held the bottom of her white tank top tight, knuckles pale from the pressure. She pulled the bottom up, revealing her tanned skin, her navel, her abdomen, and with the pink of her nipples bared to the world, Castor looked away, ashamed of himself.
“Okay,” he said. “That’s good enough. What kind of sauce would you like with that?”
“Hot and mild,” Eliza said, tucking her tank top back into her shorts.
The heat of the moment rushed over Castor. Sweat collected across his brow and dripped down his cheek. After forty-eight minutes of preparing food, the order was finally complete. He handed Eliza the first bag of Taco Bell, and when her hand brushed against his, he imagined that she’d suggest how familiar he looked, recalling the kiss they shared once during spin the bottle at a birthday party freshman year, the memory dulling with time and distance like a sun-bleached photograph. He imagined that she’d ask for his number, suggest they catch up over coffee, and Castor, despite his disdain for coffee, would gladly agree, and together they would sip coffee in some cafe that he’d never otherwise go.
By the time he handed Eliza her last brown paper bag of Taco Bell, Jackie had nodded off in the passenger seat. Eliza took the final bag. “Your job isn’t that fucking hard,” she said, shaking her head. She jammed her shifter to drive from neutral and sped off from the window, the rubber of the car’s wheels squeaking against the worn asphalt.
When Castor’s shift ended that morning, he stepped outside, emerging from the bright, sterile fluorescent lights into the lavender of early morning, leaving the smell of warmed tortillas and spices and burnt beans behind. He leaned against the tan facade of Taco Bell. The faux adobe was out of place, tucked between the row of homes-turned-businesses. He placed a cigarette between his dried, cracked lips, and flicked the Zippo until the spark started a flame. “GOD SPEED” was etched on the side of the lighter’s bronze plating. On the other, “K.T.” His dad’s initials. The lighter was a gift, given to Castor days before his father’s final voyage. As for Paul, he ended up with dad’s Heuer Skipper—and hadn’t been late a day since.
With only four months, give or take, left until his thirtieth birthday, and with the coming loss of his job looming over him, Castor wasn’t sure what his next move was. There was no way he’d get the money for the new car in time, and it was even less likely now, despite his sobriety, that his brother would believe him, let alone lend him the money. Maybe the bearded fuck was right. Maybe this is what it felt like to be caught in the black hole. Maybe nothing is all he would ever amount to. Castor exhaled plumes that hung in the thick, humid late-summer air. Well, at least it wasn’t for a lack of trying.
Off in the distance, a set of headlights approached the parking lot, turned in, and parked right in from of him, blinding him momentarily. Duck dragged himself out the window of his Jeep Wrangler and sat on the threshold. Castor could see small holes burned into the bottom of his Jimmy Buffett t-shirt. When he turned his head to spit out chew, the soft light behind him silhouetted his hat to resemble a bill. “You off?”
“How’d you know I was here?”
“Where else would you be?” Duck slapped the roof of his Jeep. “Just kidding. I swung by your mom’s place. She told me you got your old job back.”
“Yeah, and I really ought to get home before she starts thinking the worst.”
“Isn’t it already too late for that?”
Castor tapped the ash from the tip of his cigarette. Who the hell did he think he was saying that? If it wasn’t for Duck, he’d already be out of this hell hole.
“Look,” Duck said. “I’m sure your mom ain’t going to worry about you too much. If she asks, just tell her you picked up an extra shift at the Bell or some shit.”
The cherry of the Marlboro brightened as Castor puffed. He exhaled another plume of smoke. He didn’t want to be around Duck. Every time he was, they got into some kind of dumb shit, and it always put him in a bad way. The last time he hung with Duck, security chased them down for lifting a tollgate so they could leave the downtown Marriott parking garage without paying the $28 it cost. Duck fled to the second level of the parking garage and dropped down over the side. Meanwhile, Castor abandoned the Jeep and slipped out another way. He wandered the streets of Baltimore City until sunrise, losing one of his shoes in the process. By the time he made it home later that evening, his mom already reported him missing to the police for fear of the worst.
Castor looked back at the dimly lit Taco Bell sign atop the building and shook his head. He took a final puff of his cigarette before dropping to the ground and stomping out the embers. “What’d you have in mind?”
Duck smirked. He reached into the center console of his Jeep and returned to his perch in the window, a small plastic baggie in hand. Inside the baggie, a smaller multi-colored sheet with images of Ren and Stimpy all over. LSD.
Out in the field behind the Taco Bell, Castor and Duck lay in the stiff, sharp grass, a tab of acid dissolving on their tongues. Duck’s heavy breaths fill the quiet between them as they waited for the drugs to loosen the gravitational force that binds them to their bodies, to this town.
Castor wanted nothing more than to fly, to make radio contact with ground control, for ground control to confirm his destination. When Duck asked Castor about a higher power and God, he ruined the moment. Severed the connection Castor so desperately wanted to make—needed to make—with ground control.
Two lifelong atheists lay in a field in Dundalk, discussing religion and shit, which is never a good thing to do at any point, high, drunk, or otherwise, and admit to one another that there has to be some higher power, though they weren’t at liberty to give said higher power a name such as God, because who even granted any single person the power to name what objects are? And who decided to name a natural luminous body visible in the sky, especially at night, a star? And how did homo sapiens even develop speech without some kind of higher power?
Castor felt gravity fade away. He leaped into the outer reaches of space, well beyond the stars that hung in the night sky like the lights his mother hung on the Christmas tree that first holiday season without his dad. Off in the distance, Castor heard the faint echo of his mother’s call for him to come back. He was never any good at listening to her. He wished he was better. He wished he had more patience, wished he was more like his brother, wished he could apologize for all the broken promises. Only the pile of rubble is much too large to overlook. He wished on each passing star, but no matter his wish, he knew that just isn’t who he is. He knew his unstable self. And as he thought about his unstable self, as he contemplated how to unmake the unstable self, he drifted into the unfeeling darkness of outer space in search of a signal.
“Major Tom to Ground Control,” he said, “Come in, Ground Control.”
But there was no response. Only the shallowness of his own breathing and static and an unfathomable quietude faded as he awaited for arrival.