“Time check?” Stitch asked me as he packed the bowl of salvia on the steering wheel of his old Ford pickup truck. I pulled out my cracked phone. Traversing a sharp edge with my thumb, I dismissed the reminder for today’s dress rehearsal. I started a timer to plot how long we would be disassociated from reality. To keep our psyches grounded, we always based our drug trips in time if not in space.

“Full signal, full battery, three hours to spare” I rattled off the details like a mantra. Ordered recitation made me feel safe, focused me and calmed my monkey mind. Buddhist meditation for a self-described anal retentive fact checker. I added his name under my breath. He didn’t need to be reminded of much I relied on him for everything not on the list.

The eight minute trip seemed like a good way to kill time before we took the stage. Despite the metaphysical abandonment, we weren’t being irresponsible. Self destruction and dereliction were part of our process. We were getting into character; we channeled the weird. We danced in avante garde performance art. Altered states made it better for the audience and performers alike.

In gold lame leotards, we would dance an interpretive recreation of Philip K. Dick’s “Martian Time Slip.” Technically, we were backup dancers, skinny and lithe, both anorexic and abbed, with a body fat percentage driven down by shared eating disorders. We were doing a routine to be potentially outsourced by the Exodus as entertainment for the long flight from earth. While we couldn’t afford tickets on the massive colony ships off our dying planet, we could shanghai our salvation as the floor shoes. Rumors placed talent scouts in our region’s dance halls. Since we were playing the Martian Shadow Dancers for the big camp fire scene, we figured we would get into the fatalistic spirit with a little gubbagubba of our own.

Stitch observed, “Fuck, we’ll be sober, bored and early. It really is the end of the world.” His mirrored shades cast long shadows down his face. His grimace lined his symmetrical face, made human by a dusting of irregular stubble.

“All of the worst things.” I concurred. My fingers found his hand across the leatherette truck seat. The sun expanded the polymers until they His strong rough hands curled around like a curling flower retracting its leathery sepal. He squeezed my palm in that way that said everything will be all right, just load the bowl, let go.

He “reassured” me with a gun in the mouth motion. He smiled like a charming maniac and winked. Sensing my distaste, he immediately back pedaled, patted my thigh with his cigarette butt almost ashing in his carelessness. He swept me up into a whirlwind of reassurance and I once again caved into his way of looking at the world.

We had an egalitarian codependency. Like any proper duo, our strengths mirrored our weaknesses. We existed as entwined entities with a symbiosis that increased our chances of survival. I was his reason and calm demeanor. I kept him out of trouble - soothed over family relations, disarmed territorial disputes with neighbors and talked our way out of trouble with the local law enforcement. He was my defender, problem solver and killer of crawling insects. He saved my life twice. He has the stitches in his forehead and behind his ear to prove it. His brash bravado and tireless need to explore added as much color to my life as my steadying presence kept him out of prison.

He was my lover and my guide in all our explorations - into drugs, into the world of dramatic arts, into the mad world beyond our district’s walls and into our blossoming homosexuality. Small cities like Omaha when you were broke created the need for a deep and lasting companionship. Especially these days, with all that’s going in the world. The oeople are waking up to the fact that the end of the world is nigh and I will be very glad to keep him by my side.

Or, he’ll get us both killed in yet another altercation with the police. Either way, my front seat to the apocalypse came with a tour guide. I’d call him a dangerous bad boy he if was even remotely a danger to me. Sure, he put us both in danger, quite frequently, but he always kept me safe. No matter how crazy or dangerous the situation, he had a quick mind and an exit strategy. He was the exact kind of man you wanted on a bank heist or a sexcapade. We came out together. We dropped out of college together. We both We auditioned together. If there was a comfort zone, he was the bouncer.

I patted his knee in tacit acceptance and he gave me a reassuring glance. That same exchange preceded all of our intimate exchanges. I’d touch his knee and he look up beneath those Elizabeth Taylor double lashes and we’d be exploring a new horizon post haste. He was so handsome and charming that I’d do anything within reason, as elusive and mutable as love’s reason was. He had a lean body from his choreography and from the strict diet enforced by being broke. His unknown parentage gave him honey mocha skin, height and features symmetrical enough to be uncanny. His wide eyes were both colorful and dark, like lustrous wood full of whorls. One look was enough to dispel the intense disphoria gripping my mind as the pernicious smoke of the herb began to uncoil as he blazed and I inhaled.

“Hold it. Hold it. Hooooold it.” He rejoined and the followed in his own deep inhalation. He emptied his lungs and inhaled so deeply the salvia burned like the heart of a camp fire. Ash swirled and then so did we. Our vision danced with burnt in images and the world magnified until we could perceive every detail at once, even as the particular sensation of being zipped up into a body bag focused our vision on something new, something revealed.

The cheery ember of another Exodus craft departing told us a couple of things as we came down in the cab of our truck. There were no Space Ports near Omaha. The closest ones were in Texas and the brown flatness surrounding the Wal-mart suddenly popped back into focus.

The presence of the rocket told us it was still the same day, the last day of the month, when another round of the lucky few left earth to join the massive colony ships floating in orbit. It told us we woke up in Texas but I last remember being in Omaha, Nebraska.

To be fair, it’s hard to tell the difference in the far end of a Walmart parking lot. It’s just that I know Texas, intimately. Growing up in a fathomless expanse that you hate tends to stick with you. There’s knowing the back of your hand. Then, there’s the same yawning brown stretches of nothingness stretching between cities jutting up like broken knuckles.

I am from Pflugerville and I’d know the platted dirt made habitable by German-speaking slaves before I even spotted the first business that misspelled its name with a colloquial “Pf.” I’d spot it like an ICE agent from the neighboring detention center spots a smuggled LatinX refuge in the trunk of a Coyote’s Buick. Growing up in this place lingers like nascent homophobia instilled by dubious masculine role-models who reek of Brut and locker room trysts. It clings to your retinas like a cataract, like milky scars piled up like escarpments from territorial wars and aboriginal genocides. Though I could smell the blood in the dirt, I had no fucking clue how I got here.

“Hell of a drug,” I blurted, my throat remembering to swallow. The spit rolling down my parched throat triggered a cough that had me laying on my side and rubbing my face into the rough pleather of the MonteCarlo’s bench seat. I could just see Stitch pinned into the driver seat like a propped up corpse. He must have drove us. How we covered such an incredible distance remained a pressing question sticking to skin of my tongue like the congealed flavors of vomit.

Working my mouth until the glands resurrected, I wondered if we had gone on some cheap Hunter S. Thompson imitation escapade. We couldn’t afford to be self-destructive writers and lawyers. We were unemployed college drop outs who could only afford the Salvia they sold in head shops. We hadn’t exactly packed our truck full of drugs and intention. No one talks about how hard it is to stockpile that many drugs or that much Thanatos. Maybe the early 70s allowed for greater excess in both substance and death drive, but in this age of cryptocurrency and hyper-surveillance, we’d get pulled over by a drone before we got to Vegas. If the truck was our Cadilliac, was Stitch my motorcycle race and I the bats?

With a cheek cooking on the vinyl, I noticed the heat. My body regaining its peripheral sensations was the weirdest part of regaining control of my nervous system. The sudden return to reality felt constant, sensible and completely alien. The limbs moved when I told them too rather than flittering on their own secret accord. My tattered cerebellum was a good reminder of my own little ecosystem’s fragility. My homeostasis wobbled in a gyroscopic return to equilibrium. Just one arguably reasonable puff and suddenly all bets were off. It wasn’t this hot in Omaha. The seat cushions did not stick like fly paper while leeching carcinogenic plasticizers into the cab. The drug was only supposed to last a couple of minutes. If that’s so, then I woke up, minutes later, 838 miles away in Texas.

As my eyes regained the ability to focus, I saw Stitch churn in the driver seat, uncoiling like a wet rope, flapping and groaning. Even slithering and sweat-soaked, he was beautiful. His dusting of wiry ginger facial hair twisted into a petulant grimace. That’s how I knew it was really hot. Stitch writhed and whimpered - a telltale prelude to full-on whining about the heat. He hated the heat even more than he hated Saliva.

My short term memory refused to offer up why we took it in the first place. But who could remember anything in this godforsaken hillbilly desert turned urban metropolis. Boredom, the easiest explanation, the razor of honest self-assessment, seemed most likely, but circumstance also had to be a factor. Until our next well-rehearsed series of lies to the unemployment office, we had no means of self-actualization. No flagellas to propel us. It must have crossed our paths like a morsel in front of an amoeba.

I hated Texas. I moved away from Texas. I knew all too well these endless stretches of suburban sprawl surrounding boundless cities grown out of stubbornness and nearly infinite amount of land. The land of cowboys and oil turned into another tech incubator back by startups wearing Stetsons and eating Vegan Barbeque.

“Lilo?” he asked me as he wiped his stubbled face and pulled his skin back into place like reseating a Halloween mask. He only called me that when he needed to be back in a more innocent time. A time of summer cigarettes in stuffy attics and exploratory hands. He’d taken refuge in me since high school even after our childish nicknames had fallen out of fashion. “Where in the hell are we?”

I blew out my cheeks and tried to dispel the grim reality. “We’re in Texas. Houston, I think.” I scanned the utterly featuresless landscape. I could tell from the distinct lack of curvature that we were most assuredly in the one dimensional hellscape that is Houston. The horizon clung like a leve to the infinite Escher painting of line after line of rectangular buildings.

“How in the fuck did we end up in Houston,” he fumbled a green pack of cigarettes squashed into the front pocket of his torn denim. The hapless softpack thread bear with shorn of bits of aluminum foil always made me wonder why he put them in his pocket in the first place.

“Near Austin. Pflueger…” I corrected and trailed off as my lips curled into making that German spitting sound that only a thick Texas drawl could make sound pleasant.

His eyes bugged out a bit and then he shrugged in a dismissive way, flapping his hand about like he was airing the credulity out of the statement. That or he was just being a non-Texan who rounded the entire state down to cowboys, oil derricks and tumbleweeds. I swallowed my irritation because even if only Texans were allowed to geographically insult another Texan, it hardly mattered.

“Do we go in?” He pointed his chin at the brown brick wall rising like we stood too close to the fortress of consumerisms balustrade. I could just make out the thin blue band of the indelible brand identity that ruined suns, smiley faces and the color blue in general. He then punched a cigarette out a mentholated cigarette with shaking hands.

“Must have been brought here for a reason” I asked and broke my years long no-smoking streak that Lilo didn’t even need to comment on. He lit both of our cigarettes with hands steadied by too much focus on the fuel switch. He cupped his hand against the dead air swirling with dust motes and weaponized dandruff would blow out the meager flame. It crawled across the stainless steel grill like a starving man determined to survive.

“No way I drove us here, is there?” He whispered as we exchanged clouds.

“Not in five minutes.” I coughed.

He pulled his phone from his pocket. He ran his thumb across the cracked screen and traced the unlock pattern. After a series of swipes, he said. “No signal. You know what symbol means?” He showed me the status bar and there was a garble of circles and patterns so arcane they belonged on a black velvet bookmark picked up from some mystical book star and it pulsed angerily where the signal strength icon was supposed to be.

I shook my head. That symbol looked like a mythical hieroglyphic you see carved in ancient Cambodian ruins built by a vast galatic conspiracy. That symbol was a cypher to some direct to DVD M. Night Shamalan grade plot were the twist was someone spontaneously dying at the end for no reason. I wanted no part of it. I pressed the saddle of my thumb against my eyes until the pressure outside surpassed the splitting pressure inside. “What the fuck, Stitch?”

“‘What the fuck?’ What, Lilo?” He said in that level tone that always precipitated a domestic dispute involving drug abuse. No one writes self-help books about how to navigate the contentious drug conversations, especially among self-professed psychonauts navigating the unfamiliar and dangerous reefs of an indulgence in mutual self destruction. Nasty creatures with sharp teeth and envenomed spines await any misstep.

“Nothing.” I roiled in a self-inflicted misery. I could not even be mad at him. After I all, I smoked the substance on my own volition. After all, our relationship was build on testing boundaries. We experience junkies are a dangerous lot. Not any high will do. It has to be a novel high. It has to be a slight extension of ourselves that forces the walls of our cells to expand in reaction to external stimuli.

Had we been born a few centuries ago, we would have been the intrepid explorers. Well, we most likely have been disowned, excommunicated and eventually killed or imprisoned for being homosexuals, but if we avoided that fate, we would have been the ones daring ourselves to push the maps of our known universes to greater and greater reaches beyond the horizon. Over every new ridge line, deep ocean or star-filled heavens, we would have pushed farther.

Being broke ass country boys does not a candidate for NASA make. And, since the space industry had become the darling enterprise of the world’s richest, the 1/16th who controlled over 99.84% of the world’s monetary supply could afford the education and training to be considered for the Vector program. The inequality grew so large and for so long that we had many names for these hyper-capitalists no longer driven by greed but by momentum. The current parlance called them “semis” after their percentage and the quick short musical notes used to shred them in protest songs. That rich people earth-escapee training program required resources that could only be bought at Charter schools whose rosters were carefully manicured. These feeder programs into the exclusive and recently privatized space force opened up the only new frontier, but not for the likes of us. We would be the ones left behind with a dying world paved over with parking lots that look like this one.

“Look at all that creep. It’s worse here than in Omaha.” I changed topics as I surveyed the endless pavement and concrete that what we named after the scientific goo of the old horror movies. We couldn’t find a better allegory for the spreading, growing, oozing crawling consumption. At least, those films portrayed an organic flowing born of some alien invader or science gone man. For centuries, we had purpose build this stuff, covering more and more land, to make more room for our increasingly alien habitation. We tried to obscure nature as if the removal of our connection to the earth defined progress. Slowly, our civilization crept every outward from our urban hive minds until all was parking lot.

With the advent of vertical gardening and genetically-modified super producers, we didn’t even need the once rolling-acres of graze land and plains that stretched from Pfluegerville to Omaha. It’s just a shame that the bioharverters and the geneticists were the first ones to receive their ticket on the exodus shuttles.

There wasn’t much menace in a hardened amoeba slowly consuming the globe one cement mixer load at a time. Hell, from Omaha to here, we would not have had to change roads, just road signs as we crossed the febrile deviations that were interstate boundaries. If I imagined the hot, baking concrete breathing through the haze of distortions, I could feel how the highways might have brought us here through some intense capillary contraction.

“We should go inside.” said Lilo as he ashed out his cigarette in the overflowing ash tray. At least, the departing sixteeners no longer cared about health codes and the sort of medical totalitarianism springing up when the common good finally realized the common person was a slack jawed yokel easily manipulated by centuries worth of weaponized advertising turned back on itself. With the great pandemic, the new social morays dedicated a swift downward pressure on unhealthy lifestyles. Before the plans for the Exodus began, you couldn’t find a cigarette without passing through a grist mill of dealers. Who had to know a guy who was scared of a guy who bought cigarettes from a drug lord who moved authentic cigarettes in the same planes and trucks as much “harder” drugs. Now with the rapid dismantling of societal mechanisms, no one batted an eye when we bought a carton from a roadside vendor with a hand painted sign.

I looked past the vast concrete organism rising in front of us and examined the brightly colored assortment of massive trucks, complete with truck decals and fifth wheels. The occasional dun colored sedan hid amongst the coral reefs of artificial shade trees and cart corrals. Sporadic signage splashed stark, primary colors with textured reflectors that glimmered in the ambient sun reflected off the windows. The whole sea of vehicles, now an extinct species with all the manufacturing being retooled to make space ship parts, slept like a dead reef, waiting for some carrion cleaner to pick the choicest morsels. My final, intense inhalation canoed my cigarette that I added to the smoldering cairn and stood, “Sure. We might as well see what is what.”

I took a loving moment to refresh both of our lips with soft pink lip gloss. I dabbed the applicator with quick pecks across my bee-stung lips before I insisted on touching up Lilo. Whatever existential threat we faced, we wouldn’t be doing it with dull, cracked lips.

There was no change in heat intensity as we stepped out of the cab and our shoes hissed on the hellacious pavement.

deliberate walk through the scant shadows. Precious well-springs of incipient darkness huddled in pools created by the angles of street lamps and rain gutters. The sun beat down with such intensity that it felt like an active hunter, full of malice, seeking out the shadows with a ruthless determination to their extinction.

It made the yawning gatehouse of rolled back security cages and wide sliding doors all the more welcoming. Vast gusts of recirculated air blew through grates embedded in the concrete walkway ringed with concrete pylons sticking up like uniform teeth. We walked into the maw as a door greeter stepped from his podium. His blue vest and forest fatigues camouflaged him. Instead of a clipboard, he carried a snub nosed shotgun with a pistol grip. He had short cropped blond hair, a bull dog face, and a barreled chest with tattoos that blended into his full sleeves. He spat on the ground as he thumbed the saferty with a click that belied his words, “Hark. Who dareth approach our stronghold.”

My brain refused to accept what I heard, so I concentrated on the obvious and easily-relatable. After all, my kind have stood on the wrong side of the barrels of loaded guns for centuries. Only we didn’t hide behind easy killing machines that solved the problems in one limited and counterproductive fashion. I swallowed the rising lump of self-preservation and opened my lips, ironically covered in the lip balm.

“Why do you have a gun?” I blurted out in a tiny effeminate squeak that always came out whenever I was nervous or faced with lethal peril. Lilo instincitively sidled next to me. Once again, we stood as a combined unit. If he needed to shoot one of us, he’d shoot both of us. Judging by the easy set of his jaw and his finger hovering like a musician poised to execute a well-practiced motion, we would all be in concert.

Beneath his mirrored Oakley’s that reflected the line of carts poking out from behind the black rubber curtains, he assessed us. “I recommend you keep ambulating, faggots. Another Walmart awaits you down the road, a scant few blocks over there.” His thick accent tried to choke his careful pronunciation. Even his slurs were wrapped in the methodical speech of the well-read, whose vocabularies and diction had been forged by the terseness of Hemingway and the loquaciousness of James.

“I’m sorry.” Lilo sputtered. “Did you just say ambulating?” Somehow, the high English reserved for the ivy-league pedants who policed grammar like pedigrees offended him more than time-honored hate speech.

“Perchance, I did.” the door greeter spat a wad of spittle and chaw juice onto the payment.

We exchanged looks. “Then, perchance, maysooth we might parlay?” Never before, had our combined theater degrees proved more useful. While our was a somewait passe gay love affair, growing up in repressive households until college’s relaxed strictures allowed us to find ourselves and our means of expression.

The effect was immediate. Our sudden uptick in our vocabularies, of adopting an elevated mode better suited for the wine bar attached to every opera house, caught him off guard. He lowered his shades and his gun inched tantalizingly off the ready. “Yay, verily, the rules of parlay in effect.” He pulled up the short-ranged radio clipped to his neon-green vest. He keyed a brief, “Parley,” and awaited the unintelligible response squealched with static but ending in “…Sooth.”

The door greeter nodded and conducted inside, falling into a trailing lock step.