On Sabbatical

Matt Lally

Dare had replaced drinking and drugs with expensive black jeans–so many pairs he’d run out of room in the drawers and they draped over various surfaces in his apartment as if part of the décor: APC, doubleRL, RnB, Levis MnC. Despite this new vice he was still stockpiling dough hand over fist and he got to thinking he’d like to take a little trip. But where? He didn’t want to travel per se, but rather go live somewhere, experience a place, probably a city, for a microextended period of time: a month, two months.

His pal Charlie was dating this French girl Charlotte who, at an outerborough gastropub, hinted she may have a girl for Dare–a Norwegian model name of Grete. So Dare made himself available for coffee one day and although he probably would have married Grete that afternoon on her looks alone she was summarily uninterested. Dare ran into Grete in the following weeks–she was at this lounge that Dare was at for a birthday drinks, with some of her hometown girlfriends, who all looked exactly like her: eyes glacial, hair white, faces–what–severe? Is that the right word? Five eight and up. But anyway it was settled, he would embark for Oslo after his 36th birthday, in March.

“No shit,” said L.A. Robbie, when Dare told him over the phone. “I’ve got this producer I’m working with: Plague. He’s doing the exact same thing.”

“Plague?” said Dare.

“He does it with a macron over the ‘a,’ no ‘ue,’” said Robbie. “But his name is like Phil Plagowski or whatever so we give it to him.”

“He’s going to be in Oslo?”

“Actually no,” said Robbie. “He’s got himself a little house in the woods near . . .” Dare could hear him clicking around his computer. “Well, huh, it doesn’t look like it’s near anything. He’s doing complete isolation for this concept album. But anyway, you two should link up.”

“Right, I’m sure,” said Dare, and thought no more of it.

The train to Oslo from the airport was clean and fast. It was a short walk to the apartment in which he’d rented a room and he rooted around the inside pocket of his jacket for the post-it note with the code to the keypad. The apartment was big and airy but dark, all the windows facing a courtyard. He couldn’t navigate the language barrier, or rather lack thereof, knowing that most spoke English here. It seemed gauche to come in hot speaking English from the jump but also a waste of everyone’s time to like stumble around some broken Norwegian if it would be superfluous. So he wrote kan vi snakke Engelsk on the back of his hand in ballpoint as a reference and resolved to proceed thusly but only when the yen for coffee became overwhelming did he muster the courage to go try it out. Snakke felt really dumb to say and the kid at the coffee place regarded him unkindly at best so Dare said fuck it, all English from here on out. The neighborhood was gray and empty and he began to wonder what he’d got himself into and six weeks started to feel like a very long time.

But! The next day he walked in the other direction and naught but a block from his front door he came upon a vast plaza of greenery and brickwork paths and on the top of the hill a palace and a panoramic view of the city. He wasn’t far from the waterfront, so he walked down to Aker Brygge and had himself an almond milk latte on the patio at the art space and watched the sparse harbor traffic glide to and fro against the backdrop of the hills across the fjord, no different than say, Portland, Maine.

He wasn’t exactly meeting anyone though. The apartment was a ghost town–only two other tenants: young men, one Colombian, one Swedish. The Colombian’s job had sent him to learn Norwegian for some reason and the Swede was in town working on a project so boring that Dare’s eyeballs rolled back into his head and he had to steady himself against the kitchen counter when the Swede had tried to explain it. In his younger days he would’ve simply posted up at the nearest ex-pat bar and let come what may but that option was no longer available to him, or at least not palatable, to sit at some Aussie pub by himself slurping bitters and sodas until somebody talked to him, no thanks.

Dare got to chatting with the woman who turned over the rooms when people would check out. Her name was Stine and she was tall and striking in like a handsome way and the mother, he learned, of the guy who actually owned the apartment. She suggested he check out this food court that was at out at the end of a wharf and was supposed to be hip and a have all this good food. He’d passed it unwittingly he realized, a number of times when he’d been futzing around down by the water–a bemuraled warehouse on the end of a long dock but you couldn’t see any of the outdoor seating or anything until you actually got out there.

Dare browsed the vendors and settled on a shawarma baguette wrapped in wax paper and sparkling water in a tall blue bottle, and he went back outside to try and get a table, but there were none available, so he sat down on a paint-chipped bollard and folded back the paper and tucked into the sandwich, which was very good. He felt content with the good lunch in his hand and the fjord breeze at his back and unoppressive sunlight, but as he looked into the crowd–young, pretty, cool, engagedhe felt disconnected, unseen, like some kind of specter just haunting these locals. When it got late enough in the day to call the States he phoned L.A. Robbie and secured the coordinates for Plāg’s cabin, although, Robbie conceded, he had no way to get in touch with him to let him know Dare was coming but it was fine, trust him, he should go, and might Dare actually get back to him with a progress report on the record?

Dare got himself a map and Vassfaret, which he allowed himself to assume meant “vast forest,” or wait, now that he thought about it, was it …“water forest?” Anyway, the region was basically a wooded mountain valley a few hours northwest of Oslo, kind of but not really on the way to Lillehammer. The middle of nowhere, but Norway had a lot of middles of nowhere. The instructions from Robbie were to navigate to this bleak municipality name of Flå and then ask around about the producer in the woods and where he might be found. And to make matters even more nerve-racking for Dare, when he engaged with Stine at the apartment re modes of transport, time tables, et cetera, she asked him if he had a motorcycle license, which he did, incidentally, and slowly answered, “yes?” And Stine clapped her hands and said what luck her son had recently sold his motorcycle to a man in Geilo and if Dare would drop the bike off in Flå for them he could enjoy the journey through the countryside in the way it was meant to be enjoyed and they’d pay for his bus ticket back. And although the whole enterprise raised his body temp to near fever with anxiety he found himself unable to say no because well, come on.

“What kind of motorcycle is it,” he said.

He’d seen the shape of it out in the courtyard, under a black tarp. Stine rolled the cover away and set it aside, revealing a white-on-black Street Triple, early model, with a chrome honker of a tailpipe and gold forks.

The bike almost left him behind when he first opened the throttle, but he soon had it corralled and it was a wild sensation to have the 675ccs between his legs as he made a smear of the center line down the E18 along the marina. He’d only ever wobbled about on Dill Millison’s CB out in Gowanus, a glorified moped on a lawnmower engine barely able to make it to Prospect Ave and back; this was a different experience indeed. He had only his black knapsack, packed with unders and socks and tees and his black Detroit jacket zipped to the chin. The bike had come with motocross gloves and a space helmet (black, black) and he went ahead and flicked down the visor, leant well forward, legs back, more of a lie than a sit, the machine humming, no longer underneath him really but rather an extension of his own bod. He moved truly through the landscape, one lake or another to his left most of the time, nothing but green/brown blur to his right, waterside hamlets gone in the blink of an eye, everything kind of folding to a point in front of him, bending with the speed.

The conceit was that Flå was so small that the one grocery store would be where Plāg got his groceries and the one gas station where he got his gas (if he got gas) et cetera, so anywhere Dare might pop in to ask would likely know where the American was holed up. He hadn’t stopped once on the trip and as he burnt to a halt in the lot of a little shopping strip and peeled himself from the bike, it was that sensation of not knowing you’d been uncomfortable until you move. He kickstood the S3 under this patinaed bronze statue of a bear, about twenty feet tall, weirdly big, and Dare couldn’t figure out if it was affiliated with one of the businesses here or if it was, like, the town’s mascot.

He walked into the Kiwi and announced “Hi! How are you!” which was the cue he’d been giving everyone to switch to English. The guy at the register was out of a courtroom sketchslight frame, dirty blonde bangs, squared aviator spectacles in a smoky plastic frame.

“Hi, hi,” he said. They always said “hi” twice, Dare noticed, and he liked it; it was kind of impossible to say uncheerfully–he’d tried.

“Hi,” said Dare, leaning against the end of the conveyor belt. It wasn’t busy; this guy was the only cashier as far as he could tell, maybe one or two shoppers around the back, the feel of them rather than the sight. “Perhaps you can tell me,” said Dare. “I’m looking for this American guy. He’s rented a cabin around here.”

The cashier repeatedly punched at one of the keys on his register, for some reason. “If I knew where he was,” he said. “I might not feel comfortable telling you. It might not be appropriate.”

“But you know who I’m talking about,” said Dare.

“I’ve not seen the guy,” he said. “But I have a feeling that I know the house you mean.”

“So it’s more of a house,” said Dare, as opposed to a cabin.

“It’s more of a house,” he said.

Dare figured he’d hold on to the bike at least until he’d sussed out the vibe at Plāg’s: whether he’d stay, whether he’d still need it to get around if he did. Following the cashier’s directions, Dare doubled back on the main road to the bridge on the east end of town that went over the river towards the train station. So there’s a train station after all, he thought. The road ran parallel to the tracks until it crossed under and Dare shifted to a lower gear as the road started uphill–a series of cutbacks through the pine and yew. Eventually he spotted his marker, which was a square hand-painted sign stuck in the dirt that read “81.” It had a caged light facing it which wasn’t turned on because it was daytime. The pavement ended and Dare had to walk the motorcycle in one of the tire ruts going up the hardpacked dirt until it got really knobby and he went ahead and kickstood the bike in a turnout and continued on foot, hoping it wasn’t too far. But it was, kind of, and he had his jacket off

and stuck in his backpack strap and a good forehead sweat going by the time he reached the house.

The driveway, annoyingly, was paved in smooth black asphalt and the car parked there kind of confirmed Dare was in the right place. Its hind end was debadged but it looked to Dare like a 5-series BMW. The paintjob on it was like nothing he’d ever seen. It was black, sure, but the black had no contour, no texture, no reflection–it was as if the car just… wasn’t there …a BMW shaped void sitting on brushed gunmetal wheels. The house itself was modern and rectangular–a single story of concrete and celadon glass, like bathwater in a white tub. The porch was teak or driftwood or something and Dare jogged up the steps and tried to peer in through the glass door but couldn’t see much because the interior was backlit by a bright alpine lake that lay beyond. And then there was a thwack as a frigging arrow with a suction-cup-tip thwacked the door inches from Dare’s peering head, and stuck there wagging, and he wheeled around and scanned the treeline and immediately saw a figure in black sliding down a tree trunk. He had short but also messy bleached-blonde hair and was dressed athletically in black–leggings under shorts, oversized t-shirt tucked in, black sneakers–and had a very like, bellicose compound bow trained right on Dare and Dare couldn’t quite tell what type of arrowhead this one had but it sure wasn’t a suction cup.

Dare put his hands up instinctually and said, “I’m friends with Robbie. Robbie sent me; I’m, uh, friends with Robbie.”

“I don’t–” Plāg started but his words caught and he cleared his throat. “I don’t know no Robbie,” he said, his voice tight, like a woman scolding a dog.

“Robbie Coll,” said Dare, “from Porcelain.” Meaning the label. Plāg lowered the bow. “L.A. Robbie?” he said. “Why didn’t you say so?”

“Uh,” said Dare. “That’s a serious bow.”

“It came with the house,” said Plāg. “The whole set-up,” he pointed up into the woods, where Dare could now see a treestand, blinded out with ghillie netting, and the black steel ladder down which Plāg had slid, “came with the house.”

“Kilt anything?” asked Dare.

Plāg sighed. “Can’t bring myself to. If I’m being honest.”

“Bad juju anyway,” said Dare.

Plāg smiled, great teeth. “I’m glad you said that. Anyway let’s go inside.” He looked around the driveway. “Did you walk here?”

Dare sat on the long sectional couch, which was the center piece of the open floorplan, in front of a gas fire on low, and listened over his shoulder to Plāg grinding some espresso beans in the open kitchen, and was already feeling very simpatico with the kid after his offer of coffee.

“So what do you do at the label?” asked Plāg.

“Oh, I don’t work at the label,” said Dare.

Plāg stopped grinding, but probably because he was done. “Then why are you here?”

“Robbie I guess just figured you could use a little company. He said you were doing a concept album in complete isolation.”

“If I’m in complete isolation,” said Plāg, “why would I want company?” Now he was steaming some milk.

“That’s what I said,” said Dare. “It kind of seemed like he wanted me to, you know, check in, see how the album’s coming.”

“Ah so,” said Plāg, bringing over two flat whites, or whatever, in tumblers. “You’re a… how does it go? An errand boy sent by grocery clerks.”

“Right, right,” said Dare, then, at a loss, “so how’s the album coming? What’s the concept?”

“Complete isolation,” said Plāg.

“I can …go,” said Dare. “This coffee is outstanding by the way.” It was.

“No, no,” said Plāg, visibly pleased with the compliment. “It’s good you’re here.”

“It is?”

“Yeah,” he said. He stood up and went around the side of the couch near the corner of the room where there was a little brass ring set flush into the hardwood, hooked his finger in it and opened a trap door, but it wasn’t like, ominous–it made sense with the layout of the home. Plāg gestured for Dare to follow him down the stairs. Dare stood up, holding his tumbler.

“Leave it,” said Plāg.

Slatted stairs led down to a room that was wallpapered in black soundproofing–an asymmetry of ridges and nubs–a pretty cool look, actually, function aside. There was a black leather couch and two swivel chairs in front of a twinkly soundboard, itself in front of a large rectangle of glass, which you couldn’t see into since the lights were off on the other side of it.

“Did you build this?” asked Dare.

“Came with the house!” said Plāg. “Soundproofing is funny, though; there’s not another home for miles.”

“But if you just, like, had people upstairs,” said Dare.

“Ha, I never thought about it that way,” said Plāg. “Okay, let’s see. You want to hear track four or seven?”

Dare shrugged. “Four.”

“Are you sure,” said Plāg.

“Seven?” said Dare.

“No, no. Four,” said Plāg, clicking around on the computer.

For starters the sound itself was …juicy. The monitors were top-of-the-line, state-of-the-art, and in the small space the music came from, well, Dare was initially thinking every direction, but actually it was more accurate to say it came from within. You felt the lows in your guts and the kick drum in your chest and the highs were crisp and sparkly and kind of tickled the top of the ear and up the back of the neck. The track had these sawing synths, bubbles of driving bass, crack of syncopated

snare, the time signature obscure, to Dare at least. Everything driving, everything pushing. It was dark; it was hostile; but you wanted to dance.

Plāg was on to something.

“You’re on to something,” said Dare.

“What?” Plāg pressed a button on the console and the volume cut way low.

“It’s good,” said Dare. “I like it.”

“That was your warm up,” said Plāg. “This is the big one.” He clicked around the computer again, hit the space bar.

It began with a low tremolo effect–a shimmer, an oil slick. Then these massive synths, sliding down the surface to collect in a churning pool with the tremolo, reset up high, and back down again. It built on itself, cultivating this anticipation, this dread, and when all the bits and pieces found each other over a simple but crushing one-two on the drums, the release was 3D, full-body, thumping you into motion, like it or not. And Dare found himself lulled to near trance as the phrase repeated and repeated. When Plāg shut it off, abruptly, Dare had never heard such a silence. Deep space.

And when Plāg spoke it sounded far away and Dare yawned to click his ears back to normal.

“What’s it missing?” Plāg said again.

“Is it missing something?” said Dare. “Lyrics?”

Plāg laughed. “That synth,” he said, “needs to be guitar.” He stood up and Dare followed him back upstairs to the living room.

“I’ve been trying to track down this guy,” said Plāg, “to play on the album. Murther. Or rather I don’t need to track him down–I know where he’s at–but to be honest I’ve been too pet to go see him alone. So I’m glad to have you as, you know, reinforcements. Simple as that.”

“I’m sorry, Murther is his name?”

“Oh my god,” said Plāg, “the guy is an icon. He invented black metal. I mean, basically. He lives like right here.”

“Black metal like, um, Satanist?”

“Eh, that’s a bit of a misconception,” said Plāg. “The church burnings were more a protest of like, missionary, evangelical, colonial Christianity. It’s more of a pagan, Nationalist ethos, nothing to do with Satanism.”

“So …fascist.”

Plāg laughed. “Oh yeah, big time. Anyway, we’ll find him later.”

“What should we do now?” asked Dare.

“Fish.”

The deck was the same as yet unidentified but luxe style of wood as the porch, indoor/outdoor furniture arranged around a fire pit and off to the side a stainless-steel grill. The deck dropped off into a gentle slope of scruff-grass on down to the bite of the waters’ edge where there was an overturned aluminum canoe. And the view was an instant bad-mood-killer, not that Dare was in one but: the sun setting behind the hills on the far side of the lake and the papaya sky and the hills themselves mirrored flawlessly in the quiet water.

Dare followed Plāg down to the canoe and helped him flip it over. There was a fishing rod underneath and they stowed it and got the boat in the water and hopped in. How about this, thought Dare.

“Bait?” said Dare, actually worried.

“Lure,” said Plāg.

Dare didn’t see how they were going to catch a lake fish with a squid and catch nothing he did, or catch something he didn’t or whatever, until Plāg said personally he was planning to eat dinner tonight and gestured for Dare to hand him the rod and instantly snagged three fish in succession saying, “perch,” “perch,” “pike,” as he did so. Dare felt very good and relaxed and could almost feel his brain filing the memory under good one but before long it was actually completely dark and he started to get nervous about how they’d find their way back as Plāg’s house was the only landmark and Dare couldn’t see it. But then Dare saw the glow of Plāg’s mobile as it came out of his pocket and Plāg poked around on the phone and the lights came on in the house which was in the opposite direction of where Dare would have guessed it was.

“Oh, that’s good,” said Dare.

Plāg grilled up the fish with some wild rice and root vegetables and was a little disappointed after dinner when Dare had to decline his offer of local aquavit from an unmarked bottle. Dare slept just fine in the corner guest bedroom, shades for the floor-to-ceiling windows slid electronically closed and the mattress, like everything else here, engineered within an inch of its life for max comfort and functionality.

When Dare was a kid, and he’d go on vacation with his parents, he’d play this game whenever he found himself horizontalized in strange beds, hammocks, chaises or bean bags, that he, a special-agent-type, had been chloroformed by his nemesis and was just now waking up in the enemy lair. And he hadn’t thought about that in a while (why would he?) until he woke up that morning in Plāg’s guest bedroom and the memory got jogged.

He’d slept in his tee shirt and underwear so he just put his jeans and socks on and went out to the living room, which was empty and quiet and snapped to high contrast in the sideways light. On a hunch, Dare went over and knelt and pressed his palm to the trap door and did indeed feel the vibration of music coming from down there and he wondered if Plāg was up late or up early. But in any case he didn’t want to interrupt so he called himself from the phone in the kitchen so he’d have the number in his mobile and got his jacket and helmet and gloves and left the crib and headed down the hill.

He figured he’d leave the motorcycle in the parking lot at the Kiwi and give the keys to his buddy, the cashier there, to be picked up by the Geilo dude, whose name was Victor, Stine had told him. So that’s what he did. The cashier, who was there luckily, grasped the keys and raised his fist in a gesture of understanding his charge. Dare told him the guy would be by that afternoon and then he called Stine to relay the logistics.

“Oh that’s great,” she said. “Are you having a time?”

“TBD!” he said.

“I love it,” she said, which was funny to him.

Dare kicked on down the road until he came to a gas station that had a little porched-in café stuck to it and he sat on the deck and had a black coffee and a tjukklefse with cinnamon butter. He started thinking if nothing else this sabbatical would give him a greater appreciation for the comforts of home, which he was starting to miss, despite the lefse being crack. He missed his routine, his little orbits between his apartment and his work, the coffee shop and the gym. And he looked forward to getting back. He looked forward to having something to say for once when people asked him what’s new. How long could he milk it? How long could he say he just got home?

He got his coffee topped off and called Plāg’s number.

“Plāg, it’s Dare,” he said and described his location.

“Be there in five,” said Plāg, and he was!

“What’s up with this car?” asked Dare as he slid into the passenger seat of the bimmer.

“Stock M5,” said Plāg, kind of picking at some stitching on the wheel, “nothing fancy.”

Dare laughed. “But the paintjob.”

“Ha,” said Plāg, “yeah it’s S-VIS, it absorbs light more effective ly than any other material known to man. There’s only this one artist, Keenan Calor, who’s licensed to use it as a civilian, but he’s my boy. So this car is technically an original Keenan Calor.”

“Is it street legal?”

“It can’t be illegal if nobody’s ever thought of it.”

There’s a motto for you, thought Dare. They were speeding out of town on the main road, the furthest Dare had traveled in this direction. West. Plāg had it on good authority (the cashier at the Kiwi, Dare pictured) that Murther lived in a trailer in the woods south of Bromma, a town identical to Flå, it’s only claim to fame that it was the intersection with this other southerly road, onto which Plāg skidded when they got there. It wasn’t that he was driving recklessly, it was just that the excessive torque of the car made for all manner of unintentional skid and peel.

“It’s supposed to be the third turn off,” said Plāg, but they drove for miles without seeing an outlet. But then they saw one, and then they saw two more, and then they pulled into a dirt road not dissimilar to Plāg’s. Plāg had used his turn-signal for some reason, but it hadn’t clicked off, and was still sounding as they pulled into a clearing and saw a hulking figure in black standing before not a trailer but rather a forest-green A-frame, chopping wood.

“That him?” said Dare, although it pretty obviously was.

Murther had long white hair and a beard that was both white and black and he was wearing like work pants and a flannel and a jacket like Dare’s, all black. He finished the chop he was

on, as Dare and Plāg got out, and then he laughed and said the “the Plague,” in what Dare figured was a mock-scary voice but maybe not.

“You know who I am?” said Plāg.

“Everyone around here knows who you are,” he said. “We have that in common,” and laughed again. Yeah, his actual voice was deep and smooth; he’d skew hero on a hero to villain voiceover spectrum.

“I was geared up to say I didn’t recognize you without the makeup,” said Plāg, “but I do.”

Dare did a quick calculation and placed Murther in his 50s although he looked older, his face all carved up. And huge, probably like six-six, built like a WWF wrestler, and you could tell by the sinews in his neck that he was like old-guy-ripped too. A real-life Viking. It wasn’t even possible to shake his hand properly due to the size differential and Dare felt, well, pretty minor.

Murther invited them to sit on some folding chairs near the front of the A-frame and went inside and quickly rustled up a few pieces of wholegrain toast smeared with some kind of fishegg paste. It was truly not possible to have another bite after the initial try and Dare just awkwardly placed his piece with the clean bite mark back on the tray and stared at it while Plāg and Murther talked animatedly about Murther’s discography, and the good old days so to speak.

The energy came down when the convo turned to colleagues of Murther’s who’d died or been murdered even (seemed like a lot, to Dare, and Dare started to realize that these black metal guys were the real deal, not like your typical American metal guys, bands steeped in morbid iconography that are ultimately just like mild mannered schmos from New Jersey who used to paint fences). And then Murther got to talking, leaning forward with one elbow on his thigh and the other hand gesticulating, about the Old Gods, and he and his buddies’ staunch dedication to keeping the traditions alive, “which,” he said, “is completely cosmic that you two found me today of all days. It’s the spring equinox as you very well know,” (Dare must’ve forgot ha ha), “but, even more exciting than that is that this year marks the return of the nine-year-blót. A reenactment of course; no need to be alarmed.”

“I’m so sorry,” said Plāg, “I’m not familiar.”

“It’s, well, a sacrifice,” said Murther, “for a lack of a better way to put it. But a reenactment.”

“He’s really selling the reenactment angle,” joked Dare, “it’s making me nervous!”

And they all had a good laugh.

“What all gets sacrificed?” asked Plāg.

“Well there’s a hierarchy to it, isn’t there,” said Murther.

“Is there?”

“You can sacrifice, for example, a sandwich, a bracelet, a hen, a goat, a horse, a prisoner of war, a child. That’s the peak.”

“I’ll say,” said Dare.

“But, you know,” said Murther, “We do nine things, always nine, everything nine. You’ll come tonight as my guest; I won’t take no for answer.”

“You won’t have to!” said Plāg and laid a hearty handshake on him.

“You didn’t ask him,” said Dare, on the ride home.

“Can’t just lead with the ask,” said Plāg, “got to butter him up, you know, go to his human sacrifice thing, et cetera.”

Dare got a call on his mobile and it was Stine, kind but concerned, stern, telling him that Victor had gone by the Kiwi and the place was closed and there was no bike to be found–what gives? And at that moment they whizzed by the spot and Dare craned his neck to look back and it did indeed look closed, he guessed.

“Shit,” he said. “Okay, I’ll take care of it.” But he didn’t know how he would. Maybe they closed early for the spring equinox he thought, though it seemed strange. And where was the fucking bike.

They passed a quiet afternoon back at the house; Plāg went back in the studio and Dare attempted to read his book on the porch, but of course conked out after a few sentences. When he woke up the sun was getting low and he sought out some coffee to perk up. In the fridge, he found a mason jar of cold brew and helped himself to a glass with some ice and what luck, he thought, as he opened a cabinet and found a package of straws. The shrink-wrapped palette reminded him of back in school when Matt Lee had tasked them with making a Barcalounger out of straws and duct tape but they had cheated and made it out of straw, as in hay, but Matt Lee had shaked his head and chuckled and tested it to support his weight and stayed there as one of them delivered him a Camel Light. So Dare was thinking, back out on the porch with his iced coffee, about straw, and straws, and then “last straws,” and then he was thinking about how he’d had so many last straws he could’ve built a club chair out of them for Matt Lee.

It was the last straw after he’d gone out for a cigarette break from his bartending job and never returned to his post, having careened back to the apartment of one of his regulars, a divorcee with fried hair, for a sloppy and ultimately ineffective romp. It was the last straw after he’d put an airsoft Desert Eagle in the mouth of his best friend Lerner’s girlfriend, Anna, for no discernible reason he could remember. Been informed actually, of the incident, only after questioning an icy snub by Anna on east 92nd street. It was the last straw after he’d had his checking account drained and overdrawn one k large by a young prostitute down the Quarter on a road trip after telling her his PIN so she could buy cigarettes and sour patch kids. And then when he went back down there the following fall for Jay Thome’s bachelor and everyone said, hey Dare, be careful down there why dontcha, and he said are you kidding me come on you don’t have to tell me to be careful, I got this, come on, and then he was relieved of his wallet and cellphone by whom he couldn’t remember and subsequently arrested for stumbling into the incorrect hotel, been pummeled by N.O.P.D. for mouthing off and at some point during the process shit his pants, which he didn’t notice until he was in the shower the next morning, pulling soapy clumps from his crease-hair with his hands, which were numb from the handcuffs, something he learned was called Cheiralgia Paresthetica, or Wartenberg’s syndrome–shout out Wartenberg, what had been his crime?

Well, anyway, yeah, that, too, had been the last straw.

But the actual last (for now at least) straw was a little more tame. He’d been out west visiting Robbie and they’d gone to the old bikini bar they used to go to only to find it under new management with a drastically different vibe. They used to sit at the bar and nurse Bud original recipes from this bartender Tony who was too busy negotiating some kind of stripper love triangle to punch anything in, and they’d lend an ear to any girls who were bored, or stressed, or sad, and take it out to the alley for a menthol, if need be. And now it was at least 5x the amount of girls, 10x aggressive tactics, whole place carpeted in ones (they must vac them up and pool them later, Dare figured), tons of inhospitable security, and just an overall very unchill mood. So they stayed for one and called it a night. But Dare didn’t quite call it a night did he. Dare was allergic to calling it a night. Dare popped on over to a small houseparty up Beachwood just to get a cigarette he claimed, later, but stayed there until 11am when they’d finally run out of sour mix and, uh, other stuff. But, he’d had a plan to hike with Soph that day, which needless to say was cancelled, and it was the heartbreak of having to cancel on old Sophie, cute kind caring undeserving of a cancel Sophie, that finally did him in and he said NO MORE. NEVER AGAIN. And that was that. And that was, what, almost two years ago, so . . .

Murther had told them to meet him at the Vannverk around sunset, so Dare took a shower and then he and Plāg hopped back in the M5 and Plāg navigated Murther’s directions by memory to yet another dirt road due northwest where a little tributary of the Hallingdalselva had been weired up and later abandoned. The stream frothed over and around steppes of greenblack cement and at the water’s edge was the husk of an old turbine station in that same stained concrete. And sitting around on all its lumpy bits and pieces was a gang of longhaireds in leather jackets and work jackets and dusters, some of them drinking beers in green bottles and some of them drinking from a thermos or two that were being passed around and a lot of them looked “pretty out of it,” said Dare to Plāg, quietly he thought, but Murther must’ve overheard him because he clutched Plāg by the shoulder and said “if you’re wondering why everyone looks a bit stoned, well, most of the lads have been getting into some Mary Kate.”

“Mary Kate?” Dare mouthed to Plāg.

Again his attempt at discretion failed and Murther said, “Mary Kate Mary Kate,” like he was thinking about it. “MK-801, dizocilpine. It’s a potent, uh, disassociative. The boys’ve been putting it in their coffee.” He gestured for someone to hand him a thermos and he offered it to Plāg.

“Dare, coffee . . .” said Plāg, trying to tempt him.

“I’m not allowed,” said Dare. Plāg shrugged and took a sip and then another sip.

Plāg elbowed Dare as these two others came over–one as tall as Murther but lean, with white-blonde hair and gray eyes, his whole face kind of sunk in on itself and the other one shorter and square, the only guy here with short hair besides Dare and Plāg, a butt-cut as they say, and a smashed nose.

“That’s Abel,” said Plāg and he said the last name but Dare didn’t know if it was Kildahl or Kill Doll, or maybe it was, you know, both. And he didn’t for sure know which one he meant

but the blonde guy definitely had a little more to him, although the short one was smoking a big spliff.

“The Plague,” said Kildahl, the blonde one.

“The Kill Doll,” said Plāg.

“I’m starting to think,” said Murther, “that we’ve all got a bit of a fixation on the macabre, what do you think?” And they all had a big laugh which caused the little one to blow a full cumulus of gas into Dare’s facial, sending him (Dare) into a fit of cough, until someone handed him a Poland spring bottle and he chiefed nearly the whole thing. The water tasted how the river smelled–like moss and quick clay–and he wondered if someone had dipped.

“You know,” he said, looking at the bottle, “human beings can’t taste water. Only animals can.” Shit, he was a little high.

“Then why are you making that face,” said Plāg.

“It’s time to go,” said Murther. “You’ll leave your car and ride with me.”

“Okay, sure,” said Plāg, a bit overly amenable thought Dare but also he probably shouldn’t be driving while, you know, disassociating.

“Oh, I thought this was it?” said Dare.

“No, no,” said Murther, “this is the preparty! They’ll be waiting for us at the sacred grove to begin the rites.”

“The sacred grove,” said Dare. “And where might that be?”

“Deep,” said Murther, “in the woods.”

Not exactly the answer Dare was looking for but he wasn’t going to press it. And as he climbed into the flatbed of Murther’s old pickup–the old Toyota with the TOYOTA across the tailgate (white) he realized, shit, it was as good an answer as any. The ride was predictably bumpy and Dare got jostled halfway to a lie-down and went ahead and completed the motion himself, since it felt safer anyway. A dollop of yellow moon shone through the clouds and bare tree branches passed over his head like the outstretched arms of some boogieman. It was as if the sprigs were out to tickle him, or play him like a piano, and when the clouds began to eddy around the moon, refracting now greens and silver blues and scarlet, Dare realized this was no ordinary contact-high he’d caught off the butt-cut kid’s el. No. The water. They got his ass.

Despite having often wished, as a symptom of his sobriety, to be secretly dosed at …a party for example, and just ride out a clandestine trip and never speak of it, this wasn’t what he had in mind, and as his vision began to tunnel and like, digitize, a very real fear started to take root in his gut. The truck came to a stop and Dare had to actually stare at his hands and concentrate to get them to unclutch the sides of the bed, and he scooted himself out slowly like a piece of damn printer paper. There were packed leaves underfoot and a few other cars and trucks parked where this road ended in a clearing. A few other cars and trucks and one fucking …motorcycle. Dare felt lucid in his own head, but he just knew that any attempt to outwardly express himself would come out as complete gobbledygook; he had no choice really but to keep his mouth shut. He felt he was pouring sweat but as he ran his hand over his brow and the back of his neck it came away dry.

He followed Plāg and Murther to the clearing where the rest of the men had formed a circle around a modest fire and were murmuring some incantation. There were other guys here, who’d not been at the river, among them–you guessed it–the cashier from the Kiwi, who was situated almost directly across the circle from Dare, and he had his Rod Laver up on a low, like, altar of cinderblocks before him and the flames flickering in his glasses.

The circle opened up to let Murther take his place next to the cashier as another man brought over a …what was that? …a wheelbarrow from the far side of the clearing. It was hard for Dare to see from the glare of the fire, but the cart was piled high with lumpy shapes, maybe some …fur? The chant grew louder as the cashier drew out what was unmistakably the carcass of a chicken and handed it to Murther, who was all of a sudden holding a cartoonishly large butcher knife, gleaming and just brutal. Murther held the chicken by its legs over the fire and cut its throat and a little spout of blood dribbled into the flames, sizzling, but for some reason causing the flame to change color–wisps of ghostly blue and green. He handed the drained bird to the cashier who strung it up on a bough that reached out over the clearing. Then they did another chicken, which to Dare’s eyes seemed to squirm in Murther’s hands but he must’ve been imagining it. Then the cashier drew, from the wheelbarrow, a dead cat, which was chilling to see, and as its blood fell into the fire, Dare swore the flames leapt into strange shapes–whale fins and eagles’ wings. Dare looked over at Plāg, whose expression was difficult to read, a kind of contented wonderment–glassy, glazed. They strung up the cat and then did another and Dare may or may not have heard the second cat let out a stifled yowl.

Next was a young goat–a “kid” they called those, Dare remembered. And they used the cement altar now, the kid’s black blood running down the blocks, and Murther filled a horn with its blood and splashed it over the fire and the flames writhed into these twisted, like, visages. It took a couple extra guys to get the goat hung from the bough. The animals hanging there in a row, dripping, swaying just slightly, was somehow the worst of it, and Dare started wondering if and hoping that the dizocilpine might wipe his memory. He squeezed his eyes shut and opened them and even if these animals were already dead it struck him that whatever this was didn’t count as a reenactment. Then they hauled out a dog, a midsize terrier, brindle, with a floral pattern on its collar like you might find on the strap of Teva. If you were somehow able to come up with, in your own head, the image of what Murther did to the dog, you’d be very upset with yourself that you did. Dare could actually feel the trauma setting in, like a bruise.

Dare was remembering how the hierarchy worked and horribly, wasn’t surprised went the cashier brought out a baby-doll, realistic, maybe some kind of silicone, and Dare didn’t like the way the cashier was cradling its head and how much care he took to place it gently onto the alter. It wasn’t that Dare saw the doll move, or hear it cry or anything. Regrettably, Dare had once seen a closed-circuit video a man capping himself with a .36 in an interrogation room during a police interview, and the awful part wasn’t necessarily the gore splashed across the tile wall but the way you could actually see the life go out of his body and how still it became, as if the video had done a freeze frame. What Dare was witnessing now, with this doll, was the opposite of that, a fucking transubstantiation, the thing just animated. The chanting suddenly stopped and the silence roared in Dare’s ears and he watched, paralyzed, as Murther

went to work. Dare hadn’t blinked and he felt the singular sensation of essentially crying but eyes too dry for actual tears.

Now the horn was passed around the circle for drinking and Dare saw Murther confer with the cashier and then point the knife (the blade, handle, Murther’s hand and sleeve drenched in blood) in his and Plāg’s direction and Dare had this moment of clarity as bystanding terror turned to self-preservation. He did a quick calculation: two chicken, two cat, goat, dog, child.

“They need two more,” he said to himself. Then he turned to Plāg and shook him by the shoulder. “Prisoners of war! They need two more!”

It didn’t seem like Plāg necessarily concurred with Dare’s assessment, but something rattled him because his eyes stretched to capacity and his face went a shade or two whiter even than it already was. The theft of the Street Triple bike must’ve been the backup plan to get them here.

Dare ran straight through the fire, hopping it, and tackled the cashier into the wheelbarrow. He rifled through the pockets of the cashier’s vest and found the keys to the motorcycle. There was a lot of Norwegian shouting and Murther, or someone, pulled him off and kind of hurled him back towards the center of the circle, which was helpful actually since he was headed that direction anyway. A couple guys were making a move towards Plāg, trying to get his arms behind his back, neutralize him, but he hauled off and cracked one of them in the jaw, which was heartening to Dare that Plāg had gotten with the program. He grabbed Plāg up and they hustled together out to the road and onto the bike.

They tore down the dirt trail in the shaky light of the chasing headlights and Dare felt good about their chances if he could keep the handlebar steady and not hit any sinkholes and then, as if on cue, they heard a chunk behind them and the lights faded out, leaving only their own conical beam. The lead truck must’ve gone in rut and held up the whole pursuit.

Dare gathered up the breaks as they came upon the train station since there was a train set to depart. He hesitated, didn’t know if it was going in the right direction, but then realized there was no right direction.

“We should just get on this train and get out of here,” he said.

“I can’t,” said Plāg. “I can’t leave the car. I can’t leave the record.”

“They’re after us.”

“Dare,” said Plāg, “I’ve got the bow and arrow.”

They agreed it was too risky to head back to the Vannverk for the car, so Dare drove Plāg home, and they hugged and slapped each other’s backs and Plāg made for the front door in the crouched hustle of an infantryman. Then Dare blazed back down the hill, his heart in his throat for there’d be no egress if the motorcade had found its way onto the narrow road. But they hadn’t, and soon enough Dare was on the highway again and realized for the first time he wasn’t wearing a helmet but sure as shit didn’t slow down.

It was some small hour of the morning when he pulled the bike back into the courtyard of the apartment in Oslo and any relief he might’ve been feeling was counteracted by this massive anxiety from the dizocilpine comedown. He tore a page from his notebook and tried to keep his eyes from wobbling so he could write a note to Stine:

Some unpredictable drama made it impossible to fulfil your expectations. But thank you for a lovely stay.

He punched in the apartment code and retrieved his duffle from where Stine had stashed it for him in the hall closet, then he took the train to the airport.

Dare spent the first week back in New York screening calls from Robbie and using the days he still had off work to read and go for some jogs and just kind of take inventory and make sure his sobriety was intact. Eventually Robbie got tired of trying to connect and left a long message saying that still nobody had heard from Plāg but that he had, in fact, dispatched the album. Dare perked up when Robbie mentioned that the record featured “some very big guitars.”

But, but, but, thought Dare, tapping his phone against his temple, was this good or bad? What did it mean? He thought about calling the house in Flå himself. As he thumbed through his notebook to see if he’d written the number down, he remembered he had it stored in his mobile, but he zoned out altogether when he saw the scrap in the spine from the torn-out page and he sat there tilting the book to see if he could get the light to catch on the impression of the words of the note.

Matt Lally is a writer from New York City, where he lives and works.