Warning: contains bad language.
“It’s all about dissolving yourself, y’know, man?” said Peter, looking into my eyes intently. “It’s about… y’know… finding the truth, y’know?”
I nodded sagely, having not the faintest idea what he was on about. I didn’t want Peter to know that I thought he was sort of talking rubbish. He was my friend. Hell, he was one of my best friends, and he was a lot of fun to be around. We did a lot of crazy shit together. Case in point. Our escapades always made for a hilarious story afterward.
I was lying down on a red beanbag. Peter was sat cross-legged in his swivel office chair. His chair and his desk and his high-tech computer might give someone the idea that Peter liked a good workspace, but that wasn’t true. When he wasn’t out partying, he was either smoking joints, looking up farfetched videos on the internet, or playing games.
“And it’s perfectly safe!” he added quickly, as though the thought would stray cross my mind and put me off the whole thing entirely. “Did you know,” he said, leaning in closer, eyes wide, “that the human brain actually makes this stuff? It’s what makes us dream! The government…”
I zoned out. Peter was always on about the government and the man and what they don’t want you to know. His ideas were… out there, to say the least. I didn’t buy into any of it, but it sure made for some interesting conversations and debates.
Jerry was sat on the bed, cross-legged, examining the small plastic bag containing an off-white powder. He looked like how I felt. Nervous and excited. Curious. New experiences were what we craved. The idea that we were about to tiptoe up to the precipice of the human mind was really fucking cool and really fucking scary at the same time.
I looked over at Thom. He was standing in the doorway. His face was pale. He looked more worried than anything else. It made sense, though, Thom was a worrier. He was like the mother of the group. Always reminding us to clean up when we cooked, and to wear a jacket when we went out. It got annoying at times, but he was a good dude.
“So, how do we take it?” I asked, cutting Peter off gently.
“Aha!” Peter smiled mischievously. He pulled out what had once been a Coca Cola bottle. The bottom had been cut off. “Hey, Jerry?” he asked, opening his hands. Jerry tossed him the baggie, which he caught deftly. Peter opened the bag and poured it out onto his cluttered desk; a small space had been cleared next to the keyboard and a stack of books. The novel on the top was titled Meeting God. It appeared to be about Hinduism.
“Hang on a sec,” he said, as he rummaged around in his pocket and pulled out his wallet. He flicked through it until he found a card. “This ought to do.” Peter then began to chop up the powder into four piles. They looked to be even sized, more or less.
Peter then pulled open a draw on his desk, and span around on his office chair. He was brandishing a roll of kitchen foil. I glanced over at Jerry who mouthed the words, “What the fuck?” at me. I shook my head and shrugged. This was all Peter’s territory, I hadn’t a clue what I was doing. I looked up at Thom, but he seemed to be on the verge of hyperventilating. I thought it best to just leave him to it, he didn’t like to be the center of attention.
“So,” began Peter with a grin. “Who wants to go first?”
“Huh?” Jerry looked at me, then back to Peter. “Why not all go together? That’s the way we normally do it.”
“We normally are just smoking, man. This stuff… this stuff we wanna keep someone back here on earth, y’know? While the others go off exploring the universe.” He looked at us all. “Y’know, just to be… sure?”
I nodded. It made sense. When it came to this sort of thing, it was good to do it in your own home, surrounded by mates. It was also a good idea to keep someone sober.
“Something could go wrong?” asked Thom. His voice was shaky, and it was the first thing he had said in almost ten minutes.
Peter smiled at him. He had such a warm, reassuring smile. It had a disarming effect. “No, Thom, don’t worry. I just want to be sensible, right? We’re not idiots, here. If we’re gonna do something, we’re gonna do it properly and safely.” He smiled again.
“Right…” said Thom. His face still looked pallid and was now a bit sweaty.
“So, who first?” asked Peter again. “And who should stand watch?”
“Why don’t we do it in pairs?” said Jerry. “So that the ones not tripping aren’t bored out of their mind?”
Peter shrugged. “Sure, I guess, but you’re not gonna be able to talk, you know, right? It might… mess with the ones tripping. So, we might as well just leave one person, and then let them have their dose after.”
“Might be more fun for them to have a friend to trip with, though?”
“Fair point,” said Peter with a nod. “Might be a better experience than them doing it on their own. But I don’t mind either way. So, who first?”
I swallowed a mouthful of saliva and took the plunge. It was like jumping into a pool of cold water, the worst bit was the build-up. “I will,” I said, trying to sound cool and calm.
Peter laughed and clapped me on the back. “My man, Steve! Balls big as melons!”
“Should probably see a doctor for that,” quipped Jerry with a smirk. That made Peter laugh. Thom also let out a chuckle.
“Who else?” he asked, looking from Thom to Jerry.
Thom immediately shook his head and put his hands up. “Nah, man. I’ll go second, if that’s all right, pal?”
Peter smiled his winning smile. “Yeah, sure man, no pressure, y’know? Take it easy, relax, go at your own pace, right?”
“Yeah, right.” Thom offered a smile. He looked a little relieved.
“I’m easy man. Can go now. Can go later. What do you fancy?”
“Well, this was your idea, and you actually got the stuff, so I feel like you should get to experience it first.”
“Fair enough, man,” said Peter easily. He swivelled around and got to work. Watching him do his thing was almost an art form. He could roll a joint like it was nothing. I had tried before, but I just fucked it up. The papers didn’t stick properly, and the stuff spilled all over my lap.
Peter neatly cut off two square pieces of aluminium foil. He looked at me from the corner of his eye. “I’ll prep yours first, then you’ll go. I’ll prep mine after you’ve taken the hit, and I’ll join you in exploring the cosmos in a couple of minutes. Sound good?”
“Sounds good, man.”
He took the Coke bottle with the bottom removed and placed it onto one of the foil squares. Peter then folded up the edges of the square up and around the sides of the bottle, crinkling it as he did so. “Oughtta do,” he said, mumbling to himself.
“Wait, wait, wait… you’re going to put the powder on the foil and then light it from beneath?” asked Jerry. “That’s not safe, man. Aluminium oxide is pretty fucking dangerous!”
“Relax, dude. I know it’s nasty, but it’ll be fine.”
I looked from Jerry to Peter. “Y’sure?”
Jerry raised his hands and exhaled. “All right,” he said, “go ahead.”
Peter removed the foil from the bottle. Using his plastic debit card, he carefully scooped one of the powder piles from the desk into the center of the foil square with the rounded-up edges. Then, gently, he placed the foil back at the bottom of the bottle. I could see the powder through the clear sides of the bottle. It looked alien.
“Hey, Steve. Pass me one o’ them elastic bands, would you man?” He jutted his chin towards a multicoloured pile. I grabbed one. “All right, now I need you to tie this off for me, so that the foil doesn’t drop, and we lose our precious, precious drugs.” I chuckled and did as I was asked.
“All right, buddy! Ready to go?”
I nodded meekly.
“Okay then. You’re going to drop like a rock, but don’t worry, we’ll all be here to catch you and lie you down, ‘kay?”
“Sure, man.” My voice sounded weak and thin.
Peter twisted the bottle cap, then he glanced up at me. “Need to make sure it’s tight, y’know? Don’t want any of our fumes escaping. Oh, and try not to disturb the foil either, for the same reasons. Now, when I burn it, the bottle is gonna fill with smoke. I’m gonna keep burning it until I think it’s all gone. Then, I’ll pass you the bottle. You exhale as far as you can go, open the lid and quickly put the bottle opening in your mouth.”
“And then what?”
“And then you inhale.”
“For how long?”
“Until you can’t.”
“All right, then…” I managed.
Peter pulled a lighter out of his pocket. He always had one handy. And then he started lighting the foil holding the powder. “This should vaporise the powder.”
“Just try not to burn the foil too much, okay?” added Jerry.
The bottle quickly filled with a yellow-brown cloud.
Peter shut the lighter off. He was smiling. “Are you ready to serve your country, astronaut?” he asked, in an official voice.
I saluted him. “Sir!”
He handed me the bottle. “Remember, exhale, then inhale as much as you can.” Peter then winked. “Safe trip, dude. See you out there in five.”
I took the bottle from him and gazed at the swirling fumes inside. “A nebula in a bottle…” I exhaled as far as my lungs would allow, unscrewed the cap, and breathed in whatever was inside.
And then the world disintegrated.
Geometric shapes exploded into my vision. I kept breathing in and breathing in and breathing in. The taste was indescribable. The shapes twisted and turned and grew and folded into one another, in a lattice that swirled and span before my very eyes. Far away, off in the distance, I was dimly aware of someone taking the bottle away from me and gently lying me down against the beanbag.
I stared up at the ceiling. The lightbulb hanging there twisted and morphed and mutated in beautiful ways.
And then I was in space. Looking down at earth. A beam of light was shining through the core.
I heard a whooshing sound coming from my right. I span around easily. I was agile, elegant, pure. I saw a spaceship – the cheesy flying saucer-shape from the movies of the 50s – flying past me. In the window was an alien, waving with one hand, pointing a laser gun at me in the other.
The alien fired the pistol. Pa-chew! It sounded funny. I laughed. And then the laser hit me, and I exploded in a cloud of flower petals.
I reappeared next to the sun. I was orbiting it. Or was it orbiting me?
“IT’S ALL THE SAME,” came a booming voice from nowhere and everywhere. “IT’S ALL THE SAME.”
I was hot. So hot. The sun was getting closer. “Is this—” I cleared my throat. “Is this okay?” I asked the universe.
“JUST LET GO,” came the response.
And so, I did.
I did not fight as I plunged into the liquid surface of the sun. My body did not burn; it dissolved. I know because I watched it from a distance.
I was nothing and I was everything. Floating in space. I was the universe, and the universe was me. All was as it should be. Even though I no longer had a physical body (and thus, no face), I smiled. The expression felt good.
But what now?
I asked the universe. “What now?”
“WHATEVER YOU CHOOSE. WE ARE ALL FREE TO CHOOSE.”
“I’d like to go back, I think.”
“YOU WOULD RATHER GO BACK, THAN LIVE FOR ETERNITY HERE WITH ME? WE CAN WATCH UNIVERSES BEING BORN. WE CAN WATCH GALAXIES CRUMBLE WITH AGE AND WINK OUT OF EXISTENCE. WE CAN OBSERVE THE SPARK OF LIFE TAKING HOLD. ARE YOU SURE YOU WANT TO GO BACK?”
“Yeah, kinda,” I said with a nonchalant shrug.
A sound I recognised very well echoed through time and space. It was the excited beep of an arcade machine. “Please insert coin to play again.” This voice was different. It was decidedly female.
I looked around but could see no coins out here. I patted my pockets to check if I had any, and then I laughed. I was the coin. I was round and gold and huge and perfect. “Of course!” I cried. “I am the coin!”
“Please insert coin to play again,” repeated the voice. A massive coin slot appeared before me. It was big enough to swallow planets. The slot was as dark as oblivion.
I put the coin in the slot, and let the penny drop.
I fell into nothingness.
I landed on nothing. Before me were three doors. They were normal, wooden doors with round knobs made of brass. The handles were glowing. Beams of light were shooting out of every crack between the doors and their surrounding frames.
“Uh, which one to get back?” I asked, slightly nervous.
“THE FIRST,” said the universe, “RETURNS YOU TO YOUR PREVIOUS LIFE.”
“I see,” said I, with a nod.
“THE SECOND GIVES YOU A NEW LIFE, SHOULD YOU SO WISH. YOU MAY START AGAIN.”
“AND THE THIRD, ALLOWS YOU TO START AGAIN, BUT WITH ALL OF THE KNOWLEDGE YOU POSSESS NOW.”
“Ah, sort of like a new game plus?”
I examined the doors. And thought for eternity. After a split-second of thinking, I came to my decision. “Best not be greedy,” I said to nobody in particular. Then I opened the first door. It was an easy choice.
When I came to, the world felt fresh and crisp. Jerry and Thom were watching me intently.
“How… how was it, man?”
I smiled and nodded. There was nothing I could say that would answer their questions. I shrugged.
“Try it,” I said.
I glanced over at Peter. He was still out of it. I wondered, would he come back, or would he stay out there? Watching for all of eternity? Watching as all life – including my own – eventually got snuffed out? Or would he come back, as I had done?
I smiled. It did not matter. The choice was his. “We all have a choice,” I said quietly.
“Man, are you sure you’re okay?” Thom was eyeing me suspiciously. He looked concerned. “You seem… different.”
“All is well. All is as it should be.” I smiled at them. They exchanged a frown.
And then I left the room. I needed to see. Perspective was everything.
The cold air hit me. I welcomed it. “Hello there,” I said, as the breeze ruffled my hair. I couldn’t stop smiling. I stepped outside and looked up at the night sky.
I had been there. And now I was here. I was everything and nothing. Was Peter up there now, also everything and nothing?
The universe smiled back.
25th January 2019
Written for Reedsy’s weekly Short Story Contest