Four boys sat at a fire debating what frightened them most. They were in the woods behind the Walmart, woods that would be bulldozed before the fall ended. School started in a week.
They first discussed the obvious: serial killers, torture, drowning in feces, genocide. But the boys fell silent as they watched the fire. In the night quiet, the crackling flame, sounds of the distant highway, each followed his personal spoke to the axle of his fear.
“In her first week of university my cousin met this gay dude who wore the same black Converse hi-tops she did. They became close friends and got an apartment together. She went home for the summer, he stayed. In June he stopped texting. She’s had bad luck with friends so she thought he was shunning her or something, being a little shit. Sometimes his Facebook updated and she got angry. She’d message him, he wouldn’t answer. She spent the summer planning what to say. When she arrived at the apartment, the radio and the lights were on but no one was in. One of his hi-tops sat on the cutting board in the kitchen.”
“There was a foot in it.”
“Did she stay in the apartment?”
“Naw, she dropped out of school. But here’s the scary thing: she got a text message from his phone a month ago, asking her to pick up dish soap while she was out.”
The second boy sipped his Coors before speaking.
“My uncle sees reptile people wherever he looks. They fix their yellow eyes on him and lick their yellow teeth with long black tongues. He wakes up and sees them leaning over him while he sleeps. He was studying neurology when his brain miswired so on some level he knows the lizards are hallucinations. But they never leave the room. They always watch him. When he looks at you? Lizards.”
He crushed his beer can.
“He doesn’t talk, but there’s something in his eyes. Something not quite terror. Somehow softer.”
The fire spat and popped. The group nodded, thought of being that uncle.
The next one spoke.
“There were some Italian kids in the sixties who set up a radio post. They recorded Russia trying to put people in space. The first guy in orbit was only the first guy to survive. At least one cosmonaut burnt up in the atmosphere. Picture it. Rocketing above the earth, continents sweeping below, two big countries with their bombs and politics and their fingers on the buttons, and you’re only tethered to that ball by a radio signal. But when you fall back down, something fucks up. You aren’t going to land. You feel heat, see fire. You have so far to fall and so much time to wait.”
“People suffocating, distress cries of off-course rockets, the fading SOS of a capsule drifting out to space. Those kids heard it,” he prodded coals with a half-burnt stick, “If the recordings aren’t a hoax. Which would be worse, in a way.”
It was well after midnight and soon they would have to head home. They were tired and tipsy and at that point when most things don’t quite register but some things can strike with their sudden senselessness.
The fourth boy spoke half breathless.
“I found a YouTube channel with hundreds of videos by a kid who sits alone in a basement making deranged 3-D animated versions of the Simpsons. Homer a horrible blob; Marge with wiggling cucumber breasts; Bart naked in a heroin coma panting by buckets of shit and needles; Lisa totally apathetic to the fuckery around her, speaking in a robot voice. She pulls out her own eyes and makes Bart play video games for thirteen hours. Their house is always dark.”
“There are hundreds of these videos.” He tossed his empty Red Bull into the woods. “That’s it. That frightens me. Like I’m eight hiding under blankets because my brother forced me to watch Pokémon porn.”
He opened a beer.
“I know what’s scary.”
“Your mom’s pussy.”
“Throw some more wood on the fire.”
“Anyone want a beer?”
One boy texted his girlfriend some song lyrics he had come up with, two others passed a beer back and forth, watching the fire. The last one thought of work in the heat tomorrow, decapitating dandelions with a whipper-snipper. And stars were up there, and quasars sending signals to all the world’s radios as they spun.