As a defensive measure, Cullen had taped garbage bags to his windows. Black ones. Double layered. He’d been awake since Tuesday. Hadn’t left the house since Friday.
He told me all this in a calm voice. Maybe a little amused by himself. It didn’t sound like he was having a psychotic episode, but even Cullen had to admit some of the evidence was pointing in that direction.
He wanted me to tell him he wasn’t going crazy.
“I’m going to send you a link to a teaser video, okay?” Cullen said. He asked me to watch it while we were still on the phone.
Seemed like a normal movie trailer to me. They make a few like it every year. Guy moves back home and gets involved with an old girlfriend. Other stuff too, but that was the main gist.
“Okay,” I said. “I watched it.”
“A little obvious, isn’t it?” Cullen said.
He started talking about parts of the video I didn’t remember and I realized he thought the movie was about him. That the producers of the film were mocking him. And didn’t the lead actor look a little too familiar, he asked? Basically cast his twin. And Cullen explained how the main character, this handsome scoundrel, goes on to be humiliated and destroyed by the deranged freakazoids that control local law enforcement and political leaders and education centers. And wasn’t that convenient, narratively, he meant?
“It’s a message,” he said. “A warning. You see it, right?”
Before this phone call, I hadn’t spoken to Cullen in years. The last time was when he was in town visiting friends on his way up to a small university in Vancouver. We met for drinks. His divorce was fresh. This position as guest lecturer fell in his lap at just the right time, he said. He told me about testifying in front of a congressional subcommittee in his capacity as a new media expert. He told me about working for a creative branding agency in Los Angeles and where he was when he got the news he was being laid off. Smoking a doobie in an alley in North Hollywood with Quentin Tarantino, he claimed.
I had repeated these stories to friends at work. Some people had heard of him before. He had a Wikipedia page. What can I say? I was proud to know him.
“I know you see it,” Cullen said on the phone.
I was trying to think what I would want to hear from an old friend if my brain was coming apart, but I wasn’t firing on all cylinders myself. Audrey and I had one of our knock-down-drag-outs and as a result I was staying in Lewis’s spare room. Couldn’t decide whether this was really the end or we’d fix things eventually.
I was distracted, is what I’m saying.
“I do,” I told Cullen. “I see it.”
“I got into some trouble up here, man,” he said. “Old habits. Bad habits. I don’t know how much they told you, but I got into some very heinous shit.”
I assured him no one told me anything and he scoffed like he didn’t believe me.
“It was the club scene, really,” Cullen said. “The ones up here? Outrageous. Can’t describe it. Won’t even try.” He paused. “And there was some meth too.”
In college Cullen had floppy movie star hair and this big hero jaw and he was tall and had good teeth and on top of those things he was also quite brilliant. Not my words. That’s Professor Hodges. She taught Intro to Ancient Greece and was also in love with Cullen a little bit. Nothing too romantic. She was just in love with him in the way we all were back then. He was that kind of person. She let him stay in her house out in Bonnie View between semesters. One day we ate a bunch of shrooms at her place and I sat at Professor Hodges’ piano, silently crying onto the keys and after what felt like a long time Cullen came over and hugged me and we dragged this old canoe to the pond behind the house and paddled around the milky green water and when I looked up, the trees had turned into kindly old gentlemen. They were skeletons but nice ones and they were reaching down with their branches to give us a million kisses. I know it sounds scary but it really wasn’t.
Maybe there was a place like that Cullen could go now, I thought.
“Can you get out of the city?” I asked him. “Unplug for a little?”
Cullen laughed. “They’d find me this fast.” I could hear him snap his fingers. “You don’t know how much power they have.”
I wasn’t sure if I should ask who “they” were. I didn’t want to encourage him but I also wasn’t ready to puncture his delusion, if that’s what this was. I began to realize this crisis might require a professional. Someone who was closer to Cullen both physically and emotionally. What could I really do? I was in a different country, sitting on a concrete bench in an open air shopping mall. That’s where I was when Cullen called me. People walking all around and into the stores and carrying bags. Could any of them help? And what was the problem, really?
“Did you hear that?” Cullen asked me. “That click on the line?”
Said he needed to get off the phone right away. I made him promise to call me back in an hour.
I went into The Cheesecake Factory and sat at a high top. Muted basketball played on the bar TV. Two men at the far end watched the game. We drank beer in silence and I thought about my situation.
I had been with Audrey long enough, had split like this enough times, that I was familiar with the script of what came next. My tearful apology. Her begrudging acceptance. It all felt so corny.
I went out to call Cullen. It had been over two hours and was full dark then. There was a playground in the park across the street and I wandered over to sit on the swings. A cold wind was picking up over the ridge.
No answer from Cullen. I tried Audrey instead.
“How is Lewis’s house?” she asked, which annoyed me because she knew exactly how Lewis’s house was from the last time we had done this.
“Fine,” I said. “How’s my house?”
“Oh,” she said. “So you called to fight.”
In truth, I didn’t know why I called. I imagined a squirming black grub in my brain. That Cullen had somehow infected me. And Audrey was the person I chose to say the one thing in the universe that would kill the virus and make everything better. Bullshit, really. Beer thoughts. “Do you remember my friend from college?” I asked her. “Came to visit once? You picked us up from that tiki bar.”
“Um,” she said. “Maybe?”
I was suddenly exhausted by the prospect of explaining it all. “Never mind then.”
Audrey asked me if I was okay. I told her I was. I smelled someone grilling in the housing development next to the park. That’s what I thought it was at first. It took me a few minutes to put it all together. Something white started to fall from the sky.
Snow, I thought. Strange.
Except of course it wasn’t snowing. This was Southern California. The grilling smell was wildfire smoke and the snowflakes were ash.
“There’s a fire down here,” I said to Audrey.
“Oh Tuna.” That was her name for me when she was done being mad. “I think you should come home.”
I called Cullen a few more times from the parking lot. No answer.
On the radio they were announcing the first wave of evacuation orders. I joined a wall of brake lights on the 101 going north. Tried the PCH but it wasn’t any better. Worse, even. People were stopped and pulled over on the shoulder and walking around and chatting. There was news making its way through the mass of traffic. The fire had jumped the freeway. Apparently, somewhere up ahead there were driftwood beach cabins completely engulfed.
“Sounds like we’re trapped,” I said to a man in a cowboy shirt and boardshorts.
“Wouldn’t that be something?” he said, laughing and walking away.
On the ridge above us, the wildfire formed a line of red scallops. My eyes watered from the smoke as I watched them slowly chew their way down the mountain. The wind gusted and I could feel the heat. My phone lit up. Cullen calling back.
“I’m at the hospital,” he said. “I had a moment of lucidity and I seized it and I’m safe and I’m at the hospital. I have to surrender my phone, but I wanted to call you first. Because I know how I sound right now and I’m just very sorry about it.”
“Good,” I said. “That’s really good, Cullen.”
“I’m pretty sick this time, they’re saying. I think they’re right. But I’m just—well, I just wanted to ask. You don’t think any less of me?”
“No,” I said. “Not one bit.”
“If I get married again, I’m inviting you,” he said. “I just wanted to say that. I won’t forget this.”
The man in the cowboy shirt tapped my shoulder. Another update. They had cleared a path and wanted everyone back in their cars. I told Cullen that I had to go, but he wasn’t there anymore. He had already hung up.
The column of traffic crawled forward. We passed burning palm trees and balls of flaming chaparral that bounced along the sand and extinguished in the ocean.
All that fire and chaos. The burn scar would be visible for years. The drive should have taken thirty minutes and ended up taking three hours. When I arrived back home, my nerves were shot. I fell apart in Audrey’s arms. Not my usual ritual of begging forgiveness. This was something else. I was overcome with the sense of a tragedy having been averted. A near miss from a larger darkness.
It distracted me from what was really happening. The way Audrey didn’t grip me back. Didn’t stroke my hair. And how the little arguments picked right back up the next day.
The wildfire went on until we got rain and then there was so much rain it became a problem. The mudslides did the real damage. The wildfire cleared the way. The debris chutes were overloaded and big boulders came smashing through rooftops with no warning whatsoever. Unprecedented, they said on the news. A dozen people died and somewhere around then is when Audrey and I split for good. I never heard from Cullen again, though there’s still time, if he’s out there.
As for me, I am doing about the same. I survived a wildfire and a mudslide and falling out of love and all kinds of stuff that had every right to kill me. You’d think I’d be smarter, but I’m still essentially the same asshole making the same mistakes.
I still catch myself thinking things can’t get any worse.
Kyle Seibel is a writer in Santa Barbara, CA. His stories have appeared in Pithead Chapel, X‑R-A‑Y, and No Contact. His tweets, which mostly suck, can be found @kylerseibel. His debut collection, HEY YOU ASSHOLES, will be published by Bear Creek Press in 2023.