Read the First Chapter of ‘The Thrumming Stone’

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CANTICLE ONE

 

Even by lax cultural standards of the 1990s, my sister and I were probably too old to be rocketing down the hill at Virginia Ave Park. Jenny was 16 and I had just turned 14, but an impromptu afternoon of sledding freshly fallen snow was one of the last bastions of pure, unadulterated joy in our increasingly complicated lives. We were in the 8th and 10th grade at Lestershire High, coming of age during the peak of MTV’s generational influence—thankfully, we were still a couple years away from voluntarily tethering our social lives to AOL and its Instant Messenger. And even though we were glued to MTV and reruns of 90210, our worldview was still largely shaped by our family, friends, teachers, and small town.

Our passage into adolescence had been a rocky one. Our mother, Helen, had only been gone for a couple years, but her eulogy and burial still felt recent. Jenny and I were young enough that her absence was omnipresent in our daily lives—an empty seat at recitals, a dearth of home-cooked meals, missed rides to and from sporting events. Yet, there were moments between the two of us, here and there, which recalled the blissful innocence and wide-eyed optimism that had defined our childhood. We could still enjoy the holidays and looked forward to seeing our extended family; there were birthday parties, presents we hoped to receive, sleepovers and dances that we planned for months in advance.

Our idyllic, storybook village had not yet been laid to waste by layoffs and plant closings. Main Street still felt like the center of town. Everyone I knew had been at the Christmas parade, only weeks prior. It seems alien now, but there were two roller skating rinks, at which I had recently attended birthday parties; and this was the same year that I had started high school.

I was a nostalgic kid. Always looking to recreate monumental moments from my past, even though I was still just that—a kid who’d only just found his postpubescent voice. I was taken aback when Jenny brought up sledding. We only lived a few streets away from the best sledding hill in the county, and it had been such a centerpiece of our childhood winters.

We’d dug out my dad’s old wood runner sleigh and a beat plastic sled that most people would have tossed after a season. A layer of fresh, powder snow had fallen that late-December morning, just right for speedy trips down the slick slope. The hill at Virginia Ave was already a canvas of intersecting lines and boot prints, but the park was largely empty when we got there. There were a few stragglers who were trying to erect a small snow ramp, but it kept flattening each time they hit it. We watched them while we made a few runs of our own, until they finally gave up and went home, and the park was ours.

“Maybe we should try down there,” said Jenny, pointing to a smaller slope at the northern end of the park, running alongside one of the softball fields.

I just shook my head and laughed. Jenny always had to take an innocent outing and find a way to make it a little more dangerous, or at least involve some sort of trespassing. I had gotten scraped up by too many ledges, dogs, and thorn bushes to follow her blindly into another misadventure.

“Why not?” asked Jenny.

“It just goes down to the crick.”

“C’mon, dude. I bet it’s steeper.”

“What if we hit the ice and fall in?”

Jenny snickered. “It’s frozen over and the water’s probably only ankle-deep, anyway.” She began toward the other hill, dragging our dad’s antique sled behind her, ignoring my warning. She didn’t even look back to see if I’d follow. “If you fall in, I’ll call Captain Kirk and you can be on Rescue 911.”

I can’t lie and say I didn’t hesitate, but ultimately, by age 14 I had largely grown tired of playing the wimpy younger brother—especially since I now towered over her. I picked up my crappy, red sled and jogged to catch up.

This second hill was mostly forested, but there was a broad path that led from the edge of the softball field to the bank of the frosted-over creek—it certainly looked like it would be a fun, fast ride.

“There’s no way that you won’t go onto the ice, Jenny.”

“There’s nothing to worry about,” she said. “I’m practically an Olympic-caliber sledder. I’ll just turn before I hit the ice.”

“Just be careful, okay?”

“Sure.”

She set the sleigh at the edge of the hill and took a seat. But instead of pushing off down the steep embankment, she hesitated and looked back at me like she had been struck with a brilliant idea.

“You get on the back,” she said. “More weight is better with these old sleds.”

“No. You do it first.”

“Don’t be a wuss, Joey.”

I sighed and got on the back of the sled. I knew she’d torment me for days if I didn’t comply. She was great at telling everyone we knew about how much of a little bitch I was. I took some comfort in the fact that if we crashed, I’d likely land on top of her.

Jenny grabbed the rope and placed her feet on the steering board. “Ready?”

“No.” I just assumed that with her at the helm things wouldn’t end well.

“3….2….1!”

We shot off from our position and down the unmarred path. As we glided down the hill, we carved out two deep tracks in the snow; it really is amazing how fast runner sleighs can go. The sled picked up speed as we made our quick descent, and Jenny screeched with glee. Despite my initial trepidation, I couldn’t help but crack a smile.

The slight bumps on the way gave us brief rushes of weightlessness, and a large stone or root sent us airborne. We only got a few inches off the ground, but tufts of snow shot up in our faces when we landed, and Jenny had to redirect us away from the trees that lined the left side of the path.

I knew that we were traveling too fast for her to steer us hard in any direction, and I think she recognized it soon after—though I now suspect that it had always been her intention to take us onto the ice. But she made no move to halt or alter our progress as we passed over the creek, the runners hissing beneath us as we traversed the ice. I suspect we even picked up speed over the twenty-or-so-yard-width of Little Choconut Creek, because we were propelled into the woods on the other side, narrowly avoiding a few gnarled maples and elms before slowing among a field of glacial erratics.

Jenny fell back against me and we rolled off the sled as it came to a halt. I yelped as I landed elbow to rock. “Get off!”

She sat up gingerly and shook some snow from her scarf. “Holy crap. That was—”

We were both startled by a loud groaning and then a series of pops from the ice behind us.

“See, I told you we wouldn’t break through the ice,” said Jenny, grinning. We got up and took a few steps back toward the creek to have a look at the source of the noise.

Our sled had evidently cut a section of the ice like a knife, because there was now a large gap which exposed the running water below.

C’mon! How are we supposed to get back across now?” I instantly regretted not having the guts to just tell her no.

“Relax. We’re still in Lestershire, bro. We’ll just head this way until we get to Airport Road,” said Jenny, pointing toward the rocky clearing where the sled had come to a stop.

“Yeah, I guess,” I said. “I think I can hear a truck nearby.”

We wandered the forest, trying to determine the direction of what sounded like an idling engine. We had never been in that part of the park before and, though I knew our house was still only a ten-minute walk, it suddenly felt like we were miles from civilization, shut off from the world. It was exhilarating—that adolescent call to adventure and exploration—we didn’t get out of Lestershire all that often.

“Some of these rocks are pretty cool,” I said. The landscape was unique, like something you’d find in the Catskills or Adirondacks, not smack in the middle of our little village. “I’ve never seen anything like this around here.”

“I think it’s this way,” said Jenny, ignoring my comment. She started up a steep incline.

“Wait, Jenny, check this out,” I said, approaching one of the larger stones in the field. It was between four and five feet tall but wasn’t as round as the others; it reminded me of one of the smaller monoliths I’d seen in books about Stonehenge and other megalithic sites—I’d been obsessed with Stonehenge since elementary school. When I got closer to the stone, I first assumed that it was covered in faded graffiti but was pleasantly surprised to find out that the lines were carved into the rock.

“What?” She came back down but took her time in doing so.

“It looks like pictures, but like it’s some sort of writing…”

“On the boulder?”

I looked at the squiggles and characters from different angles, tried to make some sense out of them. There were animals, people in conflict, indiscernible swirls that seemed to say something that I couldn’t quite grasp. “It’s like hieroglyphics, I guess.”

Jenny came up beside me and examined the markings. “Yeah, wow… They’re not hieroglyphics, though. They’re called petroglyphs.”

“What’s that mean?” I asked.

“It just means someone made inscriptions on the stones. Probably Iroquois.”

“Where’d you hear that?” I asked.

“Mr. Verity,” said Jenny, referring to one of our school’s more eccentric teachers. He had been her history teacher and now he was mine.

We dusted off as much snow as we could around the rock to get a better look at the carvings.

 

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“So, you think this is really old?” I asked, tracing some of the intentional lines with my finger.

When she didn’t respond, I leaned over to see what was occupying her attention, and was spooked by her now-frozen, emotionless expression. “Jenny?”

But I didn’t have time to wait for a response, as I began to feel a vibration through my gloves, emanating from the monolith itself. A sudden wave of nausea swept over me and I felt a sickening fear of losing consciousness—the sort of stimulation where in the midst of the experience, you come to the conclusion that ‘this is what it’s like to die.’ My racing thoughts only subsided when my vision narrowed to the point where I blacked out. What I experienced then is still difficult to describe. Because, in essence, I merely collapsed next to a rock in a snowy forest. I knew it to be all the same symptoms of passing out. I’d fainted in junior high shop class, during a grisly discussion of bandsaw and drill accidents; I knew the feeling well. But this experience had one noticeable difference, in that, between my loss of consciousness and the cloudy recovery of my faculties, a window into some sort of special knowledge was briefly cracked open and then swiftly slammed shut.

I sat and stared at my black snow boots for some time after coming to, trying to recall the fleeting image. It was an identical loss to the times I’d awoken from a nightmare but had no recollection of the terror I’d just experienced. For some reason, I felt like my boot was the only tenuous connection I had to the vision. My boot. A soldier’s black boot. Soldiers walking through the desert during the Gulf War, in their hot, heavy gas masks.

 

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“Joey?” came my sister’s voice, shakily.

I looked up, immediately losing my train of thought. She was sitting too—with this pale, dazed expression that I’d only seen on bite victims in vampire movies.

“I don’t hear the humming anymore,” she said. Neither did I.

We both silently got up and headed up the incline, eventually finding our way through the woods and reaching the street that joined Airport Road and Virginia Ave. We didn’t speak of our encounter with the vibrating, thrumming stone on our walk home either. I could tell that she was drained, though I didn’t dare mention my vision, or ask her whether she had experienced anything uncanny at the monolith.

I think we both understood that the other had undergone some sort of trauma, and that the best course of action was to just leave it be.

 

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Tales From Valleyview Cemetery

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ValleyviewCemetery_Final_CoverWelcome to Valleyview, where bodies lie buried but an ancient curse never sleeps. A father hears strange voices on his daughter’s baby monitor. A trio of gravediggers faces a swarm of supernatural creatures. A group of teenagers puts a mausoleum legend to the test. A husband and wife take a stroll through a corn maze that they’ll never forget.

Tales From Valleyview Cemetery contains seventeen interconnected tales of terror — legends of a town and cemetery entrenched in occult practice, macabre history, and a demon elemental waiting for his people’s return.

Here’s what some critics and people have had to say about TFVVC:

“Full of suspense, unpredictable plots and the thrill of wondering what will happen next, I loved this book.” — Genuine Jenn

‘These are the types of tales to be told around a campfire at night or at a sleepover. In fact, I think they’re perfect for those types of scenarios.” — Horror After Dark

“This isn’t your typical anthology. It was fascinating to see how all of the short stories were connected to each other. I liked the fact that I got to experience the same places and people from different points of view.” — Long and Short Reviews

“A great trip down nostalgia lane. Classic horror at its best. Ill definitely keep an eye out for others by this author.” — Amazon reviewer

“I was happy to read every short story in this collection and as a whole, my advice is not to go into that place. From zombies, ghosts, demons and human sacrifice it’s got it all and more.” — Amazon reviewer

Purchase your copy at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

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At The Cemetery Gates: Year One

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cemeterygatesone_final_coverTwin brothers enter a funeral parlor as a gag and end up uncovering a sinister operation.

A mysterious illness plagues a small town and a college student seems to be the only one trying to stop it.

A girl’s time-lapse photo project reveals an intruder from the cemetery that shares a fence with her backyard.

At The Cemetery Gates: Year One is for fans of urban legends, manifestations of the macabre, and strange twists of fate. It is a horror/paranormal short story collection inspired by urban legends, folk tales, and anthology TV shows like THE TWILIGHT ZONE and ARE YOU AFRAID OF THE DARK?

Here’s what some critics and people have had to say about ATCGYO:

“I’d heartily recommend At The Cemetery Gates to readers who want a little something to nibble on before bed each night…” — Horror-Writers.Net

“I grew up loving those Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark short story anthologies, and I think that At the Cemetery Gates captures that classic horror story vibe and urban legend type atmosphere while still being completely unique and original.” — Rebecca McNutt, top Goodreads reviewer

“They each are the perfect length to read if you’re reading on a trip and in need of a quick, creepy read before bed, for campfire tales, or even for your own personal enjoyment.” — Charmed Haven Book Reviews

Purchase your copy at Amazon or Barnes & Noble.

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Carol for a Haunted Man

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As some authors dream into the history of their town or city, Jacob Martin sought to reestablish the comforts of his childhood by moving back to the street where he grew up. Lost in life, newly divorced, and separated from his three young kids, Jacob is driven to write a book worth remembering, as a way of giving his life a new lasting purpose and meaning.

Finding himself at a standstill on the novel, a lonely recluse during the holidays, Jacob manages to connect with an attractive woman, and befriend an older man from his distant past, an author like himself. As Jacob soon discovers, nostalgia can be a healthy distraction, or it can be the noose by which one hangs.

Carol for a Haunted Man is the tale of a daunted man’s will to succeed in the face of despair, inspired by, and in homage to, the Christmas stories of Charles Dickens.

Here’s what people are saying about CFAHM:

“A read designed to harken back to the holiday stories of Charles Dickens, this novella is a really engaging, strange tale that both grabs the dark side of writing as well as gives a cautionary tone for dwelling too much on things that we can no longer control.” — Goodreads reviewer

“Carol for a Haunted Man turns out to be full of creative surprises as it continues, and the story itself is very Twilight Zoneish (I found myself thinking several times back to the original black-and-white television series), so if you’re like me and you like that classic style of eerie story but you also like the cheerful themes of Christmas, you’ll definitely want to read this. I really enjoyed its imagination, its unique characters and its original style of holiday story. This book is not only slightly spooky, but also deeply inspirational and one that everyone should add to their ‘to-read’ list.” — Amazon reviewer

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Marvelry’s Curiosity Shop

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Marvelry’s Curiosity Shop is a thrilling paranormal fantasy novel revolving around a mysterious shop owner and his shop full of hexed antiques.

Retired stage magician Dr. Marvelry prefers to stock his antique store with strange and occult items. He has always enjoyed meeting odd people and hearing their stories, the legends attached to mysterious objects. A phonograph that seemingly replays a tragedy. Fertility dolls that are more than decoration. A bedeviled mannequin. These are just some of the relics this eccentric shopkeeper has collected over the years.

No two customers will have the same experience in his curiosity shop — some walk away satisfied, others are never heard from again. But one thing is certain – when you purchase an item at this store, you often get more than what you paid for.

Follow Marvelry and his hexed objects through twelve tales of suspense, magic, terror, and transformation. Meet his new assistant, fellow illusionists, and some irregular characters along the way. Whatever macabre artifact of the human psyche you’re seeking – you’ll find something special in Marvelry’s Curiosity Shop.

Here’s what some reviewers have had to say about MCS:

“Please, invest a bit of time into reading this book and let it cast its spell upon you, because a marvellous feast of fantastic storytelling awaits you when you open its covers.” — Risingshadow.net

“I truly enjoyed this book and I would recommend to anyone who likes science fiction, occult, fantasy and, of course, all fans of modern horror..” — Fans of Modern Horror

“A delightfully entertaining paranormal, supernatural, magical set of vignettes, tied inextricably to the illustrious Dr. Marvelry, and his gently eccentric boutique, Marvelry’s Curiosity Shop, a bastion of antiques and occult marvels in New York State, owned by an acclaimed former magician.” — The Haunted Reading Room

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Corpse Cold: New American Folklore

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Corpse Cold: New American Folklore is a collection of 20 horror stories with 30+ illustrations inspired by folklore and urban legends.

Fans of the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark series will enjoy the gruesome art and creepy stories. But be warned — these stories and illustrations are for mature readers. Each story is accompanied by macabre illustrations from the mind of Chad Wehrle

“…there’s something wonderfully nostalgic and charming about Corpse Cold,” — Rebecca McNutt, top Goodreads reviewer

“I would recommend this book to any horror fans looking for a fun read, particularly those who love creepypasta and other similar internet memes.” –– The Shades of Orange YouTube channel

“Corpse Cold had a good variety of stories and was a fun read. If you like urban legends then you’ll probably like this collection.” — The Scary Reviews

Read “Switches,” a sample story from Corpse Cold.

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Can’t get enough of the artwork? We also have sets of tarot-size trading cards featuring illustrations from Corpse Cold available!

 

Her Mourning Portrait and Other Paranormal Oddities

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Her Mourning Portrait and Other Paranormal Oddities is the fifth anthology from Brhel & Sullivan. It is a collection of dark fantasy stories which focuses on the interplay between the euphoric and lamentable moments of romantic commitments. These ten tales are light romances, which take turns through various fantasy subgenres, such as science fiction, the paranormal, the occult, and the weird.

Such tales include:

“Lady of Cayuga Lake,” which recounts the last hurrah of a separating husband and wife, a final vacation which takes a turn toward the paranormal when they both spy a ghost over the lake. Will they have what it takes to work together, confide in each other, and solve the mysterious disappearance of Mary Gold?

“The Lost Cache” tells of the strain an obsessive hobby can have on a marriage. Hillary appears to give Eric every chance to engage her, and work his way back toward an intimate companionship, she even goes so far as to plan out a special evening of hiking and geocaching in an old cemetery with her husband.

“Side by Side” is a quirky cemetery tale about a confrontation between a long-dead man and his widow’s second husband, regarding the final resting place of their beloved-in-common.

“Her, He, and a Corpse Makes Three” focuses on a love triangle between a living couple who work in a funeral home, and the woman’s recently deceased, yet spiritually returned, ex-boyfriend.

Here’s what some critics and people have had to say about HMP:

“This is my favorite work of Brhel & Sullivan’s yet. The stories- all of which are short- all have fantastic twists to them that really rev up the vibe; just when you think they’re coming to a nice, neat ending, something off-kilter pops up, and the story flies off again. I’m such of a fan of the writing style and overall work- I think these collaborators get better with each new work.” — Melody, Goodreads reviewer

“The stories here are also heartfelt and tender, offering insightful ideas about relationships and love. And not only that, but there are quite a few references to Brhel and Sullivan’s other works, weaving the stories into a tight universal knot… a very smart move considering the world’s current obsession with fictional universes.” — Cameron Chaney, BookTuber

“As always, these authors write interesting stories with a twist. This was a fun, fast and entertaining read!” — Kat Loves Books

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Resurrection High: A Black Comedy

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READ THE FIRST CHAPTER!

 

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Resurrection High is like Carrie, but without the telekinetic powers; like Donnie Darko, without the time travel; like The Karate Kid, but our protagonist is training in poetry. A subversive, spooky tale set in the days when America Online, The Smashing Pumpkins, and The X-Files reigned supreme.

At Lestershire High, Eric Verlaine is seen as a freak, even by alt 90s standards. His best friend is dead, his only living friend is tied up with a girl, and a group of vile bullies make his time at school unbearable. Eric would rather spend his days in the local cemetery than go to school, or even home, where he is ignored by his mother and abused by his stepfather. He’s planning one last adventure with his deceased pal, an exhumation to get at the small safe in his friend’s casket, the contents of which Eric believes will provide some form of closure. After visiting the grave of his friend one evening, Eric is shown a curious monument to a trio of artists who died mysteriously a century prior, sparking an investigation into his town’s unsavory past.

Resurrection High is a nostalgic, darkly comic story of a teenager finding a passion for life after insurmountable loss.

Here’s what some reviewers have had to say about RH:

“It was a heart-breaking, rage-inducing and all-around a pretty damn good coming-of-age story about losing a very close friend.” — Sci-Fi & Scary

“The authors did an excellent job of capturing that time when we all struggled, and the mood and feel were right there. It transported me right back to my days in school and I forgot how much I hated most of it..” — The Scary Reviews

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At The Cemetery Gates: Volume 2

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Through these gates we shall see the souls which misery doomed…

A man finds himself camping in the middle of a serial killer’s burying grounds… Two brothers uncover a secret more heinous than they ever imagined when snooping around their neighbor’s house… A graduate student captures an urban legend on his school’s famed Suicide Bridge…

At the Cemetery Gates: Volume 2 is a book for hellhounds, nostalgic crypt keepers, and creepypasta aficionados. It features 16 new stories by Brhel & Sullivan, and is follow-up to our 2016 release, At The Cemetery Gates: Year One.

Here’s what some reviewers have had to say about Volume 2:

“This would make a wonderful seasonal Halloween read.” — Rachel (The Shades of Orange Booktuber)

“Great collection of short stories. Although I should not have read these before bed.” — Steph Loves

Order your copy today!

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Read two stories from Volume 2 for FREE!

“The Devil’s Cabin”

“Mixtape: Halloween ’84”

Read Chapter One of ‘Resurrection High: A Black Comedy’

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CHAPTER ONE

“I think I saw it, under his left hand. It’s in there with him,” whispered Eric Verlaine.

The box?!” replied Bryan Palmer, Eric’s closest living friend.

They sat in the back row of chairs at the Coleman funeral parlor, where their mutual friend, Andy Kulowski, lay in wake.

Eric nodded. There it was—the box—a small, metallic combination safe which Andy had carried with him since freshman year of high school. Its dimensions had been unclear to them, as they had never really gotten a chance to handle it. But it fit in the oversized pockets of the baggy JNCO jeans that Andy frequently wore, like most skaters and punks in the late 1990s. Eric and Bryan would ask their friend, from time to time, what was inside the little black safe. But Andy was a consummate troll and would never share any details about the box or its contents, often ridiculing his friends for even asking.

“No way…” Bryan looked around to make sure they couldn’t be overheard. “You’re messing with me. Why would they bury him with it?”

“He probably asked them to. It’s not like he didn’t see it coming,” said Eric. “They’re going to bury him with that Nintendo controller too.”

“Yeah, having the N64 controller in the coffin is pretty cool of them,” said Bryan.

They watched a steady stream of people they barely knew wander past their friend’s open casket.

“I wonder what’s in it,” said Bryan, breaking a momentary silence between the pair. “Should we ask Patty and Todd?”

“No, that’s rude,” said Eric. “Let’s nab it and open it up. We can put it back later, or even tomorrow at the funeral. No one will ever know.”

Bryan didn’t immediately reply, conflicted between wanting to solve a mystery he had contemplated for years, but also not wanting to make a scene at his friend’s family vigil. “I don’t know. It doesn’t seem right…”

“Do you think Andy has some intense secret that would tarnish how we remember him? Something that would wreck his sterling reputation, just because we saw what was in the box?”

“No. He just liked that it bugged us,” said Bryan, smirking. “I want to see what’s in it, but I don’t want to desecrate the sanctity of his family’s grieving process.”

Eric laughed quietly, ready to steamroll his friend’s hesitation. “I know. Let’s get at the end of the line, and I’ll grab it. All you have to do is distract his parents.”

Bryan couldn’t stop smiling. He knew if Andy were in his shoes he would be all for digging through a mutual friend’s casket. “I don’t know if finding a few Magic cards, some weed, or even a titty pic from one of his ex-girlfriends is really worth it…”

“Bry, he’d laugh his ass off if he knew we nabbed it right out from under his cold, dead hands. We’ll put it back afterwards.”

Bryan finally relented. “Okay. Let’s do it.”

 

The pair poked around the other rooms of the funeral home, drifting in and out of the viewing area, while they waited for the line to die down. They had to make sure that they would be the last ones through, so no one would see them rummaging around in Andy’s casket.

“Look at all these kids who came out. As if any of them have said two words to Andy since middle school,” said Eric.

“Yep. It’s like they get off on it,” whispered Bryan. “Seeing someone our age dead is a spectacle to them—and their parents too.”

Eric thought of his own parents, and how they were noticeably absent. His dad lived a few hours away, so he didn’t really expect him to come, but he was dis-appointed his mom hadn’t stopped by to say a few words to Patty. Eric blamed his stepfather, Rick. He could only assume that since it was a Thursday night, Rick had taken his mom to the Ponderosa Steakhouse.

“Okay, we’re next. We’ll go up together, kneel or something. You talk to Patty and Todd,” said Eric.

Bryan nodded. They slowly approached their friend’s coffin. Having already gone through the line, they weren’t as shocked by Andy’s waxy, bloated appear-ance—though it still struck both boys that their friend looked completely out of his element. Andy’s nose ring and earrings were missing, and it appeared as if his wide-gauge ear piercings had been sewn, or glued, shut. He was uncharacteristically made up in a striped, collared shirt, which was buttoned all the way to his chin, and khaki pants, a sharp contrast to his usual band T-shirts and jeans.

“They dressed him up like Liam Gallagher,” whis-pered Bryan.

Eric shrugged, as he and Bryan knelt before their childhood friend. Bryan waited for the elderly man to his left to finish consoling Andy’s mom, before he popped up and began chatting with her.

Eric saw his opening and stood over the casket. He reached for Andy’s left pants pocket and, in the process, grazed his still hand. Eric shivered at the cool touch and odd texture of his friend’s lifeless fingers. Something was holding Andy’s hands together and in place, keeping Eric from snaking his hand into the pocket. He began to sweat, and a pang of nervous energy ran through his chest as he leaned in closer to the corpse. Eric’s hand shook as he reached toward the pocket. He gave a quick look back at Bryan, making sure he had Patty and Todd’s full attention, before dipping his fingers into Andy’s pocket. He felt the cold, hard surface of the box on his fingertips, and was about to dig in further and snatch it out, when he felt someone bend his other arm painfully behind him.

“Young man, what in God’s name are you doing?” whispered Mr. Coleman. The funeral director pulled Eric away from the casket like a cop ushering a perp back to the squad car—to the befuddlement of Patty and Todd. Bryan stared at Eric, wide-eyed.

“The body in repose is not to be tampered with,” said Mr. Coleman, having taken Eric into the hallway, and out of sight of Andy’s grief-stricken parents. The man loosened his grip on Eric’s arm.

“I just…wanted to say goodbye,” said Eric, affecting the whimper of a loved one in mourning.

“He’s in the Lord’s hands now, son,” said Mr. Coleman. Eric couldn’t help but think about the dozens of times he had heard Andy say things like “God is gay.”

“Yes, sir. Thanks be to God,” said Eric, before making the sign of the cross.

The funeral director shook his head and released the teen, then trudged out of the room. Eric sheepishly re-entered the parlor.

“Thanks for coming through again, Eric,” said Patty, her eyes red and misty. “It means a lot to us. You were a good friend to him.” She went to hug Eric, but he bent down and awkwardly placed his arms around her torso, only mimicking how human beings hug.

“No problem, Mrs. Kulowski. Just wanted to say goodbye to you and Mr. K.”

Todd took Eric’s pale hand in his and shook it, businesslike. “We’ll see you tomorrow, then, Eric. Thanks for coming.”

Bryan and Eric then wandered outside, eventually crossing Main Street to where Bryan’s car was parked in the St. James Church parking lot. “So, did you get it?” asked Bryan.

“No. I couldn’t get deep enough into his pocket. His hand was in the way. Then Mr. Coleman caught me. But I don’t think he knew I was trying to steal something.”

“You were too obvious. You should’ve popped a Mentos; then you would’ve stayed fresh and stayed cool,” said Bryan.

Eric chuckled. “Well, I guess we can try again tomorrow.”

 

But the next day’s phony funerary mass and ritualistic burial came and went. Eric and Bryan had only briefly considered making a move to get at the box within their friend’s pocket during the funeral itself. Ultimately, they thought better of it when Patty eyed them loitering by the open casket at the Catholic church, and there was certainly no time for shenanigans at the cemetery itself.

Eric stayed behind at Andy’s newly covered grave until sundown, his first time “alone” with Andy in weeks. He likely would’ve stayed much longer, had the caretaker not seen him to the cemetery gates in his old beat-up Ford pickup.

Eric went home and immediately descended to his musty basement bedroom. He sat opposite the TV in the well-worn maroon La-Z-Boy, which once belonged to his dad and, as he did every Friday night at nine, watched The X-Files. The room had once served as the family rec room. In middle school, it was where he and his friends would hold sleepovers—all-nighters playing Super Mario Kart, watching SNICK and TGIF. But as Eric outgrew his tiny second-floor bedroom, wanting more space for himself, he had gradually claimed the rec room as his own. Certainly no one else wanted it, with its wood paneling and shabby, orange carpet.

The walls were plastered with glow-in-the-dark stars and black light posters. Next to a cheap stereo he had picked up at RadioShack sat his CD tower, stocked with his favorite bands: Sublime, Weezer, Pearl Jam. He didn’t have a proper bed down there. He slept on the pull-out sofa, his pillow still fitted with the same old grade-school Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles pillowcase.

A great deal had happened in a few weeks’ time, but the room still bore the telltale signs of Andy’s presence. A crumpled Taco Bell bag lay on the floor next to several empty cans of Jolt Cola. Andy’s dirty NOFX hoodie was slung over his grandma’s torn, hand-me-down loveseat, where he had forgotten it after a long session of GoldenEye. And always that hole in the laundry room door that Andy had repeatedly punched over the course of one wild, endless night following a breakup with his first serious girlfriend. It was almost as if his friend had just stepped out and would soon return—perhaps with a new game or slasher flick from Blockbuster, or a dime bag he had gotten from Luke Dobler at the McDonald’s drive-thru window.

When the notorious Cigarette Smoking Man appeared on screen several minutes into the episode, Eric could have sworn he heard a gasp from the loveseat, where Andy normally sat. He glanced over, envisioning his friend there—his nose ring, bleached hair, devious smile—but of course he wasn’t. Andy should have been sitting there, thought Eric, maybe smoking a bowl, dissecting the will they/won’t they relationship of Mulder and Scully. Not buried in a box in the ground beneath Valleyview Cemetery, like his grandparents.

The wake and lead-up to the funeral had distracted Eric from the brutal reality of the situation: his best friend was gone, and things would never be the same. Sure, Bryan remained present in his life, and was always good for a laugh, but it wasn’t the same. Bryan was a dude, someone to hang with, throw TVs off the bridge with—while Andy was his brother from another mother, a Chance to his Shadow, his ride-or-die Skeeter Valentine.

Eric and Andy had made so many plans together, had shared wild, extravagant dreams. Things they would do, places they would go. Eric was unable to contemplate a future apart from his friend. And his basement, what had been a place defined by fun memories—Jet Moto tournaments, Friday the 13th marathons, endless conversations about girls and music—had suddenly become unfamiliar, almost strange.

Eric watched a couple of movies, falling asleep as The Serpent and the Rainbow played on TNT MonsterVision.

He was awakened in the early morning hours, by what sounded like the laundry room door creaking open. As his eyes adjusted to the dark, he could see someone walking toward him. He trembled, realizing by the outline of the figure that the intruder was neither his mother nor his stepdad. Eric braced for a confrontation, partly sitting in his bed, when under the dim glow of the overhead fluorescent light, Andy emerged. He was snickering, and it took Eric a moment to realize why—Andy’s balls were sticking out from the front of his jeans.

“What the fuck, dude!” said Eric, who had been treated to the sight of Andy’s scrotum on too many occasions. Andy just kept laughing and, despite how nasty it was, Eric couldn’t help but bust out himself. He reveled in Andy’s absurd, no-boundaries sense of humor, laughing hard for the first time in weeks. But Eric was pulled from the uproarious moment when he noticed pieces of skin peeling away from Andy’s face. He sat, stunned, immobile, as Andy began to shed before him, watching as more layers of his friend fell to the floor, revealing raw facial tissue and pulsating neck arteries. If Andy hadn’t been wearing a t-shirt and jeans, he assumed he’d be seeing all his friend’s innards, as if he were one of those transparent dummies in Mrs. Bauman’s biology class. It was only then that Eric recalled the horrifying truth—Yesterday was Andy’s funeral and burial. He’s dead—causing him to awaken, unsure if he had been in a deep sleep or just drifting off. But the vision had faded away, balls and all, and Eric again felt the dull emptiness of the basement.

 

Days later, Eric was surprised to get a call from Patty, asking that he and Bryan come to her house. She had some things that Andy wanted them to have. The boys arrived at the Kulowski’s modest, yellow ranch that evening, unsure of what they would be receiving.

“I saw the two of you with Father Ryan after the mass. Were you guys trying to put something in the coffin?” asked Patty.

The boys followed her into the kitchen. “Uh…no, not exactly,” said Eric.

Bryan spoke up before Eric could continue. “Yep, you got us, Mrs. K. We wanted to put a Hustler mag in with him. Since he won’t be able to get AOL down there…”

“Up there, Bry! Up there,” interjected Eric.

“Yeah, sorry…”

“Relax, guys.” Patty chuckled, her eyes still red and weary from weeks of mourning her lost son. “Thanks for not making a spectacle at his funeral. I’m sure he wouldn’t have minded, whatever it was you were planning.” She picked up an envelope from the counter and handed it to Eric. “He left this for you to open.”

Eric inspected the envelope. It was sealed, with his and Bryan’s names scrawled across the front in Andy’s horrendous handwriting. “Thanks, Mrs. K.” Eric paused, unsure if he should open it there in front of his friend’s mom—recalling the time Andy once had him open a birthday card with a naked, muscle-bound dude on the front, in the middle of the bustling high school cafeteria.

“It’s okay, boys. I assume it’s private. You don’t have to show me.”

They visited with Patty for a little while longer. She gave them some of her son’s books, PlayStation games, and CDs, before letting them leave. The pair practically raced out of the house and into Bryan’s green ’92 Toyota Celica, having shared a palpable, nervous anticipation since the moment Patty handed Eric the envelope.

“Fucking open it, dude,” said Bryan, grasping his steering wheel as if bracing for impact.

Eric slow-rolled the opening of the envelope and retrieval of the note, causing Bryan to cuss him out mercilessly. “Okay, okay, relax,” said Eric, before exhaling, then reading the letter out loud:

Hey, Eric and Bry. If you’re reading this—sorry for dying. Don’t know how you guys will ever get a girl to talk to you without me around. You can have whatever you want from my room, just ask my mom first. I want you guys to visit her once in a while. You can tell her some of my secrets, just leave out the really nasty shit. She considers the two of you her redheaded stepchildren, for some reason.

I know you jerkoffs want to know what’s in my box. I considered just leaving it for you, but fuck that, I’m not telling you shit! Anyway, here’s the combination: 69-04-20. Ha! Good luck with that!

P.S. The key to Bryan’s mom’s chastity belt is in my ass.

Bryan and Eric began laughing at some point during the letter and didn’t stop until Bryan pulled up in front of Eric’s house. “I can’t believe it,” said Bryan. “He left the fucking combination, but not the box.”

“I know, dude. Kills me,” said Eric. “We’re gonna have to dig him up. Show him we’re not pussies.”

Bryan laughed. “Sure, man.”

“I’m not joking.”

Bryan caught his breath and became uncharacter-istically serious. “Eric, let it go. He’s gone.”

“One last night of fuckery with Andy. What do you say, dude? One last gag for all the times he fucked with us,” said Eric, almost pleading. “I’m pretty sure we have his blessing at this point.”

“It’s over, Eric. I loved him, almost as much as you. But it’s done,” stated Bryan. “We’ll do something this weekend.”

Eric nodded, and his heart sank, as his only living friend pulled away. It was only moments before the feelings of loneliness and isolation crept back in and surrounded him like a moth-eaten blanket.

 

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