Continued from: Earworm: Part 21—Girlfriend
Hope and Joel stepped into the house. Drunken banter charged the air as teenagers, gripping beer cans—like grenades missing pins—crowded the living room. Some of the teenagers nodded their heads to music. Others nodded their heads as their conversation partners shouted over pounding bass-rifts with slurred words.
“Hope. Joel. Hiii. How are youuu?” Katie Adams squealed.
“Hi, Katie,” Hope said.
Joel rolled his eyes.
“Oh my God. I’m sooo glad that you both caaame,” Katie said, elongating the letters of her words with painfully phony exuberance.
Guard was standing in the dining room. He glanced through the doorway leading into the living room, spotting Joel. “Hey, Fitchy,” Guard called.
“I’ll be right back,” Joel said to Hope.
Katie held her drink before her lips, regarding Joel’s hand on Hope’s arm.
Joel swaggered from the living room to the dining. Katie watched Hope’s gaze lingering on him. “So, Hoooope, are you and Joel together now?” Katie said.
“It looks that way,” Hope said.
“Wow, it’s been like soooooo long that everyone was waiting for you two to get together. We were beginning to wonder if he was gayyy.”
“Anyone that kisses like he does can’t be gay,” Hope said.
“Well, of course there was Tara.” Katie regarded Hope over her drink again.
“Huh?”Hope said. “Tara?”
“Yeah, you know, Tara Larson. Joel and she… oops, I don’t think anyone’s supposed to know about that.”
A crash of glass came from the kitchen. “Katie?” someone called.
Katie rolled her eyes. “Looks like someone broke another glass. The perils of throwing a party,” she said before disappearing into the kitchen. Hope watched her go. She then regarded the people wandering about the party, trying to make sense of what Katie had just told her. What was this about Joel and Tara?
“Hey, I got you a beer… What’s wrong?” Joel said, handing Hope a beer.
“Yeah, I’m fine.”
“Hey, they’re playing Beer Pong in the other room. Wanna go watch?”
“Okay,”Hope said, following Joel into Katie’s dining room. They worked their way into a small crowd gathered around the dining room table. At the ends of the table were players tossing ping pong balls into plastic cups with hollow splashes.“Drink, Brad.” “Drink, Suzanne.” “Drink, Guard.” The word drink was a mantra. Splash. The ball launching form a hand, floating, and settling into a cup. Splash. “Drink.” “Drink.” Each person did what they were told, in turn, tossing the ball and chugging beers. The gathered crowd nodded approval. Some sat on countertops and leaned against cabinets. They talked in confused banter like color-commentators of the mundane. Girls waited in line for the bathroom. Boys signed their names with urine on the backyard fence.
“Did anyone see that new kid at the game today?” Brad Stanley said, focusing on the cup on the other side of the table and tossing a ball. He missed. The others standing around the room nodded and snorted as Brad groaned over his miss. He then said,“What’s that kid’s name?”
“William-something,”Guard said. “He’s in my gym class.”
“Jimmy Ringwald spit Coke in his face,” Steven Ward said. The people around the room snickered. Hope paused from her sip of beer, her stomach twisting.
“What was he even doing at the game?” Suzanne Myers said.
“Watching football, maybe?” Guard said, sticking his tongue between his teeth and aiming the ping pong ball at a cup.
“Geeks don’t watch football,” Steve said.
“Then what were you doing there?” Guard said.
“You can drink for that,” Guard said, shooting the ball into a cup.
“I hate when losers try to fit in,” Suzanne scoffed.
Hope tugged on Joel’s sleeve. Joel turned to her. “Hey. You need another beer?”
“No. I think I’m just going to hang out in the other room.”
“You sure you’re all right?”
Someone said, “I heard that William kid got kicked out of his last school for jerkin off in the girl’s room.”
“I’m fine,” Hope said.
“All right, then. You want me to come with you?”
“You hang out with Guard, I’ll be fine.” Hope wandered from the table. Joel watched her go.
Later that night, as Jimmy Ringwald’s sleeping body twisted, his eyes fluttering in REM, a name spoke into his mind.
He knew that name.
It was that new kid, the loser he spit Coke at while at the football game. He pictured the incident in his mind—the kid wiping soda from his cheek, the laughter of other kids around him.
The dream Jimmy was twisted and broke apart as an odd sensation crept into his thoughts—his brain feeling like a balloon filling with air. Next thing he knew, he was in the school gymnasium. The gym was empty. Empty and oddly dark. The wood floor was a sea of shadows, the walls a distant horizon.
“Hello?” Jimmy called, but the only answer to his echoing voice was a sound like shuffling cards.
He looked up to the ceiling, the apparent source of the sound, but he saw only shadows.
“Hello?” he called.
Again, the only answer was the shuffling sound above him. But this time, a shadow rippled across the ceiling.
Something dropped to the floor in front of him. Jimmy stepped toward what looked like a baseball glove.
“What the…?” he repeated.
Upon closer inspection, Jimmy found it was a bat—the dirty, rabies-carrying creatures that frightened him as a kid. He hated the way they swooped unnaturally above him in the summer sky, and now his skin crawled as the thing on the gym’s floor looked up at him with its beady eyes and pig nose. Jimmy stepped away from it, unable to take his eyes from the foul creature.
The card shuffling echoed above him, and looking up, he saw that the rippling movement in the shadows was the shifting of thousands of bats. Jimmy screamed and, trying to back away, he stumbled to the floor.
The bats dropped from the ceiling and swarmed upon him. He scrambled to his feet, wings beating at him, the creatures squeaking in his ears. He waved his arms, making his way to the gym’s entrance. He fought through the door, pushing it shut, sealing the horror within the gym. He let out a deep breath and turned around.
William Knight was standing there.
“Jesus Christ,” Jimmy said to William, “Don’t go in there, it’s full of bats.”
“It’s better than what I’ve got for you,” William said. He held up a cup. It was the same type of wax cups they sold sodas in at the football game. Only, printed on this cup, instead of a Coka-Cola insignia cutting through a field of red, there were these words: “Enjoy HCl.” Jimmy recognized the letters from his chemistry class, as only a few days ago his teacher explained what the chemical did to human flesh, and Jimmy thought about just how horrible a fate that would be, to…
“Wait, don’t…” Jimmy said as William took the straw from the cup’s lid.
“Payback’s a bitch.” William said. He put one end of the straw in his mouth and spurt something into Jimmy’s face.
The burn was immediate. Jimmy smelled the chemical stench and heard the hissing of his skin peeling from his face. He screamed, stumbling backward, groping through the blindness of his melting eyes. He found a door’s handle and, pulling it open, a wave of squeals and beating leather wings was upon him.
Jimmy Ringwald sat up in his bed, waving at the phantom creatures in the dark and screaming from his seemingly burning face.
Continued in: Earworm: Part 23 — Finding Hope