We aren’t hitching, but the guy in the busted-up Tercel stops anyway. He pulls up ahead of us and waits. No one’s home at my house, and Benny’s mom’s been on a drunk since yesterday, so when the guy leans out his window and says, “Hey, you guys want to go to a party?” we don’t have to think about it. They spent all of elementary telling us about strangers. We aren’t stupid, but we get in anyway.
The guy’s name is Walker Reilly. Combat boots and crewcut. “It’s an End of the World Party,” he says, with capital letters in his voice, talking about planets aligning, how the Mayans believed that the world keeps ending and starting over. I’m rubbing my neck because Benny decided I needed a mohawk and now I feel dangerous and itchy and fake. Walker’s talking religion, how everyone believes in an end because it scares us to imagine something going on forever. But we live in Vegas, city of bright neon churches, never-ending prayers to green felt and plastic chips. The god of odds is vengeful, and in the casinos, someone’s world is ending every day.
The apartment building is stucco. Even in the dark it has a burned feeling, like it got left out in the sun. Inside, there’s a paper banner hanging from the ceiling. It says, Happy Apocalypse. There are too many people, all bumping into each other. They’re dressed like Egyptians and high priests and aliens. I don’t know where to stand. I don’t know what to do with my hands. “Howdy, chief,” says a girl with short black hair. She’s sitting on the couch with her legs crossed. Her nails are a bright, poisonous green. She says her name is Elle, like the magazine. She says, “For the love of God, sit down and stop looking so tragic.”
When I look up from the couch, Alex Reilly is standing over us. It’s weird to see him outside of school. Elle twitches like a cat to make room for him, stretching her legs out. Everything about her is long and sharp and high-voltage. I always thought Alex was charmed. That everything was easy, but it’s not that simple. He won’t stop looking at her, because he can’t.
I talk to him. To them. This is the longest I’ve talked to anyone in months. I start thinking that maybe it could always be like this—watching them joke and smile and laugh. I wouldn’t even have to say anything. At least they’re not telling me how I should be.
Benny is that guy no one likes. This is not a mystery. I’ve always known it. The mystery is why he can’t last anywhere for long and what he did to make Walker’s face so red. It’s chaos in the kitchenette, arms and legs blurring. Walker, who wasn’t that big a few minutes ago, is suddenly gigantic. Benny’s hands are closed in fists, beating hard at anything he can reach, but Walker barely seems to notice. He hits Benny across the chest and Benny sprawls away, almost falling. His boots leave dark smudges on the linoleum. His head snaps up. There’s blood on his face.
I grab him and turn him against the wall, keeping my back to Walker, trying to cover up Benny, who is bony and sweaty and trembling. I hold his face against the wall, ready for the fist in my ribs, but it never comes. “Look at me, you little prick.” Walker’s voice is low and hungry. It isn’t a voice you ignore. I turn us both to face him. The dull red color in his face is mostly gone. “Get out,” he says. He isn’t looking at me. I don’t think he can see me.
I can feel Benny shaking. He slaps my hands away. When I follow him, he doesn’t look back. He slams the door. Everything is quiet. I hold my hand above the knob, wait to see what will happen. From out in the parking lot comes the sound of breaking glass—bottles or streetlights. “If you want,” Elle says in a voice like nothing’s wrong, “wait around and I’ll drive you home.” Alex is next to her, dazed-looking. “Come on,” Elle says, holding out her hand. “Cheer up. He doesn’t hate you.” But I don’t really care if Benny hates me. Yesterday, I would have cared. Now I just sit on the sad, plaid couch and wonder if we’re in the next Mayan world yet.
Alex is nodding off, while Elle watches through her eyelashes. He wants her to love him, but he still doesn’t see. She’s loving him as much as she’s able. In the palms of my hands, I see lines that should mean something. I get up from the couch and go out through the sliding door. It’s hot. The air feels dry and used-up. A streetlight shines down into the stairwell and lights up the patio. There’s a lawn chair shoved to one side, and a coffee can next to the railing, full of ashes.
When we finally leave, Benny isn’t in the parking lot. I step over glass and wonder if he broke it, then decide it’s just the parking lot’s condition. There’s way too much destruction out here to come from one person.
Elle’s car is big and old and ominous. I’m in the seat behind her, looking at her neck. The way her hair curls damply. Out my window, streetlights flash by in slices. I can see my reflection in the glass. My mom thinks I’m staying at Benny’s. I think how Benny was my only friend, and now he’s not anymore. Alex Reilly is asleep against the door, breathing softly, while all over the planet, the world keeps ending again and again and again.