A yank of the hand brake and a deft swivel of the steering wheel, and LaShawn brought his truck round to skidding halt on the dirt driveway beside Budgie’s house. He chuckled as he switched the engine off.
Budgie—his last name is Finch, so we call him Budgie—had a four-acre property with a nice little farmhouse. The house originally belonged to Budgie’s grandfather, who used to say it was “civil war period”. It was built in 1937. While Grandpa’s other family members would argue with him, saying you couldn’t call something civil war period if it was in a different country, let alone a different continent, to the civil war, Budgie started reading up on the Spanish Civil War and would ask his grandfather questions about it. His grandfather appreciated it so much that when he died, he left the property to Budgie. It pays to study history.
The house was perfect for a fortieth birthday party—pool table inside, and plenty of room outside to get drunk and be idiots, which was the general theme of every fortieth I had previously attended.
LaShawn and I unloaded the gear from the back of the truck and took it behind the house to Budgie’s shed. The shed used to be a horse stable I think, but Budgie converted it to a workspace. As I stepped inside, carrying a backpack, a large spool of copper wire and a heavily modified electric hair dryer, I saw Budgie had converted the shed once more. A cylindrical contraption the size of a minibus took up the centre of the room. It was made of shiny metal and plastic and had a series of gauges and flashing lights on one side. An old generator in the corner powered the machine and filled the shed with diesel fumes.
“What’s this?” I called to LaShawn over the grumble of the generator.
“Meat smoker,” he said, unloading his share of the gear. “For the brisket. Just put that stuff down there.”
I put down the gear I was carrying. I opened the backpack; inside was a thick plastic bag filled with a grey putty, labelled Carbon Paste Concentrate 251.
“I can take it from here,” said LaShawn, reaching in front of me and closing the backpack.
I looked at the meat smoker, which appeared more like an MRI machine.
“You mean you’re cooking meat in that thing?” I said.
LaShawn looked at the smoker.
“Yep,” he said, with a shrug.
I stepped up to it and examined the gauges.
“How does it work?” I said.
“Well, actually, this is my first time using this kind of, uh, smoker. State of the art. Nils gave me the instructions how to build it. I don’t know all the ins and outs, but it’s supposed to do the job all right.”
I walked around the smoker and thumped it with my fist. It answered with a dull, metallic thud, and then a groan from within.
“How much meat is in there?” I asked.
“A lot,” said LaShawn, staring at the high-tech oven. He took a deep breath. “It’s gonna be a hell of a party.”
We made a couple more trips back to the truck to unload all the gear Nils had provided. On the last trip, LaShawn took a case full of what looked like paintball rifles and pellets, and said, “I’ll take these to the shed and get to work. Why don’t you go inside and get set up in the guest bedroom upstairs? You and Nils are gonna be bunkmates.”
“Okay, whatever,” I said.
(Inwardly, I was thrilled at the idea of sharing a room with Nils. Even though I had only met him an hour ago, and only for a few minutes, I had a good feeling about him. He was the kind of guy I wanted to be around. He was so cool, as if nothing bothered him, and every time he spoke to me I felt good. I imagined we would stay up late and talk, just the two of us, and become great friends.)
“Take that bag with you too, will you?” said LaShawn, nodding toward an old blue gym bag on the back seat.
“What’s this?” I said, taking the bag.
“I thought you said he and Rory were coming later.”
“They are. But he wanted us to bring his bag ahead of him.”
“That’s odd,” I said.
“Hey, listen,” said LaShawn. “With Nils, just… well, just go with the flow all right? He has his own way of doing things.”
LaShawn’s brow knitted and he opened his mouth as if to continue, but then stopped. He just nodded, and then turned and headed toward the shed.
I took Nils’s bag and went inside.
“Hey Budgie!” I yelled.
No one answered.
“Budgie, you here?”
He was not. The house was empty. I walked through the living room, pausing to look at the framed photographs on the wall. There was one I always liked to see—it was a picture I had taken of Budgie, LaShawn and Rory singing karaoke together at Budgie’s bar mitzvah a few years prior. (He has a bar mitzvah every year. He thinks they are like birthdays; no one can convince him otherwise.) They had sung Dream Police by Cheap Trick. Budgie always said Cheap Trick was a near-complete rock band, though he could never explain what he meant by that.
I went to the kitchen for a drink of water. While there, I opened the fridge to see what party snacks were in store for the following night and found what I estimated to be one hundred and sixty half-kilo wedges of Swiss cheese. The fridge was jammed full of them.
Upstairs, I opened the door to the guest bedroom. It was laid out neatly, ready for two occupants. Choosing the bed in the corner for myself, I put Nils’s bag on the bed by the window. As I set it down, the bag opened—the zipper was undone—and a shiny item caught my eye. On top of Nils’s clothes and toiletries laid a bright square book. Its cover was hard and black, yet sleek and strangely radiant. I picked it up. It was remarkably solid, yet light. My fingertips tingled as I ran them over the book’s cover. I opened it and saw line after line of brilliant handwriting. Extraordinary penmanship. A brief perusal revealed the book was a diary. I closed it and put it back in the bag.
I stretched my arms up and twisted my shoulders from one side to the other. The morning’s travelling had left my joints stiff. I looked back into the bag. The book seemed to glisten. I scratched my chin. I picked the book up again and opened it, and then sat down on the bed to read. Now please understand, I’m not the sort of person who would read someone else’s diary. I mean, sure, I suppose in this case I did, but considering the circumstances… The thing is, it was an unusual book, and there are different points of view. That is to say, normally I would never… Oh my. Excuse me a moment.
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