Kyle Seibel ~ Cullen

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.