I am as bad as the worst, but, thank God, I am as good as the best. Walt Whitman
MACKENZIE DETWEILER lived between the throw of a die and the outcome. He gave no fucks for things in the rearview. He gave no thought to anything occurring too far in front of his car.
He had three loves—to eat, to surf, and to screw.
Except for the single, remarkable day when he fell out of a helicopter—and lived—no one would have heard of him. He’d had a lot of days, so he didn’t take that one too seriously. He often wondered why other people did.
Only one person mattered to Mackenzie Detweiler anymore. Only one person could cause him to glance back. He knew what happened to people who did that…. Nevertheless he checked his new phone a third time. Useless. It had been weeks. He should give up on JD, but that wasn’t in him. He’d blamed losing his phone in Indonesia, but he’d gotten a new one and… nothing. Maybe the phone problem was JD’s? He was hopeless with electronics. It was as though they saw him coming and died on purpose. Elevators, escalators, cell phones, garage door openers, even his sonic toothbrush fucked with him on occasion.
He swallowed back disappointment and resentment and bitter despair because those things weren’t relevant to the situation at hand, and they didn’t build on his brand in a positive way.
The least that could be said of him was he showed up when people paid him to, even when things had gone horribly wrong, even when half his plummeteers were unable to join him due to freak weather.
So far, there were five people beside him. The airport was closed for the duration of the blizzard. Except for their party, the resort was closed. Only a skeleton staff remained, solely to service his group if anyone showed. He knew that would be the case before he landed in Los Angeles and changed planes, but he had to try.
All plummet events required his full participation, no matter what. They were rife with inconveniences. This time it was the weather. His late arrival made things worse. But each and every time he did one, he came away with new resilience. Pretty soon people would catch on and start charging him.
The weather was unlikely to get better. Whiteout conditions were imminent. Seconds counted. There was only one taxi and—like a word problem in math—it could only take a certain number of passengers at a time.
But Mac liked snow and people. There was a bar, and the bro-tender kept drinks coming despite the airport closure. Guests who didn’t understand in the beginning what a plummet really was—well, they’d know by the end.
A plummet simply is. Whatever happens, happens. And that’s okay.
Mac put on his brightest smile and prepared to love his tribe harder than usual, because he had a feeling—based on spending the last hour drinking with the plummeteers who arrived early—this particular brohort could use it.
Mac showed up ready to give everything he had.
As it turns out, that’s the only important thing. #Spoilers.
Plummets had rules. Mac didn’t allow the exchange of names before a plummet officially began. He had a habit of nicknaming his students, and those usually stuck anyway. In his head, even if they never came out of his mouth.
He normally started with a talk about name meanings and such, but it was mostly because he wanted to form opinions without names getting in the way.
If, for example, Mom’s name were Ilene, he’d end up with all the Ilenes he knew in his head and not actually her. A name gave a person baggage. It could create false impressions.
An Imprudent Prudence. An Impatient Patience.
Calling the woman Mom kept her in a nice safe box until he knew who he was talking to. Wait—
If he thought about putting people in boxes, that itself was problematic. How had he never seen that before? And wasn’t that exactly how these things always went? There were breath-stealing new patterns to observe—and he’d probably have to act on them too, goddammit—every time he stopped to looked around.
The youngest guy at their table—about nineteen, Mac thought—hunched over his food. Pretty and dark, wearing all-black clothing unsuited to the weather, except maybe to facilitate finding his frozen corpse in the snow, he hadn’t spoken a word since he arrived. Sharp straight nose, sharp cheekbones. A guy could cut himself on the boy’s eyebrows alone. They looked like the Patriots’ logo, except made of hair.
Pretty boy. Too quiet, though. As Mac watched, thoughts seemed to surge into the dude’s consciousness. His eyes would light up, he’d look for an opening, and then someone else would speak.
Usually it was the man in the high-tech parka and gloves—the one with the broken leg and the unexpected gray eyes. He’d been holding forth for some time, talking about the book, Plummet to Soar, and about actual philosophers—Nietzsche, Hegel, and Kant. And he talked about how he was hoping he would find what he was looking for and how really problematic it was going to be for him if he didn’t.
Oh, great. A wannabe convert. Those were the absolute worst.
Mac got especially concerned when he said something and people twisted it to mean something else, and the converts did that all the time. Since Mac’s entire body of work was his actual body, his philosophy was all theoretical. Mac had no idea what he was putting out there. And he knew who the bona fide philosophers were—he’d read a whole lot of them—but he didn’t much care for the kind of comparisons this dude was making.
Or when they expected his philosophical system or whatnot to make sense.
“’Kay, guys.” He tried to slow them down. “This weekend—these plummets—are supposed to be organic. They’re supposed to be raw and intuitive.”
“That sounds like you’re saying the events are unplanned.” Gray eyes pinned him like a cat sighting a particularly juicy mouse.
“Nah, man.” Sit, Raleigh. Gray Eyes was totally someone who’d sit if you said, “Sit, Raleigh.”
Aw…. Mac got angry at himself for putting people in boxes again. How hard is it to change a habit, huh?
He told the man, “You’re supposed to come prepared to be surprised by your questions. Appalled by some of your answers. You come ready to work if those answers aren’t what you expect from yourself.”
The kid tried to speak, and he got cut off again.
“If you say so.” Sit, Raleigh’s gaze fell back to his drink. “I was hoping there’d be a little more structure, is all.”
The sweet, hesitant spark animating Quiet Kid died out. The moment was lost. It was agony, watching any moment die. It was criminal.
Mac gave whatever he was going to say a moment of silence. The kid didn’t seem to want them to provide him with either the emotional feedback Mac called “heart time” or the intellectual observations he’d termed “head time,” although a couple of his tablemates made friendly overtures.
Mac wanted to check the insensitive clod on his bullshit, but he did have a nice, if privileged manner—a prep school voice, a silken voice—like what you’d expect if a Cavalier King Charles spaniel started to read some very reassuring bit of news.
But Gray Eyes didn’t pay attention to any subtle warning, like Mac’s friendly tip of the head in the kid’s direction or the stage-whispered words, “Let him talk,” from Mom.
“My point,” the guy with the opinions stated, as if Quiet Guy had never spoken, “is that most people find safety in structure.”
Gray Eyes dared him to argue, and he—he wanted to do more than that, truth be told. For the first time in a long, long while, somebody’s looks turned his crank hard enough to cause worry. He wanted to unleash his full “yeah, it’s on” smile because it would probably be reciprocated. But unless and until JD said it was a no-go… he wasn’t free.
Plus. A plummet is no place to fall in lust.
Three of the six people at the table nodded slowly and gave the dude permission to go on. Inwardly Mac groaned. Did Raleigh not see? Did he not care that he’d crushed the nascent, trembling word flowers emerging from Quiet Guy’s lips?
The word-flower-blocker thumped his heart—one, two, three times. Oh God. He was so sincere…. This was going to be a significantly tougher group than the last one.
“Most people,” Raleigh said, never taking his eyes off Mac’s, “find safety ‘in boundaries, in rigid limitations. It’s the box we all end up in, one way or another. And we must, we absolutely must, explode that box if we want to authentically live.’” Live was italicized.
Mac’s skin heated under Raleigh’s challenge. “No fair quoting me out of context,” he said.
The Quiet Guy finally blurted, “Do you really have to face death to understand life?”
Wow. All eyes turned to the not-talker formerly known as Quiet Guy. He’d plunged right in, hadn’t he, talking about facing death. As a way to break the ice, Mac liked the Hokey Pokey better. Poor lad. He simply trembled with youth, like a virgin in a hurricane where the winds were made of sex.
“Sh-ugar. No.” Mac was determined to nip that asinine bit of nonwisdom in the fucking bud. “That’s not what we mean by facing death. Not at all. If—”
“Oh my God.” The girl wearing the Heidi hat covered her lips, and only her lips, with both hands. From behind the Quiet Guy, she said, “It’s already starting, isn’t it? And I’m just so excited I can hardly stand it.”
Mac smiled. Mac always smiled.
He loved his plummeteers—the men and women who paid him cash money to come and give his plummets.
He loved the uncertain ones, the ones who knew everything, even the Sit, Raleighiest of Sit, Raleighs among them, because they were all just like him, made of the exact same raw materials. It still blew his fucking mind.
Everybody was as big of a dumbass as him about something.
Mac billed the weekends as “Jam Sessions About the Whole True All of It!” He offered himself as a sort of human antenna. His internal goal—to achieve a signal-boosted human outcry of joy and suffering and compassion and courage. His external goal—the great Yawp of the electronic age or, you know, other stuff like that.
He scratched an ugly bug bite on his arm. Fucking Burmese mosquitos dug his new cologne.
It took him more than a minute to come back from that thought because he’d been in Thailand and Myanmar being eaten by mosquitos only, wow… was that yesterday? Or did the international date line fuck things up? Was it still today? Or, oh God. Was it tomorrow already?
No. Today was Wisconsin. In February. Where no mosquito could survive. Or did they just hibernate?
He made a note on his phone to look that up at some later date. He finished, glanced back up, and found Sit, Raleigh’s gaze focused intently on him. He made a deliberate tour of Mac’s face—eyes, to lips, to eyes. Ooh. That felt good. Being felt up by someone’s brain again was awesome. He used to feel that way all the time when he was working with JD. Now, his phone was an open wound in his pocket because JD was ghosting him.
Where you at, motherfucker? Goddammit.
He missed JD so much sometimes. Like air. Like waves and the way sun and water droplets blinded him. He missed JD like beauty. And nothing was going to be beautiful again until he knew what happened, because—
Because none of it could be okay without JD.
Except that was bullshit. Mac bit his lip and spun his gin and tonic on his beer mat. JD wasn’t real, not really. He was a disembodied group of words in the ether telling Mac—whom he’d always called Kenzie—not to use passive voice. A nameless, faceless entity who put little happy faces into the comments on his manuscripts when he was proud of a turn of phrase. Twitting him gently when he said he’d put his arm around someone’s waste, instead of waist.
Mac actively wondered if he was going to have to write another book to get his goddamned editor to send him some more of his cherished—if he only knew how cherished—rants about the lack of civilization online or whatever.
He met each gaze at the table after Sit, Raleigh’s and shared the energy around like a metaphysical joint. As the teacher it was his obligation to spread his focus. It was his job. There was a lot of preening as he met each person’s gaze in turn. Mostly he was the one doing it, but it felt so good. Those people loved him.
“So.” He said the single word and everyone leaned forward, eyes on his, ready for some sort of wisdom drop. Breaths actually got held. Wow. He’d forgotten. We don’t make any sudden moves around the new plummeteers. They’re the raw human potential your workshops rely on.
“Relax, people. Nothing starts officially until dusk tomorrow, when we light our candles.” The new recruits were the ones who made the magic happen. And they were very new indeed. In fact they were so new they thought he was there to teach them.
It was just like the summer he spent observing his fish. Each one was unique, and you couldn’t count on them ever acting the same way twice, which was super interesting. They had some sort of weird fish language he never could crack.
Still have time, though. Gotta be grateful for that.
“What do you think, Mac?” Heidi Hat asked.
Mac sank the last of his second gin and tonic. He’d missed the question, and he had nothing except, “I think everything is just fascinating.”
Mac had only three tools at his disposal, and they were, in order, interest, wonder, and unconditional love.
He liked to think of himself as a modern-day paladin, traveling into the hearts of the people he met, deploying those tools, and uncovering “The Mystery of Why.” So he was pretty used to people calling him a fraud.
Now he did a read of the man he’d been calling Sit, Raleigh and decided he was some kind of shill too—maybe a journalist, maybe a debunker. Nothing reached his eyes except desire. He had no interest. No wonder. Well, maybe he did, but all he was sending Mac was sex.
Mac would have ignored him, but he’d watched him steal a bottle of hot sauce. He’d done it very smoothly, but Mac’d seen lots better. He’d been at least that good when he was young and stupid and hungry all the time. But why did someone who looked like that need to steal hot sauce? Mac made a mental note to find out.
He was doubly curious about the man’s leg. Usually when people showed up at one of his events with an injury like that one, they’d gotten it doing something they were going to blame on him.
“Nice boot,” Mac offered.
“Say—” The owner of a magnificent handlebar mustache interrupted his thoughts. “How’d you break it?”
Sit, Raleigh drew in an audible breath. Sighed. “I fell.”
Everyone around the table laughed, even though it wasn’t funny. Mac’s face got hot, and he began to explain why it wasn’t funny, yet again. “You guys all know that when I said you should face your fears and accept mortality as a given, I never meant—”
“Where’d it happen?” Mom asked. “I broke my collarbone in a Segway accident. I totally get it now. Totally.”
“Free-climbing in Yosemite,” Mustache Man added as though they were taking turns. “Both arms. I have titanium screws in this one. But of course, I already understood. You watch someone die right next to you, and you get it pretty quick.”
“This isn’t that.” Sit, Raleigh absently massaged his good knee. “I’m not like you guys. I didn’t take the book literally.”
Mac would have felt even worse, but since his own brush with death, he couldn’t feel worse about human suffering. It sucked sweaty porcupines. Wait. He got out his phone and typed, “Do porcupines have sweat glands?”
Meanwhile Handlebar Mustache, who seemed very nice, and Mac now guessed had seen active duty in the service or as a first responder, gave a heh kind of laugh. “They hate your book in the national parks, let me tell you. Park rangers see one of those books in a vehicle, and it’s buh-bye. Out you go.”
“That can’t really be true, can it?” The thought of all those stalwart men and women despising him for giving them busy work, people to clean up after, or well, simply clean up all the time, sickened him. “You know, the idea of facing one’s mortality was never intended to be quite as literal as people are taking it.”
Sit, Raleigh opened his wide gray eyes and fixed on Mac’s. “Just hope they don’t repeal the Affordable Care Act, is all. Something like this could follow a guy around, yanno?”
Oh, Jesus. That had to stop, goddammit. He’d do a goddamn press release, as soon as he got hold of his editor. Or anyone at his publishing house. JD be damned. If JD was going to abandon him at a time like this, well….
Maybe what he thought he had with JD wasn’t real. Maybe JD was a fantasy, and those nights when Mac was scared and looking at yet another surgery—nights when JD told him he was keeping the light on—were just business for JD. Maybe his many, many kindnesses were opiate dreams. Whatever.
Mac was going to set everybody straight about that death-wish thing, with or without Chambers Lighthouse Publishing. “The thing is—and I hope it doesn’t sound like I’m not giving you the heart time you deserve—”
“We know you would never do that.” Heidi Hat shook her yarn braids.
“I never meant for anyone to try getting hurt!”
A WHOOSH of cold air alerted them to the taxi driver’s arrival. Half the brohort reacted as though it were about damn time. The man darkened but said nothing. It was probably really hard to serve groups of tired, thirsty tourists who had to wait for a ride in a blizzard. He started to pick up their luggage, but Mac wasn’t having any of his plummeteers’ attitude.
“Hey. Let’s be awesome here, guys. Thank the dude for coming out in this weather, huh?” Some of the gang relented. Some even apologized and gave excuses for their surly behavior.
It wasn’t okay to treat people crappily while they were on the job. They all did better once Mac mentioned it.
“This man is working in the worst possible conditions,” he reminded, hoping they’d tip well.
And seriously, if these people failed to plan for a snowstorm, a single taxi, and the interminable wait in a creepy darkened airport for a ride to the world’s sketchiest closed resort….
Does no one beside me attend these sorts of things regularly?
“I have room for four.” The driver didn’t have a claw hand, anyway. That was something.
Mentally he thanked Their Is-ness, Mac’s version of God—genderless possibility and action and power and will—for small favors. If God actually existed, they could complain about Mac’s nickname for them later.
“I’ll be going last.” Mac was perfectly fine waiting. His chair was comfortable, and his drink was strong.
“But you’re the teacher.” Mom clutched nonexistent pearls.
“Pax.” He gave her the old razzle-dazzle. The Buddha smile. The head tilt of humility. “Any title is simply another way to say ‘Top Sock in the Pile,’ see? You might have a better view, but if you still haven’t found your Truth, your why, your—”
“Your other half,” Gray Eyes supplied, startling everyone.
Mac ran out of words. Yeah. One’s other half. Thought I found that.
Goddammit, JD! Where are you? How do you expect me to do this without you to keep me safe in my head?
“You must go ahead.” Mom pressed him further. “One of us should stay.”
What did she think—if the going got tough, Sit, Raleigh would eat him?
“I’ve got nothing but time.” That was not just an affirmation. “You guys can me-and-you this. I’ll buy the loser a drink if it makes anything easier.”
“I’ll stay. I’ll be your bro tonight.” Gray Eyes. Shoot. He was the last one who should stay, especially if Mac still had any kind of chance with JD. But that was Mac all over. He could totally wait for the possibility of something real, rather than settle for something in the moment, when it was important. That fact might be the only thing that saved him from… well, nothing saved him from disaster, actually.
But he could wait for JD, because seriously, what the hell happened? It was as though JD had been swallowed up by the internet—messages unanswered, emails bounced. The thought of being without JD made Mac’s stomach churn. He’d be okay, if only he knew JD was all right. Mac very much feared he might not be, because… well because JD had professed, no—
It wasn’t some murder mystery or The Lady Vanishes, where a woman disappears on a train, and the whole world is in on the plot.
You got fucking catfished. That’s all it was.
As though by design, one of the janitors rolled by with an extra-ominous mop bucket. It took hours to pass.
They both watched it the entire way. Sit, Raleigh’s Adam’s apple bobbed halfway through, as though the suspense were unbearable. Mac guessed he was freaking himself out and looked at him with new fondness.
Inwardly he chuckled. Yeah, baby. It’s gonna be kinda creepy here, just us. I’ve seen this movie. Everyone dies. Everyone always dies, though. That’s the goddamn point. Lighten up.
“Can we get a couple more here?” Mac signaled the bro-tender and then turned back to Sit, Raleigh. “What are you drinking?”
“Bombay Sapphire, tonic, lime.”
“Mmnh.” Man after his own liver. “So we’re good here. You go.” Mac shooed the others away like recalcitrant geese. “Go on.”
“Works for me.” Heidi, Mustache, Mom, and the not-talker—the quiet, pretty dude—trooped out of the building after the driver, who stopped to call out, “Back for you in forty-five, fifty minutes, in this weather.”
“We’ll be here.” Mac lifted his new gin and tonic.
What’s-his-name did the same.
Hey. That rhymed!
“What should I call you?” I can’t go on calling you Sit, Raleigh forever, even though I want to.
Mac held his surprise. Whatever the man called himself in real life, it was not Douglas.
Which was interesting but not necessarily relevant, unless you were at a seminar billed as an excavation of your deepest truths, a no-holds-barred search for authenticity, and/or you used a credit card to pay, dumbass. Finding your real name is going to be a piece of cake.
The tall, elegant man who lied about his name caught Mac’s eye and held it again. Some people were like extra sharp volcanic rocks below the surface of a calm sea. A brief change in current, a slight miscalculation, even another fish getting in his way, and Mac was gonna get snagged at some point.
Everyone developed unhelpful attractions. Whether it be inconvenient, unwanted, or unreciprocated. Getting one’s energy snagged was a fact of life for plummeteers, going to happen whether they wanted it to or not. Unwanted attractions could be considered an inconvenient side effect of being sex-positive humans. It was going to be a great plummet if they explored the subject of boundaries.
These people were Mac’s fellows, for lack of a better word. They looked up to him. He had to keep appropriate boundaries, so in each plummet, he isolated the danger, acknowledged it, and walked away. And so far the danger could only come from him—Douglas.
There was every reason to assume that Sit, Raleigh resented the fuck out him already because of his leg. People fracturing bones because they read his advice literally? That was becoming a thing. But because Sit, Raleigh was there, he must need something more. And Mac figured he owed it to the poor bastard to give it.
So, there they were.
Dude hadn’t tried to serve him with a summons or kill him yet. And there was the eyefucking. Gray eyes met his, showed a surprisingly unsubtle flare of sexual interest, and shuttered closed again. It was a blink—the work of an instant—but when the eyes in question opened again, they were dull as concrete, and Mac had to hide his disappointment. Oh, yeah. This is going to be a learning experience for everyone.
He toasted, “May we live in interesting times.”
“That’s a curse, isn’t it?” Sit, Raleigh lifted a brow.
“Isn’t everything?” Mac smiled.
On, off. One minute Sit, Raleigh’s interest was engaged, and the next he seemed to unplug whatever held them together. How could anyone hide so much of who they were? Mac marveled at the sheer will it must take to live like that.
Over the next hour, over the course of six or seven unimportant subjects, on, off flashed the gray-lightning eyes—expressions of interest, desire, self-loathing, blank despair.
Sit, Raleigh was Lost Lake. One minute he was there, and then some hole opened up inside him, and in the next, he disappeared entirely, leaving nothing but dry melancholy behind. And the funny thing was, Mac felt it inside—like lying on a surfboard, being drawn from shore by the tide.
This guy fascinated Mac. Here was a man who housed two whole ecosystems. That had to be fucking exhausting.
You couldn’t put your arms around someone and say, “Rest,” not when you only met them a few minutes earlier. You could only push your warmth their way—your love. Hope they turn to you like a sunflower and open up and ask you for what they need.
The taxi driver finally burst into the airport’s one remaining door and flooded the entrance with a whirl of snow and icy air. “Ready?”
“Almost.” Mac grabbed his pilot case and backpack and swallowed the last of his drink. He left a substantial amount of cash for the bro-tender.
Of course, Douglas had lots more trouble getting himself in order. He donned his handsome jacket, scarf, and hat and then stood and arranged his single crutch. He drew his messenger bag on, cross-body style. Finally he sat and acknowledged the elephant in the room.
“I should keep this as dry as possible.” He drew out a trash bag, covered his walking boot, and tied the handles with a bow. Mac knew he was being held accountable for that leg.
But never mind.
Sit, Raleigh was hot. And he was going to be Trouble, with a capital T and that rhymes with D and that stands for—
“I can help with that.” Mac offered to carry Douglas’s things.
“You’ve done enough, Mackenzie Detweiler.” Sit, Raleigh’s rueful laugh was so insincere it needed a bodyguard and an Instagram account.
“Here for a long weekend?” Their driver spanned the chasm of silence that followed.
“Looks that way.” Mac smiled.