James McAdams has published fiction in decomP, Literary Orphans, One Throne Magazine, TINGE Magazine, Carbon Culture Review, per contra, and B.O.A.A.T. Press, among others. Before attending college, he worked as a social worker in the mental health industry near Philadelphia. Currently, he is a Ph.D. candidate in English at Lehigh University, where he also teaches and edits the university's literary journal, Amaranth.
By the end of the reunion, Mariko’s statue was covered with ash and her testimony looping on the TV in Stone’s kitchen. It was the fourth reunion since everyone’s release from Ju-Vee at 18 and, just like the first three, shit had gone down: substance abuse, violence, excessive noise, theft, aberrant fucking in the shadows of what they called The Hostel. It was as if they were trying to prove that Ju-Vee had failed to socialize them, that they were still just as wild as they’d been as minors. They’d all expected Mariko to return for the reunion after her disappearance three months before, but she remained missing, represented only by the contents of the Asian statue she’d mailed with no return address, and the video of her in a Zazen posture, explaining that the world was a swinging door.
Stone and Melani, Mariko’s identical twin, reclined under the abscissing Bodhi tree Mariko’d planted, near the fire-pit, the ashes still sss-ing, watching blurry-eyed across the alfalfa field as Farren’s Amish brothers hitched horses to harvesters. Farren, Stone’s fucker, shuffled around the compound’s perimeter with a trash bag collecting empty cans, cig butts, roach clips, bullet shells, firecracker casings, condoms. Periodically he stopped and peered over the field towards his Amish brethren, his blond hair waist long with red streaks. From Stone’s perspective, it looked like Farren were gesturing towards them, perhaps telling them of his future plans that he hadn’t revealed to Stone.
“At least she’s not dead,” Stone said.
“Define dead,” Melani said.
“Don’t bother.” Melani wore Stone’s Unabomber T-shirt and her bikini bottoms with sandals she flipped on and off her heel. She passed the bowl and the grilling lighter to Stone, coughing over the structure Mariko’d sent them along with a WebCam/DVD testimony explaining her withdrawal. Neither had watched it, but they’d overheard whispers of its contents from the other Hostiles (those at The Hostel called themselves Hostiles) that night, mutterings involving obscure Eastern religions, tearful confessions, and monotone vows. The structure reminded Stone of those Easter Island statues they’d studied in Mr. Kutter’s Social Studies class, except it was only about a foot tall, with steps leading from the base to the God-like visage with carved-out red eyes at the apex. Its open mouth protruded, overflowing with butts and burned tin foil.
There were trucks, cycles and trailers parked all over the 5-acre property Stone’d inherited from his grandfather when he turned 18. It’d been neglected for decades before Stone and the twins moved in, the crops weeded over, the farming machines rusty and dull-bladed, the doors on the barns, stables, and sheds askew, insides populated by spiders, rodents, and cornered Copperheads that bit Stone and his Amish neighbors when they converted them into residential units. There were eight Hostiles living there, seven of whom were ex Ju-Vees. Farren, the Amish delinquent, had stayed in Stone’s bedroom after their period of experimentation became a relationship, although Stone worried that wouldn’t last much longer after Farren’s Rumspringa year was complete. It was like an alternative community, The Hostel, but the attraction wasn’t some cultish or religious thing (like the Amish they were surrounded by), but rather an expression or protestation that they didn’t want to participate in the world, that it was through resistance and isolation that they expected to express or locate their true selves, if such things existed.
“She seemed more serious lately,” Melani reflected, reclining again on the lawn. “Like at times she was concentrating very hard on something private she couldn’t share, not even with us, y’know?”
Stone was still observing Farren, trying to interpret his gestures as he continued motioning towards his brothers. Farren had stopped sharing things, which hurt far more than Farren not being physical anymore—the whole point of The Hostel, for Stone, was sharing, trust, commitment: values that couldn’t be found in the outside world.
“I think she was with Farren,” he said.
“Was what with him? Fucking?” She snorted. “You’re paranoid—“
“Talking, I meant. Sharing. I saw them once, talking.”
“What would she talk to him about?” She reached over to scruff his beard.
“I saw them down by the pond once,” Stone said, “talking for hours. Right before she left. He was all weird when I asked him about it.”
Stone replaced the bowl in the hollow of the Bodhi tree and laid back down the cross way behind Melani, placing her head on his square muscular chest and swishing the Bodhi’s leaves from her hair. Her skin, like Mariko’s, was completely hairless, the color of stained maple, shimmering in any kind of light. He loved to caress it even though he preferred the gunky smell, the roiled hairs, the knotted muscles and flab of guys like Farren.
“Will you leave without her?” he asked. “For L.A.? Seems everyone’s leaving.”
Melani didn’t say anything. She took Stone’s hand from her hair and moved it to her concave stomach, where all he could feel were ribs. Combined, her and Mariko weighed less than 200 pounds.
“Hear it grumbling?” she asked.
“We should clean up.”
“It’ll take hours.”
“I meant it, the...thing.” Stone waved at the structure on the ground. It appeared angry, its red eyes indicting them, he thought. “Looks like it’s glaring at us,” he said.
“You’re paranoid,” Melani said, popping up and pulling him groaning to his feet. She picked up the structure and handed it to him, slapping in her sandals towards the kitchen, calling over her shoulder, “I’m starving.” Stone followed, motioning in recognition with his chin towards Farren, who was lighting a cigarette and separating trash bags into compost heaps. Farren waved back and returned to his task. Stone thought again of The Hostel he’d created, how many Hostiles had moved out into the outer world, leaving him. He wondered not for the first time if Farren would leave too, and if there were any relation between that potentiality and Mariko’s disappearance.
Not only were Mariko Damaare and Melani Damaare the only Asians at Ju-Vee, they were two of only seven girls and didn’t put out, and, therefore, as a result of tortured teenage rationalizations, developed a reputation as sluts, so that, paradoxically, the guys hated them for not putting out and the girls hated them for putting out too much. This veil of misunderstanding surrounded them their entire time at Ju-Vee. They kept to themselves and when spoken to just looked back, eyes hard, not speaking but looking like they were thinking about speaking, which made everyone think they were not just sluts but had some kind of “twin connection.” A mystique grew about them because no family members ever visited, earning them the appellation “Nobody’s Children.” They were quiet in a different way than the others there were quiet (everyone at Ju-Vee having their secrets and traumas), especially Mariko, but even Stone and Melani could not then foresee the silence that Mariko would later seal around herself.
Like most “identical” twins, Mariko and Melani were more different than they appeared: Melani with her sharp joints and crooked teeth and eyes that closed completely when she laughed, her cheeks concave like certain fishes, Mariko who never laughed but smiled with closed lips looking down, whose broader nose and short hair made her appear contemplative. Melani was the one with tattoos while Mariko’s body was studded with piercings.
Their dispositions were even more dissimilar than their physical differences, as if they consciously tried to separate from the other. Melani was violent, impulsive, prone to violence, serving her Time-Out sessions with sneers. Mariko, conversely, was the most fearful person Stone’d ever known. She had cultivated and nurtured this fear for so long that it became a kind of fierce courage. She fucked him on occasions when they had Lawn Duty but gave nothing of herself in it, and she knew—she knew before even Melani, even before Stone’s Dad broke his collar bone when he found out—that he gave nothing of himself either. Their fucking was like two people jerking off in different directions, another form of rebellion and subversion against the structure of the facility and the expectations of their parents, against the strictures of nature.
The three of them lived at The Hostel together the first few years after Ju-Vee, Mariko and Melani sharing the main bedroom while Stone slept on the couch downstairs. During the day he made money driving the Amish into the city, while in the evenings he fixed up the shed and old caretaker’s house as a residence for other Hostiles and the barn as a storage facility for the drugs the lapsed Amish purchased, distilled, and re-sold. They spent the entire period blowing their minds apart with yayo, weed, whippets, huffers, Benzos, distributing the excess substances to high-school kids and former connections at Ju-Vee, painting the buildings and vehicles bright colors, taking in rescue dogs.
Mariko and Melani installed a Web-Cam in their room, making $5,000 a month on fetish sites, one for Asians and one for twins, giggling and drinking wine and diffidently responding to the demands of the desirous maw of the outside world. Melani shrugged these off, laughing and referring to their customers as losers and virgins, but Mariko often descended the stairs afterwards, drained-looking, a towel blanket draped around her, sharing Stone’s couch on the nights before Farren arrived.
Melani’s idea of breakfast was a teaspoon of cottage cheese on a slice of avocado. Stone gnawed a slice of cold pizza while he cleaned the kitchen.
“That’s all carbs and sodium,” Melani said, looking at the pizza suspiciously. She was sitting on the sink eating in tiny bites. “It’s not fair how you can eat whatever you want and not get fat.” She was so skinny the joints in her bodies were weapons, her elbows like daggers, her shoulder blades rotary saws. She’d had an eating disorder as long as Stone’d known her, so severe that in Ju-Vee that the authorities didn’t allow her to weigh herself and made her drink Ensure, but now she was even more weight-conscious because of the $20,000 the L.A.-based porn company had offered her and Mariko to work exclusively for their WebCam site. This occurred a week before Mariko disappeared.
The kitchen table was a battlefield of playing cards, quarters, and crumpled plastic cups. Stone couldn’t tell if the white powder dispersed on the counter were from crushed narcotics or cocaine. There were cans of beer and soda on the chairs, one of which had a broken leg, stabilized by a vertical pizza box. There were dead flies and ants and other insects all over the grouted tiles, smashed or swatted or drowned in spilled alcohol. Farren’s Tracfone was open by a container of open pickles and half a Hot Pocket and as Stone threw cans in the recyclable bin he scrolled through photos, the early pictures taken of The Hostel and reunited Ju-Vees and Hostiles hugging, the latter of guys fighting, drunk selfies, topless girls pouring liquor down their ragged bodies. Stone heard Farren reciting something in Dutch German and performing his morning exercises on the balcony. The final pictures on his phone were of his Amish homestead.
“Any pictures of me?” Melani asked, licking cottage cheese from her thumbnail.
Stone slid the phone across the table towards her and said, “Can you get those paper towels and that stuff to clean the table?”
She raised her thin eyebrows. “You’re gonna need like freakin Agent Orange for that shit.”
Stone cleared the table so at least it smelled like lemon and then dusted off the counters, pushing all the detritus of that last night into the abyss of the broken washing machine that adjoined the kitchen counter. He sat down finally, weary and sick of it all, with Mariko’s sculpture on the table and her testimony still playing on the muted TV.
Melani hugged him from behind, resting her chin on his shoulder, and said, “I don’t want to watch it, does that make me a bad sister? It’s more real if I watch it, like if I don't she’ll come back to us and if I do she won’t.”
“Even then you two will just leave me for L.A.,” Stone said.
“I told you to come.”
“I’m staying,” Stone murmured. He peered into the sculpture, removing trash from its open mouth with a flat-head screwdriver. It was the size of a small doll’s house, with Asiatic carvings and ideograms along the sides—to be more precise, a trapezoid-shape with dimensions of 10” x 10” x 5,” where the God’s head tapered in. Here, at the apex, Stone discovered a concealed slot where a scroll-like flap of bamboo had been inserted. It read, in Mariko’s block-script, “Peace Begins with Me.” Stone handed Melani the slip of paper and picked up the sculpture again, looking for other secret spots.
Melani was silent for a while, and then said, “I don’t know.”
“What it means. If you expect some like twin connection thing, fuck if I know.” She dropped the paper listlessly on the table, where it spiraled into a puddle of Lysol. “She’s crazy, always has been.”
“She says that about you.”
“We all are, that’s why she’ll return. She can’t find this any place else, right?”
Melani pointed out the window, as if to say: that.
By the pond, Hostiles and Ju-Vee reunioners unfurled themselves from prone positions, blades of grass stuck to their faces, cracking knuckles and muttering obscenities. Many of them staggering straight towards the unkicked keg, others splashing into the pond among the Bodhi trees drowning heart-shaped leaves. The rescue dogs waded towards them, trailing tails in the water like snakes, their muzzles held aloft.
Maybe it was fatigue, or coming down from whatever he’d taken that night, but The Hostel ethic struck Stone then (as it had before sometimes) as routine, commonplace, a rebellion and disavowal so scripted and paradigmatic that it reified that which it appeared to subvert. He realized that a raging resistance to life was the same as an ascetic withdrawal from it, that the resistance and withdrawal had to be combined with some kind of calculated participation, a modulation of Yes and No, or else all was static, bullshit, suicide. When Mariko left, he surmised, she took something with her, a vitality or spirit, something that connected them all, that made the thing work. Since then, Melani and the other Hostiles felt betrayed, he thought, concealing how much they missed her by accusing her of selling out and joining the “real world,” the tainted, compromised outside world of parents, commerce, predation, conformity, love—Melanie and Stone had no idea how wrong they were until they watched the testimony.
Like in her WebCam sessions, Mariko sat looking directly into the CPU’s camera, but the bed in this case was some kind of mat on the floor, and instead of reclining languorously or posing with a sex-toy, she reposed in a Zazen posture, left foot on her right thigh, right foot on left thigh, spine straight, her hands forming a beautiful oval. Her piercings had been removed from her eyebrows, nose, lip. At first it looked like she were being held hostage, reading off instructions from an abductor out of the frame. As she spoke, a white veil fanned from her lips, which had no make-up and were brown and chapped, malnourished along with the rest of her slendered frame.
Stone turned on the volume, Melani clutching his shoulder and somehow looking away from the TV and at it simultaneously.
“Not to continue my ways, not continue my behaviors, not to maintain what I think of as self or identity, but to retreat and become one with everything,” Mariko said. “To kill not and cause no pain, to cause no desire, to forge no connections, but to rest and, in this spirit of rest, be like the wind in the trees. To live not in past or future, but now, the eternal now, which is always true.”
Her eyes were downcast and her voice thinner, lacking its usual timbre, but at the same time she seemed resolute, not afraid or skittish as before.
“We say inner world or outer world or outside world, and create little worlds of separation, but the truth is there is just one big world, universe, soul. I know now that identities are just swinging doors within this limitless world.”
She went on in this way, a way really that wasn’t that shocking, Stone realized, had he been paying attention. It was like watching somebody commit suicide. He thought back to what she used to call the beautiful clean emptiness she yearned for during Lawn Duty sex, how she cried out in those orgasms not of pleasure but non-being, of a Time-Out from something that she could never adhere too. Whether it was sex or drugs or sleep, she always said she wanted to leave no trace of herself, she wanted to burn herself out completely.
Since they’d caught it partially through the loop, her first words of the testimony were the last they heard: “My name is Mariko Damaare and in my testimony I want to give thanks to those who have helped me and forgive those who have contributed to my condition. This is the goal of our practice.”
“Fuck does that mean?” Melani asked.
“Some religious shit, I don’t know.”
“That’s not like her, I know her, what if she’s on drugs or something?”
“She’s always on drugs.”
“You know what I mean. Maybe we can call the cops and they can...trace it or something.”
“I don’t want them here. That’s the point. We can manage ourselves.”
“What then?” Melani asked. She swung out, facing him from the foot of the stairs. “So we just don’t do anything?”
Stone rubbed his eyes, looking back at her and just shrugged his shoulders.
Melani ran up the stairs and slammed the door, her steps echoing to the bed where she and Mariko had sold themselves before. Stone moved the TV down next to the Asian structure on the kitchen table to watch it from the beginning, but before he started it up he heard Farren shuffling down the balcony stairs and saw him appear in the doorway, holding the swinging door open.
He played with his nascent moustache, looking around the kitchen. “You cleaned good,” he said. “I’d have helped.”
“Did you see it?” Stone asked, motioning towards the TV.
“Parts. It was on when we were playing cards.”
“What part did you see?”
“I don’t remember, I was pretty fucked up. Hey, is that my phone?”
Stone grabbed the phone and held it away from Farren, who hadn’t moved from the doorway. He appeared hesitant, in between the screen door and the kitchen’s threshold.
“What did she say to you by the pond that day?” Stone asked.
Stone just looked at him.
“Nothing that warrants confession.”
“I’ve asked you before. You and her by the pond that day, what did you say?”
“Just things, just talking about things.”
“Since when did you two talk?” Stone walked across the kitchen, replacing the TV on the counter and turning. They faced each other across the room. He still held Farren’s phone, flipping it open and closed. Over Farren’s shoulder he saw the Ju-Vee reunioners saying good-bye, kicking the stands off their cycles, revving their engines. They checked their watches and motioned vaguely goodbye to Stone’s house with thrusts of their chins. The Hostel was emptying. Beyond them, horses trudged through the Amish fields, their muscles shining purple under the lambent sun.
“We both had decisions,” Farren said. “The more we talked, the more it seemed like the same decision.”
“You mean going back there?” Stone asked, pointing to the Amish compound. “Are you?”
“She was unhappy, she had been.”
“Are you going back?”
Farren played with his moustache again and looked down. He was quiet for a minute, and then he finally, after what appeared like much deliberation, entered the room, the screen door thwapping behind him. He was tall and tan and with his hair whipped down looked like a bored junkie. He flipped around a chair and sat with his elbows on its arms. In his periphery, Stone saw Melani creep down to the blind spot in the stairway, where Farren couldn’t see her.
“What we figured,” he said, “was that this here thing…it doesn’t work, Stone. Like, maybe for a year it’s fun. I had fun, I like you, you know that. But whatever we all fought against, or tried to prove sellin’ drugs or doin’ porn, at the end of the day it was like fightin’ against air." He picked up the sacred sculpture, moving it with his calloused carpenter’s hands, inspecting it.
“Do you still like me?” Stone asked. He placed Farren’s phone gently on the table. “There, take it. Don’t leave, man. For that shit, really?”
“I don’t need it anymore,” said Farren, sliding the phone back towards Stone.
Melani looked at Stone with her palms splayed up, like asking him to do something.
“Is she coming back?” Stone asked.
“I doubt it.” Farren looked Stone straight in the eye. “I can tell you this, once I leave, I’m not comin’ back.” He got up from the chair, scooting it back under the table and picked up Mariko’s printed mantra from the puddle of Lysol.
“Peace Begins with Me,” he recited. “She said that to me at the pond. Seems true. Begin with yourself, Stony, not against others.” Farren stood and said, “The harder you slam a door, the harder it swings back.”
Farren left, roaming around the yard, thronged by the rescued dogs. He wasn’t walking toward home, but Stone knew he would soon, and that Farren was right, he would never come back. Melani cried, silently, not covering her tears that dribbled down her cheeks.
Stone opened two skunked beers and sat next to her on the narrow stairway.
“We’re better off without them, right?” she asked.
She looked up at Stone with her lovely dark eyes wide and moist, sniffling, a splash of beer on her shirt. They kissed for the first time since Ju-Vee, since he told her he wasn’t into girls, and as they kissed Stone closed his eyes, and through his mind carousel photos of The Hostel sequenced and fluttered and disappeared, as he realized for the last time that no matter what happened this hour or week or year, Melani too would leave him, as Farren and Mariko had before her, and that he would be consigned by fate to continue to rage in futile isolation against the world, surrounded by rescue dogs, Bodhi trees, empty apartments, remembering The Hostel’s noble experiment as a failure, as the little girls up the gravelly road jumped rope and chanted Amish songs together—but for now Stone and Melani, two orphans, left once again, hurt more than ever, kissed in the stairway, the kiss never moving beyond a kiss and not even lasting that long and meaning nothing afterwards. It was just nice to be together for that time then, for that instant, for that true Now, they both thought.