Just after college I got a job in a warehouse. I call it a warehouse, but it was really just a barn on a rich old man’s property. The old man and his son ran a business on the second floor of the barn, shipping makeup supplies all over the country.
Besides the old man and his son, there was only one other guy working there with me. His name was Wes. He was twenty-two, and he’d worked there for over five years.
Halfway through my first day of work, Wes led me into a tiny storage room and closed the door. Then he reached into a cardboard box and handed me a brand-new box cutter sealed in crinkling plastic.
“Happy birthday, Sean,” he said, grinning at me, his rotten teeth rounded into little brown nubs.
It wasn’t my birthday, but I knew what he meant.
Two weeks later, on a slow February morning, Wes reached into his pocket and showed me something that looked like a small sheet of thick, white paper. From what I could see, the paper was divided into a grid of one-inch blocks, like a book of stamps from the post office.
Wes grinned and asked me if I wanted some.
“What is it?” I said.
Wes grinned again, and then stepped up beside me and put his lips to my ear.
“It’s acid,” he said. “You want some?”
“Like LSD, you mean?”
He nodded, grinned again.
“You want some?” He asked.
“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” I said, “We’re on the clock until five.”
He looked at me for a long while and then shook his head.
“God, you’re boring,” he said, slipping the blotting paper back into his pocket, “No wonder the old man likes you so much.”
Now, he walked to the window and looked out over the snow-smothered lawn. A minute later he turned back to me and glanced down at his pocket. “Do you dare me to eat the whole thing?”
“No,” I said. “That would be incredibly stupid, even for you.”
“Will you give me a hundred dollars if I eat the whole thing?”
“I won’t give you shit, so don’t do it.”
He looked down at his boots.
“How ’bout ten? Will you give me ten if I do it?”
“I’m not going to give you anything, Wes. And if you do take it, I’m going to tell the old man exactly what you did. So don’t even think about it, dumbass.”
He stared at me for a long time and then nodded.
“You’re a good friend, Sean. I hope you’ll keep working here for a while. No one they hire ever lasts very long.”
A few minutes later Wes went to the bathroom in the old man’s house across the lawn. That was the only bathroom on site, and we were only allowed to use it a few times a day, so the bosses never said anything if one of us disappeared for a while to take a shit.
An hour later Wes finally came back to the barn. His face was as red as a baboon’s ass, and his entire head was drenched in sweat.
“You fucking idiot,” I said. “How much of it did you take?”
He smiled a huge, strange, intoxicated smile and reached into his pocket and showed me his empty hand.
“You fucking idiot,” I said. Now I looked around to make sure the old man and his son weren’t watching us. Once I saw that they were busy in their offices, phones pressed to ears, I sat Wes down at the computer.
“Just sit here and pretend you’re working,” I said, placing his dripping hand on the mouse. “I’ll take care of any orders that come in.”
He looked up at me like an infant. His eyes were black. The pupils were so huge, there was almost no white space left in either eye.
Seconds later he flew out of his chair, did fifty pushups in a minute, and flopped down in his chair again. Sweat scudded down his steaming face.
“You’re a good friend, Sean,” he said, breathing hard. “I love you so much. Am I going to die?”
“Okay buddy,” I said, unsure of what else to say. “Just take it easy.”
“I’m really scared, Sean, I think I’m going to die. I know I’m a piece of shit, but I don’t want to die.”
Just then a new order came in, so I grabbed the order sheet off the printer and looked around. The bosses were still in their offices, working.
“You’re not going to die. Just put your sunglasses on and keep your mouth shut until it’s over,” I said. Then I grabbed three bottles of water from the open case under the desk and pressed one into his hands. “And you need to drink these. You should try to finish these three at least.”
He took the bottle and guzzled the whole thing in one go. Then he grabbed my hand and squeezed hard.
“It’s not just the acid Sean, I swear. I really do love you,” he said.
“You’re my best friend in the world.”
“Okay buddy,” I said, patting him on the shoulder, “Just relax.”
A few hours later Wes finally came out of it. That evening, we walked out to our cars together just like any other day, but this time we didn’t talk much. I didn’t really know what to say.
I quit the job a week later. I texted the old man’s son and told him I’d found a better job somewhere else, but that was a lie. For the rest of that day I thought about calling up Wes to say goodbye, but I couldn’t find the right words, so I never did.
Two weeks later, while browsing the job ads in the paper, I saw an article about a local man who’d nearly killed himself while driving under the influence. It was Wes. According to the article, Wes had rammed his truck into an elm tree at high speed and was in critical condition at Topine General. For the next few weeks, I scoured the web and the local papers for any updates on Wes’s condition, but I didn’t find anything.
My son Garrett was born two years later. He was just over nine months old the night I found Wes’s obituary in the paper. That night my girlfriend Tammy was working an eight to eight at the hospital, and Garrett was sick with a sour stomach, so it was just me and my son on the couch in our dark apartment.
Around two in the morning Garrett started to spit up again. Since we were out of puke bags, I grabbed the nearest object that could sop up the mess, and that happened to be yesterday’s newspaper.
Only a few pages in the middle of the paper survived. It was there that I found Wes’s obituary. The moment I read his name, my eyes started to burn. The obituary didn’t list a cause of death or any next of kin. Wes was twenty-five when he died.
Now I placed the remains of the paper beside me and looked down at my son. A thin layer of sweat glazed his red cheeks, and a foamy smear of formula clung to his tiny lip. For the next few minutes he looked up at me with his huge, wet, infant eyes, eyes nearly identical to Wes’s on the day he had taken the acid. Seeing this, I wondered whether Wes would still be alive if I had acted differently back then. Would we have become real friends if I had called him the day I quit working at the barn? If so, would I have been sitting in the passenger seat of his truck on the night he crashed? Would I have been able to grab the steering wheel and swerve him away from the dangerous path he was on?
With all this in mind, I dabbed the foul-smelling milk from my son’s lip. Then I leaned over and gently kissed him on the forehead.
“I love you,” I said.
I repeated the words a few more times. I promised myself I would say the words until he understood, until he knew without question that they were true.