The first time Chris saw the thing in his living room, he screeched “Holy fuck” and dove for the back of the couch. It was shimmering and formless, coalescing gently in the corner above the benighted fern his mom had forced on him, and Chris was fucked up but he never hallucinated that much, even at the best of times. It was a great disappointment, generally.
After a few minutes he crawled back out. Not much space behind his couch, and his knees couldn’t take the scrunched up position. Also, he had to pee. One had to have priorities, and the thing didn’t seem to be, like, growling or anything. He grabbed a pillow from the couch for protection, snorting at himself.
It was still there. Chris yelped again, a reflex, but it was beautiful, all changing colors and swirling around up near the ceiling. He could just make out the white of the stucco through its periphery. He edged a little closer. Something was in there.
Chris tore out of the living room, digging his cell phone out of his jeans with a shaking hand.
“Tell me you’re not shrooming again.”
“Joey, no way!” Chris whispered into the cell phone. “Only a little drunk. And, you know, high. But I swear to god, Joey! I swear to god.”
“Chris.” Joey sighed. Chris could hear voices in the background, little kid voices, and he felt a brief twinge of guilt. But the guilt faded at the thought of the… whatever, the thing, in his living room.
“Joey, you have to get over here,” he said. Joey sighed again.
“I’ll be over in an hour. Chris, if you’re fucking with me because you’re lonely or some shit.”
“I’m not,” he said, and Joey hung up.
Asshole. But hopefully it’d be less than an hour. Chris pulled a beer from the fridge, then sat on the floor in the kitchen, behind the counter. Hopefully the whatever-it-was would growl a little bit after all, before it came down the hall looking for him.
Chris yanked Joey through the front door by his shirt and slammed the door after a brief glance around the yard.
“Hey, Chris,” Joey said.
“Shhh,” Chris said, looking toward the living room. “Come on.”
He dragged Joey to the kitchen. His beer was almost empty. Joey looked around the kitchen with open curiosity.
“I don’t see anything,” he said.
“Not here,” Chris said scornfully, rummaging through the fridge. “The living room. I told you.”
“Of course,” Joey said. “Dude, you sound like Justin right now.”
“Shut up,” Chris said. “Take this beer. Come on. Come on.”
“Bossy like him, too.”
Joey took the beer and followed, and he stopped talking, thank god. But when he saw the thing in the corner he said “Holy fuck” and dropped the beer bottle, gripping Chris’s shoulder hard.
“That’s what I said,” Chris whispered, edging around the growing puddle of beer to sneak into the living room.
Joey freaked out, of course.
“No,” he said, dropping into a crouch and shaking his head. “No, nuh-uh. No way. What is that?”
“How should I know?”
The thing was bigger. It was starting to… it had a structure, kind of, and the something Chris had seen in its depths was closer, almost clear. It was like looking through a window, or into a mirror in the dark. The thought of that put a chill right up Chris’s back.
“Joey…” he started, but Joey interrupted.
“No,” he said again, his voice rising. “No fucking way, Chris.” His eyes were round and accusing.
Chris hissed at him. “Dude! Whatever! Why are you yelling at me?”
But Joey wasn’t looking at him anymore. He was staring openmouthed at the thing, and after a minute he jumped to his feet, a shocking explosion of movement, and grabbed Chris’s arm.
“Dude, did you see that?”
And he was out of there, racing down the hall, hell-bent for the front door. Chris followed close behind him, heart pounding in his chest.
He spent that night at a hotel, despite Joey’s pleas for him to stay over.
“We need to stick together, dude. We need to, what if it. Oh, man, Chris.”
Joey was even more scared than he was. No good could come of them hanging out, egging each other on. So, the hotel, and after a few hours with the minibar, he called Lance.
“You have to get down here, Bass. I need your wily brain.”
“You need a brain, all right,” Lance said, his voice rough and drowsy and comforting. “Are you not sleeping again?”
Chris looked at the digital clock on the cheap nightstand. Almost dawn.
“Did you just get to bed, Bass? ‘Cause I know, with the constant partying and all…”
Lance sighed. “Chris. What’s going on.”
Chris opened his mouth, but for once, nothing would come out.
“Lance,” he said at last.
“Chris,” Lance said.
“Chris,” Lance said again. “Are you in some kind of trouble?”
“Oh, boy,” Chris said, surprised into a little laugh. “I’m not really sure. Could you, can you just get down here? I need you, Lance.”
“Why didn’t you just say so?” he said at last. Chris made an irritated, resigned noise.
“I’ll get a flight out as soon as I can, Chris. Okay? Chris?”
“Hurry, Bass,” Chris whispered, and hung up. He felt like a drama queen, truth be told, but Lance had sounded so… no thing in his living room stood a chance, with Lance on the case.
Chris’s house looked the same as always, sparkling in the afternoon light, impeccably kept up through no fault of his own. Chris couldn’t make himself get out of the car, even when the dogs started howling and pawing at the windows hysterically.
“So, Lance,” he said, turning and planting his forearm on the steering wheel. “How’ve you been?”
Lance rolled his eyes and opened his door, and he and the dogs piled out. Chris had no choice but to follow. But when he got into the house, Lance was nowhere to be seen.
He was in the living room, of course. Chris felt the hair on the back of his neck stand up as he crept into the room, quiet as a mouse. The thing shimmered a little and sent a tendril out across the ceiling.
“Oh, my god, that is so cool!”
“What!!” Chris yelled, then hurled himself behind the couch, just in case.
“Shhh,” he added, peeking around a couch cushion. Lance looked at him, colorful shadows playing across his face.
“Lord, Chris. Now I understand.”
“You do?” Chris dropped back down to the floor and hugged his knees. “Oh, thank god.”
He could hear Lance moving around the living room. Stupid, fearless Lance. It was Chris’s fault for calling him. He knew Lance better than that.
“Careful, Lance,” he said into his knees.
Lance snorted, but he said nothing more, and after a few minutes of silence Chris had to peek again. Lance was on his tippy-toes, reaching for the heart of the thing.
Lance ignored him, stretching, his hand bathed in yellow and blue.
“Lance, Lance, fuck!”
Lance’s hand was dissolving into the flow of light. Lance would be sucked up and he would disappear, forever.
“Oh god Lance please stop!”
Lance came down off his toes.
“What,” he said, turning around. “Jeez. I won’t break it.”
“What?” Chris said.
Lance picked up the fern to look beneath it, showering dead fronds across the tiled floor. “I can’t find the holoprojector anywhere. Is that what this is?”
Chris slid out from behind the couch gingerly. “I… what?” he said again.
Lance set the fern back on its stand and wiped his hands on his pants. “You should get bored more often, Chris. This is phenomenal.”
“I’m not bored,” Chris said automatically.
“Right,” Lance said, smiling. “Is it some kind of smoke generator? Did Justin help you with this?”
“Fuck off, Bass,” Chris said. The thing imploded, then expanded again like a flower, blooming across his ceiling. Maybe it was time for a drink. He turned his back, wondering if he was being stupid, but Lance followed him into the kitchen and nothing growled at all.
Chris was lying in his hotel room in the dark, trying to think it all over but sadly out of practice, when he heard JC’s shave-and-a-haircut-with-flourishes. He heaved himself out of bed and opened the door. JC frowned at him.
“Oh, hi, JC,” Chris said, stepping back to let him in. “Glad you could make it.”
“What the fuck, Chris,” JC said, pulling off his sunglasses. “Seven messages on my phone?”
Chris shrugged. “Yeah, well. It’s complicated. Want a cocktail?”
“Always,” JC said, and flopped down on one of the beds.
JC was pretty crabby when they got to Chris’s place the next day, hungover and not at all into it.
“This better be worth it,” he said, rubbing his thumb across his forehead. Chris slapped him on the shoulder, hard.
“Shut your yap, JC,” he said. “You’ll see.”
JC ducked away, and Chris could hear muttering behind him as he led the way, rude words, but nothing actionable. JC knew what to expect. Chris and he had boozed long into the night, talking it over, and JC had been excited about coming, the freak.
In the doorway to the living room, Chris searched himself for fear. None. No jumpy stomach, no sweaty hands, no need to fit himself into tiny spaces behind furniture. Just waiting, somehow. Just exhaustion and exasperation. Everything with an “ex.”
“Wow,” JC said. “Wow. Wow. Oh, man, Chris. Wow.”
“Yeah,” Chris said, nodding.
“It’s, wow. Justin must have loved this.”
Chris said nothing. JC looked at him keenly.
“Oh. Chris, wow.”
“Shut up, JC,” Chris said without heat.
“I know,” JC said. “Listen, I’m going to. I just want to look at it for a minute, okay?”
“Knock yourself out,” Chris said, but JC was already gone, lost in his head, gazing raptly at the ceiling. Chris looked up, too. The thing was gorgeous as always, tentacles of light probing the corners of the room.
At some point JC left the living room. He must have. When Chris blinked and looked around, he was gone.
Chris spent the next few days keeping an eye on the thing, sitting in the hall outside the living room, watching it run through its cycles. It made sense, sort of. So familiar. The way the colors blended, the way the shapes came together inside… it was mesmerizing. Sometimes he’d shake his head and realize time had gone by, and the thing would still for a second, flickering around the edges, and then jump around the room again like the northern lights, animated.
Justin finally showed up late one afternoon. When Chris opened the door he was facing away, in profile, dark glasses on a serious face.
“Justin,” Chris said. Justin turned and a smile bloomed across his face.
“I heard you have a thing,” he said.
“You know it, baby,” Chris said, grimacing. “Come on in.”
He held open the door and Justin slouched in to greet the dogs.
“So, you’re back,” Chris said, then winced.
“From outer space,” Justin said. “Although it sounds like you have that angle covered pretty well, here.”
“Yeah,” Chris said. He turned around. Definitely time for the fridge.
“Who called you?” Chris crossed his arms and scowled, leaning against the kitchen counter.
“You mean, besides you?”
Chris made an abrupt winding motion, and Justin smiled.
“Who didn’t?” he said. “Chris, you’re being an ass.”
“I’m being an ass?”
Justin opened the fridge and peered in. “You’re not being an ass?”
“Are you going to answer every question with a question?”
“Is that a problem for you?”
Chris started to walk away, but he turned back on an impulse.
“How does my having some freaky paranormal thing in my living room make me an ass?”
Justin carefully put his bottle top into the overflowing garbage by Chris’s back door, and headed down the hall, away from Chris. Nothing new there.
When Chris finally made it to the living room, the thing was in its glory, tangled limbs turning in the air, but Justin was looking at him.
“You should have called,” Justin said.
Chris shrugged. “Yeah, well.”
“You should have,” Justin said. “I would have come. You know that.”
“Right,” Chris said.
Justin’s eyebrows lowered, pulling toward the bridge of his nose. “I see your ability to drive me bugfuck insane hasn’t changed any,” he said, biting his lip. “Goddammit, Chris.”
Chris sat down heavily on the couch. He could think of nothing to say. There were no more words in his brain. Justin made a noise like a train letting off steam, and after a minute he settled on the couch, too.
“Everything’s fine, Justin,” Chris said suddenly.
Justin didn’t respond for a long time.
“Is it?” he said finally. “Good. Wish I could say the same.”
Chris turned his head. Justin met his gaze, and there was something in his eyes Chris hadn’t expected to see again.
Justin stared at the thing for awhile, slumped into the couch cushions. At last he spoke, his voice quiet and open and uncertain, and Chris came back to awareness with a start.
“Most people have, like, fountains or statues in their living room.”
“I know, right? It’s a conversation piece.”
“But. What are you going to do about it?”
Justin was watching him, hanging on his every word, just like the old days. Justin had faith that he would know the right thing to do. It was so weird. Chris shrugged.
“Nothing, I guess,” he said, and Justin nodded.
“It’s pretty,” he said, leaning against Chris, shoulder against his shoulder on the couch. The thing swam through bands of shadow in the bright room, everything inside dancing, exploding, whirling.
“Yeah, it is,” Chris said, surprised, although he wasn’t sure why. He had thought it beautiful all along, had told JC the same thing. But Justin saying so, staring at him as he did, meant something completely different.
“Really nothing? Are you sure?” Justin was staring at the thing, now, instead of him.
“What do you think?” Chris said, and Justin smiled.
“You fucking prick,” he said, turning his head. Chris thought the thing did something, changed colors or shape or turned into something new, but he couldn’t see it, looking at Justin as he was.