Short Story: Higher; 1990

Short Story: Higher; 1990

The Saturday afternoon smoke session’s conversation veered toward its typical pointlessness as Jerry packed what would presumably be the day’s final bowl into the bong.

“You guys need to strive for more,” Topher said flatly as he dug for the perfect tortilla chip.

“What?” Ed said. “What the hell are you talking about?”

“I’m saying you guys are good musicians—I mean you guys fuckin’ shred—but you should strive for something more. Something … higher”

“Ha-ha,” Ed replied in sarcastic, mock laugher at Topher’s dumb drug pun. “Fuck you, dude. What the hell do you know?”

“I know that you’re derivative. How long can you guys do the proto-punk thing before it’s played out any more than it already is? You guys are verging into Stooges-mania territory.”

“You have to be kidding me. You can’t play a freaking note of music on anything, including a harmonica, and somehow you have the gall to tell me what my band should be playing. Honestly? It’s fucking ridiculous. You’re ridiculous.”

“Whatever, dude. I paid you a compliment. You’re just not listening.”

“Yeah, and you’re an asshole.”

“Listen, you—”

“Guys, guys,” Jerry interrupted. “Calm down. You’re too aggro. The bong is ready and waiting.”

Dressed in his trademark tie-dyed tee shirt, Ed took the hollowed-out, ceramic dragon in hand, placed his mouth over the hole in back of the creature’s head, sparked the bowl, turned the bud into a smoldering ember, filled the chamber with rich, white smoke, yanked out the bowl’s stem, and inhaled the dragon’s contents. The bass guitarist exhaled a seemingly endless cloud as he handed the bong to Topher and leaned back.

Topher repeated the process, as did Jerry, who handed the bong back to Ed. They continued in that circle for seven hits before they had completely depleted the marijuana. All that remained was sticky ash and nasty water. Jerry set the dragon on the coffee table near the bowl of salsa.

“Well, that’s cashed,” he said to his reclining friends. The couch appeared to be slowly absorbing Topher and Ed. They were saying nothing and staring intently at nothing. Jerry was pretty sure that if the two of them were left in the same position for any decent length of time their vacant gazes would burn a hole in the wall.

“Let’s watch some TV,” he suggested.

“Cool,” Ed affirmed.

“Yeah, right on,” Topher agreed.

Jerry grabbed the remote and switched on the local news. A helicopter showed police officers, firefighters, and bystanders milling around the front of an apartment complex as paramedics loaded someone into an ambulance.

“So far, police are reporting three dead and at least five heavily injured,” said an unseen anchor narrating the helicopter shot. “Police do not know the whereabouts of any suspects, but one resident of the complex told Channel Five reporter Bill Hernandez that he believed he saw at least one assailant.”

The scene cut to a shot of a reporter in a button down shirt and tie interviewing a middle aged man in a muscle tee. The man’s tanned arms were covered in tattoos that were becoming grey-blue and blurred with age.

“So you saw the murderer?” the reporter asked.

“I think so,” the man said, his eyes darting back and forth. He was clearly amped up by the excitement. “It was craaaaaaazy. I didn’t get a good look, because the guy was already across the street and diving into those trees over there, but he was huge. I mean that dude had to have been over seven feet—and he was yoked!”

“He was muscular?” the reporter replied.

“Yeah. Dude was huge.”

“Did you know the victims?”

“Not really. They were younger guys.”

The news broadcast switched back to the helicopter shot.

“Well there you have it,” the anchor said, resuming his voice over. “A large, powerful man could be the suspect in what is currently a triple homicide. We’ll have more details for you as they become available. For now, let’s switch over to Cheryl Tyson with sports.”

“Thanks, Bill,” a well-dressed woman topped with a wall of blonde hair and Aquanet said in a confident voice.

Jerry began flipping the channels.

“Fuckin’ crazy,” Ed observed, as Jerry tried to find something better on the cable box’s inexhaustible supply of mediocre diversion.

“Yeah, that’s wild,” Topher replied.

Jerry landed on a re-run of “Taxi.” The three leaned back and watched the episode, chuckling at times. Then they watched another. Apparently it was some kind of marathon. In the middle of the fourth episode, Topher piped up.

“Yo, we should get more bud.”

“Yeah, my buzz is starting to wear thin,” Ed agreed.

“Well, we could go see what Dave’s got,” Jerry suggested. “I think he’s got more inventory from his supplier.”

“Let’s do it,” Ed said.

“Yeeeeeaaaaaah,” Topher enthused. “The day is young.”

The three packed into Ed’s Mazda hatchback and headed to Dave the dealer’s apartment. After a brief stop at Del Taco for bean burritos, hard shell tacos, and buckets of soda, they set a course for Dave’s apartment complex. Iron Maiden and Megadeth provided the soundtrack for their movable feast.

After having the great luck of finding one of the rare guest parking spots, the three friends piled out of the car and snaked their way through the complex’s maze of two-story buildings until they arrived at Dave’s unit. As they walked to the doorstep, it was clear things were amiss. For starters, the door was swung open and hanging by a small piece of its now-bent and twisted top hinge. It looked as though a rhinoceros had made a hasty exit from the apartment.

“What … the … hell?” Topher said in slow motion.

“Dude,” Ed observed.

“Do we go inside check it out?” Jerry reluctantly suggested.

“I don’t know man,” Topher said. “This is sketchy. We should go to a neighbor’s apartment and use their phone to call the cops.”

Ed continued observing.

“Naw, Dave and his roomies could be hurt,” Jerry said. “Tell you what: Me and Ed will go inside while you look for a phone.”

“Cool,” Topher agreed.

“What are we doing?” Ed replied.

“C’mon,” Jerry instructed, putting a hand between Ed’s shoulder blades and pushing him toward the door. Topher turned and began searching for a resident of the complex that would let him use a phone.

The stoned Jerry and Ed carefully entered the apartment, stepping with such overemphasized care that they almost looked like characters from a Saturday morning cartoon. After entering, they had the option to head forward into the living area, right into the kitchen, or left toward the bedrooms and bathroom. Jerry bore right and Ed followed behind.

In the kitchen lay Dave’s roommate, Roger. Sort of. Roger’s body was laying in the kitchen. They quickly discovered that Roger’s head was sitting on the futon in the adjacent living area. A trail of blood ran from the body, across the kitchen floor, over the raised breakfast counter, and across the stained living area carpet to where the head now lay. It was as though Roger had been a living bottle of champagne that a giant had rather messily uncorked.

“Dude,” Ed gasped.

“Fucking A,” Jerry agreed. “We gotta find Dave.”

“And Ritchie,” Ed said, reminding Jerry of the third roommate.

“Oh yeah, Ritchie. Damn. Let’s go.”

They peered down a short hallway that ended in the bathroom. A bedroom door was typically situated in each of the two walls of the hallway, but the cheap, hollow-core door that had provided privacy for the right-hand bedroom now lay in pieces on the hallway floor.

“I can’t find a phone. No one is in any of the apartments around here,” a newly returned Topher exclaimed. “I guess everyone is at work. What’s up? What’d you find?”

“Roger’s dead,” Jerry said, nodding toward the kitchen and living area.

Topher took a few paces toward the kitchen and surveyed the scene.

“Holy shit!” Topher exclaimed. “Oh holy shit! What the fuck?”

Jerry put his index finger to his lips and pantomimed like he was shushing.

“We don’t know if the killer is in here,” he advised in a low tone of voice. “We should probably be quiet.”

Why Jerry decided that now would be a good time to stifle their noise, the group would never know, but they went with the idea. They carefully walked toward the bedroom with the obliterated door. Jerry peered inside. He could see a pair of Nikes sticking out from behind Dave’s bed. Jerry pointed to them and motioned for his friends to join him as he entered the room.

When they got to the far side of the bed, they found Dave lying on his stomach. The big problem was that he was looking straight at them with a twisted, horrified expression on his face. Somehow, Dave’s head had been twisted around so that it now faced backward, like a broken G.I. Joe doll.

“Holy shit,” Topher muttered.

“Dude,” Ed chorused.

“Poor Dave,” Jerry said. “Fuck, man … what the fuck is going on?”

“What do we do?” Topher asked.

“We should check the other bedroom for Ritchie,” Jerry said, stepping out to open the door on the opposite side of the hallway.

Ritchie’s bedroom was empty. There was nothing to be seen except for a mound of dirty laundry on the floor and posters of heavily airbrushed sports cars and porn stars covering the walls.

“Ritchie’s not here,” Jerry said to his companions, who remained inside Dave’s room.

“Well, he might not have died happy, but he was getting there,” Topher said, pointing to the floor near Dave’s body.

A pot pipe lay on the carpet, which now featured a small burned spot where a smoldering bud of marijuana had tumbled out of the pipe’s bowl and had mercifully burned itself out before causing an apartment-wide conflagration. Near the pipe lay a small, orange plastic pill bottle like the kind used by pharmacies. The words “green demon” had been scribbled across the bottle in magic marker. Jerry picked it up and examined it. Some weed remained inside.

“Must’ve been what he was smoking,” he said to the room.

“There’s something else,” Ed said, kneeling and rummaging on the other side of the bed.

“What’s that?” Jerry asked.

“I found this,” Ed replied, now standing up and holding a large, plastic toolbox that they all instantly recognized as Dave’s stash. Each of the three regularly made purchases from the box after cashing their fortnightly paychecks. The red plastic box played a familiar role in their lives.

“Awww yeah,” Topher enthused.

“Shit man, I dunno,” Jerry said. “This is crazy. You guys want to lift something from a murder scene?”

Ed and Topher nodded in unison.

“Yeah man,” Ed said.

“Fuck yeah,” Topher added.

“Dude, Dave and Roger are dead and Ritchie’s missing,” Jerry said. “Doesn’t that mean something?”

“Yeah man,” Topher replied. “It means we need to get the fuck out of here before the cops come. Who’s going to believe what three stoners in an apartment with two dead bodies have to say. We need to bail—now.”

Dave shook his head half in protest and half in bewildered agreement. He began to accept their shared fate of posthumously betraying Dave as they walked to Ed’s car. The return drive’s conversation focused on solving mysteries and crafting a plan.

“Dude, who the fuck did that to Dave and Roger?” Ed wondered aloud as they waited at an intersection.

“No idea,” Topher said. “A rival dealer? Their supplier? I dunno. And where’s Ritchie?”

“You brainiacs are skipping past the obvious weirdness,” Jerry interrupted. “Dave’s head was twisted around, and Roger’s was completely removed from his freaking body. I think if this was some kind of street crime, they’d have bullet holes in them. Also, Dave’s stash would be gone. Besides, how do you twist somebody’s head around?”

“Or rip it off,” Topher added.

“Shit man … you’re right,” Ed said. The horror of what they had just witnessed was finally sinking in for all three.

The car fell silent. Ed reached onto the dash and grabbed a cassette of his band and jammed it in the stereo. A respectable version of “Search and Destroy” started blaring out of the little car’s used-and-abused speakers. A torn woofer buzzed and rattled in time with the Ur-punk classic’s recognizable bass line.

“Like I said, derivative,” Topher observed.

“Fuck you, man. You’re just jealous you can’t play,” Ed retorted. The traces of confused desperation on the edges of Ed’s voice betrayed the fact that the enormity of the situation was starting to weigh him down. It was weighing them all down. Dave, Roger, Ritchie—gone. At least two dead and mutilated.

When the trio finally returned to their apartment, they made a beeline for their kitchen. Ed slammed the stash box on the table and sat down while Topher closed the plastic venetian blinds. Jerry also took a seat, unlatched the container, and opened its lid, which in turn raised up two rows of previously collapsed trays. Inside the box’s main compartment and on the shelves were small cardboard boxes containing pre-measured amounts of marijuana. Each box bore Dave’s signature scrawl denoting the strain of cannabis inside. One of the trays was reserved for a uniform row of the same kind of plastic pill bottles they had found near Dave’s body. Each bottle featured the same, handwritten “green demon” label.

“That’s the shit Dave was smoking when he died,” Jerry said.

“When he was killed,” Topher corrected as he took a seat at the table with Jerry and Ed.

“Yeah, when he was killed,” Jerry acknowledged.

“Wanna smoke some?” Topher eagerly asked. The enthusiastic tone in his voice bugged Jerry. How could Topher be so upbeat?

“I don’t know man,” Jerry said. “The word ‘demon’ kind of gives me the creeps after today. Let’s just smoke some Columbian gold and not get too baked. We need to be on our toes if the cops find our names in Dave’s address book or anything like that. Besides, I’ve gotta go pull a swing shift in a couple of hours.”

“Yeah, and my band’s got a show at Alexo’s tonight,” Ed added. “I can’t get wrecked.”

“Fine, the gold it is,” Topher said in an annoyed tone of voice, and grabbed a small plastic baggy from their newly acquired treasure trove.

Soon the roommates had smoked a couple bowls of their dead friend’s weed and settled down to watch Divorce Court. Eventually, Jerry had to get up, don a tie and name tag, and head to the copy shop where he spent five nights a week running large photocopying jobs for banks and insurance companies.

Jerry had apologized to Ed for missing his band’s show before he departed, but he secretly rejoiced that he didn’t have to go. Topher was right: Ed’s band was derivative, and the notion of having to cheer him on after having just having discovered Dave and Roger’s mangled bodies was way too much to handle.

Every time Jerry pressed the “start” button on the big reprographic machines, Jerry basked in the simple mindfulness of a job that helped him so easily disconnect from the day’s nightmare. The hum of the machines. The imperceptible flicker of the fluorescent lights. The shitty blue carpeting. By the third hour into his shift, the images of Dave’s distorted face and Roger’s decapitated head began to intrude less frequently on his consciousness. By the end of his shift, Jerry mused that he just might be able to get past the horror of the day without going completely insane if he could get more of this kind of detached routine.

Jerry slurped a Big Gulp of Mountain Dew at regular intervals as he trod the concrete pathways through his complex’s common areas until he arrived at his apartment. On the way home from work, he had stopped off at Seven Eleven to purchase the soda and a microwave burrito and play some Street Fighter. It was now past 12:30 in the morning, and he was just putting his key in the lock.

The key nudged the door open. It had been unlocked. Annoyed, Jerry pushed the door all the way open.

“Dude, Topher, you gotta start locking the door,” he said as he entered the apartment. “Someone is gonna rob our shit.”

He heard no response. David Letterman and Paul Shaffer traded jokes on the television in the living area.

“Topher?” Jerry asked. “You around?”

He walked to the larger bedroom that Topher and Ed shared. There was no trace of Topher, and he already knew Ed was playing with his band at Alexo’s.

He wandered back to the living area. Dave’s box sat on the coffee table. It was open. Jerry plopped down on the couch to get a better look. Next to the box lay the dragon bong and opened plastic pill bottle. Topher had smoked the green demon. As Jerry pondered that fact, the background noise from television suddenly grew louder and more emphatic. A newscast had broken into Late Night.

“The details are still emerging, but it is clear that multiple people are dead,” a news anchor’s said. His voice was narrating a video feed from inside what looked to be a nightclub. Emergency workers were tending to people laying on the floor. In the background, Jerry could see a cop slipping in a puddle of blood. “We’re not sure what happened or how many assailants were involved, but police say this is one of the worst crime scenes they’ve ever come across.”

As the camera panned around the room, Jerry realized he recognized the place. It was Alexo’s. He recognized something else: Ed’s tie-dyed tee. It was on one of the bodies on the floor. Then two police officers covered the corpse with a blue sheet.

“I’m being told we have an eye witness,” the anchor said.

Like the earlier broadcast Channel Five reporter Bill Hernandez stood there in his shirt and tie. Next to him stood a young man wearing a spiked dog collar and a Ramones tee shirt.

“That’s right, Chuck,” said Channel Five reporter Bill Hernandez. “I’m here with Stuart Linder, who says he witnessed the attack. Stuart, tell us what you saw.”

“Mm-hmm,” the interviewee said. “It was dark, but the stage lights made it clear that the dude was huge. Had to be more seven feet tall and built like Schwarzenegger. … No … Bigger—like The Hulk. He was grabbing people and literally ripping them apart. That dude over there [the young man pointed to the sheet covering Ed], he was the bassist in the band that was playing. The big guy jumped up on the stage, walked right up to him, and ripped his arms right out of their sockets. And what makes it even weirder is the whole time he was screaming ‘Derivative! Derivative!’ in this voice … well … I’ve never heard anything like it—or seen anything like it. It wasn’t natural. The guy was a monst—”

Jerry pressed mute before Stuart Linder the Ramones fan could finish his testimony. He surveyed their living room in stunned silence. Artifacts and reminders of the three roommates’ friendship lay scattered all over it. Topher’s basket of hacky sacks. Ed’s two other bass guitars. Jerry’s giant, 1970s Led Zeppelin poster. A bulletin board of photographs from all their camping trips. The communal dragon bong.

Ed was dead. Murdered.

“Fucking Topher,” he muttered, choking back tears. “Fucking Topher.”

Jerry sat for a long time as a silent Late Night went through its talk show routine. By the time musical guest Red Hot Chili Peppers took the stage and soundlessly performed, Jerry let out a long, shaky sigh, as though he were exhaling his entire soul. Tears rolled down his cheeks. He picked up the plastic pill bottle, pulled a corner off the marijuana bud that was inside, packed some more green demon into the bong, flicked his disposable lighter, put his lips to the opening, and began filling the dragon’s chamber with smoke.


Author’s note: Thanks for reading this story! If you liked it, the biggest compliments you can pay me are to leave a comment and to share it with your friends.

4 Replies to “Short Story: Higher; 1990”

    1. Hey there! Just saw this. I leave whether or not it’s satire, irony, goofiness, or whatever up to the reader. I do have to say I got several PMs from people who in my opinion read waaaayyyy more into it than I did writing it. To paraphrase Freud, sometimes a blunt is just a blunt.

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