The girls were odd. by Katie Antonsson

The girls were odd. by Katie Antonsson

The girls were odd. They didn’t make friends, we realized too late, they collected people. A cab driver who barely spoke English, a barista with a middling art career and infected lip piercing, the neighborhood dog-walker-cum-psychedelics-dealer. We decorated their lives, and we wanted to. We were ravenous to. Every text message, every invitation to the graveyard or the beach, we simply couldn’t say no. Their magnetism was a thing to behold, a gift to feel.

They ate little, like birds, claiming assorted food allergies none of us had heard of and none of us questioned. They went to a loosely qualified doctor who tapped their temples and told them their guts were full of parasites. They believed they were witches, and given the power they had over us, none of us was eager to dispute this.

We loved their ardent devotion to each other, and wondered how any of us could be so lucky as to populate their orbit. They dropped tabs on our tongues like fairy godmothers and we thought we were blessed. Their friendship was fast—none of us knew the propulsion was drugs, not truth. None of us knew it hit hard and quietly like an acid trip then faded out with sullen indifference.

So when they disappeared, separately and then together, the hole they left behind was so ragged none of us could stop purging long enough to breathe. And realize.

“The thing is,” a friend says to me while he changes lanes on the 101, “there are friends, right. And then there are the people you do drugs with.”

I reject this notion, soundly, a week after Anastasia disappears and an hour before Antonia does. It isn’t hard to know where they’ll be on a Sunday afternoon, and I just want to believe them. All the same, I can’t seem to stop crying.

A therapist—I can’t remember which one of the five I see—asked me what was worth fighting for, what was so brilliant about Anastasia that I couldn’t stop fixating. The answer seemed obvious: everything was brilliant about her; she shone like Saturn itself on the night of the new moon; she floated through this life, ethereal and untouchable, and for a while she’d bothered to look me in the eye. I wanted to devour her whole, become her. But when I opened my mouth to spill this soliloquy, all that dribbled out was, “Oh, my god. I don’t know.”

I’d touched the fabric of the universe for a good seven months, and her sudden absence felt like a rebuke, like a rejection of my being. Our souls had tangled that afternoon in the freezing water of the Kern River. I’d dropped to my knees in the current, splashing up to my neck, and let out a primal scream so deep and vibrational I felt all the errors of my life simply exit my body. And she was right beside me, crying, smiling, pointing to a blue jay and saying it was the soul of my grandfather watching me. I’d never felt so loved in my life.

“Were you not on five scant grams of shrooms?” my friend interrupts, blaring his horn at a mountain lion attempting to cross the freeway.

I hobbled out of the water after a brave thirty seconds. She stayed in for twenty minutes, claiming she’d done so much work on her nervous system the cold actually felt good. I felt properly chastened for not doing enough work on my nervous system for the cold to actually feel good.

I never knew, and still don’t, why I was collected. Me, a soft housing department inspector who’d been called to investigate a burst pipe in their apartment that burbled out red water like Kool-Aid. When I arrived, they’d piled everything on top of everything else. They were huddled together atop an armchair atop the couch atop the bed, limbs tangled, bright eyes fixed on me. There was a good eight inches of acid red water devouring their floor. Two ducks had flown in through an open window, dipping their beaks and coating their feathers in vermillion. They said they regretted calling me because they loved the ducks.

As the last drop of liquid drained, and as I scrawled my illegible signature to the final report, they clambered down from their tower and asked if I wanted to be their friend. Creatures of this magnitude had never approached me—I had cystic acne and scoliosis—and yet here they were, looking me deep in the eye and handing me a piece of lilac paper with one phone number on it along with a half-gram mushroom. The floor and lower eight inches of their apartment were freshly red. It never faded, not as long as I knew them. They’d point to the low water mark at parties and say it was the water that sent me, Brayden, to them. It was A Sign from The Universe to Conjoin Our Paths, as in all of our Past Lives.

I couldn’t shut up about them. Not then, not now.

“Of that,” my friend says, nearly missing the exit to the canyons, “I am well aware.”

They shared a purple cell phone so you never knew which of them was responding to your text. I was saved in their contacts as Moonbeam, and this made me feel special. They used a lot of sparkles and rarely my name. Sometimes Antonia would tell me to meet her at the graveyard after dark, to hop the fence and skirt the guards. I did it three times, tearing my pants at the crotch and not saying a word about the blood seeping through the knees. She’d dance under the full moon, a diaphanous dressing gown she’d stolen from a set she’d worked on (the only time I ever heard her mention a job) billowing around her in dramatic fashion. This was when she confessed to her kleptomania, in small sighs as she caught her delicate breath. She stole once a day, every day, from big box stores. Mostly supplements and probiotics. She had a lifetime cache of them in her closet. She admitted this with such resigned pride it seemed ridiculous that everyone wasn’t stealing. In total and over time, I stole $927 worth of goods from the mega–hardware store. Just $23 shy of grand larceny. It did, I have to admit, feel incredible.

Life with them was outrageously beautiful. I simply mattered more, in this life, under their attention. We all felt this way, though I doubt any of us would have the nerve to admit it. They seemed to access a current of existence that none of us had known existed, and they pulled us into its flow. The rules as we’d known them seemed arbitrary and small; their world was a kind of floating, a soft ease. They called me, a man truly ugly as sin, the most beautiful being they’d ever seen, stroking my craggy cheeks. It seemed that after thirty-two years of thin, pale light, I might finally see color.

And then Anastasia stopped speaking to me. She wouldn’t look me in the eye at parties and shrugged away from my hand on her shoulder. She’d gaze indifferently at the wall as I left their apartment, whispering wistfully that she loved me in a child’s mocking tone. When I asked her what was wrong, she’d sigh, “Nothing, Moonbeam. Nothing.” Their texts were increasingly Antonia-coded, and nobody believed my sweating panic, until Anastasia said she’d enjoyed the relationship we’d had in the past and simply disappeared. The sinking in my stomach and the hole in my heart were surprising, even to me. I was so hollowed out I called off work for two days to sit on my couch in abject silence. By Wednesday, I stood in a wrecked apartment downtown and let the upstairs pipes rain electric blue water on my head, soak my clipboard. By Thursday, I stood in a room made of mold and breathed spores with indifference, watching them grow across the clipboard. By Friday, I stood outside the girls’ apartment and looked through the window, my big greasy nose smashed against the glass. Half of the red stain was scrubbed away, as if the apartment were sawed in two. I was sawed in two. Antonia glided out of the bedroom and watched me through the glass, taking pity on me long enough to walk me to the park and let me cry on her shoulder while she fed me dekopon oranges in the dappled light. Anastasia merely went through her phases, she assured me with a honeyed tongue, just as the moon does. And I believed her. She slipped me half a tab of acid and we, too, went to the moon. Her laugh fluttered like crystal and her freckles sparkled. She promised I would always be her moonbeam. And I believed her.

I still do.

“Fuck, $15?” my friend cries, coming to a shrieking stop at the parking lot gate. 

He reverses and rams into the car behind us, which honks pitifully, and cranks forward again to find a street spot in front of someone’s second home. I start to cry again as we walk toward the secret stairs, blubbering behind my sunglasses. I showed them this beach. They took my hands, one on each side, as we walked down this road, waving at people out in their front yards tending to their succulents. A woman gave Anastasia a cutting that she popped in water and called Brayden once it grew roots long enough to live. Antonia plucked limes from trees so ripe mounds of exploded citrus blanketed the ground. We listened to the ocean, floated in the waves, and cried about our mothers. It was the best day of my life, I’m sorry to say.

My friend and I descend the sand-coated stairs. There’s one huddle of figures on the beach, spread across striped blankets, that seems to breathe and expand. There are five in total, and the glittering shapes of Anastasia and Antonia render beautifully with every step, their laughs bounding across the walls of the cliffside. I know that sound in my marrow, the validation of it, that for the first time in my life anyone found me funny. As we approach, the laughter wanes and the companions defamiliarize. Where I’d assumed the cab driver and the infected barista and the dog-walker-cum-psychedelics-dealer I’d come to know and nearly love, instead: a convenience store owner who couldn’t speak at all, a bartender with an eyepatch, a feral-cat herder with a joint dangling from his lip. They look at me in expectation. The girls don’t look at me at all.

I attempt to say their names, but all that comes out is a pathetic squeak.

“Hi,” my friend says breathlessly, his eyes affixed to the girls. A familiar wonder is on his syllable, and as I turn to cast him a glance, I suddenly disintegrate into the sand beneath his feet.

They turn to him, lock their pinkies together. 

“What’s your name?” Antonia asks, so coolly taking the joint from the cat herder. 

She impossibly exhales a perfect ring of smoke into which my friend says his name. 

The girls turn to each other and giggle. “Who are you?”

He is speechless for a moment, reduced to a stuttering moron, eyes glazed. “I’m a claims adjuster with plaque psoriasis and rheumatoid arthritis.”

Anastasia beams, tossing her hair back into the sun, and asks, “Do you want to be our friend?” 

All he can do is nod, his jaw slack, bewitched. All I can do is stare up at him in horror, reduced to millions of aghast granules. The betrayal! The nerve. Anastasia jumps up, setting her manicured feet right on top of me, and takes his hand. Something feels familiar about the sand around me. It smells like old car, like espresso, like dog hair. Antonia takes one last toke and pops the joint into the eyepatched bartender’s mouth, slipping her hand into my friend’s other sweaty palm, her fingers laced through the crust of his plaques.

“You have beautiful hands,” Antonia gasps, examining the red flakes across his knuckles. She kisses them one by one with childish glee.

 “Well, come on, Moonbeam,” Anastasia says, pulling their human chain to the water. 

His laugh booms across the sand, shivering every one of my grains, as he follows them into the sea.

Katie Antonsson is a writer and data analyst living in Los Angeles. Her fiction has appeared in The Rumpus and Midnight Breakfast, where it was nominated for the PEN/Robert J. Dau prize. She currently serves as a fiction reader for The Rumpus.

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