The brownies kicked in as he settled his canoe on the water. It was a cool morning, breaking off from a string of muggy September days, and a mist hung over the glassy river. He checked his watch: 5:13am, thirty minutes until sunrise give or take. You had to add a few minutes for the sun to crest the hillside before you got any direct light.
A smooth step off the dock, and Austin was seated in his canoe, reflection rippling. Rowers — who wouldn’t be showing up down at these docks for another 47 minutes — always talked about how perfect mornings like this were. Austin didn’t agree. He preferred the rainy ones, the colder the droplets the better. When he was high, he liked to feel each sting against his bare skin, liked to watch the wispy hairs on his arms and legs stiffen in protest.
Austin placed his first stroke and the canoe slid out and away from the docks. The flies had been bad last night. Not the biting black ones that swarmed at the end of May, but the angry ones that liked to settle in the back of his brain and give him ideas, thoughts like maggots. Getting high helped, as did canoeing, and when he put them together he usually could shake the flies right off. Last night had been bad though. Really bad.
Austin sunk to a knee, stretched his other foot out in the craft. He leaned forward, arms straight, and buried the paddle blade down to where it tapered to the shaft. Austin pulled back, arms locked out, engaging his core with a slight twist. His muscles, groggy at first, warmed to the motion. The canoe sliced forward, bow bobbing in time with his movements. A slight breeze ruffled his hair.
The brownies released their THC-laden butter, and a numbing fog blanketed his mind. A comfortable burn settled into his abs and shoulders. At the end of each stroke, he rotated his wrists forward to nudge the bow back on course and felt a delightful stretch between his scapulae. When he was sufficiently high, paddling often ceased to feel like exercise, and today he felt he could make it to the ocean without tiring.
There was one fly that truly worried him, one that had spent the night feasting on his grey matter. In the throes of his insomnia, he had put in an application for a job as a dishwasher at the dining hall. A staff polo would do him wonders in gaining access to the walk-in-fridge and those big plastic bags of liquid egg mix.
Austin needed to chase it away. He had eaten an extra half-brownie, upping his normal dose to ensure some quiet. The last time a fly had settled like this, he had wound up cutting into a truck’s brake line. Obviously not a clean slice, that would have been noticed before the vehicle picked up enough speed to do any harm, just a light cut around the entire line and a few perpendicular to that. Hopefully enough damage to cause catastrophic failure when sudden pressure was applied.
That had been his senior year in high school, when the swarm had been growing, thickening, whispering. It had started as nothing more than thoughts about strangling the whiny Boston terrier next door, or cutting off Laura Kane’s wispy ponytail that shed all over his desk. Maybe set it on fire instead, that would cause a little more commotion. Next thing he knew, he was sneaking around some weigh station in the dark, Leatherman in hand.
He had kept an eye on the news, but didn’t see anything about a truck crash. Maybe too much of a cut, and the truck driver noticed before they could get on the highway. Maybe not enough, and the truck was still puttering about the gas-guzzling arteries of America with light tracings around its brake line. The failure crushed Austin, angered him to a state he didn’t know he was capable. And the flies swarmed.
When a light pink bled into the grey sky and the fog began its retreat, Austin turned his boat with a few sweeping strokes and headed back for the docks. He didn’t like being out on the water in the sun. It hurt his eyes, killed his high, and baited the flies back like a steaming shit.
They didn’t seem to care all that much about Austin’s self-preservation. They’d be just as happy if he took a hammer and made a pink ruin of some passerby in the library as they would if he tucked a pipe bomb into his backpack and went up in a white fuzz with his five-hundred-person Introduction to Neuroscience class, or if he watched as a hundred random diners came down with acute ricin poisoning after their breakfast. But Austin wanted to live, wanted to walk the streets freely, and if the flies were going to win, at least he could be judicious with which of them bore their maggots in his brain.
Pulling his canoe out of the water, his mind was focused on liquid egg mix. The fly had left its maggots, his jaw twitching as they burrowed deeper. Austin had the ricin already — previously taken with a poorly construed plan to assassinate the university’s president, he had bought it off Silk Road. He wished now he had eaten the whole second brownie. But a part of him knew that second would lead to a third, would lead to the whole tray. Eventually the flies would get through, and if he couldn’t swat them, he’d need to keep them satisfied with the occasional offering. A small cup of honey, or perhaps some rubbery scrambled eggs.
It wasn’t as if it was something he didn’t want to do.
When he got back to his phone, he saw an email from the dining hall director, asking if he was free later that day for an interview regarding his application.
David Vonderheide is a recent Dartmouth College graduate, working as a raft guide and EMT. You can find his work on davidvonderheidewriting.com.