by Joseph Grantham
Todd holds me under. My eyes trace the few remaining bubbles of oxygen as they rise from my open mouth to meet the surface, tiny eruptions of air. I notice the grimace on his face, the muscles in his forearms, snakes slithering beneath his skin. I am calm and I am complacent and I am dying. I force myself to think about something other than Todd’s forearms, something other than oxygen. I think about how I see the world, how I have begun to see the world. Lungs half empty, lungs half full. I sink deeper, now, no longer feeling the firm grip of Todd’s fingers on my skull.
Take one pill, forget an hour of your life. Take ten pills, forget a week. Take twenty pills one night and forget a whole fucking year of your life. I am in the business of forgetting. I am in the business of creating. Todd tells us our whole lives are a work of plagiarism, all of it is derivative. He tells us that there are two ways to make a difference in this world. He says one way just happens to be a whole lot easier than the other. He has us all read Oliver Twist, as if we are his students, his children. He tells us that he is our Fagin. I never read the book so I have no idea what he means.
I get used to seeing the stragglers. I was once one of them. Their bleeding eyes and cracked lips give them away. They do not want to be here, but here is a place to be, so they shrug and put on the clothes and smile at Todd. The precocious ones, the sarcastic ones, behind closed doors and in the kitchen making our food, mumble to each other about Charles Manson, about how they won’t be drinking any fucking Kool Aid, about how they just need a place to stay for a few weeks while they get back on their feet and the minute they get the chance they will scram. I said the same thing.
We whisper about his age sometimes. We think he is about forty. He’s got this violent grin, and the minute he meets anyone he can tell exactly what they want and how much they are willing to give in return. He plays jangly pop songs on his electric guitar, flakes of blue paint chipping away from the body of the guitar as he twists and swivels his feet around the compound, singing, a high-pitched squeal. He tells us that he found the guitar in a dumpster behind a church. The guitar is missing two strings now and I remember when he showed me the bodies of the two boys in the back of his trunk. Deep, red lines circling their throats, pale skin. He squeezed my shoulder when I was on my knees vomiting into the toilet. He told me there were only four strings left on the guitar.
He takes us all on drives in his van. It’s one of those big ones with tinted windows, the kind parents warn you about when you’re a kid. He looks in the rearview mirror at all of us sitting in the backseats, checking our postures. He calls us his Lost Boys and tells us to look out the windows for more friends. He says there is always room for more. He turns the radio up so loud that our ears buzz and feel numb when we return to the compound. We forget that Todd hates it when we call it the compound, we forget that he wants us to call it home. But home is a compound and I try to call things as I see them.
Todd likes to think that we are all runaways, that he rescued us all. I am from a quaint, quiet suburb. My home was a place where Dad cooked meals and Mom came home from work tired. They did nothing wrong. The only thing that went wrong was the place and the time. Playing in the street when Dad was at the stove, when Mom was asleep on the couch. Todd would tell you that it was the right place at the right time. Sure, there might be someone out there looking for us but Todd helps us forget about what happened before we got in the van.
Todd told me last night that he has been doing this for years, that the Lost Boys change every few years, rejuvenate, and that it was time for me to graduate. Move on.
I see Todd’s figure above me, now, wavering, his arms at his sides. He looks like the air above a radiator on a cold day, the air you see at a distance in the desert. I imagine chlorine circulating through my veins, pumping into my heart, and for the first time in a long time I feel clean.