It was Joe’s eighteenth birthday party. His older brother had given him the best present he could wish for at that age, four crates of beer and two litres of vodka, to be shared with amongst the six of us; a dangerous amount of alcohol.
We filled the people carrier up with the drink, copious amounts of snacks, junk food, enough for the weekend, and set off to my parent’s cabin up in the chilly mountains.
The weather felt visibly colder as the slippery road snaked up the mountain side, rising higher with every foot we travels. The trees were covered in a fresh frosting of snow, reflected in the powered grass that lined both sides of the road.
The car struggled as the incline grew, I shifted down a gear to help the vehicle, it revved in relief at the extra horsepower.
The cabin came into view through through the crystal clear mountain air, a large setting sun silhouetted the structure, its details lost in the shadow. The oranges and purples in the cloudless sky painted a magnificent backdrop for our arrival.
Breath turned to vapour as we exited the car. Joe excitedly hurried to the trunk, he banged on it to get my attention.
“Come on, Steve, get moving, it’s beer o’clock and I’m late for the meeting!” Joe said anxiously.
I searched for the button to release the lock before realising it would already be unlocked.
“It’s already unlocked you jackass!” I replied.
I heard the click of the lock disengaging, the hydraulics squealed as the door rose, the icy evening air flooding the car, a tsunami of cold, chilling me to bone.
Four of us took a crate each, while Joe hooked a bottle of vodka between index and middle finger of each hand and jammed some snacks under his arm. Jim picked up what was left. He locked the car with his free hand and jogged ahead of us as we walked up the stepped gravel path to the house. As he approached the top of the path he fished out a large black key out of his pocket, he slotted it into the door; the latch freed with a satisfying clunk.
“Let’s get ready to rumble!” he said as he jumped on the spot, rubbing his hands to keep warm, his reddened cheeks gave away the cold of the outside.
Entering our temporary accommodation, the stale air filled my nasal cavity. The familiar smell conjuring up memories of my childhood. I glanced at the couch, mentally feeling it’s coarse brown fibrous texture on my finger tips, almost seeing a young me, head hunched over a gameboy, trying to collect another golden coin for a plumber. The vision fading as soon as it was realised.
We put the beer down on the kitchen counter. Jim opened the fridge.
“Fuck man! Think something has gone off in here!” he said wincing and turning away from the contents.
The fridge was empty except for a ripe pile of turquoise mould that I’d have guessed was once meat.
“We’ll have to make do without a fridge, unless someone else wants to clean it?” I asked, hoping someone would take me up on my offer.
I had a serious aversion to mould, as soon as you touch the stuff is seems to float off, looking for anything to infect with its virus like seed. I scanned everyone’s face for interest; there were no takers.
“We should leave the beer outside, it’s cold enough,” Jim suggested.
Nods from around the room confirmed this was a good idea. It make me think how unconnected we are with nature when it’s literally freezing all year here and we insist on having a fridge in a warm room; there is just something that doesn’t feel 21st century about putting your cold goods outside in the snow.
The guys carried the drinks out of the back door.
I knelt down in front of the fireplace, I picked up seasoned logs and placed them in the hearth, in a neat pyramid fashion, the most efficient way I had found, a ritual, an exercise in mindfulness.
I had visions of one of my drunk friends falling face first into the flames, full to the brim with alcohol, burning them to a crisp so quickly it would be kinder to let them roast, than to drag them out and extinguish them.
The drinks flowed, with speed, like you would do when joining a party late, to make up for lost time. The familiar relaxing buzz filled my head, my legs jelly, I checked my watch, it was barely forty minutes since we sat down.
We joked. I laughed so much, tears jettisoned from my eyes, as if to get away from all the noise. This place always gave me a sense everything was going to be okay. Maybe it was because, as a child, I’d enjoyed every minute here. Maybe it was because my parents never argued here; they argued all the time at home. My mother used to say this place cleared her head, allowed her to just be; a place where worry and anxiety were just words, just concepts that had no connection to the physical world.
My dad made his fortune here. He’d make trips in the middle of the week when he had important client meetings, meetings where imposing himself was the most important thing of all. He was not someone who liked confrontation or competition, but here it was different. He said that if you are the man on top of the mountain, you get to write the rule book, people listen to you.
Whenever my parents seemed to be arguing more, they’d arrange a trip up here. All would be fine when we were here, the effect seemed to last and it would be a long time before we’d be returning.
You know that point when you’ve drunk so much you are more of a observer than a conscious participant in your life? I was past that point to where I had lost all peripheral vision, it was like I was watching my life play on a cinema screen twenty feet in front of me. A couple more beers and tonight would have been another black spot in my long term memory.
I found myself walking out of my parent’s room, drawn there with a need, something primal, almost, that needed satisfying. I gripped the object that I had been pulled in here to collect and returned to the main open plan living area.
“I think we should play a game,” I announced as I held the incredibly shiny oversized magnum gun in my hand, pointing it towards the ceiling. I acknowledged the smiles on everyone’s faces, they knew what I was suggesting, they were game.
Joe took the gun off me and headed for the dining table with an excited, somewhat camp gait, everyone followed in tow; he beckoned me to join them.
We sat in unison. The atmosphere tightened, the haze of drunkenness partially retreated, leaving me with a renewed focus.
Trent played with the revolver, he pointed it being closing an eye as he practised aiming. He span the cylinder, enjoying the satisfying fizz of the well oiled machine as it gradually slowed to a stop. Flicking it open, he checked the it for bullets.
“Just one bullet. Six chambers, there are six of us,” he announced placing the weapon on the table with satisfaction. It let out a dull thud as it came to rest, betraying its weight.
“Who’s in?” Joe asked.
Without much trepidation everybody raised their hands. I don’t know what it was, but it felt right, as if playing this reckless game was a rite of passage or a needful experience that we all needed to be a part of. If you believe in fate, you believe your destiny is not something you can change, if you die you die, if you live, it was meant to be; at the time, the logic so clear and obvious.
“Spin for first go?” Joe asked, as if he was preparing to play the school game spin the bottle, however this bottle had a six slotted wheel of fortune and gun powder.
The gun spun, the low hum as it turned signalled the start of the game.
It came to a rest facing Rick. His face twitched as the neurons in his brain fired telling him he was about to shoot a live firearm into his skull. He ignored the warning.
Tapping the cylinder, he pushed it to randomise the bullet. He calmly moved the gun to his temple, closed his eyes, and waited for it to stop. When it did he pressed the trigger without a second thought looking dead ahead with military like precision.
The sound of the hammer hitting an impotent firing pin.
A smile grew on Rick’s face, a recognition of what he’d done flashed on his face, a morsel of humanity, a crumb of terror, before fading away, giving way to enjoyment.
The gun turned again, this time landing on Trent.
In a similar manner to Rick, the weapon rested on his temple, he flinched, the touch of the metal cementing the event in his consciousness. His hand trembled, but his finger did not, his face did not share the fear his hand was representing. Slowly but precisely he squeezed. The hammer clunked against the firing pin in an anti-climactic click.
He let out a large sigh of relief, a fist pump and a large gulp of neat vodka. The thought of downing neat spirits turned my stomach; the copious amounts of alcohol already in my guts protesting the possibility of more fire water.
Graeme, the quiet guy, picked up the heavy chrome gun, so large in his tiny slender fingers it appeared cartoonish, it visibly weighed down his hand. He did not spin the cylinder he rode his luck.
Without a second thought he grimaced and squeezed his eyes shut.
“Who da man! Who’s the fucking man!” he shouted, getting out of his chair to stand aloft, fists on his hips, chest puffed up, like Superman. So pleased with his achievement, as if it was skill and not some random event the laws of quantum mechanics afforded him.
He placed the revolver back on the table, sweaty finger prints were left behind on the otherwise polished barrel.
The spinning came to an abrupt stop, as before it faced it’s next player, testing one person at a time.
Jim closed his eyes and breathed quietly, in through the nose, out through the mouth. He rested his hand on
iridescent pearl handle.
Picking up the revolver in one swift movement he put the cold barrel in his mouth and bit down, his face contorted like Jim Carrey pulling a face.
His smile grew, he chuckled under his breath, removing the weapon from his mouth.
The gun span again, it pointed to me. Joe picked it up and pointed at my face.
“Bang!” he said laughing, pulling back the hammer.
A sudden surge of nausea compelled me to run to the toilet. I slid the chair out from underneath me, my mouth salivated as I held it in the watery contents of my stomach.
I hunch over the bowl and heave.
As I caught my breath, the room went cold, a draught blew, chilling the beads of sweat gathering on my forehead.
And then I heard it.
Alert, heart thumping I stumbled to my feet. I moved as quickly as my spinning drunk head allows.
That’s when I saw the back of Joe, sitting at the table, blood and brain juice pouring out of the side of his head, trickling on the floor with the sound of a staccato clap.
The kitchen surfaces were covered in small islands of blood, tiny pieces of skull stuck to the walls. Bloody flecks tattoo the faces of the others as they stare at Joe, mouths agape.
You never feel how you expect to feel when something serious happens. You expect to be scared shitless, where in reality, the feeling is more distanced and numbed. I returned to the dining room, I walked slow, trying not to disturb anyone before they are ready to come to terms with what happened.
I rounded the table. I look into Joe’s eyes, they appear lifeless, a crystalline gaze peering through me and into the after life.
A haunting gasp escaped Joe’s mouth, his eyes blinked.
In a low raspy voice he said, “I need some fresh air.”
He stood up and shuffled towards the front door. His former friends scatter in horror as the person they thought was dead lets himself out of the cabin, drips of blood splashed on the floor as he left, calmly shutting the door behind him.
“Shit! Shit! Shit!” Jim exclaimed.
“What the fuck are we going to do?” asked Graeme.
“I have no fucking idea,” I replyed uselessly.
“We need to go get Joe, if he’s still alive he’ll need medical attention ASAP.
“I’ll go,” I said putting on my coat, “Someone see if they can get some help up here? Stat!”
The alcoholic haze had dissipated at an alarming rate, I could barely notice it any more. This brought with it a sense of dread and anxiety.
I picked up the large flashlight hanging next to the front door.
The outdoors was as impeccably quiet as it was cold. My face hurt almost the second the air came in contact with it, an acute burning sensation that soon gave way to numbness of the skin.
I turned on the torch scanning around for Joe. He was nowhere to be seen. I pointed the light to the floor and saw his fresh footprints and the glistening of fresh blood. I followed the imprints, he can’t have gone far. The trail takes me to the left.
I ran the flashlight along the length of the tracks, they led to the fence on the edge of the property. A large forest began on the other side, if he had gone in there, I’d no chance of finding him.
I approached the fence, put the torch under my chin to order to climb over when. Then I stopped. The footprints ended this side of the boundary. A large puddle of blood soaked into the ground underneath my feet is the only other evidence he was ever here. Pristine snow in all other directions, he had vanished.
“How far did he get?” Trent asked as I reentered the house, stamping my feet on the welcome mat to remove the excess snow.
“I didn’t find him,” I replied to confused faces.
“What do you mean, you didn’t find him? He was practically dead!” Jim asks perplexed.
“His footprints just stop at the fence.”
“How the fuck does that make sense?” demanded Jim.
“It doesn’t make fucking sense, but that’s what’s happened!”
“Will you two chill the fuck out!” blasted Rick.
“Did anyone contact the emergency services?” I asked.
“No signal,” Jim said.
“What are we going to do?”
“I say we clean it up and make like nothing ever happened,” Rick suggests.
“No, we can’t do that! Are you fucking brain dead?!” objected Graeme.
“And what do you suggest we do, just hand ourselves in? Tell them we thought it was fun to shoot ourselves in the head and see what happens? Who’s stupid idea was it anyway?”
“It was Steve’s,” said Trent.
“Fuck you! You were all game, don’t put this on me!” I shouted.
“Can everyone shut up! There’s no point blaming anyone.” Rick demanded.
I know a situation is fubar when Rick is the voice of reason.
“We will clean up the place, go to bed, and in the morning drive back. We will tell everyone we all got very drunk and that Joe must have left at some point in the night, never to be seen again.” Rick said in a calm authoritative voice.
“What about the blood outside?” I asked.
“We know nothing about the blood, got it?”
We all nodded.
“Now find some cleaning materials and let’s get this place cleaned.”
The drive back in the morning was a somber affair, talk was something of an endangered species. We stopped at a dinner, the only words spoken were our orders.
The snow followed us down, heavier than it had been all winter, laying down a thick layer of white. I managed a small smile, thinking of the blood and footprints being conveniently hidden under feet of snow.
Anxiety rose within my stomach, presenting as butterflies, as the road approached our little town.
We told Joe’s parents that he went walking at night and we don’t know what’s happened to him. His mother’s eyes stream with tears, she disappears into the house, leaving her husband at the door.
“Get out of my sight you little pricks. If I see any of you again, I’ll fucking end you, you understand me?” he shouts at us.
We nod and leave him standing in the doorway. Getting back into the vehicle Graeme spoke, “That could have gone a lot worse. Now, don’t tell your parents anything. If they speak to Joe’s mom and dad, fine, but otherwise nothing. Got it?”
Silence speaks a thousand words.
One by one, I drop off my friends in front of their houses. I drive the empty car back home, parking it on the driveway. The lights were on in the house. I take a deep breath and prepare to sound cheery and lie.
I’ve not felt right for a couple of days, my memory is shot, I am not sure if it is the stress or something else. I can only remember snippets. I don’t think I’ve left the house. I’m worried I am getting depressed.
I see my dad working in his office and I need to talk to him, about the cabin, about the gun. I approach his room, he is oblivious to me.
“Dad, do you own a gun?” I ask as he sits, filing paper work.
“No way, son. You know how I feel about guns. I wish you’d just wake up and stop asking such stupid things!” he says not breaking away from his work.
His annoyance seemed out of proportion to my question.
“What about in the cabin?”
My dad’s face visibly changes, he looks worried.
“I don’t know what you mean?” he asks.
“I found a silver magnum revolver, in your room.”
The colour drained from his face.
“What did you say?” my Mother said, standing at the threshold of the room.
“Dad has a gun, at the cabin,” I said, continuing, unable to stop myself.
“And we played a game,” I said, as I fainted.
“Is this true?” my mother says, staring at my Dad.
It’s dark out and I’m lying in my bed. My head hurts so much, the worst head ache I have had in years. I can’t sleep. I hear the beep of some computer equipment in the background, a constant repetitive beep, it’s like Chinese Water Torture, but I am too tired to get up.
I hear footsteps approach my room. The door slowly opens, the light from the hallway leaks into the room. I see the silhouette of a man, he waits before entering. He approaches the right hand side of my bed, and sits down in the chair.
He sits there. There is something large and shiny in his hand.
He holds the gun.
I’m frightened for my life.
“I’m so sorry about what happened, Joe,” I say desperately.
“Me too, Steve, me too,” he says softly.
He pulls the chair closer to the bed. The light from outside highlights his face. I study the wet wound in his head as it glistens in the light.
“I wish you’d just wake up, Steve. Don’t make me do something I don’t want to do.”
Joe picks up the gun and aims it at the side of my head.
I try and get out of bed and run, but I can’t. I’m too weak.
I hear the distant sounds of crying. It’s my mother.
“Mom? Where are you?”
“Steve?! I think he’s waking up.”
“Mom, what are you saying, I’m awake!”
“He’s convulsing,” comes the statement of a voice I do not recognise.
I look down at my body, my arms and body are shaking uncontrollably. I feel hands on my body, hold me down, but I cannot see them.
What the fuck is happening to me!
I feel the acute pain of a needle enter my arm. Slowly but surely my body stops shaking.
“I think he’s opening his eyes,” I hear my overjoyed mother announce.
I see stars in front of my eyes and the room rapidly fades away. Within five seconds, the light in the room is blinding, I press my eyes shut. The smell of disinfectant overwhelms me and I begin to come to.
Through squinting eyes I see my mother peer down at me. Around the room I recognise Graeme. There’s a man that looks like a doctor facing away from me, and Joe sits in a chair next to the bed.
“Doctor! He’s awake! He’s awake!”
“Steve, can you see me?” my mother asks.
I nod as much as I can muster.
Her smile soon dissolves, “I have some bad news.”
I can see it in her eyes, she doesn’t want to tell me.
“You’ve been shot.”
I instinctively bring my hand up to my face, I feel bandages cover most of it. I feel around for damage. My heart sinks when I feel for my chin.
It is missing.
I try and talk.
“Shhhh!” my Mother soothed.
“Buuut, heee schot mee.”
“I don’t know what you are saying. I have to take Graeme home. I’ll see you later, you’re in good hands. Joe’s here.”
The doctor plied me with another injection of something that was acting as a tranquilliser. My head flopped over and I gazed directly into Joe’s eyes.