Some nights I wake and everything is just as it was the night before and I’m still okay. Some nights I wake and it’s there. It’s never stopped; not even after all of these years. Decades. I wonder how many people grow up to find that they’re still surrounded by every single one of their same high school friends even twenty years later? It’s probably not a lot.
People are meant to drift in and out of your life. They’re not meant to keep coming and coming and coming after you forever.
I read something once: ‘Friends are there for a reason, a season or a lifetime’ The largest group are the friends who befriend you for a reason, for their own purposes…for what you can do for them. They want something from you. I can’t tell you what my friends still want from me. I just want to get away from them but it seems impossible.
The friends that last a season are only meant to be a part of your life briefly–for a little while; then they’re gone.
When I was young, these people that follow me now were supposed to be the “lifetime” friends. That’s what I thought. They were supposed to stick around expecting nothing but my companionship. We were supposed to be a tribe. They were supposed to be my tribe. Forever. That all changed one day in the summer of 2001. They want something now. My so-called “friends.” They’ve gotten so many others to join them after all of these years–people I barely even knew. Picking them up along the way. It’s difficult to shut their voices out; a mesmerizing buzz that threatens to hypnotize you and pull you from your senses. My parents are there. Kevin. Cassie. Even my fifth grade math tutor. I forget her name. Tank is always in the lead and I just want them all to go away…
The worst part is I’m not sure what they want from me. They want me to come with them–to be a part of them…
I just don’t know why.
I was 16 and invincible and infinite. Abrasive and incorrigible. My friends and I never worried about the consequences that followed anything we did. Nobody could touch us. At least that’s what we thought back then.
We called ourselves “The Anarcrew.” It was dumb, but what do you really expect from teenagers in the early years of the new millenia? There was me, Kevin, Cassie and Tank, who was my best friend.
His name was actually Travis, but even his own parents called him Tank because at 17, he was a massive 6-foot-4 and built like a military grade machine. When I tell you he was huge, I mean he spent half his life working out. He was always like that as long as I remember. I think he probably started working out when he was 10 years old. If we had to name our leader, it was surely Tank. Also, he was a weird kid. We all were. We never bothered with trying to fit in at school, preferring instead to play to the beat of our own drums.
Almost everything was always Tank’s idea. He liked to make what he called “documentaries.” Skateboard videos punctuated by pulling pranks as we rode around town. Everything he did, he did with reckless confidence. Everything he did was evocative and shocking. If he got hurt in the process, he shrugged it off like it was nothing. I saw him break his arm once and he made jokes about stopping in at the 24-hour donut place to scare the lady behind the counter. He wanted to point at things in the glass case with his arm that bent at too many angles. He didn’t even scream when it happened. Just laughed the entire way to the hospital and begged the men in the ambulance to stop so he could show people. They didn’t stop and they couldn’t help but laugh. He bled charisma.
I remember once he got suspended from school for wearing a dress. His massive, slightly hairy pecs and wide shoulders were practically ripping the bodice in half. Everyone thought that was a real good one. Funny how dumb these things seem in retrospect.
Tank was wild and spontaneous. We all looked up to him like he was a god… that should be more funny than sad but the thought makes me feel sad from the pit of my stomach. Everything about Tank was legendary. He was the closest thing to a god I ever knew and gods can never die…but Tank was the first of us to go…he was the one to lead them…
Do legends ever really die?
Our afternoons were spent sharing packs of clove cigarettes, listening to NOFX and Bad Religion with reverence and introspection. We did this as though the tracks were the sermons to our own personal religion. We weren’t the only kids putting on the airs of non-conformist-brooding-teenage-angst but we sure thought we were.
Summers back then meant freedom. We would get high and ride our bikes or our skateboards everywhere. Tank had a car but there was hardly ever had any gas in it because we were all perpetually broke. I stole weed from my brother’s sock drawer so we almost never paid for that either. He kept the little baggies in a small mason jar filled with Folger’s coffee grounds to mask the smell. The jar was hidden in a wool sock near the back. I don’t think he knew I knew about it. I’m sure he never knew how much of it he shared with us. As kids, we didn’t have jobs or much money to spare and every cent we did have was set aside and saved for shows. The Warped Tour came through all the major cities each year and Tank and I and the rest had tickets to buy.
“Who do you guys want to see the most?” Cassie said to nobody in particular.
I decided to answer first. “For me, it’s Pennywise, Rancid and…”
“…AFI!” Tank shouted, finishing for me. He reached one of his hands over the headrest and wiggled his fingers at me. A gesture I returned.
“Well duh.” Kevin said. “Of course you want to see AFI. You like all the gay theatrics.”
“What’s that supposed to mean,” I said punching him in the arm.
“Hahaha. Might mean you’re a homo.” Kevin said.
“Shut up. At least I’m not obsessed with The Distillers.” I told him.
“The Distillers are awesome.” He replied. “And Brody is hot.”
“Sorry to break it to you man, they’re not on the full tour,” Tank chimed in. “Their last set was in Texas last week.”
“Goddammit!” Kevin said, punching the seat in front of him.
“Hey! Don’t hit my fuckin seat.” Cassie shouted. Then she mused to nobody in particular: “I wonder what it’s like to go on tour with your band and your man’s band? I bet it’s totally awesome. Maybe even kind of glamorous. Big rockstars like that.”
“Yea they’re probably super romantic.” I said. The sarcasm in my tone was heavy. “Here honey, help me do these drugs, then I’ll do you. Bet they share a room in rehab.”
“Allegedly!” Kevin added.
“Ok yea allegedly. At least AFI is clean. Davey doesn’t do any drugs. He doesn’t even smoke…And he’s vegan.”
Kevin rolled his eyes. “Whoop-dee-fuckin-do. He wears eyeshadow and lipstick. A real punk rock legend. Being vegan just makes him more of a joke.”
Tank started laughing. “We’ve literally been speeding down Highway 50 passing a joint around, Hammond.”
“Whatya mean, bro?” I asked.
“Kinda like, idolizing someone for clean living while you drink and smoke is kind of hypocritical is all.”
“You know what I think’s hypocritical?” I asked, “Kevin’s over here talking shit about Davey Havok and AFI and this poser literally cut and dyed his hair to match.”
The car began to rock and tumble down unpaved terrain before coming to a halt.
“Lady and Gentlemen! Shut the fuck up and bask in another small victory of our youth, for we have arrived.”
Tank pumped the volume on the stereo…
“From what I’ve seen, I hate humanity!” Davey’s gritty voice blared on Tank’s stereo and I smiled. I knew he was playing our favorite band like this to get under Kevin’s skin. He was smiling at me in the backseat through the mirror. That grin was genuine and disarming and I looked away when he winked at me. I took in a quiet breath hoping nobody else in the car noticed the way I looked back at him in that moment.
The fairgrounds were trampled and muddy with boot prints of the masses of kids who were just like us and not like us at the same time. Ones who thought they were more hardcore than the rest spent the day glaring at others in the crowd as they passed, but most were happy for the air of unity.
As we reached the gate, a security guard stopped Tank with a rough hand to his chest.
“That jacket’s got to go.” The beefhead told him pointing to his left.
“Really?” Tank looked shocked. The jacket was covered in razor blades but his face was a genuine blank, as if he’d never realized a jacket like that might be dangerous.
“Trash can’s over there.”
“No way man, I’ll just put it back in the car.”
Next to me another guard was pulling a handle of vodka out of someone’s pack and chucking it over a tall fenced area that was littered with similarly full bottles of booze. Idiots. Everyone who’d done this before knew to put it in water bottles and reseal the tops with super glue.
“You guys just go on ahead, I’ll find you.” Tank said with a wink before running off back through the cars.
When we got in, none of the bands we wanted to see were on stage yet, so the three of us spent some time wandering around looking at the merch tables. I bought a shirt at one of the tables from a girl with a dozen piercings in her face. At least two others pressing against the fabric of her tight shirt. I’ve never understood the allure of nipple piercings, but she was very nice and shared a killer smile of perfect white teeth with everyone who approached the table. Kevin was behind me in line and as I walked away I could hear him trying his best lines on her.
“Wow, you’re cute.” He muttered as she giggled. I’m pretty sure it was out of pitty.
“I’ll take that one and your number.”
“Let’s go around the world, eat bananas and fudge swirl, just me and you, punk rock girl.” Kevin said casually, his lack of awareness only overshadowed by his totally oblivious confidence.
I was stifling laughter but Cassie fell into outright hysterics. “He just gave her that line from the ‘Dead Milkmen’ song.”
I began to laugh really hard then. “I know!” I said, I turned to her and stage whispered, “he didn’t even say it right!”
Before we knew it, we had tears in our eyes and Tank was jogging back to us.
He looked pale and his face was wide with shock.
“You’ll never believe this.” He panted. “I get back to the car right, and there’s three or four wasps crawling out of the air vents. Bet there’s a whole nest of them in there. I fuckin hate wasps”
It was a good thing the AC hadn’t worked in that car for almost a year.
“We gotta see if there’s a nest under the hood or something before we go.” I said.
“That chick totally digs me.” Kevin declared rejoining us. His misplaced pride only made us laugh harder. “She said if I come back later for another shirt, I could get her number.”
“You’re a fuckin idiot.” Tank said, forgetting about the car.
I looked back toward the parking lot and imagined I could see them there, hovering over the car like a raincloud following a man with bad luck in a comicstrip. When I turned back to ask Tank what stage he wanted to see first, being so much shorter, I found myself turning directly into his broad shirtless chest and the words fled from me.
“Man it’s hot as balls out here,” He said. “I shouldn’t have worn these fuckin leather pants either. Don’t have any pockets.”
He tucked the shirt down the back of his waistband.
I liked those pants, so I was glad he had worn them, pockets or not. I caught myself looking from the light patch of hair on his chest and following the trail of it down to the bulge and blushed. I turned quickly back to the parking lot, hoping my glances had gone unnoticed by the others.
“Well? What do you guys wanna see first?” Cassie asked. She was making curious eye contact with me, and thankfully from where she stood nobody else but me could see the devilish curl of her smirk.
We spent the whole afternoon slam dancing and skanking our way through the mosh pit as our favorite bands played. At some point in the afternoon, I realized I needed water, so Cassie and I left the other boys and went out in search of it.
“Ham…” Cassie began and stopped abruptly. Her mohawk hung limply in places, but not entirely. It bobbed as she spoke.
“Nothing,” she said, “nevermind.”
“What is it Cee?”
She stopped and stared down at her muddy Converse for a moment, then took in a big sigh. “You have to stop looking at him like that.”
“I see it. They don’t.” She said, “but they will… they will eventually. I don’t know what happens to you when they do.”
“Just be more aware of yourself. Be more careful.”
I held back the things I wanted to say to her. I felt vulnerable and sick. My stomach writhed like it was filled with worms, and I prayed for a sinkhole to open in the mud and swallow me.
Was I that transparent?
I thought I was hiding behind my makeshift wall so well and it crushed me to learn that it might actually be made of glass.
We didn’t say another word as we purchased a few bottles of water and headed back to the North Stage.
AFI was beginning their set and I found all of my self-loathing drain. I chugged the bottle of water quickly and waded into the melee at the center of the crowd.
A hundred voices were chanting an introduction over and over.
“Through our bleeding,”
Tank was at the center. His massive form, easy to spot in a crowd.
“We are one!”
The band took the stage and everything else that happened next was too brief and fleeting. At the end of their set, Davey climbed out into the crowd to sing their last song, God Called In Sick Today, and I felt like I was experiencing a moment that stretched and folded into forever until the song ended.
With a stupid grin on my face, I looked up at Tank, who stood next to me. I looked at him just in time to watch him topple to the ground.
Everything became a blur then. People were all around us, leaning down to lift him from the dirt. I felt as though I was watching everything happen to someone else’s best friend from the end of an underwater tunnel.
Every voice was reduced to murmur, “Sun poison” and “dehydration” and “heat stroke.”
I felt myself swept up in a wave of people that flowed like a tsunami of concerned humanity, carrying Tank to the emergency building and pulling the rest of his friends, shocked, behind them in their wake.
Things began to come a bit clearer for me as the group that carried him threw open the door to the ward. I felt myself slowly following the crowd.
As massive as the thing was, nobody saw the nest that the door crushed completely as it swung into the wall, but I did. I saw it happen clearly and my mouth fell open, slack with horror.
I pointed and tried to shout; to warn them. By the time that those well-intentioned people helping him realized what was happening, it was too late. The swarm of wasps moved as one, a massive buzzing cloud like the one I’d imagined, filled the air and filed straight towards the door and after all of them.
Frozen in place, stopped dead in my tracks on the path, I began to back away from where they hovered. A thick curtain moved like a living thing. An angry line of scribbles blocking the doorway. The buzzing wasn’t loud enough to be heard over the frantic voices of the people inside shouting for someone to help with Tank. They hovered there for a moment as if waiting to be invited and when no invitation was forthcoming, they invited themselves. Quickly the shouts for help evolved into screams of agony as people ran back out the way they’d come covered in welts and slapping themselves all over.
One of the on-site paramedics was the last one out of the building. He slammed the door behind him, bracing it with his back and panting. His face was covered in bites. Tank was still inside and no matter how I protested that I had to get in there to help my friend, I was held back from the door.
“They won’t hurt him.” The man assured me. “They only go after people they perceive as a threat. He’s unconscious. Don’t worry kid, they’ll clear out through one of the windows and we’ll go back in a minute.
When they finally were able to enter again, Tank was in the center of the floor, bloated with venom. He’d been stung over and over again at least 300 times. They pronounced him dead at the scene.
I watched his funeral behind a lens of tears. The insects left him disfigured to the point that the mortician couldn’t even drain enough of the venom out of him and make him look presentable for an open casket. At least, that’s what I was told. I don’t know if that was entirely true or a rumor someone made up. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky as the preacher stood at the head of the grave. I watched his mother and father drop the first handfuls of soil down. They invited Cassie, Kyle and me to do the same.
“You were his family too,” his mother said. “Since you were kids, it’s always been the four of you.”
She began to cry then and though the sky was still bright, the ceremony ended in one of the sunny midday showers that Florida Summers are famous for.
I dreamt of him every night for the week that followed. Every dream began as something bittersweet and ended with something horrible.
One night I dreamt that Tank and I had grown old together. We’d gotten married and adopted two children. I saw them growing older and older yet never shrugging off their fear of the dark. Of the monster. They called him the Buzzman and climbed into bed with us every night, until one night Devin pulled away the mask of his face to reveal that he was a giant wasp himself and his sister Donna was the Buzzman too. They stung us over and over again until our bodies liquefied and melted the mattress like acid. Then I woke up.
In a different dream we were raising several hundred of wasps in hives, like they were bees. We tended to them in protective plastic suits to save us from their stings. They didn’t pollinate flowers, in the way bees do. They picked them and carried them in teams to vases around our home. They filled the flower vases with water by carrying it drop by sacred drop in lines of droning swarms from the kitchen sink. We believed they loved us; adored us like any other pets. Our little tiny flying dogs that fetched us daffodils instead of slippers. We lived in our beekeeping suits just to be safe. We ate our meals in the suits. We were drinking steaks and salads through long, thick straws that passed through the netting that on our faces. We slept in them. Even showered in them… but near the end I came to realize that the suits were not protective or vinyl. They weren’t solid at all. Instead, they were a swarm of albino wasps that moved so quickly they appeared that way. They were just biding their time, waiting for their direction to come. To reach them from the hivemind. When the order came from their queen, they stung us over and over again until each of us died in the other’s arms.
Another night, I woke to the sound of tapping and somehow knew that this was not another dream.
I turned groggily to face the glass and felt the haste of waking as the disorientation and warmth of fading sleep drained away.
Tank was outside my window, tapping on the glass and hovering there. My bedroom was two stories up. He was smiling in that disarming, boyish way but it didn’t make me feel the same as it did before. He was shirtless, just as he had been the last time I’d seen him alive. He was flecked with hundreds of bloodless hexagons, clustered in patches. Holes that bored deep beneath his skin like honeycomb clusters. Something was moving beneath his flesh. Wasps were weaving in and out of him like he was an animated hornets nest. In and out of the wounds the creatures buzzed, crawling through the dusting of hair on his chest. Thousands of others clung to him by their tiny legs, unmoving, save for their wings which beat frantically. They held him midair, the pinions of flight moving so quickly they could barely be seen; rendered nearly imperceptible by the dim moonlight. More of them swarmed around him, held on their orbiting paths as though by the same gravity that spun rings of dust around Saturn.
He raised a swollen hand and waved sheepishly at me before cocking his finger towards the window, to beckon me to him.
He opened his mouth and spoke my last name. It sounded distant and full of static like he was speaking to me through the buzz of a radio signal as that signal fizzled out and died. A small trickle of dark honey dribbled down his chin and I found myself longing to open the window; to let him in and I didn’t know why. It felt dangerous and counterintuitive but I was desperate to do it anyway. At the same time I was used to furtive, secret glances at him–to looking away when all I wanted to do was stare. Something about denying myself the urge broke the spell and I found myself running before he could speak again.
I made it to the hallway and slammed the door behind me. I could still hear him there, as though he were hovering inside my room. Just on the other side of the thin wood of the door.
“Come back, Ham.” He buzzed. “Don’t you remember all those secret nights? Those times I climbed up here to you?”
I began hyperventilating and choking on my quiet sobs.
“There’s no more secrets, Hammond. I don’t have to climb anymore. I’m a part of something bigger. We don’t have to hide from anyone now. Fly with me, Hammy. Join us.”
I opened the door just a crack to look back. He was still there and he was smiling. He smiled the way he smiled at me in the mirror of his car on the day he died. That secret way he smiled. It was only for me. I found myself lost in his eyes and slowly opening the door further but something about those eyes that used to stare back at me so tenderly seemed so sad now. It wasn’t like him… because it wasn’t really him.
I closed the door again and slumped against it. I listened to him calling out to me in that strange voice that could have been his if it weren’t for the mindless buzzing and static that followed with it.
Eventually, I lay in the hallway crying until I fell asleep.
My parents didn’t know about Tank and me, but they knew he was my friend and they loved him too. Everyone loved him. That was part of who he was. He still bled charisma like he always had, only now he was full of holes and bled a poison honey too. His voice was a hypnotic buzz.
I was devastated when my parents were outside with him the next night. I don’t know how he got to them, but somehow something in me knew he would and somehow I wasn’t surprised. The night after that he came with both of our parents–his and mine. Then Kevin and Cassie joined him later and he kept coming back to me at night, each time with more and more of the people he’d taken. They flew outside my window swirling around him like he was a god.
Sometimes I found it hard to resist meeting him downstairs by the front door. We’d spend the night talking through it when he came to visit me. He would say all of the soft, tender and loving things that made me feel vulnerable and swooning and so in love. There were moments when my heart would soar but it always crashed back to the ground, exploding into a thousand jagged shards.
Everything Tank said to me was so endlessly sweet, but it wasn’t Tank saying those words to me but a buzzing made to sound like Tank’s voice. Tank was dead. Tank didn’t say anything anymore. This was something else.
Some wasps do make honey–I looked it up–but there’s a reason we haven’t domesticated them for it. It’s not fit for consumption.
I have read a lot about wasps and these things didn’t follow any of the normal conventions or rules they were supposed to follow. These insects–the normal species–they don’t form hives this size. They die off in the winter. They don’t come out at night. They don’t assimilate drones into their colonies. They don’t have motives like this hive did. I never could get him to tell me what he–what the hive wanted. Was it me? Was it that simple? Did the love Tank have for me in life drive the hive of wasps that killed him to absorb those feelings from him resulting in their continuous pursuit of me? It wasn’t a motive sinister enough and I couldn’t believe it could be that simple, but he just kept bringing more and more people I knew with him as the nights went on.
Until one night. One night when he came to look for me, I was gone. Maybe he tried to come to our old house on Sable Palm Road again and again. I never knew and I haven’t asked. I wouldn’t know who to ask. There’s no one left. Since then I’ve been moving from place to place. I’ve lived this way for years now–over a decade. Actually more than two. Sometimes I can scratch out a little life on the way. Meet new people. Once I even got a job and rented an apartment, but they always seem to find me and Tank brings new people with them–at first it started with every friend I met in my travels, so now I just don’t make friends. That doesn’t stop the hive from growing. They’ll take anyone even people I’ve met briefly in passing throughout the day.
Every time they find me again, I have to go on running.
It’s like living in the wind.
I know it’s time to go again when dusk settles and I hear the droning buzzing sound somewhere in the dark.
Sometimes I drop my guard because I remember my parents. I remember Kevin and Cassie…
I remember Travis, as he was: My Tank.
I remember who they were and not what they’ve become and I wonder: would it be so bad to join them after all?
Sometimes I almost believe that this is what love sounds like.
What does it sound like?
Can you tell me?
Is this the sound of love?