We’d split remainders of bottom-shelf half-gallons between the six of us at Jason’s and it wasn’t until after 11:30 we realized we needed to ring in the new year with Prince’s song “1999” but I’d left the CD back at the house. My brother Dennis and I didn’t grow up in town so we weren’t too good at riding bikes, but this was important and the clock was ticking. He grabbed Cepheus’s bike from behind his place and took off down Forge Avenue, cutting through the graveled sidewalk that ran between the churches. The rest of us sat on the porch steps howling at his wicked witch wobble silhouetted under the one security light on the block. Nicki and Amy shook with laughter against my knees on the step below me, then went back to kissing and whispering over shots of tequila. When Jason bumped his shoulder against me like he was claiming me for his own, I didn’t pull away. We were surely going to kiss at the end of the countdown, I thought. Start the year 2000 with sparks. I watched Amy’s hand tangle in the curls behind Nicki’s ear.
It was seventy-some degrees out, humid enough to shake a few damselflies up from the Mud River. For the first time it set in that something funky was going on with the weather, that maybe this whole global warming thing was the real deal. The Mormon boys who lived in the place on the other side of Jason’s sure thought something was going on. Usually on nice nights they’d sit on the porch swing with an acoustic guitar none of them knew how to play, singing for the floral dress girls they also didn’t know how to play. But tonight it was like the end of the world. They were out back in the gravel turnaround, their black ties flying, white shirts untucked and covered in grime from wood they dragged up from the riverbank. They built up a big pile, almost like a pyre, and doused it every so often with grill lighter fluid.
The whole back end of Forge Avenue stunk with fuel and the blackcats Jason had been tossing out after every shot. His index finger and thumb were black from the firecrackers; I couldn’t tell in the dark if it was dye from the packaging or he had burned himself showing off. He was already numb-drunk and drinking faster than ever. He hogged as much of the tequila as he could before Dennis got back, because he knew Dennis would drink whatever was left. He tossed another shot back, flicked his Zippo over a fuse, and lobbed a blackcat into the gravel under Cepheus’s bedroom window. Nicki and Amy jumped every time. Cepheus wasn’t going to wake up from that little pop; he was half-deaf from his own heavy metal drumming and once he passed out he was usually out until noon. Cepheus was like a headbanger groundhog. If he showed up to a late-night party you knew you had to watch his shadow for some big sign. That was Cepheus, cymbals and symbols and the simple things in life. He wasn’t bothered by nothing.
Jason offered a drink to the Mormons. Three of them did their polite, flat-palmed western wave and went back down the riverbank for more kindling. A fourth stopped to chat like he was the leader of the group. This guy went by the name Zeke. I always wondered if they took on fake identities when they went out into the world for their missionary thing. Zeke was cute enough, kind of square-toothed and square-faced. Clear-skinned, shiny-eyed the way kids raised in strict but rich families always looked. He wasn’t my type. He combed his hair straight forward like all the ROTC guys who thought they were the next Julius Caesar. Zeke held his shoulders perfectly straight, too. He probably thought he was charismatic. He sang Hootie and the Blowfish to the floral dress girls. I don’t know, maybe he was charismatic to them. He stepped onto Jason’s porch and smiled so hard I could hear the spit click in his cheeks.
Zeke held the shot glass between the fingertips of both hands like it was a cup from a child’s tea set. “It’s the end times,” he told us, and took a tiny sip.
The other Mormon boys dragged up a bone-white limb of sycamore and laid it straight up in the air. They twisted a few sale bills and stuffed them up underneath the pile, squirted a little more lighter fluid over the wood for good measure, and stood back. One boy tapped at his black wristwatch and yodeled, “Quarter ‘til!” He tossed a match and the sycamore branch became fingers of upside-down lightning sending sparks up into the sky.
Zeke balanced the shot glass on the porch rail, gave us a close-up cowboy palm-wave, and jogged back to help stoke up the flames. Nicki and Amy twisted around to confer with us about the end times. “What the hell?” Amy shouted. Her hair glowed like straw in the backlight of the bonfire.
Dennis was wobbling bad by the time he got back at 11:57. He was so out of breath he couldn’t tell us what he did to warp Cepheus’s front tire and twist the handlebars so crooked. He just gasped “Made it!” and delivered my Prince CD from the inside pocket of his blue-jean jacket. Jason snatched it away to get it queued up in time. He turned up the TV so we could hear when the countdown started and propped one stereo speaker out the window. Dennis collapsed beside Amy like he’d just run a marathon or something.
I don’t know why Jason was so obsessed with having “1999” playing at midnight. He didn’t even like Prince – he made fun of me when I admitted I had the album. Turns out that was the way he was about religion, too, making fun of it and then wanting God around at the right time. Maybe Zeke could see it in him. Maybe that’s why he was always nice to Jason even when Jason was a dick. Especially when Jason was a dick.
Prince got the party started, post-haste. I craned backward to see Jason inside doing a cheesy knee-bend dance and struggling with something at the kitchen counter. On the TV, a montage of fireworks and the wobbling Times Square ball sparkled and exploded into half-static. Up in New York they were playing “1999,” too. My heart thumped in anticipation of a kiss.
“This is it!” Jason yelled. He hustled out the door with a half-unscrewed champagne bottle and launched the cork against the wall of Cepheus’s house. He took a big swig, then sauntered right past me down the steps to flick a blackcat at Dennis.
We all counted down together, the Mormons and other, unseen neighbors shouting across Forge Avenue. At five seconds to go, Zeke leaped right into the bonfire. The flames licked up in surprise. He high-stepped out the other side unscathed, slapping his shirttail exactly at midnight. When he spun around to face us, his face was contorted in a maniacal grimace. The other boys jumped in one by one, each screaming through gleaming square teeth and running back around to go again. Jason and Dennis got in line to jump through the pyre, too, chanting the words “nineteen ninety nine” and stomping fire off their sneakers between chugs of champagne. Jason shouldered right into the sycamore branch like he was doing battle with the devil. The white limb toppled sideways and released a spray of sparks over the gravel. Zeke squared off with the bonfire and cleared the whole thing in a running jump. He puffed his chest out like he was going to King Kong-thump. He was at the height of his powers and about to lose control.
Something about the end of the world, the whole thing going up in flames, was irresistible to guys. Maybe there was something to this end-times stuff. Even Cepheus stepped out onto his porch to watch. I hoisted the liquor in offering to him; he looked like a good kisser under all that shaggy hair and he was a much nicer guy than Jason. But he only lifted a hand in a groggy greeting and retreated back inside. He was shy. Maybe in the new year.
Nicki and Amy just went on giggling against my knees. “You guys are so dumb!” Amy shouted. Prince’s squealing guitar echoed off the brick backsides of the churches, back to us in a split-second delay. I poured out the last shot of tequila for myself. Along the rim of the shot glass, firelight illuminated the overlapping lip-prints of multiple people – Jason, Amy, Nicki, Zeke. The worm rolled onto my tongue and I imagined I was kissing them all into the year 2000.