He never should have bought the turntable. No. May as well say he never should have been born. What he should not have done was buy the re-issue of REM’s Document and leave it sealed and immaculate for four years until self isolation, boredom, and an ironic case of Corona led to an all-night listening party with Ashley.
“Oooh,” she said, slitting the plastic seal with her thumbnail, “It’s End of the World As We Know It! Put it on!”
He did. They danced wildly to it. The first time. The second time the chorus’ defiance began shifting towards poignancy. The third time, they no longer felt fine. Ashley drooped on the couch. He was at the deck, about to lift the tone arm, and what does she say?
“Ryan, if you play it backwards it will be the beginning of the world as we know it. And we’ll feel fine.”
He was drunk, so why not? Why not play the song backwards. Maybe it will cancel out the funk it had put them in. That’s how music works, right? He dropped the needle in the glossy strip that followed the track, and with a finger on the label, not the naked vinyl, spun the record backwards. Michael Stipe gulped down whooshes and wishes, sucked in strident vowels.
It didn’t work. The mood was ruined, the night cratered. He turned off the stereo. In the distance one of the neighbours was playing a trumpet solo, or possibly a French horn solo, of a single note. Their lung capacity was impressive. The note rolled on, subtly and continually building in volume until the windows buzzed. At its peak, nature seemed to chime in, with a crack of thunder Ryan felt through his feet, and Ashley, on the couch, felt the reverberation pass through her body.
“It wasn’t supposed to rain tonight,” she said.
Ashley was awake first. Ryan tried to ignore her wriggling, but she dropped her phone. He couldn’t ignore that. He stuck his head under the pillow and was drifting off when the mattress shifted as she climbed out, nudging him back towards wakefulness.
“There’s a white horse in the bathroom,” she announced.
“Really,” he said from under the pillow. “What’s it doing there?”
“Drinking out of the sink.”
“Hilarious. Let me sleep.”
He did sleep. One of those black stripes through time whose width he couldn’t reckon, but it had to be mere seconds.
“There are three more horses in the living room.”
“Are they white, too? Did I do something wrong last night? Why are you doing this?”
She pulled the pillow off his head. The light, even through his clenched eyes, was painful.
“They’re red, black and yuck. I’m not being mean, I’m being serious.”
He staggered after her to the bathroom. It was a horse. It was white. White like angora rabbit white, if rabbits were illuminated from the inside. She hadn’t mentioned it was wearing a saddle, also white, and all the head trappings.
“Could one of your friends…?” she said, waving at the horse’s flank.
“Maybe Adam? But where would he get a horse from? And such a fancy horse?”
The red horse was crazy. It was like someone took the white horse in the bathroom and dipped it in fluorescent red dye, or each and every hair was a truncated beam of red light.
The black horse you had to look at from the right angle to recognise it was a horse because it swallowed light so profoundly it appeared to always be in silhouette.
The other horse was just, yuck. Hairless. Its grey-green skin sagged and it looked to be lacking teeth.
“This is insane,” said Ryan.
“It is,” agreed Ashley. “Look at what their hooves are doing to the floor.”
“We’re going to have rent a floor sander again. At least they haven’t pooped anywhere.”
A strained, rasping voice spoke from behind them.
“They’re house trained. You two want coffee?”
A tall man stood at the entrance to the kitchen, his head forward, stooping to avoid the ceiling. He was dressed in black, black as the horse, only his bony yellow hands and sunken yellow face discernible.
“You were asleep so we kind of helped ourselves. Pestilence worked out the Nespresso machine. And the frother. He’s pretty excited. We all are. None of us expected to get café quality espresso out of a home appliance.”
The kitchen was cramped with six people in it, four of them eight feet tall.
“So,” said Ryan after the introductions, “this is really the start of the apocalypse?”
“Yeah, but it’s limited to just in here,” said War, making a small circling motion with his forefinger on the table in front of him.
“Just in our house?” said Ashley.
“Because it’s a bit premature,” said Pestilence, slotting another pod of Colombian dark roast into the Nespresso machine. “So we’re treating it as a test run. If your stereo had been louder we might have got the neighbours in.”
“What’s going to happen to us?” said Ashley
“Don’t worry, you’re fine,” said Famine, “but Ryan here is going to be hanging out in Purgatory for a while.”
“But why? Ryan?”
Ryan looked at his feet. He knew why. He was pretty sure he knew why.
“It’s Vegas, isn’t it?” he said to Famine.
“You know it,” said Famine.
He had to look away from Ashley. The way her mouth slowly opened and her eyes widened as it sunk in.
“What did you do at Adam’s bucks weekend?”
“More like what didn’t he do, right guys?” said Famine. Pestilence chuckled. War smiled grimly.
The ringing of tiny bells filled the air, followed by a rising wordless drone, like a syllable, a hum, ongoing and perpetual.
“Oh, crap. It’s Buddha,” said Pestilence. “He’s going to ruin everything.”