In contrast to everything I'd just heard, Stanley came by the hotel that night in a taxi. I was in my dark button-up and jeans, pausing on my way outside. He was in the back, leaning over to open my door from the inside. Our driver had a dark moustache and a cap similar to a French beret.
"We're taking a cab?" I asked while buckling in.
"If we have a drink or two it won't be wise for me to drive." Stanley was wearing a leather coat over his sweater, I could smell Yves Saint Lauren. "To Housten's Bar, my good man."
The old, hooked streetlights flicked on. We were off.
"Stanley, you know I'm aware of all your drunk car crashes? Why are you playing at being responsible now?"
"I'm not responsible, it's true." He put his hand on top of mine, which was resting on the seat. "But I could tell immediately when we met, you're a good-natured and cautious person. I want you to be comfortable around me, because I like you Phillip."
Could he feel my pulse now? Or the warmth in my hand? I stared out the window.
The bar was rowdier than the hotel which seemed to cater to older folks. I got the feeling every place in Lochdale that served alcohol was a pub-bar. There were tables and chairs in an outside band, up a porch smoking area. Through long windows I could see woodwork carvings and animal-heads on the walls: a bear and a moose. A billiard table and young people being merry with glass beer tankards. Clinking and spilling froth. I followed my spring-footed guide out the cab after he paid. Then up the steps and inside, the warmth and noise encased me. The other patrons didn't look as clean-cut as the college kids, and sure enough there were some tables overcrowded with rangy types. A possible biker gang, leather with studded spikes and the oldest collection of drinkers here; they might've been sizing us up as we came in.
Stanley smiled widely as he approached the bar. Put his hands on the counter then turned to me, asking what I was having. I couldn't sit here among his friends dry. I felt the long-maintained resistance flop pathetically.This is where it starts.
"Bourbon and coke."
"Ah, a bourbon drinker? Me too then. Two bourbons, my good man!"
Drinks in hand we made our way over to a table of sullen characters. They were actually jovial, but my warning brain picked up on their scabs, jittery eyes and sunken cheeks. I took my first sip to begin the dulling process. There was a jukebox across the room playing folk bands.
"Stanley!" they called at us and he did a small jig on approach.
"Hello everyone! This is my reporter friend, Phillip! He's here cause of the Adam Creson case."
"Are you a cop?" a shaved-headed man asked me aggressively. Stanley went to pull some chairs over for us.
"No..." it's not like there's a badge you could show to prove youweren'ta cop. I sat with my guide and examined the six individuals as they sat a little straighter, looked a little less merry.
"It's okay guys, I checked him out alright?" Stanley slapped my back. "He's just a reporter for a small-time newspaper in another city."
They relaxed at his assurances. A woman with rangy hair and the most scabs started asking me questions about it. If these people continued to not trust me I could always try asking them for quotes, butter them up as 'respectable citizens with valuable insider knowledge'. I can be quite charming when I need to be. I tried to hide the fact their feral ways had me a little on edge. The shaved-headed guy still didn't trust me, he had an ugly beard and was straight-backed when he'd watch me with wide pupils. A stout fellow spoke in a contrived way that matched rolling eyes, as if they were as intimidated by thereporterprofession as if it was like being a doctor. When I talked myself down they got more comfortable with me and soon jovial talk was back.
My drink went down fast without me realising. It must have been going back-and-forth between my mouth and the table faster than I thought. Stanley raised an eyebrow from beside me, downed the rest of his drink and got up to get us another round. This was going to be a big night.
"Have the police found any leads for who did in Adam?" the stout man asked me after a few rounds of talk on town gossip and court proceedings. His name was Tony and he was the most talkative.
"I don't think so. Were you friends with him?"
"Yeah we all saw him. Investigators have been talking to a few of the regular offenders around here."
"Don't be so casual about it, Tony!" scab-woman, Wendy reprimanded him with a wrist-slap. Her voice was strained like an ex-singer, chain-smoker and angry cat. She'd taken to touching my arm and calling me 'honey'. She did so again "Look, honey, if you're looking for a lead on Adam you won't find it here. I know who you should be talking to..."
"I'm mostly here for Stanley. I'm writing an article about him, and Adam was a friend of his."
"He was no saint that kid, I'll tell you that much." The grouchy man who thought I was a cop was called Howard, they'd spoken before about an ADVO between him and his girlfriend. He was drug-skinny with sneaky fists, exactly the kind of guy you'd expect to have an Apprehended Domestic Violence Order.
Stanley kept the drinks coming and when Wendy left the table to have a smoke I left for the bathroom and then went to check on her outside. My walk was starting to wobble. Wendy was talking to some other men when I touched her shoulder.
"You said you knew someone I should talk to, about Adam?"
She ashed her cigarette in an overflowing tray, stepped aside so we could speak quietly amidst the chatter of everyone else.
"Kelly Mettler. She was talking shit about Adam the other night. My cousin said that Angie said that her sister overheard her saying she knew who did it."
"Alright. Kelly Mettler," I tried to keep my drunk mind accurate. "What does she look like?"
"She's only a little thing. Bushy brown hair. She's usually here but I haven't seen her."
"Do you mind if I give you a contact number? You can pass it on to Kelly when you see her and tell her I'd like to talk to her, for the newspaper."
"Sure thing, honey."
I lost count of my drinks. Everything was loose, Stanley became more animated. His skin flushed and warm, green eyes bright and open. I found myself laughing at him as well as anything that was remotely funny. Patrons at tables were standing, arms around each other's shoulders and swaying as they sung the lyrics toTotal Eclipse of the HeartandMr Brightside. The night was swishing by the time we started bar-hopping.
Howard bumped some lad outside another pub, or vice-versa, and a fight almost broke out. Tony was shorter but solid and able to hold his friend back while he yelled threats, spittle dribbling into that rangy beard. The two were separated before a black-uniformed bouncer could get in the way. We all wandered off instead of going into that pub. Once or twice I remembered to keep an eye out for brown-haired Kelly, but the alcohol kept making me forget. One pub had a small dancefloor with a live band playing eighties rock. I turned to see a big islander guy lift Stanley up by his collar and throw his back into a pillar. Stanley patted the guy's arm assuredly and then offered a sachet bag of white powder. Before I could get too worried he was released, the angry guy appeased. When he returned to my side his wide smile was unaffected, as if I'd imagined the event.
I was introduced to many people, some who were supposedly friendly with Adam, but I was too far gone. All control went out the window when I drank, there was no stopping point. I was swimming in heated rooms, bobbing back-and-forth between the urinals and my table, head swimming in bourbon.
There was talk of leaving the pubs for someone's house and smoking dope. I imagined them in ratty-carpeted rooms, sitting on beanbags while lighting bongs. We were drunk enough to have heart-to-hearts, and I found myself talking to some girl emotionally about my disappointing older sisters. We were connecting on the subject of troubled siblings and how to bond with them, help them. I had a bout of hiccups I couldn't shake, looked around the table and asked for Stanley. Tony pointed his thumb toward the street so I got up shakily and made my way out.
He was leaning against a brick wall in his cool jacket, hair stylishly untidy. I wanted to kiss and touch him badly.
"Hey what are you doing out here?" I slurred. In answer he stuck out his tongue and I saw a tablet sitting there. A streetlight was overhead, leaving his face shadowed, but I thought I could make out a mischievousness in the corners of his mouth. I knew this was going to be a conversation I'd be unable to remember. "Is that ecstasy?"
"Try some." He offered another plastic sachet bag from his jacket.
"That's-" I hiccupped "-illegal and not good for you."
I hiccupped again, barely sober enough to curse myself "-thanks."
He gripped my shirt and pulled me in. This time his tongue did enter my mouth and swished around. We held onto each other and kissed drunkenly for a while, when he pulled away the tablet was in my mouth. Stanley smiled at me devilishly.
"I like you." I said.
"I like you, too." His thumb stroked my cheek and without thinking I swallowed the ecstasy.
Everything after that was a total, irretrievable blur. I remembered feeling invincible-happy and eventually woke up in a hotel, a different hotel. My mouth was very dry and tasted of sick. My head in a pounding rhythm. Lying naked under a tangled sheet, Stanley's arm over my chest. He lay face-down in the blue bed beside me.Did we fuck?I couldn't recall, but we were both naked in bed together. I groaned in pain and extracted myself from him and the sheet. This room was nicer than Lochdale's olde hotel. The carpet was a soft blue, through transparent curtains I could see sunlight and the road. I waded to the en suite bathroom while cradling my head. I couldn't remember anything after leaving the cab and walking into that first pub with Stanley. Turning the tap on and guzzling water, hydrating my sick body. Splashing my face and wetting my dark hair to cool down.
I stared in the mirror, into my dark almond-shaped eyes as I tried to anxiously recall what'd happened. Bits and pieces came back to me. Sluggishly, like I was pulling them from a murky pond. I remembered the ecstasy tablet dissolving in my mouth, making me feel like I was on top of the world. That explains this acute anxiety, my serotonin levels have plummeted after that crazy boost. I remembered Stanley drinking so much that he fell many times as we walked. Both of us must have been too drunk to get it up, so that's probably what happened: we got naked and just collapsed into bed with each other and passed out.
I hoped so because someone who was always so careless about his safety wouldn't bother with condoms. Someone thoughtless like Stanley probably had indiscriminate sex, and probably never got himself checked out for STIs. Or if he had, would Stanley have unprotected sex with men and not tell them he was say HIV positive? Would he rationalise it to himself somehow:they never asked, they need to be accountable for their own sexual safety. I wasn't sexually active enough to consider that PrEP tablet so many Grindr guys were on. It was probably post-ecstasy making my anxious head swirl with these thoughts. Stanley stirred in the other room, I heard him prop himself up. I'd need to have the conversation with him but couldn't imagine how it'd go.
The next thing I saw froze me with a sick bout of fear.
I stopped, peeking through the crack of the en suite door. In my view was a closet mirror, the type that slides open and goes floor-to-ceiling. I could see Stanley sitting up, not yet remembering last night and that he wasn't alone. Waking up in strange hotels might not be so unusual for him.
His eyes were in a dead stare. As vacant as auto-pilot, as the idle setting on a computer or phone. Brainless. One corner of his mouth was pulled up in a bizarre smirk-grimace. His face muscles slack and strange. When those flat eyes caught me staring at him with such fear, he remembered he wasn't alone. I saw him exert visible effort to put the mask back on, light returned to his eyes. Stanley groaned and rubbed his face, as if he'd merely been zoning out from tiredness. That hadn't looked like tiredness to me.
He fell back into his pillow and was a person again. When I was ready to come out I started picking my clothes up off the floor and getting dressed.
"Morning." He chirped.
"Last night was fun."
"It was very unprofessional to get that drunk."
"Well you needed no encouragement from me."
I stopped midway throwing my undershirt on "...true."
"What we need is some greasy food and we'll be right as rain."
"I feel like I might end up throwing up more."
"You'll be fine!" he threw the blankets off and thrust himself up and to his feet. Completely at ease with his own nakedness. Once dressed we walked a thin, pale corridor I vaguely remembered crashing through.
The roadside hotel was U-shaped, and in its gap downstairs was a breakfast café, Chinese place and a restaurant of some kind. The latter two weren't open yet. We went to the counter and ordered scrambled egg, toasty things. I felt like the alcohol was pulsing sluggishly through my veins beneath pale skin. An old woman sat with a newspaper, doing a crossword. We took our seats and Stanley started rambling about the article I was supposedly writing about him. I could barely follow, holding a glass of cold water to my forehead. When our meals came I had a few bites before having to excuse myself to the restroom. I ran into a cubicle and spewed. Thinking about the taste of bourbon, even the smell was enough to make me gag. As well as the questionable cleanliness of a public toilet. When finished I walked back paler, took only baby sips of water. I had some more bites of food in the hope it'd settle my stomach.
"We should go for a walk. A walk will do us good." Stanley suggested.
We headed out. Stanley paid our fees on card. Our hair and clothes were messy, my button-up was left open over my singlet. We crossed the street and started walking beside woodland.
"I can only imagine what my bank account looks like now." I spoke in despair.
"I paid for all your drinks." Stanley assured me.
"Well that's good... thanks for that."
"Excuse me." He said politely, stepping into the trees and vomiting down the side of a trunk. He'd been so well-composed that I assumed he must've had less than me. But I suppose he was just used to it. I remembered reading from George's report that in his most recent car crash he'd been four times over the legal limit. When finished Stanley wiped his face and re-joined my side, we continued walking.
For me this was shameful, to him it was normal. Morning sun shone gold through the fern leaves of the pines. There was further space between offices and homes, the path rising and falling in mounded curves. We came across rusted train-tracks cutting through the land.
"Let's follow this, it leads to the lake." Stanley pointed and took my hand.
We must be on the other end of town. My mobile still had twenty-percent battery life, by some miracle. Instead of finding out where I was so I could call a cab, I let myself be led through the trees. After a while I spotted a rustic shed in the woods, old timber and rusty tin sheets. Abandoned in time. It was quiet now apart from the morning birds. Beautiful, though I was still nervous. Maybe it was my dropped serotonin, or maybe I was worried about being out of town with him.
Then we reached the lake and its gentle waves. I'd only seen it in shades and textures of grey. Now the surface was iridescent in the light, like the shell of some beetle. Underneath the reflection it was bottle-green. This spot seemed even more ancient than the mid-century, folksy town. I was reminded of nature wildmen, wilder-beasts, the Fae.
When Stanley looked at me endearingly, his green eyes matching the moss on the dark-wood trees and fallen logs, I wondered if maybe I'd imagined what his face looked like before. That awful dummy stare. Maybe he was in control of himself, and that was why he never did anything too outlandish when we were together.
"I wanted to take you here to assure you of something. You'll always have my friendship Phillip, and my love. I don't want you to be unhappy. Don't think that just because I've done bad things that means I'm heartless. I have a soft heart, inside. I don't want you to be uneasy, but saying this to you makes me uneasy. I'm a man who'd never be careless with something like a heart. Maybe I should've said nothing, but I don't want you to ever be unhappy."
I pulled my hand back. Too much intimacy. He had a hand on his chest, hand still out for mine.
"Sit with me here and just let me speak. I need to get this off my chest." Soft but persistent. I again acquiesced to him my hand and we sat in the damp grass, by the pretty scenery. Smooth water to the distant shore, thick blockades of pines curving around right by the lake's edge.
"Something about us feels the same. I feel like I've been consumed by this feeling, I feel full of love for you. I hope that instead of being turned off you might pity me. It's pathetic but you've been on my mind since I met you, it makes me sad when I'm awake, but I'm savouring it every time I try to sleep. That's why when I'm with you I'm always happy and smiling, no matter what. I feel sincere care for you, deep respect and – I can't help it – submission. Even if this goes nowhere, I'm just so happy you gave me this gift, to love someone so intensely, un-selfishly and wholesomely."
When I opened my mouth he pressed a finger to my lips "Please let me finish."
Squeezed my hand "I could've kept this going and stayed quiet. I know you've made assumptions based on what you've heard about me, but this is why you've seen me unable to react to things normally. I could've continued adoring you silently and secretly, but I know you're investigating me and I must have been acting weird and not myself this whole time. Because you dazzle me. I always said I'd turn myself around but it never lasted. Thanks to meeting you I know it's going to happen now, because I never had areasonto be better before. I was justliving. My Dad could always get me out of any trouble so there was never anything to worry about. My family would always support me so I never needed to try, and I've just felt misunderstood by everyone my whole life. But now I havesomething to live for."
Both of his hands were on mine now and I was speechless "I can't get rid of this feeling, nothing can. Since I can't think or act straight you'll just have to be in charge of me. Tell me what to do and say when I'm around you so we can finish this article as least awkwardly for you as possible. I'm not asking for anything, and I'm sorry but there was no one other than you I could express my grief to, since you're the cause. If you were in my situation, not that I'd trade it with anyone, you would understand how this feels like experiencing happiness for the first time. Even a small change of your state effects me so intensely, I couldn't imagine someone having that much control over another. But despite how all-consuming this feeling is, I want to assure you I'll behave. You decide whatever it is we do now, I'll do whatever you say."
"O-kay." He let me take my hands back and I was genuinely dazed "To start with... lets go back into town."