When Mac first started checking in with Dennis, the phone calls were limited to once a week. He made a big show of it being for protection, but a large part of him was just lonely. Sure, Charlie was there, but something about his friendship with Charlie just wasn’t the same as his friendship with Dennis. Plus, nowadays it seemed like all Charlie was into was huffing paint and then stalking this Waitress chick. Both things were fun in small doses, but Mac didn’t want to do them all the time. He and Charlie were fighting a lot out of boredom, so Mac was spending much of his time watching movies in his mom’s basement and drinking alone.
At first, the brightest part of Mac’s week was calling Dennis. Dennis seemed happy in his fraternity, basking in attention from his frat brothers and college girls alike. He talked for hours about the girls he nailed, the parties he went to, and his confidence about the bright future ahead of him. Mac would have been really jealous, except for how often Dennis told him that he couldn’t really connect with anyone the same as his blood brother. In the beginning, almost every phone call ended that way. A sea of new experiences, thrills, and goals and then – that quiet admission.
As time went on, the novelty of the new place seemed to wear off. There were long pauses when Dennis spoke, as if it took great effort. His voice became flat, and sometimes his words slurred. Dennis often couldn’t remember the names of the girls he nailed or the new friends he made. He never told Mac that he was doing anything less than amazing, but it was clear that he was getting worse all the time. On days when his voice slurred the most, Dennis sometimes mentioned that he felt entirely separate from every other human being (‘in a . . . good way . . . if I’m. . .uh. . .being clear. . .’).
One night when Mac was drinking alone in his mother’s basement (again), the phone rang. He picked it up, expecting it to be Dennis, but instead a stranger’s voice greeted him.
“Hey, is this um. . .Mac?” He sounded tired.
“Yeah. Who is this?”
“Donnie, from Dennis’s fraternity.” Mac had heard of him. Dennis was always talking about what a douchebag he was.
“What do you want?”
“You’re second behind Dennis’s mom on his list of emergency contacts. She didn’t answer the phone. Dennis is in the hospital from alcohol poisoning.”
“What?!” he cried. Maybe he was mishearing . . . how many beers had he had-
“We found him passed out in his room and had to call an ambulance. He’s at the U of Penn hospital-“
Mac slammed the phone back down onto its holder.
“Mom, I’m taking the car!” he shouted.
She grunted in response. He grabbed the keys off the kitchen table, patted his pocket to see if his wallet was still there, and headed out.
The drive from Philadelphia to the hospital near Penn State was long as shit. Mac spent most of it listening to a mix tape on repeat that Dennis had made for him just before he left for college. The tape was mostly peppy pop music: Rick Astley, Queen, and of course, Steve Winwood, who was featured no less than four times on side A. Higher Love was the opening track; it was Dennis’s favorite. Mac could practically hear Dennis say, “No, you don’t understand. It’s not girlie pop music. Winwood is an expert craftsman. . .”
Mac spent the last hour of his trip praying to the sound of radio static.
By the time he pulled into the hospital parking lot, it was already dark. Mac rushed out of the car, heart suddenly pounding. He slammed the door behind him without locking it, and ran into the emergency room.
The ER was brightly lit, way too bright for someone who had been driving in the dark. Mac stumbled up to the receptionist’s desk. Despite driving for three hours, he was still a little drunk too.
“Hey. . .I’m Dennis Reynolds’s emergency contact,” he said to the receptionist. “Where is he?”
“Can I see some identification?” she said.
Mac handed her his driver’s license. She compared it to her files very slowly.
“Hey lady hurry up. My buddy could be dying in there,” he said, tapping his foot.
“He’s in room 134,” she said with a withering glare. “Down the hall to the right.”
Mac nodded, and took back his driver’s license. He wandered down the hallway, muffled sounds of coughing, crying, and other gross stuff echoing around him. When he got to Dennis’s room, a frazzled looking nurse was exiting it.
“I’m here to see Dennis. I’m Mac.”
Her eyes widened. “Get in there. God, now he’ll stop asking about you. He’s all yours.”
What a bitch.
Mac opened the door to a white room that smelled of Clorox and vomit. Dennis was on the bed, an IV in his hand. He was incredibly pale, and his eyes didn’t open when Mac came in.
“Whozit? If you’re. . .ugly nurse. . .suck a dick. Bring Mac. Or. . .sexier nurse.”
There was a rolling chair in the corner of the room, and Mac wheeled it over to Dennis’s bedside. Dennis looked even worse up close, the corners of his mouth flecked with vomit. He was sweating and shivering. Suddenly, Mac was filled with rage. How could Dennis do this to himself? How could he let Mac feel this way?
“This is Mac, asshole. Open your eyes.”
Dennis groaned, and opened them a little bit. “Good to see you too.”
“Fuck off. If you weren’t hooked up to that drip thing, I would hit you.”
Dennis looked like he wanted to roll his eyes, but it seemed that he didn’t actually have the capacity. “I . . . almost die. Could still . . . take you bro.”
Mac clenched his fists, and prayed for inner peace. “Why did you almost die? What the goddamn hell, Dennis?”
“Move past it,” said Dennis, closing his eyes. “Won’t happen again.”
The prayer for inner peace didn’t work. Mac slapped Dennis in the face.
“Why would you do that?” he cried pathetically.
“Because that’s how I feel, dude! Slapped in the face!”
Both of them breathed heavily for a moment. Then Dennis said, “So . . . as you know . . . I am on a quest. Physical . . . perfection. Spiritual . . . ascension. I – oh shit.” His face became even paler. “Puke. Bucket.”
The garbage can was on the floor. Mac maneuvered it closer to Dennis’s head with his foot, and Dennis vomited into it violently. From the looks of it, the only thing he was puking up was booze and yellow gunk.
“Have you been eating, dude?” Mac asked when Dennis had finished and slumped back onto the pillow.
“Gods don’t need to eat, Mac. They . . . live off. Worship and shit.”
“You are goddamn delusional. They’re gonna put you in the crazy bin on floor seven if you say stuff like that to the nurses.”
“I’m delusional?” Dennis opened his eyes again, and gave Mac a look as if he had just showed his hand. He paused, as if collecting the energy to string his words together well. “How have . . . karate tournaments . . . been going? So sorry you broke it off with . . . supermodel. But you’re save up to become priest, right, so’s all fine? Didn’t need her? You . . . are just as bad.”
Mac swallowed hard. Distracting someone with irrelevant shit is the best way to win a fist fight. Dennis wasn’t allowed to win. Not today. Not about this.
“I’m not the one in the hospital,” said Mac in a low voice.
Dennis let out a deep, shuddering sigh. “Minor setback. I . . . won’t end up here again. Undignified.”
“It’s dangerous, is what it is.” He caught eye of Dennis’s wrists, how thin and bony they were. Mac wrapped his hand around one. “This is like a twig.”
Mac couldn’t make himself let go after his point was made. He tried not to think about how close he was to holding Dennis’s hand. Tried not to feel how much he wanted it.
“I’m glad you came ‘stead of mom.”
Mac could picture Mrs. Reynolds’s face in his mind, pursing her lips at her son’s hospitalization. Telling him that she expected better than alcohol poisoning from her golden boy. Complimenting him on being so thin.
Mac rubbed Dennis’s palm with his thumb. He had never been good at words, and didn’t really know what to say. This seemed fine by Dennis, as by the looks of it he was ready to fall asleep. Mac didn’t let go of his wrist, not even when Dennis was unconscious. He fell asleep sitting up in the chair, and woke at sunrise still holding on.
When Dennis finally recovered, Mac started checking in by phone every day.
Just to be safe.