“Happy birthday,” Bill said, dangling a baggie in front of my face.
“What the hell?” I shifted Juniper to my hip and took it, pinching at the contents through the plastic. It was about an ounce of weed, the smell of it wafting up and sticking to my skin like tar. “What am I supposed to do with this?”
“You should make brownies,” he said.
I stared at him. “I haven’t smoked weed since high school.” Juniper reached out with her chubby fists to grab the bag, and I held it up out of her reach.
“Yeah, but eating it’s different,” he said. “Come on, it’s your twenty-seventh birthday. It’s the rockstar death birthday. Make some brownies.” When I still looked dubious, his mouth tightened with affronted annoyance. “It’s good shit, my best shit yet. I call it Barney’s Balls, because it’s all purple.” He cackled. “It’s Purple Haze crossed with Northern Lights.”
I glanced at the stuff again. Juniper leaned across me, still reaching for it, squawking with displeasure. “Yeah, it is sorta purple,” I muttered. “It smells pretty dank, too.”
Bill walked off towards the living room, patting my ass as he went by. “Make some brownies,” he repeated.
I sighed. I guess it didn’t make sense to refuse my only birthday present. So I slung Juniper over my back so that she could watch over my shoulder, pulling at my hair and babbling, while I melted chocolate and cracked eggs. I crumbled the weed in – it was enough to make the batter dry, so I added more butter and chocolate.
I poured it into a pan and put it in the oven. Then I licked the bowl. I loved brownies and brownie batter, even if it tasted piney and made my tongue tingle.
I wasn’t really huge on pot, though. I’d quit smoking it because it made me paranoid and depressed, but maybe Bill was right – maybe eating it was different.
I put Juni in her high chair and tried to feed her mashed bananas while the musty smell of doctored dessert filled the house. She looked at the spoonful of slimy pulp and then at my face, her expression conveying her concerns about my sanity. She smacked the spoon away and reached for my swollen breasts, hooking the collar of my shirt with sticky fingers.
“No, Gaboo, look,” I said. I ate the gunk myself. “Mmmm, yummy,” I lied.
“Gaphhhhbt,” she said. I plied her with another spoonful, and she opened her mouth experimentally, showing her sprouting incisors. I shoved it in, and she mooshed it around with her tongue, her little brow furrowing thoughtfully. Her baby hair had started to fall out, and she was left only with one dishwater blonde tuft, which sprouted from her bare, pink scalp and fell over her forehead. She looked weird, like she had radiation poisoning.
“Those brownies smell done,” Bill called from the living room, where he was watching That Seventies Show and coughing as he smoked a bowl.
I brought him a huge, gooey square on a plate, and he dug into it like a starving puppy. “This is good,” he said, sucking at his fingers. I put the baby on the couch between us and stared at my little piece of brownie, adrenaline creeping down my spine. Bill glanced at me out of the corner of his eye. “Don’t be scared,” he said. “You need a little birthday trip.” He took his empty plate into the kitchen and came back in with another huge slab of the stuff.
Straightening with determination, I shoved the bite-size piece in my mouth, the sour zing of the weed giving me a full-body shudder. Bill laughed.
Half an hour later, we were still staring at the TV while Juniper babbled at me earnestly, slapping her bare knees. She sounded like she was giving a political speech, and she had the comb-over for it, too. “You feel anything yet?” Bill asked.
I shook my head.
He got up and came back carrying another gigantic piece for me. “You hardly had any yet, but this will get you going.” He plopped back down on the couch and picked up his pipe.
I tore off bits with my fingers, and ended up eating the whole thing. I loved brownies.
By the time I finished it, I’d started to feel antsy. “Let’s go on a walk,” I suggested. So Bill strapped Juni on his back in the snuggie and we headed out to the park a few blocks away.
It was muggy, heat shimmering off the sidewalks and drying up the mangy lawns. We strode across Halsey Ave., weaving through traffic. As soon as we hit the other side of the street, my head exploded.
The world wavered, and suddenly the houses around me all looked fake, an endless row of identical structures, reflections in a hall of mirrors. “What did you do to the houses?” I asked. They weren’t real. They’d been put there to trick me.
Bill looked at me with raised eyebrows. Juniper peered over his shoulder, chewing on her fist. She pulled her hand out of her mouth and pointed at me, her fingers glistening with spit. “Had dad gag gah,” she demanded, then replaced the fist.
“What is she trying to say to me?” I asked, my stomach going cold with fear.
Bill burst out laughing. “Oh man, you’re high now, aren’t you?”
I blinked and hugged myself, vaguely remembering having eaten some weird-tasting brownies. “What happened?”
He put his arm around me, still laughing. “You’re wasted,” he said.
We went into Rose City Park, sat at a picnic table in the shade. A group of teenage boys ran by, playing soccer. A sour-faced old woman with a bowl cut slouched past, leading an overstuffed Chihuahua, followed by a young couple, holding hands and chatting. All of them shot me meaningful looks, trying to communicate something to me silently.
I hugged myself tighter and looked up at Bill. “I’m dead, aren’t I?” I said. “I’m dead, and this is the Bardo.”
Bill laughed uncontrollably. “Are you serious?”
“I got run over crossing the road,” I realized. I looked around me. A haggard-faced old hobo glanced at me sharply as he scampered past.
“Yes yes yes yes,” he said.
I watched after him. “You’re all spirits trying to lead me to the next life,” I said, panic crawling through me.
Bill grinned wryly. “Do you want to go home?”
I gazed at him in anguish, tears rolling down my face. “I don’t know,” I said. “Where’s home? What’s it like?”
Bill stood up and took my hand, Juniper peering at me quizzically. “Come on,” he said. “Let’s go.”
I clung to Bill’s hand, gazing around me as we walked. The identical houses marched by alongside us, dream images created by my mind, remnants of my memories of the physical world. The sidewalk stretched out infinitely, and I knew I’d be walking endlessly, forever, never able to rest until I atoned for my sins and found my way into the next world.
Then I looked up and saw a familiar house. I came to a halt in the yard, staring at it in confusion, but Bill tugged me forward. “Come on, Liz,” he said, giggling as he unlocked the door.
“Hey, scuzzbags,” a voice said from behind us, and we turned to find our friend Tim grinning at us. Some girl was with him, bony with a twisted face; she stared at me, her eyes huge over her sunken cheeks.
“What’s up, Tim?” Bill said.
“This is Sarah,” Tim said.
“Hey Sarah,” Bill said.
We all went inside. “What am I supposed to do now?” I asked, as Tim and Sarah sat down on the couch. Bill cackled as he went into the bedroom, coming out with an eighth in a rolled-up baggie, handing it to Tim.
“Don’t mind Liz,” Bill said. “It’s her birthday, and she’s blasted.”
“Happy birthday, Liz,” Sarah said, still staring at me. I fidgeted, staring back. Tim handed Bill some money.
“You’re blasted?” Tim laughed. He had a crazy, tittering laugh. “On what?”
“She made some special stratosphere brownies,” Bill said. He took Juni out of the snuggie, flipping her over upside down and blowing on her bare belly. She giggled.
“I like brownies,” Sarah said. She was still staring at me, her eyes gigantic. Bill put Juniper down on the couch between Tim and Sarah.
I tensed up. They were demons, and they were trying to take Juniper’s soul. If they took her, she’d be dead like me. “Don’t touch my baby!” I yelled, snatching her up and running into the bedroom.
Tim and Bill broke into hysterical laughter behind me. “Don’t touch my baby!” Tim screeched, and they laughed again.
I lay down on the bed, breathing hard and clutching Juniper. She gazed at me with her big blue eyes, squirming and fussing and grasping at my breasts with fat fists, finally prying one out and latching on with a grunt.
Eventually I heard Tim and Sarah go out, and Bill turned on the radio. It was a news program, a rogue station run by the gorilla resistance. They were broadcasting from out in the woods beyond the City, out in the Empties. I listened closely. In this new world I’d fallen into, the apocalypse had come, a sickness that had wiped out more than half the world’s population. The government was falling apart, and the rebels were amassing against them, ready to make a move and start the revolution. The commentator shouted out a frantic call to action, urging us to join them.
Juniper had fallen asleep, and I got up and went into the living room so that I could hear the radio program better.
The radio wasn’t on. Bill was sitting on the couch, reading, drawing on his pipe. He looked up as I came in, an orange stripe of afternoon sunlight falling across his face. He sputtered on the smoke and blew it out in a billowing cloud, which floated lazily through the sunbeam. “How do you feel?” he asked.
I sat down on the couch, frowning. “Why didn’t you tell me?” I asked. “About the apocalypse?” Bill chuckled and shook his head, going back to his book.
The world shimmered and warped, twisting in on itself. “Is this real?” I asked, looking over at Bill.
Bill wasn’t there anymore. He was gone, along with my living room. I was sitting on a white leather couch, the walls lost in a golden haze. Next to me sat a man in a cream-colored suit, his feet bare. He had dark hair curling around his neck and ears, a kind face. His lips curved into a tiny, teasing grin. “It’s real, and it’s all a dream,” he said.
“Am I dead?” I asked, blinking at him.
“Not yet. Just lost.”
The brightness closed in around me, it was inside of me, shining out from my middle. “The universe is a gigantic place,” the man said. “All that you know and all you’ve ever imagined is just a miniscule part of the whole. Time is an illusion. Reality also. But consciousness is eternal and infinite.” As he said it, I became detached from myself. I saw the room and me in it, the man sitting next to me on the couch. Then the scene got smaller and smaller as I was sucked back from it, further and further until it was just a tiny speck, a dot of light in an endless darkness. I cried out in anguish as my whole life dwindled into meaninglessness, engulfed by the infinite void.
“My baby!” I said. “I can’t leave my baby!” But my voice was consumed by the darkness and silence. I struggled to remember what it was to be human, or to be alive. It all seemed so strange and far away. Had it ever really happened? Had my life ever existed? I couldn’t make sense of it. All I remembered was emptiness and loss.
Then I felt arms around me. “It’s okay, Tinkerbell,” he said.
I woke up in my dim bedroom, the baby asleep beside me.